Basking in the warm weather and catching up with old friends can be great perks of attending a conference. But if you’ve ever come home wondering if it was really worth your investment, it’s time to take a new approach. Follow these 5 steps and make the most out of every conference to help grow your career and your business:
1. Make a plan before you get there. Don’t wait until you’re on the plane — or, worse yet, standing at the registration table — to make a plan and set your goals for the conference. Print out the attendee list and identify people you want to connect with. Whether it’s a B/D you’ve been hearing about, a vendor of a new technology that can empower your business, or an estate attorney with mutual clients, there’s a huge pool of value at your fingertips. Identify a specific business problem you want to solve while you’re there, then review the agenda and speaker list and plan each day carefully. Target topics that fit your business and are aligned with your growth objectives. It’s all too easy to wander from session to session, only to realize you’ve missed some of the most valuable content — and contacts — when the day is done.
2. Get out of your comfort zone. One of your goals at any conference should be to challenge your thinking and stretch your boundaries. To be sure that happens, don’t talk to the same people all the time. You’ll never have the opportunity to uncover new opportunities if you’re constantly engaged in conversation with old buddies. Make it your mission to meet five new people every day. Spend more time listening than talking (you have two ears and one mouth for a reason!). If approaching new people is a challenge for you, have one good question at the ready to use as an icebreaker — anything business-focused to start the conversation will do. And when you meet someone who really resonates with you in some way, take the time to build a good relationship. Immediately connect on LinkedIn and ask if it’s ok to follow up in a week. If LinkedIn isn’t an option, ask if you can snap a photo of their name badge or business card so you have the information stored right in your phone.
3. Leave office work at the office. Ever find yourself at a conference but locked up in your hotel room on a series of conference calls? I have. Guilty as charged. While office emergencies happen, don’t allow this to be the norm. Commit to making the conference your focus. Set up an out of office message on your email and your voicemail, and only respond to items that require your immediate attention. Leave your laptop in your room and keep your phone out of reach! Think you can multi-task by listening to a session while answering email? Cognition studies show you’re doing at least one activity ineffectively, and probably both. If you’re really pressed to get something done at the office, set aside an hour or two to go do it right, then get back to the business of the working the conference.
4. Make the most of evening events. Pick events based on how well they match your mission. If you’re invited to load onto a bus with people you’ve known for years, be sure to sit with someone new. If the bus trip doesn’t promise good value for your time, think about foregoing the fun and arranging a small, intimate dinner with new acquaintances — and invite them each to invite someone as well. It’s a great way to build your circle of influence, and the relationships you forge in a small group will likely be stronger than those made on the bus. No matter how you choose to spend the evening, always remember that relaxing with a cocktail or two can be great, but overdoing the alcohol can thwart your mission entirely. Your goal is to have conversations you remember clearly the next day, not to get the most “value” from the open bar.
5. Make follow up a priority. Once you’re back in the office, it’s time to put all the networking you’ve done to use. Make a list of everyone you met and set a plan to follow up. That advisor who was so insightful about marketing to Millennials? Proactively schedule a call to talk more about how she’s achieving success. That vendor who gave a session on an interesting new product for your HNW clients? Send him an email requesting more information and the names and emails of a couple of advisors you can talk to about how they’re using the product successfully. Remember that specific business challenge you wanted to solve? Reflect back and see if you found your answer. If not, review your new LinkedIn and other connections and consider who may have the answer for you, then follow up until you get the answers you need.
As you head into conference season, plan wisely and commit to making the most out of your time away from the office. Make valuable connections. Challenge your thinking. Stretch your boundaries. By being smart about how you use your time, you can transform every conference into an opportunity to grow your business and enhance your career.