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Tips for entrepreneurs for navigating a conference fruitfully

There are many opportunities for entrepreneurs to attend conferences and gatherings of all sorts these days. They are generally viewed as beneficial to participate in. But have you ever felt like you just lost two days, plus travel time, plus the cost of a flight and hotel, and have nothing to show for it after travelling to a conference. There is a definite art to getting conference attendance right and actually walking away with something that benefits both you and your business. Just last week, I attended the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Congress. It was really great – there were insightful speakers, the entire entrepreneurship ecosystem was there, and I was able to reconnect with some colleagues from the space. I couldn’t help but notice the many roaming souls who were overwhelmed by the whir of activity around them. The next time you decide to attend a conference, here are some tips for how you can make the most of it.

1. Have a clear reason for attending

Before you get caught up in the excitement, be clear why this conference is worth your time at all.  There are a number of reasons you might want to attend: It could be a good learning opportunity to advance your knowledge in a sector or subject matter that is relevant to your business. You may be interested in meeting a specific group of professionals who will be aggregated at this conference, such as investors or buyers and suppliers into your sector. You may be interested in building a name for yourself as an expert in your field. What ever it is, make sure you are clear why this particular conference will help you achieve it. The opportunity cost of attendance is never zero. You could be doing something else more valuable with that time.

2. Make a list of people to connect with in advance

Once you have decided who you plan to meet at the conference, make an actual list and reach out to them in advance to let them know you will be at the conference and are looking forward to connecting with them. Cold calls are OK, but paving the way for yourself in advance increases your likelihood of success in your engagements. You also come across as more prepared and therefore more worth their time.

3. Pursue opportunities to shine

Just attending could be worthwhile if you have outlined your objective for attendance and the conference is a match for achieving that objective. However, attendance can be even more valuable if you find a speaking role at the event. Start planning early and share your bio with the organisers as well as topics on which you are well-placed to speak, and score yourself a speaking role. This could open doors for you with other panelists as well as any target groups you are hoping to connect with at the conference. You build credibility by being associated with the illustrious panel you find yourself speaking alongside.

4. Be intentional about initiating conversations

When you start walking the conference floors and handing out your newly printed business cards, make sure there is a point to it. It’t not about how many cards you give away, but about how many real connections  you make with people and what they could offer you and you them. Don’t just be a taker asking people for things. Offer value to people in your engagements as well. Link them to people you know. Tell them about resources you have come across. Offer to mentor their young talent. Good relationships are about give and take.

5. Follow up after the fact

If you take people’s business cards, be sure to reach out after the conference. Often, one finds that after being away from the office for those few days, you are so behind that you just need to catch up. You then find that it has been two weeks since the conference and you think you have missed your window to follow up. It’s better late than never. It is best to follow up right away, but it is still alright to follow up if time runs away with you. Just make sure each follow-up has intent. Rather than just saying hello since you saw them at the conference, have a specific offer and/or ask for the people you reach out to. It could be as small as an offer to connect them to someone from their line of work, or as big as an ask for a more formal pitch of your business to them as funders.

6. Evaluate the outcome

After it’s all said and done, be sure that you make a call on whether the conference was actually fruitful for you. If it was was, why was it? What aspects of what you did this time should you replicate next time? What should you change? What types of conferences seem to be a hit for you?

I hope your next conference attendance will be a fruitful one. Tell us about your biggest conference successes and your most hillarious conference mishaps that you learned something from.

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