Conferences are a staple of our professional lives, whether you choose to attend a single event each year or you're racking up frequent flyer miles at multiple conferences. But how much are you truly gaining from these events?
It's no secret that conferences are expensive, both in time and money, so let's talk about how to get the most out of each opportunity. Most of these points apply to both diverse suppliers and supplier diversity professionals, but we'll also highlight some ideas unique to each group to help you set yourself up for success.
Prepare in Advance
The secret to a successful conference is the work you put in ahead of time. If you haven't done any prep, you're probably going to miss out on a lot of prime opportunities and come away feeling like you wasted your time.
Establish your goals for the conference. What is your main goal from attending this conference? If you're a diverse supplier, it might be to connect with five potential customers in a meaningful way. If you're a supplier diversity professional, it might be to identify five potential suppliers and begin the onboarding process with your procurement team. Or perhaps your goal centers on professional development through specific, pre-selected sessions and workshops. Maybe you want to expand your network and strengthen existing relationships. Whatever it is, decide on your goal before you pack your bag.
Pro tip: Keep your goals realistic by choosing only one or two for each conference.
Research who is attending. Who are the keynote speakers, featured panelists, and presenters? Which of your dream clients will be at the conference? You can find a lot of this information on the conference website—check the agenda or program book, and note who the corporate sponsors are. Don't forget to look through the list of exhibitors!
Make a list of the sessions/workshops you're interested in, and then decide whether attending will help you meet your goals for this conference. Do the same with the people and companies you're interested in meeting: make a list, and then determine the value of connecting with them.
Research potential customers. If you're a diverse supplier looking to connect with potential customers, set yourself apart by researching those companies ahead of time. Has the company made any big announcements recently? Are they celebrating a big win or being recognized with an award? Starting a conversation by mentioning a recent, relevant, newsworthy item is a great way to break the ice and show that you've done your homework.
Next, do a quick analysis of trends in your industry and upcoming challenges or opportunities. Is a significant technological breakthrough on the horizon? Are your potential customers facing a workforce shortage as demographics shift? Know what they need now and in the future, and then tailor your pitch to show how you can meet those upcoming needs.
Prepare and practice your elevator pitch. Speaking of pitches, suppliers, now is the time to get that elevator pitch ready. Practice it until you can deliver your pitch confidently, smoothly, and personably. Make sure you're delivering relevant information about not just your business but, more importantly, how you can meet your potential customer's needs.
Pro tip: Be ready with facts and figures to back up your claims once your stellar pitch generates additional interest.
Make sure you have enough business cards and any other relevant items (samples, brochures, case studies). This seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many people underestimate the quantities of promotional material they'll need—or forget to bring them entirely!
Register for matchmaker opportunities. Most conferences in the procurement space hold matchmaker events, connecting companies with potential suppliers in one-on-one meetings. They fill up quickly, so register as early as you can, and then start preparing for those meetings. Suppliers, research the company, and register on their supplier portal, if they have one. Create a pitch tailored to their needs, and don't forget to bring relevant supporting materials.
Procurement managers, check to see if the suppliers you're meeting are registered in your supplier portal or database, and note relevant information. You might want to jot down a few questions about their products or services to better drive the conversations toward your goals.
Pre-introduce yourself via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.. This is pro-level advance preparation. A few days before the conference (less than a week but more than two days), use social media to let speakers know you’re planning to attend their session at the conference and are excited to learn from them. If you're meeting (or would like to meet) with a supplier, a supplier diversity professional, or a procurement manager and have their email address, shoot them a quick email saying that you're looking forward to connecting at the conference. You're already breaking the ice and getting a little name recognition, making it easier to follow up during and after the conference.
Plan free time. It's tempting to fill every minute of every day at a conference. Resist the urge! Create a schedule for yourself, allowing time to review and jot down notes after a session or meeting. Build in buffers for getting from one place to the next, assuming you will bump into someone you want to chat with along the way.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to include personal time! You need sleep, of course, but you also need to build in time for a workout or yoga, maybe a walk around the host city with a few colleagues (bonus networking!), or even a little sightseeing. Conferences are usually held in fascinating locations; it would be a shame to spend the entire time inside the hotel and convention center.
Make the Most of Networking
One of the greatest benefits of attending conferences is the opportunity to grow and strengthen your network. With a little planning, you can make the most of your time with potential partners, colleagues, and thought leaders.
Remember to set goals for networking events, such as introducing yourself to five new people or asking three people their thoughts on an industry trend. (Asking other people their opinion is a guaranteed way to set yourself apart from all the other people who want to talk solely about themselves/their businesses.)
Official networking events: Time to scour the conference agenda again! Highlight all the conference mixers, luncheons, receptions, etc., and decide which you want to attend.
Unofficial networking events: Pay attention to pre-conference email blasts from trade organizations, corporate sponsors, etc., sharing their own agendas for the conference. Often these unofficial events involve a smaller, more concentrated group of people, which allows for more meaningful connections. Not seeing invitations or announcements like this? Reach out to your contacts and ask if they're planning anything special during the conference. Most of the time, they'll add you to the guest list.
The expo: Most conferences include a trade show or expo where corporate partners and suppliers showcase their products and services. Don't overlook this networking opportunity! If you're not familiar with the company, ask about them and what they're looking for in potential partners. Introduce (or reintroduce) yourself to that dream client at their booth. Bond over the conference's swag with other attendees.
Pro tip: If you're exhibiting, make sure you bring along at least one other qualified team member so you can leave your booth and walk around. If you wait for everyone to come to you, then you're going to miss some prime opportunities to meet people at their booths.
Set up one-on-one meetings: Is there someone you really want to connect with at the conference? Don't leave it to chance! Contact them ahead of time and suggest getting together for coffee or going to lunch.
Organize a pre-conference dinner: You're about to be surrounded by interesting, successful people. Take this opportunity to get to know them better! If you're able to arrive in the host city before the conference begins, organize a dinner party at a local restaurant. Reach out to those interesting, successful people, and invite them to join you the night before the official kickoff for some early bonding and networking.
Pro tip: Limit your guest list to eight people, and choose a restaurant within walking distance of the conference center/hotel.
Workshops & Sessions
Professional conferences are a terrific opportunity to network, but they also offer plenty of professional development options through panels, workshops, and sessions. Many times these sessions are led by experts in their fields who can provide you with knowledge and insight you probably wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Review session descriptions and presenters. Don't just skim this part of the program book. Take a good look at what's being offered and, more importantly, who is offering it. Is this your chance to learn how to navigate procurement opportunities from specialists? Will a panel of industry leaders be discussing the future and taking questions? Does that workshop offer a chance to work through a business issue with the help of qualified professionals? Don't pass up the opportunity to learn from the best!
Pro tip: Consider submitting your own presentation proposal or gaining a spot on a panel to reinforce your reputation as a thought leader.
Take notes. Whether you prefer to take notes on a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or good old-fashioned paper, the important thing is that you take notes. Write down three key takeaways and any follow-up you want to do on the topic or with the speakers.
Pro tip: Tweet or Instagram key takeaways, quotes, and photos (in moderation) during the session or afterward. Be sure to tag presenters and use the conference hashtag to become part of the online conversation.
Follow Up! Follow Up! Follow Up!
See all those exclamation points? This is critical! It's easy to leave the conference with a stack of business cards, workshop notes, and good intentions, only to forget it all once you're back in the office catching up on emails and phone calls. Don't let this be you! Strategically following up on those great connections you made and the insightful things you learned is what turns a good conference experience into a business-building and career-building experience.
Keep track of contact information. Gather all those business cards you acquired, and enter all of that valuable information into your contact list or supplier database. Include notes about what you want to follow up with each person about, and then schedule time to do so.
Send emails to follow up. Within a week of the conference, send friendly emails to people you connected with at the conference. Suppliers, reintroduce yourself and your business, and remind those potential customers how you can meet their needs. Now is the time to set up phone calls or in-person meetings to further the discussions you had during matchmakers and networking events.
Pro tip: Include a current photo and/or unique description of yourself to help them remember you (example: “I’m the one who was wearing two different shoes!”).
Write a post-conference blog. Continue building your reputation as a thought leader, as well as your network, by writing a blog about the conference for your company’s website, and share it on social media. Include your key takeaways, any big questions or breakthroughs the conference generated, what you think the next steps are, or how your company is prepared to be part of the ongoing conversation.
Pro tip: Tag or link to relevant people or companies. They'll love the extra coverage, and you'll elevate yourself and your company.
Share with your colleagues. Not everyone has the time or resources (or desire) to attend conferences. Share what you learned by putting together a brief presentation for your next staff meeting covering key takeaways, leads, action items, etc. This allows you to disseminate valuable information you gained as well as alert your colleagues to next steps as you follow up with potential suppliers or corporate customers.
Conferences are designed to provide valuable information and connections. Make the most of your time and your company's resources by going in with specific goals and a plan to achieve them during the conference, and then follow up for maximum value.