I’ve done a number of posts here recently on best practices for networking and relationship-building at conferences, and you may remember that I’ve said, more than once, how important it is to avoid your room at all costs.
But there’s a counter-point to that which I’ve been thinking about a lot as we have our ILN Annual Meeting on the horizon, and that is – DON’T SKIP ANYTHING.
Sometimes, when attending a conference, it’s very tempting (and often reasonable) to combine other business with the business of the conference – you may have clients in the same city, or friends that you rarely get to see, or a spouse who is with you, but not joining in on the conference, and you feel that taking an afternoon (or two) or a meal (or two) away from the conference won’t be such a big deal.
You may think that because a conference is only a few business sessions combined with some social activities (as our conferences are), that the social activities are just the way you’re rewarded for attending the conference. You may even think that because you’ve been to a city before, and done some of the same things, that you don’t need to go on those trips, because you won’t be missing anything.
But I’m here to tell you that you will be missing out, in a big way. And here’s why.
In addition to the educational side of conferences, what is the overarching purpose of attending? What is the reason that you go to a conference in person rather than just participating in a webinar or reading the conference report?
In a word: Relationships.
Yes, you’ll be learning things in the business sessions, and you can network during the coffee breaks, but the true networking and relationship development happens outside of the conference room. Always.
A few examples:
- The afternoon tour is offsite, and you have to take a bus, first to lunch, then to the tour, then back to the hotel. Each of those bus rides is an opportunity to sit with someone you’ve never met before and introduce yourself.
- You’re in a country that you’ve never been to before, and eating at a restaurant with local cuisine. You can easily bond and laugh with the person sitting next to you about whether or not you like the food you’re trying (or can identify it!), or sit with your hosts and have them explain the correct way to eat it and the importance of bonding over meals in their culture.
- You’re on a tour of a cultural site in a city with a guide who is truly excellent. Later on, you can catch up with some of the other people from your tour, using the information the guide gave you as an ice breaker to start a conversation.
- One of the evening meals finds the group split up among different restaurants, so you have the ability to enjoy different cuisines in the city and go to places that couldn’t accommodate the entire group. The meal also gives you the chance to speak in a more intimate setting with some of the other attendees and local host attorneys that you hadn’t met before.
- The meal is once again, a buffet, and you wonder whether the organizers know what they’re doing. Ditto to yet another family style meal. But as you circulate the table to get your food, you end up chatting to someone from another table about the morning session. You meet yet another person at the dessert buffet. Passing plates at lunch helps to break the ice after you’ve sat down to a group you don’t know very well.
- The conference organizers told you to get to the lobby 10 minutes early, but you head down to the bar an hour before you have to leave, because you know a good sized group of other attendees will be there. You get an extra hour of relaxed chatting time to build relationships and get to know new people.
You may joke with some friends while sitting out by the pool during a rare break in the conference that you’re "networking," but the truth is that networking is EXACTLY what you’re doing. Each and every person you meet at the conference could be a referral source, a source of information, someone who can introduce you to the right people or give you the help that you need someday. The better you get to know them, the more confident you are that they’ll handle your clients professionally should you have the need to refer them.
The more people you speak to, engage with, learn from and laugh with, the more you will gain, both personally and professionally. You’ll become more comfortable with them, and they in turn, will think of you more readily when they need something in your jurisdiction or area of expertise.
So, it’s not enough to have your name on the attendee list, and to show up briefly to the business sessions. There are, of course, exceptions for professional commitments, but networking at the conference is a different kind of professional commitment, and it should be treated as such.
The next time you’re attending a conference, go with an open mind:
- Have you been to the city before and seen all of the sites listed in the agenda? Attend the events anyway – you can share your previous travel experiences with people who are new to the city and offer some tips. You may even learn some secrets from the locals or perhaps have a funny or memorable experience with the other delegates that could never be replicated. Going to a place with a different group of people always makes the experience different.
- Think it’s no big deal to miss a dinner in favor of meeting with your clients? Why not bring them along to the group dinner? Yes, you’ll be charged for them (but you were paying for them anyway, right?) and you’ll be offering them the opportunity to make some new relationships as well, which they’ll see as valuable (particularly, if you’re strategic about who you introduce them to). Additionally, for ILN members, it’s a great way to reinforce the breadth and depth of expertise that you have access to as a member, in a way that doesn’t involve a brochure.
- Exhausted by day two of the conference, and happy to skip the afternoon session in favor of a nap (or shopping)? Think again – since many conference attendees skip the second day, it’s a unique opportunity to network with those who aren’t skipping – you’ve got stories to bond over, because you’re the hardier bunch that did the tour, you’ve met yet another group of people, and it’s likely that those people in the second group are the real go-getters and master networkers that you want to associate yourself with.
- Are there optional tours or business sessions to participate in? Do it! You never know who you’ll meet when attending a session for another region, or joining up with a group of people who also love glass blowing or architecture. When you bond over shared interests, you are that much more memorable to the people that you meet.
Does all of that sound exhausting? It absolutely is. But it’s only for a couple of days, and the benefits can be far reaching. So dig deep into your stores of energy, make sure to hydrate, and just enjoy the ride – don’t just sit in your room, but don’t skip anything either! If you have friends or family in the city that you’d like to see, tack on an extra day – it’s well worth it.
Because if you truly want to make the most out of your conference attendance, your presence there can’t be a drive by – it has to be a true immersion.