Conference Season Prep: Make the Most of Trade Shows

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Events Marketing

Conference season is upon us. In reality, this so-called “season” is now a year-round affair. There’s always something to plan for, travel to, or attend.

We can all admit that conferences can be a bit overwhelming. After all, there are lots of people, lots of activities, and lots of choices. But with a little planning and strategizing, it’s entirely possible to get a lot of value out of your conference season ‒ and even have a smooth and enjoyable experience along the way. Here’s how to make the best of it.

Planning an Event

First, let’s look at what it’s like to plan a trade show or conference. Whether you’re working on a smaller in-house show for existing clients or a big event with international appeal, you need to keep a lot of plates spinning in the air to plan successfully. You’re not asking for much, just great speakers, a top-notch venue, a high-visibility slot, effective promotion, excellent food, memorable swag, industry-leading keynotes, and, above all, a packed house. In addition, you want the attendees’ experience to be seamless and wowing. … On second thought, you are asking for a lot. But that’s how great conferences are made.

So, how do you get all those great things for your conference? Here are some helpful tips:

  • Brainstorm everything, from little to big – As I’ve said before, brainstorming is one of my favorite activities. I love to sit in front of a whiteboard or blank piece of paper and dream. When planning an event, you get to dream, both big and small. Let’s face it, some attendees show up only for the free swag and keynote moments on the main stage. Yes, you want the splashy stuff that draws those people in, but you also want to take care of the smaller, more trivial details. Remember, small details add up to a big impact. In the height of conference season, you’ll be competing with other trade shows for registrations – attention to details can make or break your conference!
  • Budget – Next, it’s time to bring your dreams into reality with numbers. Just how much money do you have to work with? That can help you reel in your ideas and put concrete plans together. Much like a football team would be wise to not spend all its money on one star player, be careful not to blow your budget on one “Big Wow” speaker or moment. You want to offer a rich, comprehensive event across the board.
  • Document a plan ­– Use spreadsheet, notebooks, or lists. So many lists. Make sure you check them off. Marketing automation can help here – by helping you track what’s already been done and what is next. (More on this in a moment.)
  • Look back – Once you think you have a solid plan, take a step back. Literally. Look in the books to examine what you’ve done in the past. What worked and what didn’t? Do you have customer surveys or other feedback? Use this to inform or confirm your curriculum, plan, schedule, venue, food – everything. And if you didn’t collect data, start this year. You’ll thank your future self next year.
  • Lean in to marketing automation – In the land of event planning, marketing automation can be one of your closest allies. From segmenting your audience to sending your email invites, you can automate some of the more administrative tasks and focus your efforts elsewhere.
  • Recruit – Once the event is planned, the date set, and the venue secured, it’s time to start attracting attendees. You may use email, social media, blogs, direct mail … the list goes on. Capture those attendees and get them to register. Marketing automation is really your friend here, helping you tactically tackle the administrative components of event planning so you can get out the door faster ‒ and smarter ‒ with your information.
  • Nurture – Once people sign up to attend, continually engage their interest with targeted updates regarding event details they’ll be interested in, such as sessions geared particularly toward their interests (see: segmentation). You’ll also want to send alerts that revealing enticing draws, such as the keynote speaker or the conference entertainment (food, music, etc.). The cadence of how and when to reveal these details is yours to set – in fact, it could be worth an entire separate blog post. But keeping your audience informed and engaged is key.

Attending an Event

As an attendee of a trade show or conference, you too must plan – like which conference(s) to attend and which things within the events to do. Here are tips to help maximize your conference season, and get the most out of trade shows you decide to attend.

  • Set goals – First things first. Why are you attending? I was recently speaking with a friend about possibly attending a national conference and was on the fence about whether to shell out the money to go. She shared wise wisdom: “Make sure you have an agenda – at least one key thing you want to get out of attending. Without that, you’re lost.”Having attended the same conference a year ago without a plan, I can tell you this is great advice. At that event I wandered around aimlessly, unsure which panels to attend or which activities to participate in. Sure, I learned something, but I could’ve gotten a whole lot more out of it – more bang for my buck – if I’d had an actual goal.So, what is your goal for this conference? Why are you attending? That goal can be as limited or as lofty as you like. Some goals include finding a new business partner, securing a deal, or collecting five new business cards. These are just a few examples. I recommend you spend time writing your own goals and deciphering what, exactly, you want to achieve.
  • Plan your schedule – This is a cousin of the above. Once you have your goals in mind, drill into the details. Look to see who’s speaking or has a booth at the conference. Here’s how I do it:
    • First, I read the conference schedule and highlight panels or speakers that interest me.
    • Next, I pull out a piece of paper or bring up a Google doc and start plotting my wish list into the days to see where the chips fall. I note their date, time, and location.
    • I look at this list as a daily calendar view next. This is a big gut-check moment because I can see if it is actually possible to attend all the things I want to. As Murphy’s Law usually comes in to play here, I often find myself gravitating toward overlapping events. This is when I need to assess what is truly possible to attend, and then adjust my schedule accordingly. Will I have to make concessions – trade off one great for another? Am I just filling in the day to “stay busy,” but nothing is truly capturing my interest? This is another moment where I may decide to attend – or not.
    • If things look fairly balanced, then I’ll pull the trigger by registering to attend. I always sign up in advance (if possible) for sessions of particular interest.

Note: I realize you may not have the luxury of deciding whether to go or not – for example, if your company is requesting your presence at a certain conference. But here’s hoping you can at least have the choice to pick and choose specific sessions that will interest you or help you learn something new.

  • Ask for deals – Before you set foot at the event, check where you can save some dough. Many conferences offer early-bird registration. If you’re an “industry insider” or volunteer, you may even be able to slip in for free. Ask the organizers. As well, when booking your accommodations, seek deals on lodging and transportation. Many event planners partner with hoteliers and airlines, for example.Once you get on the ground, here are a few to-do’s:
  • Attend panels strategically ‒ Many trade shows or industry events offer breakout sessions. It can be tough to select what you want to hear. If you’re interested in several things that overlap, try to drop in on both – 30 minutes in one, and 30 minutes in another, for example.
  • Don’t skip the keynotes – The mainstage events are where the big reveals – the “big wows” – happen. You may not get a lot of tactical advice out of these, but you’ll probably walk away feeling buoyed. An added benefit is that these are also good water cooler discussion topics, so you’ll have something to break the ice with at parties.
  • Do skip the keynotes – I know, I just contradicted myself. But sometimes you just need a break. A keynote can be one of those natural breaks. These mainstage events are often recorded for later viewing, or at least blogged about, so you can get the “Cliffs Notes” version later and instead use that keynote time to network, rest, or get some “real” work done.
  • Wear your badge – While the event is going on, wear your conference badge around town. As dorky as you may feel wearing a name tag in public (just me?), it could pay off because many local businesses offer discounts for conference attendees. And, this is a great way to identify who’s in town for the event and strike up networking conversations while waiting in line at Starbucks or for your Lyft.
  • Go to the parties – Most every conference has one if not several big to-do’s to celebrate the attendees. Tempting as it may be to blow these off for some down time, the fact is that these parties are a natural place to make connections. You never know who you’ll brush elbows with.
  • Take care of yourself – This tip is oft forgotten, but so important! Take time for yourself, slip away for a 10-minute nap, tuck in early, hop on the hotel gym’s treadmill, and don’t overdo it on booze or sweets. You may even consider strategically staying “off-campus,” away from the conference, to get a break.

That’s a wrap!

I’d love to hear about some of your favorite conferences or what’s on your travel schedule for this conference season. Here’s a rather comprehensive list of upcoming marketing events. And if you’re in the London area, consider attending our Act-On i <3 marketing event. Get more details here.