What to Do Before, During and After Attending a Conference

UPDATED: October 12, 2015
PUBLISHED: June 1, 2015

How can I make the most of the time and money I’m investing in attending conferences?

I used to be the girl standing in a corner, my head buried in my phone instead of talking to attendees. Once I committed to introducing myself to at least three people—it didn’t count if they came to me first—I made valuable contacts and learned new things. That’s my best advice, and for more tips, I turned to six women who collectively have attended more than 500 events in the last 12 months.

BEFORE Showing Up

“Determine in advance what specific outcomes you’d need to make an event worth attending,” suggests Saralynn Collins, an Asheville, N.C., business growth coach who attends events as her main method of attracting clients. “Ask yourself, Are there specific participants I want to meet? Is there a sponsor I’d like to connect with? Do I want feedback on packaging? Plan ahead how you’ll introduce yourself and rehearse your course of action.”

Collins also says to focus on being a giver. “You’ll get more out of the people you meet if you demonstrate a willingness to listen and learn about their needs and offer ideas, support or encouragement where it makes sense.”

DURING the Event

Focus on making connections rather than on handing out or collecting a slew of business cards. “Meet people. Talk to humans,” says Melissa Lanz, founder of The Fresh 20, an online meal-planning service. “There’s no prize for most cards collected and no substitute for face-to-face conversation.”

Lindsay Wickham, events and communications manager for WISE, Syracuse University’s annual women’s conference, agrees, suggesting that you enhance “in-person connectivity through social media while at an event.” Most events have a social media hashtag that you can follow in real time to see who’s there and chatting about topics you care about. You can comment back to meet up.

Samantha Ettus, a Los Angeles-based work-life-balance expert, says that when you make a contact, jot a note on the back of every connection’s business card to help you remember your conversation after the event. This might be personal tidbits such as their kids’ names, the places they grew up, the colleges they attended, or something business-related like subject-matter expertise or an interesting lead. These details will come in handy when you’re home.

And Lara Moberg, principal of LHM Public Relations, a Boston-based boutique marketing firm, recommends that you “hit the hotel gym or pool during conference downtime instead of hiding in your room. Hang out in the places where you can connect casually without the crowds, as that lends itself to less rushed conversation.” This also applies to potential meet-ups in the lobby bar after the event.

AFTER the Program

A two-word tip shared by every successful conference-goer: Follow up. You work hard schmoozing and selling at the conference, but what happens when you get home? “Follow up on every contact within three days,” Ettus says. “The contact is still warm, so you aren’t wasting time on a reintroduction.”

Janine Heydrick, a project management specialist based in the Orlando, Fla., area, says, “Don’t expect instant miracles. Everyone is busy after an event, so you may need up to five touches before you hear back.” Vary your methods of communication: email, phone and social media follow-ups.

Even if there’s no immediate next step, which is often the case, you still want to reach out immediately. “This way, when you do need to connect on something specific, it won’t be out of the blue,” Ettus says. “The connection will have already been established.”

Are you that person who stands in a corner, not even looking at the other conference-goers? Read “The Introvert’s Guide to Networking” for tips on how to talk to people you know you should talk to for professional reasons. 

Tory Johnson is CEO and founder of Spark & Hustle, a weekly contributor on ABC's Good Morning America and a contributing editor of SUCCESS magazine.