Love them or loathe them, conferences are an established fixture in most industries. You may think that if you’re not a presenter, sitting on a panel, or actively on the job market, it’s okay to be a passive participant — or decline to attend altogether.
Not so, says Alaina G. Levine. Attending important conferences in your field should be an essential element of your career strategy because each of these gatherings represents a golden opportunity to network. But what if you’re more comfortable taking your drink and hiding behind a potted plant than circulating and chatting at conference mixers? Fear not. Alaina shares some tips to help you make the most of your next conference:
* Don’t wing it. Study the conference program ahead of time. Also, set aside time to attend not just talks and seminars, but also special events such as meet and greets, and other networking-centered affairs.
* Take advantage of the conference app. If the conference you’re attending has an app, download it. These apps are often full of hidden treasures. For example, some apps list all attendees and their contact information, and allow you to send messages within the system.
* Make appointments ahead of time. If you know you’d like to meet with fellow attendees, request appointments with them at least two to three weeks before the conference. They are busy too, so it’s wise to get on their calendars beforehand.
* Leverage the exhibit hall. Don’t just wander around aimlessly looking for free pens and cup holders. Instead, try to learn new things and make connections that will serve you well long after those free pens have run dry. “Especially for large conferences where there may be hundreds of exhibitors, carefully study the list of exhibitors and map out where the ones you really want to visit are located,” Levine instructs.
* Don’t eat alone. At mealtimes, you can usually identify fellow conference participants because they tend to keep their name tags visible. If you see someone eating alone, don’t be afraid to ask, “Do you mind if I join you?” Most people will invite you to sit down. Don’t be tempted to spend your lunch hour reading email when there is networking gold to be had right next to you!
* Be an early (and friendly) bird. Arrive early to talks and sit down near someone you don’t know. This is a great opportunity to network, especially for introverts, because there is a reason to speak with the other person: You are both here to attend the same session. As soon as the speaker begins, you can whisper, ‘It was great to meet you. May I have your business card?’ Now you’re done!”
* Volunteer at the event. Quite frankly, very few people take advantage of this opportunity. Volunteering at a conference establishes you as a hard worker, allows others to observe your dedication to your craft and the association, gives you access to networking opportunities, and opens doors to leadership and other experiences.
* Be sure to follow up. If you just go to a conference and do nothing after it, you have (almost) completely wasted your time. “After everyone has returned home, it’s up to you to make sure you stay on your new contacts’ radars,” Levine notes. “Start by composing an email thanking each person for his or her time at the conference, recapping what you talked about, and suggesting a phone or Skype appointment to further develop your partnership.”
Alaina G. Levine is the author of “Networking for Nerds, Find, Access and Land Hidden Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere” (Wiley, July 2015, ISBN: 978-1-118-66358-5, $29.95, http://www.alainalevine.com) is available at bookstores nationwide, and from major online booksellers.