I’ve walked 250 miles across conference and trade show floors across the world and met somewhere north of two thousand people. I’ve set on the organizing committee of international trade-shows, worked booths, received awards, served on panels, and even hosted sessions. I once worked 10 days straight at tech expos in Las Vegas, something I would not recommend. Here is what works and what I think is a waste of your time.

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

What you already know about Conferences and Trade Shows

  1. They are big, bold, and exciting. The latest, greatest, and most important advances in your industry are all in one place for one week out of the year.
  2. They cost a lot of money to attend. Most people spend $5,000+ to attend an event when you factor in travel, hotel, food, ticket, and people time.
  3. You’ll come home with 100 business cards from people you barely remember and a thousand new ideas you’re already starting to forget.
  4. If we’re being honest, it’s also a “perk” of your job that you love.

The best shows now include an ROI page to help you prove to your boss that attending this event will be worth it. This is unfortunate because it tells me a lot of people doubt whether or not it is worth the time and money. Frankly, I can’t blame them. Most people terribly underutilize these events. Here is how to not be one of those people

How to make the most of your conference or trade show

No matter what industry you are in, I’ve come up with a formula for success you can use to make the most of your event and position. These are divided up into three categories: before the event, during the event, and after the event. I know you have a lot going on wit your real job, but a few minutes of preparation will ensure you get to attend another conference next year! Here are your tips and tricks.

Before the Event:

  • Talk to your boss about personal development and education. Focus on a specific area and get an action item on your goals and objectives for the following year to attend an event. If it’s in your plan, you have to attend!
  • Carefully select your event. Look for high-dollar keynote speakers. They often indicate the success and reach of an event. The more established the event is, the better the keynote speaker will be.
  • Reach out to the event organizers. Tell them you’re available to serve on a panel or present on a topic. They always need help! Often you’ll get free admission out of the deal and get to meet some great people along the way.
  • Plan, plan, plan! You should have two people and two event/spaces you want to attend every day. That is your framework. The rest should be open to what you find when you’re there. Don’t overcommit!
  • Use social media. Post a few months before the event (with a photo) that you’re excited to attend. Use the hashtags! Post again a few weeks ago, then a few days out, then when you arrive at registration.

“If it’s in your plan, you have to attend!”

During the Event:

  • Business casual is the dress code. You’re going to be making a lot of first impressions, so put your best foot forward! Don’t carry a backpack. Dress for temperature swings.
  • Grid search the event to make sure you see everything. Don’t just wander aimlessly. Try to walk first thing in the day or right after lunch when the people working the booth are alert and attentive.
  • Don’t take swag, bags, fliers, or handouts. They all weigh you down. Just snap a photo of everything you want to remember and take notes on your phone. Trust me, your back and hands will thank you later. It keeps you fresh so you can see and do more.
  • Always do lunch inside the event. Sit with a table full of strangers. Meet new people! Always start off the conversation with a smile and an encouraging word to others; the rest will be easy.
  • Bring a pen to write on the back of business cards you receive. Always write a few words to remind you of the conversation or action items you discussed. I keep my cards in one back pocket and cards I receive in the other pocket. Find a system that works for you.
  • Go to the networking happy hour. You don’t have to stay long or even drink, but you need to go and introduce yourself to at least three new people.
  • Use social media! Post once in the morning and once in the afternoon (with a photo) of something interesting you saw on the floor or at a presentation. Don’t forget the hashtags!
  • Every evening write down a few bullet points of things you found, ideas you came up with, and things you want to do or research when you get back.
  • Don’t forget to workout, go for a walk outside, or stay to your personal schedule. I actually pick hotels based on their gym now. I need something normal to center me during this week of chaos in cities usually focused around partying.

“Don’t take swag, bags, fliers, or handouts. They all weigh you down. Just snap a photo of everything you want to remember and take notes on your phone. “


After the Event

  • Send an email to every business card you received thanking them for the interaction and reminding them of the encounter. If you can’t send that email, throw the card away!
  • Write-up an event summary. One paragraph on the event and reach, one paragraph (with bullet points) on the key things you found or learned, one paragraph on how you see your company positioned in the space (if that’s relevant), and one paragraph on your recommendation for who would benefit from future events. Always include at least three photos from the event – I personally use a collage app that lets me combine a few photos into one so people can get a visual snapshot. Keep the document to two pages.
  • Send the summary to your boss and peers with a friendly email about how fun the event was and how thankful you are for the opportunity to attend. Tell them the event summary is included and that you’d love to talk more if anybody is interested in attending next year.
  • Do something meaningful with what you found or who you met within 90 days. If you can’t do that, you probably shouldn’t have attended the event after all.

The more you put in, the more you will get out. I always encourage people to lean into the experience and focus on the people. Presentations are nice, exhibits are fun to see, but really it’s the people and the conversations YOU engage in that will make this experience with your time and your attention. Put your best foot forward. Enjoy!


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