Heading to a convention soon? Want to learn how to make the most of trade shows? Your work starts weeks before your plane lands.
It’s a fact acknowledged by the most successful folks I know, yet one that both entry-level and c-suite employees ignore.
The best part of a trade show is not in the sessions. Similar to college – or any classroom situation for that matter – the best learning isn’t done sitting in front of a powerpoint or a blackboard.
The best learning is done in small groups, either during a 1:1 with your professor where you learn exactly what it is they’re looking for in that 60-page research paper (and even blabber off about what they’d write about if they were given this assignment), or in small groups with your classmates where the learning in two fold.
First, you can brainstorm together and use the power of collective thinking to narrow down your options. Second – and perhaps more important – you build strong relationships and report with that small group, and hopefully at least 50% of them will go on to successful careers, and maybe even help you in your own.
Trade show wisdom: Truth hurts – or helps – depending on how you prepare
This fact is an old adage: “It’s who you know, not what you know.” And it’s repeated often in popular culture.
Let’s look at an example from Hillbilly Elegy, the New York Times bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance.
“Interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.”
Lizzo’s popular song, “Truth Hurts,” opens with this stanza:
You coulda had a bad *****, non-committal
Help you with your career just a little
You’re ‘posed to hold me down, but you’re holding me back
And that’s the sound of me not calling you back
Sounds like the guy she was dating didn’t understand the importance of connection, relationships, and the people-side of business.
The truth of business, no matter what industry you are in from creative writing to tech sales, or what level you are from receptionist to VP, is that who you know gets you further than just about everything else.
And trade shows are where you network with the right people, build yourself a coalition of like-minded individuals setting out to change your industry for the better, and in only a couple years, become the though leader of that industry yourself.
It starts at trade shows. Moreso, it starts before the trade show.
4 ways to make the most of trade shows
Do Your Research A Couple Weeks Before the Show
Start by going to the trade show website and find the list of companies attending this year, or that attended last year. Bonus points if you already have a connection with the trade show and can ask that person to send over a list of the companies attending. Even more points if you can get the exact names of the reps from those companies, but that is often a stretch.
Now, you have to do the legwork. Look up those companies on LinkedIn, especially the ones you admire and think are doing amazing work in the space. See who, if anyone, you are connected to in the space –– either 1st or 2nd connection –– and message them.
Say you saw that their company will be at the show, and you love the work they are doing. Might they know who from their company will be attending? You’re interested in grabbing a coffee with them, a happy hour, or maybe even a dinner. You’re flexible. You’re at a trade show, after all.
Then, when a percentage of those folks respond and tell you who is going, you must then do the work to get their email, reach out to them, and set up those small meetings.
Book Your Calendar With Small Meetings
These meetings don’t need agendas. In fact, it’s better if they don’t have them. Instead, actually meet the people you admire, or who work for companies you admire. Why did they decide to come to this show? How has it been so far? Anyone cool or interesting they’ve met? It’d probably be fun to gather a few folks for a final dinner in a couple nights –– if everyone isn’t too tired.
What is important here, though, is that you schedule these coffee meetings or happy hours the same way you would schedule a meeting. Send them an actual invite! This is important, because trade shows are busy. There are a ton of sessions happening, lots of floor time, and many people like to try to explore the city they are in, too. Get yourself on someone’s calendar a week out, if possible, so that both you and they can plan accordingly.
“If you want to make the most of trade shows try to book meetings with all the vendors and prospects you want to meet before the trade show,” says Daniel Wallock, Digital Marketing Operations Manager, Atlantic Coast Brands. “You should arrive to the trade show with a full calendar of meetings with lots of different prospective agencies, vendors, and partners. I’ve consistently gotten the most value from trade shows and conferences by ensuring days before the conference my calendar is full of all the meetings I want to have when I’m there, already booked.”
Fill in Gaps with Sessions, and Share Knowledge
Where you aren’t able to fill in your calendar with coffee meetings or happy hours, go to sessions put on by people you admire and want to learn from. While there, take great notes and share interesting tidbits on Twitter or LinkedIn in real-time. Make sure you tag the trade show as well as the speaker.
In many cases, you’ll get retweeted by the tradeshow and possibly even the speaker themselves. If that happens, you have another really great opportunity to reach out to that person, telling the you loved their presentation, especially that point in particular, and when in the same city again, you’d love to meet in person. Here, you are building relationships by growing the thought leadership status of those you admire and trade shows you attend. It’s win-win-win for everyone.
Make Sure to Follow Up
Once the trade show is over, follow up with all the folks you met. These don’t need to be formal follow-ups, either. Instead, send them a quick email (or text message if you exchanged numbers), thanking them for their time and letting them know if they are ever in your city, they should stop by. You know a really great bar or restaurant or hiking trail. Whatever it is they like.
More so, if they mentioned someone they know they wanted to introduce you to, make sure you remind them to do that. That you are looking to expand your network, and want to talk to as many people as possible.
“It’s all about the follow-up,” says Jamie Turner of 60 Second Marketer. “So many of us meet dozens of new friends at trade shows, and then they drop off our radars. The secret is to stay in touch and continuously re-connect with them.”
Networking is code for making friends
One of the best business books out there is also one of the oldest. How to Make Friends and Influence People has taught generations of business folks how to build a network, grow their own status, and become a connector for folks. The secret? Make friends with these people –– truly. Doing so will increase the value of your relationship, but also make your industry even more fun for you.
We all do better work when in the company of friends. And, we all get better jobs and do better in our careers when those friends look out for us, have our back, and recommend us to the next stage.
If you don’t have that network, or you want to build it in a new industry, trade shows are you secret weapon.