Attending conferences is not only a great way to keep up with industry trends, but it is also one of the best ways to expand your professional network, meet new clients, or even find a new job.
Despite knowing about amazing networking opportunities that exist at conferences, many people are frightened at the thought of talking to someone they don’t know, or worse, of being alone in a hall where everyone seems to know each other. Equipped with the right networking strategy, however, you can avoid spending an entire conference alone and missing out on opportunities to meet new people.
1. Become a volunteer
Many conferences offer opportunities to volunteer. Volunteering can help you get an active role at a conference and a reason to speak to other attendees. For example, as a volunteer reporter, you can ask people questions about their experiences at the conference, and in most cases attendees are happy to answer your questions.
You can choose a volunteering role that corresponds to your professional experience, which will enhance your resume as well as expand your network. Or you can choose to get involved in an area that is not directly related to your profession and use the experience to improve your skill set.
Many conferences have a section for volunteers on their website. If you don’t find such a section, you can always contact the organizers and offer your help. Don’t forget to briefly discuss your expertise in your message to make it easier for event managers to assign the right job for you.
2. Join a committee
Behind almost every conference is an organization. Typically, these organizations have a variety of committees responsible for organizing annual meetings, regional and national conferences, webinars, and other programs. You can attend conferences with fellow committee members who can introduce you to their colleagues and friends, eliminating the awkwardness of having to enter a room full of people alone. You also may be given an active role on a committee, which can help you to develop your leadership potential.
3. Attend panels and workshops
Most conferences have a selection of smaller events within the conference to choose from. Be strategic about deciding which event to attend. For example, if you are looking for new customers, do some research about what might interest them, and attend panels, lectures, or workshops that correspond to those interests. If you are looking for a job, attend sections that might attract potential employers. In this case, joining a panel on how to retain talent might not be your first choice as a candidate, but it may be a first choice for recruiters and a great place to meet them.
Panels and workshops will provide you with relevant information you can use to start conversations with other attendees during breaks. You can ask a specific question about a particular point or a general one, such as how he/she found this program.
4. Sign up for sponsored dinners
Often, companies that are sponsors will organize breakfasts, dinners, or cocktail receptions during or after the conference. Dinners are probably the most inviting and comfortable way of building new connections. Some events require an invitation—and even if you didn’t receive one, you can always contact the organizers and express your interest in attending.
5. Apply to be a speaker
Speaking at a conference can bring multiple benefits, ranging from the acknowledgment of your expertise and experience to boosting your professional visibility. But most of all, it will help you to connect with people at the conference. You will be introduced to other speakers, and people might come to you with questions after you speak. During preparation and rehearsals, you will meet event managers and can always ask them to introduce you to people you are looking to meet. Speaking at a conference will provide you with authority during the conference and connections even before the conference begins.
Attending a conference alone might be an intimidating experience, especially if your attendance is encouraged by your employer who expects certain results, such as meeting a number of prospective customers or partners. If you prepare in advance and have a strategy of how to meet other attendees, you will feel more confident and have a positive experience.