Five Steps for a Successful Conference Experience


By Kathleen Laney - August 4, 2015

As the end of summer rolls around, those of us in the parking industry must prepare to make the most out of the last national industry conference of the year. With the 2015 NPA Convention & Expo just a few short weeks away, you may want to spend some time reflecting on what you want to get out of this year’s show.

While attending these shows can be quite useful, they can also be completely useless. It all depends on your approach and what you make of it. If you’re not sure why you’re going, or what you want to get out of the experience, you’re unlikely to get anything out of it at all. Make an effort to not just go along for the ride in Miami. Walk into this year’s NPA conference knowing what you want to learn, what you want to accomplish and how you are going to do so.

Follow these five steps for a successful conference experience:

You can also find a complete conference planning worksheet to guide you through this process here.

1.  PRIORITIZE AND DEVELOP GOALS

Conferences are what you make of them so the most important step is to have your priorities straight.  Conferences can be a great place to learn about industry trends, gain some new skills and make all kinds of new connections.  The quickest way to throw away hundreds or thousands of dollars is to go to a conference without taking time to figure out what you want to get out of the experience. 

In addition to setting goals, make a list of questions you hope to answer, topics you wish to understand better, new people you would like to meet or existing relationships you’d like to nurture.

2.  PLAN YOUR TENTATIVE SCHEDULE

Using the goals you developed and priorities you have identified in step one, your plan should include a tentative schedule of the events and sessions that will bring you the most value.  Attend sessions that will introduce you to new ideas rather than those where you might feel the most comfortable. Get a balance of sessions that will validate your current ideas or methods but also provide fresh perspectives and openness to new practices.

Always plan some time to walk the exhibition floor. Read the exhibitors list ahead of time and make a list of people and companies you want to speak with. Otherwise, in a large exhibition hall, you may get overwhelmed and never make it to the people who you most wanted to talk to.

If you know of people you want to reconnect with or get to know better who will be attending—clients, vendors, friends-of-friends—reach out a few weeks before the conference to set up a time to meet for coffee or a meal while you’re at the event.

3.  DOCUMENT THE KEY TAKEAWAYS AND ACTION ITEMS

For most people who attend conferences, it's what you do with the information you have learned or the connections you have made AFTER the conference that brings value. In order to put yourself in the position for effective follow-up, you must capture the information you need for that follow up in a way that highlights the key takeaways of a session or conversation and what you need to do with that information.

After each presentation, ask yourself what struck you, what did you learn? Perhaps there was a specific tip that you could adapt in your own work – or some piece of counterintuitive advice that really resonated.

If you write anything down during a conference session, make it the one key take-away from each presentation that is worth additional consideration upon your return to real life. In addition, contact information is especially important to hold on to.  Document either on the back of a business card or in your digital notebook how and where you met each contact, what you discussed and if there are any action items to follow up with.  For example, “invite to do guest post” or “introduce to Sally for a demo.” If you have a digital way to store contacts at conferences, use tags within the entry to distinguish those that are actionable from the others.

 4.  PREPARE YOURSELF TO NETWORK

Most people either love or hate networking. Regardless of your personal feelings, networking is something you just cannot opt out of these days. For those who aren't entirely comfortable networking, prepare conversation starters and introductions beforehand.

Don't be a wallflower and wait for people to approach you.  I've found over the years that most people are actually thrilled to have you come up and introduce yourself.  If networking feels fake to you, start with your introduction and then ask a question.  What have you been working on lately? What were your thoughts on the last presentation?  Don't be afraid to move on after just a few questions if the conversation seems forced.

Resist nomophobia. Don’t spend all your time outside of conference sessions using your phone or immersed in reading material. By looking around you and looking open and engaged, you’ll make it more likely that someone else looking for someone to talk to will approach you.

Setting up a few meetings over coffee or drinks with people you have identified as "must meets" prior to arrival can be less intimidating than walking directly up to people in a crowded room, so take advantage of modern communication tools and do that.

5.  DON’T FORGET THE FOLLOW UP

Failing to follow up afterwards will make all your previous efforts null and void. Within the first few days back, send each of those you met at the convention a brief email, reminding them that you met them at the convention, how much you enjoyed listening to their presentation (if they presented), or just simply let them know that you enjoyed your conversation with them. Also, always do a thorough review of your notes and transfer the action items into a task management tool.

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