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April 28, 2015 // 6:00 AM

14 Helpful Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Conference

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This post originally appeared on HubSpot's Sales Blog. To read more content like this, subscribe to Sales.

So you’re going to a conference.

What’s in store for you? You’ll attend dozens of sessions led by professionals in your industry, meet a ton of new people, and take home lots of great swag.

If you’re a conference-going expert, you probably have your own short list of tried-and-true tactics for making the most of a conference. (If so, we'd love to hear in the comments.) But if not, never fear -- we’ve got your back with our best tips for how to do it right.

Pregame: Before You Go

Be prepared. Be prepared. Be prepared.

It bears repeating. The quickest way to throw away hundreds of dollars (besides actually throwing them away) is to go to a conference without sitting down and formulating a plan first.

It’s not exactly military statecraft, but it’s essential. I guarantee there will be no time to stop and pause once you arrive at the event, so take some time to complete the following items before you board that plane/train/bus.

1) Review the agenda.

This one’s a no-brainer. Set a goal for what you’d like to learn at the conference, and use the agenda to devise a plan specifically tailored to that goal. Make sure to attend conference-wide events like keynote addresses. Most conferences won’t hold breakout sessions during these presentations, so you won’t have to worry about missing out on anything else.

When it comes to smaller sessions, consider both the speaker and the subject matter. Highly tactical sessions are generally useful to attend regardless of who leads them. However, sessions less directly related to your profession can be valuable as well if they’re led by an industry figure you’re angling to meet.

2) Orient yourself.

Familiarize yourself with the conference space so you don’t get lost. You don’t want to miss important information, or for a roomful of people to form a negative first impression of you by showing up late.

If you’re attending a smaller conference, it should be enough to take a half hour or so the night before or early in the morning on day one to walk around the space. For larger conferences, this might not be feasible, especially if the show will be held across multiple venues. Grab a map from the host, and keep a copy on your phone or print one out to reference between sessions.

3) Find out who’s going.

The people you’ll attend sessions with are as important as the sessions themselves. There’s no better time to network with your peers, connect with new prospects, or touch base with customers than at a conference.

Most conferences will have a Facebook event page and/or a Twitter hashtag set up. The conference hosts will start promoting these pages in advance of the event, and they’re a great way to keep track of acquaintances and people you’d like to meet.

Don’t count on simply running into prospects at the conference. Instead, reach out to them ahead of time to let them know you’ll both be in attendance. This way, you can book time on their calendars and have their full, undivided attention instead of trying to cram a 15-minute conversation into a stop-and-chat.

4) Set an out-of-office reply.

Let’s be honest: You’ll probably be checking your work email during the conference. But even if you are, you definitely won’t be able to respond at the same clip as you do in the office. Make sure prospects and customers know why they might not hear from you for a few days by setting up an out-of-office reply.

(For inspiration, check out these hilarious examples of out-of-office replies.)

5) Bring the right gear.

Conferences are multi-day affairs where you’ll be booking long hours each day. To remove as much stress as possible from your experience, make sure you’ve taken care of these things before you board the plane:

  • Keep your phone and laptop chargers with you. You’re going to spend a huge part of your day on your devices -- don’t get caught with dead batteries.
  • Pack enough business cards. Make sure you have some on hand and a stash in your luggage. You never know how many people you’re going to meet.
  • Bring the materials you need for demos. By no means should you spend the conference pitching to people who don’t want to be pitched. However, if one of those pre-set prospect meetings turns into a real sales opportunity, it’ll be more efficient -- and impressive -- if you can provide a walkthrough on the spot.

Once You're There

You’re here ... Now what? The next few days will be a whirlwind of activity, but don’t be overwhelmed. You’re armed with a goal and a plan -- there are only a few additional things to keep in mind to help you make the most of your time.

6) Register early.

You don’t want to be stuck at the registration desk while everyone else is off to the races. Register as early as possible so you can minimize your time standing in lines and maximize your time learning and meeting people.

7) Divide and conquer.

If you’re attending with coworkers, try and see as much as possible. If each of you attends the same sessions and events, your company might as well have only sent one of you. Splitting up for sessions will maximize how much you’re able to learn and ensure that each of you has unique insights to take back to your company. Plan to get lunch or dinner each day to regroup on key takeaways.

Flying solo also means you’ll each be able to meet more people. Huge conferences can foster pack mentality, but the more attendees you can meet and speak with, the more of an asset you’ll be to your sales team. Discovering how your business fits into the larger industry and how other companies run their sales divisions are invaluable insights. A conference is an unparalleled opportunity to pick the brains of your competition and your market. Don’t waste it.

8) Connect with your customers.

Sure, you might have exchanged emails with your customers in the last few months, but nothing beats a face-to-face interaction. If things aren’t going so well, this is a great opportunity to address any issues before you get a cancellation call. But don’t feel as though you have to solve every problem today; talk through any high-level concerns your customer may have and then set a follow up time for after the conference.

And if things are going well, checking in will not only reinforce your relationship -- it’ll also be fun! Enjoy spending time with a happy customer, and listen for upsell opportunities.

9) Follow up with prospects.

You’ve set up meetings with prospects. Now, put that time to use. Listen to their anxieties and concerns, and demonstrate how your product can help address those issues and bring their business to the next level.

Don’t go into these meetings expecting to close deals on the spot. Like you, your prospects are attending this conference to learn and gain expertise. Use these conversations to set yourself up for future targeted conversations addressing specific pain points or questions. Close each conversation with a list of takeaways, and let prospects know you’ll be following up with relevant materials.

10) Participate in the larger conversation.

Most conferences will have a dedicated hashtag. During the event, make sure you’re tagging your tweets and Instagrams properly. You can also monitor the hashtag throughout the conference to see what people are talking about. Striking up a conversation online is a great way to reach out to someone you’re interested in meeting but haven’t come across in person yet.

(And if you’re not active on social media, here's a primer on why you should be.)

11) Stay organized.

Conferences are information avalanches. Between breakout sessions, workshops, one-on-one conversations, and happy hours, you’ll come away with more notes, names, and numbers than you can possibly remember. This wealth of information will serve you well going forward, but if you come home with a mess of business cards and a set of notes without labels or tags, you’ll spend double the time organizing everything and trying to recall what you discussed with “Jennifer Chicago CEO.”

Thankfully, it’s not hard to keep yourself on track, so long as you strike when the iron’s hot. Write on the back of people’s business cards to remind yourself of the salient points of your conversation, or digitally capture the cards and take notes in an app such as CamCard. Include details about what session or happy hour you met them at -- anything that will jog your memory a day or a week after the fact.

If you take notes by hand, you should at the very least include headings and start a new page at the beginning of every session, lest your notes become one long run-on list of bullet points. If you’re more inclined to keep everything digital, Evernote is one of the apps all salespeople should have. You can create a dedicated notebook for your conference notes, and tag each note with multiple labels to organize any way you want -- by topic, speaker, or even which day the session took place.

Postgame: Once You're Home

Take some time to decompress after you arrive home. ... But not too much, because your work’s not finished. The days and weeks after a conference are when you’ll be able to put everything you’ve learned to use and turn your short meet-and-greets into fruitful business partnerships.

12) Do some housekeeping.

All that information you gathered from customers and prospects? It's time to transfer it into your CRM. Jot down everything you can remember from your conversations so that when you follow up, you're able to view new insights in the context of the larger relationship.

13) Follow up.

Connecting with people you met during the conference is best done in the days immediately following your return. Send follow-up notes and LinkedIn requests while the conference is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Include a personalized message to accompany your request on LinkedIn. Remember, everyone’s inbox will be flooded, so make yourself memorable by reminding your new connection what you discussed. Check out this guide to writing the perfect LinkedIn invitation for more advice.

Now is also the time to make use of the insights you gained from your prospects. Whether it’s sending them content or scheduling a demo, make use of what you learned from your one-on-ones to get them closer to signing on with your company. Make sure your follow-ups are appropriately tailored to what you discussed -- another reason you’ll want to organize your notes.

14) Teach.

The insights you gained at the conference are likely to be useful for your team, so make sure to set aside time to pass on what you learned. Whether it’s leading an in-person session or writing an email or post to document the most valuable information, proactively sharing information will help your colleagues do better work while establishing you as a leader on your team.

There’s no better place than a conference to take stock of the state of your industry and your profession. Make the most of your time, and have fun!

What other conference tips do you have? Share with us in the comments below.

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Topics: Event Marketing Business Pop Culture Professional Development

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