How to get the most out of your conference attendance

Introduction

We’ve all attended conferences and some of us have arrived wondering – where do I start? Conferences are an investment and whether you are attending, speaking, or exhibiting, we all want to get the most out of our investment. So if you have ever wondered about how to choose the right conference, how to prepare for a conference, or how to get a speaking slot, then this is the perfect session for you. Please join us for our Ask the Expert session and ask any and all questions you may have about conference attendance.

This session is no longer taking submissions. To be notified of new Ask the Expert sessions, join our mailing list.

Question 1

What is the best way to tackle the exhibit hall? I am interested in taking a look at the different booths, but I always feel overwhelmed and usually only make it down a few aisles before I run out of time.

The best way to tackle the exhibit hall is to set yourself some realistic goals and then plan accordingly. Which exhibitors could potentially have the biggest impact on your business? They are the booths you want to make sure you visit at the event. Make sure to review your needs, and keep them in mind when setting your goals for the expo hall.

Once you have your goals or targets in mind, plan accordingly.

Many expo halls are arranged in categories, with exhibitors of a specific type (eg. CMOs, consultants, equipment providers etc) grouped together. If you know your biggest area of focus is compliance and legal issues, then make sure you know where the law firms are grouped and start in that area of the exhibition hall. Exhibition floor plans are usually available in advance, so you can plan this out before you even arrive at the venue, saving valuable time and avoiding having to wander through parts of the expo hall that hold little value to you.

Many events also have online networking tools. Consider reaching out to key solution providers before the event and schedule meetings at their booth. This will help you plan out your on-site schedule, and ensure you have a game plan before you arrive at the event.

Another good tactic to consider is divide and conquer! Go with a group of colleagues, and split out the expo hall between you. This ensures that the whole hall is covered by someone from your organization, and you can meet and compare notes after the event to ensure everyone is caught up to speed.

My last tip is to not worry if you don't make it to all the booths. As mentioned above, many events now have online networking tools. Use this as either a follow up for the exhibitors you did speak with, or use it as a way of reaching out to the ones you didn't have a chance to visit at the event. It could be as simple as saying "Hi, I missed seeing you at the event. Could we please schedule a time to chat to go over your product/service?" They'll be more than happy to talk you through it on the phone or via email!

Good luck!

Question 2

What would you suggest I do to prepare to attend a conference, keeping in mind that I don’t have a lot of time to prep prior to leaving the lab?

Preparing to attend a conference should begin before you actually go to your first session. Everyone is understandably busy these days, but taking the time to do some prep will greatly enhance your on-site experience, ensuring that you get the most value out of your attendance.

Approximately 2 weeks before the event I recommend reviewing the program and noting any sessions that you particularly want to avoid missing for any reason. This will help you block out those sessions in your on-site schedule so that you don't plan any conflicting meetings during those times. This should only take 15-10 minutes of your time.

At 2 weeks out you should also consider scheduling on-site meetings with other attendees. Many events have on-line networking tools (similar to LinkedIn) to help with this. If so, USE IT! This is your best tool to ensure you get the most out of your conference attendance, and in my opinion these networking tools are often under-utilized. Reach out to the other attendees, introduce yourself, and request a brief meeting at the event so that you can meet in person. Keep it brief and friendly - a full-blown sales pitch should be saved for a more formal setting. The purpose of the networking tool is simply to introduce yourself and open the lines of communication.

If the event you are attending does not have an on-line networking tool then consider other ways of reaching out to conference attendees - LinkedIn, Twitter etc.

Online networking and meeting requests should take maybe an hour of your time, so is hopefully manageable with your lab work.

A few days before the event spend a little time reviewing the above. Has the conference program changed at all in the past week or two? Has anyone replied to your meeting requests? Be prepared to be flexible - things nearly always change slightly at the last minute.

Good luck!

Question 3

I would like the opportunity to speak at an upcoming conference. What is the best way for me to obtain a speaking spot?

The best way to obtain a speaking slot is simply to reach out to the conference organizers and ask. Most conference websites have an enquiry form or contact form, and that's a good place to start. Reach out to them, highlighting what value you could bring to the program and what your area of expertise is.

If you are a good fit, they'll be happy to receive your request and you can take it from there to plan your session title and so on.

If you are not a good fit, don't take it personally. Conference organizers need to think about the big picture and what makes most sense in the context of their agenda and target audience. It doesn't mean they don't think you'd be a good speaker. It just means they don't think you'd be a good speaker at this particular event to this particular audience.

Please note that in some cases, even if they turn you down initially, if you were willing and able to become a sponsor this may open up the possibility of a speaking slot.

Also, a lesser known tip, if they are on the fence about you speaking and you can't afford to be a sponsor, there are other things you can offer that can sometimes sway them in your direction. Do you have a great database of people to share with them for their marketing campaign? Can you help them secure other speakers/sponsors? Do you have a blog or online community where you can promote the event? Sometimes offering an additional benefit to them of having you involved in the project can help ensure a speaking slot for you - it's not guaranteed, but it's worth a shot anyway!

Question 4

I don’t have a big budget, but would really like to build some momentum around a new product being launched at an upcoming conference. What strategies would you suggest I employ prior to and at the conference?

If you want to really highlight a new product the best way to do this is by becoming a sponsor or exhibitor. This will ensure that the conference organizers work with you to really get your product launch the attention it deserves - on-site branding, speaking slot, product demos, exhibition booth and so on.

But, assuming you do not have the budget for this the best way to highlight your new product is through networking.

1. Online networking - reach out to attendees in advance of the conference through the event's online networking tool or other forms of social media. Inform them of your new product, and request a meeting at the event.

2. In person networking - as well as scheduled meetings, you should also consider informal networking events. Conference organizers recognize the value of networking, so work hard to create as many networking opportunities as possible for their event attendees: Speed Networking (we do this at Terrapinn events - it is like speed dating; quick-fire introductions that open up the lines of communication), cocktail parties, lunches etc. There is another side to conferences — the social side — that can prove extremely beneficial from a networking perspective.

3. Make introductions - remember, you are not the only one at the conference seeking networking opportunities. Foster other relationships by introducing people you meet to those you already know. The people you introduce will remember you for promoting that relationship. And that could lead to them introducing you to their contacts, ensuring you get your new product in front of an even wider network of people.

4. Twitter - many events have an active Twitter audience, and you can piggy back off of this. Find out what the event's hashtag is, and then use it! For example, if I was launching a product at Cell Culture World Congress USA 2013 I might send out a tweet as follows: "Excited to be at Cell Culture USA this week! Launching a new product on XYZ - tweet me for info! #Cell2013" That way anyone following the hashtag #Cell2013 would see my tweet and know that a new product is being launched.

5. Press - journalists often attend events. Find out who is confirmed to attend, and reach out to them to schedule a meeting. They may very well pick up the story and run it, giving you valuable PR coverage... for free!

6. Follow up - don’t abandon your networking strategies once the conference is over. Take the contact information you collected and touch base with people you met. Be friendly, and offer to send them follow up information on your new product.