Holland Saltsman, an elementary school librarian from St. Louis, hit her first BookExpo America in New York City in late May with two goals. First, she wanted to score lots of free, autographed children’s books for her library’s collection. Second, she wanted to make contacts that would be helpful for the book store she hopes to open someday.
To make those two goals happen, she printed out a 10-page list of authors who were signing and giving away their work at the annual booksellers industry conference, along with the times of their autograph sessions and a plan for how to hit as many as possible. She also crashed with a few book industry people she knew, and whose reach extended her own. I caught up with Saltsman just as she was hitting the UPS shipping area with several dozen signed books for her library. "Each signing came with great interactions and conversations," she reported. An added bonus? As a result of hanging out with people who were in the know, "I was able to attend a few of the ‘cool kid’ parties," she says, meaning the bookstore contacts "definitely, organically happened."
It was a nice result for her first time at the conference—to walk away "thrilled," as she said—and it’s one many conference goers would like to achieve. As many of us work in more varied ways—often virtually and remotely—this raises the stakes for any professional get-together that allows you to meet people face to face. While professional organizations have long had their own conferences, the field has become decidedly hipper in recent years, with an explosion of TED conferences, blog world juggernauts (like BlogHer), magazine-sponsored conferences, even ones started by individuals (Jon Acuff’s Start series, Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit).
You could, in fact, quite easily spend all your time and money attending conferences that might help your career. But given that that’s not going to happen, here are some ways to, like Saltsman, make the most of the ones you and your colleagues do attend.
1. Build your tribe in advance. Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council, invites people he’d like to connect with to a small get-together early on. Think a dinner on the first night as everyone’s checking into the hotel. That way, not only are you sure you’ll meet up with these people, they can help you figure out who else you should be meeting—and introduce you. "You’re crowdsourcing your relationship-building activities," Gerber says. If certain people can’t come to your initial gathering, make appointments for breakfast, lunch, coffee, or drinks throughout the conference. If you’re looking to save cash, you might even suggest splitting a hotel room with someone you know but would like to know better—ideally someone whose connections are slightly different than your own.
2. Go with a goal. Figure out what you hope to get out of a conference as you’re signing up. Your goals can be fairly simple—leave with more business than it cost to attend the conference, meet three specific people you only know virtually, garner a certain amount of media coverage for your business—or they can be broad. James B. Bunn, chief marketing officer at Brahmin, a family-owned handbag company based in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, reports that he goes to conferences to "feed off the ideas and energy I get from industry sources," and, he says "I advise all executives to do the same: Identify your points for improvement, and identify brands that do it better, then interact with them." Knowing where you’re going keeps you focused. It may also keep you from wasting money on a conference you’ve outgrown.
3. Stop obsessing about the panels. They can be enlightening, but often they serve as a way to get bigger name people to attend the conference. If you’re stuck in a boring one and can’t get to the door, use this time to tweet about the conference (and connect with others using the conference hashtag), or to Google the people around you, or to set up appointments for later.
4. Be open to serendipity. Be your most extroverted self. Say yes to the karaoke invitation. Introduce yourself to people in the hallway. Amanda Steinberg, founder of DailyWorth, a financial website for women, says that she "raised venture capital from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt because I randomly introduced myself to who I later learned was his fund manager." That’s not your everyday event, but you never know who knows who until you say hello.
5. Have adventures with your own team. Getting out of the office can be a way to deepen relationships with people you already know. While bored at SXSW in Austin, Steinberg realized that everyone from her company needed to blow off steam. "So the entire team got tattoos," she says. This was "all by choice and all with enthusiasm"—there was no requirement to choose the DailyWorth logo—but "it was a bonding experience."
And that's one sure way to guarantee you'll never forget your conference experience.
[Image: Flickr user Pink Dispatcher]