Art of the Conference: Plan Ahead, Arrive Early, Stay Late

Industry Conferences are a great way to network and collaborate with your clients and business partners.  Essentially it is a single location for you to engage with multiple contacts while making a single trip.  Effectively utilized, it is an efficient and cost-effective way to pack a lot of business development into a small window of time.  However, it is not what some may refer to as a boondoggle, no matter the location, nor can it be considered a free vacation on the company dime, as used effectively, the hours are long, and you will return home needing a few days to recover.  In any event, it is critical to plan-ahead of your arrival, often months before the start of the event, and while there, plan to arrive early to events to gain the networking advantage and prepare to stay late to take advantage of after-hours networking opportunities.  Your long days, properly planned, will provide positive results which will justify the time and expense expended for each event.

Planning-ahead for these events is critical to making best use of the expense.  While many of your clients attend to gain knowledge for their individual jobs, most of the seasoned, senior-level attendees do understand that the event would not be possible without sponsorships from their industry partners.  These sponsorships, while often costly, are a great way to highlight your company’s involvement gaining you favor with the individuals that understand the importance of your contribution.  Additionally, these sponsorships may often provide advance access to a critical pre-planning tool, the coveted attendee list. This list, often distributed 30-days prior to the event, will be your playbook for planning, and will become a constant reference while attending.  Once received, it is beneficial for you to review the overall list, filter it down to the geographic areas that represent your company’s footprint, and to highlight those individuals that you would really like to interact with while onsite.  It also provides a starting point for any specific onsite events that you would plan to gather groups or individuals away from the conference events, such as meetings over breakfast, lunch or dinners with small groups. 

Part of the Planning-ahead process is becoming familiar with the area into which you are traveling.  Does this city or town offer something unique that the conference is not already taking advantage of?  Are there specific restaurants or event venues where you can host a small group that would make for a memorable experience?  Is there a specific event (concert, sports, etc.) happening while you are there that you can take advantage of?  In 2012, I co-hosted a dinner in Albuquerque, NM at the top of a ski resort that was accessible only by tram, but only 10-minutes from downtown.  The 15-minute ride to the top on the Sandia Peak Tramway, along with the sunset views from the restaurant as we arrived at the top are an experience that I am often reminded of by friends and colleagues to this day.  While in Denver for an annual national-level conference back in 2018, I chose to forgo the cost of exhibiting, as we are regionally based and would not benefit from the national-level exposure from the exhibit hall, but I utilized a local event with a similar expense, a suite at the Colorado Rockies game.  What a great way to spend an evening with twenty-five of my friends and colleagues. So become a pseudo travel-agent prior to your events, and plan something fun and memorable, which will also serve to foster long-lasting relationships.

One additional benefit to attending these events is the potential for you and your team members to provide speaking roles in project or product-specific presentations that make up the conference content.  There is no better way to showcase your team’s successful effort than to gather with the team that made it happen, and have them relive the process, which was fun and rewarding, for an audience.  You will not only be seen by potential clients and peers as an expert in the topic, but the celebration of a job-well-done is often overlooked in the process and can be a crucial last step to a successful effort.  These presentations are often solicited 6-months in advance and can be very time-consuming for both acceptance and their  execution once accepted.  Be prepared to have someone from your Marketing team become the point of contact for the presentation, which will guide the group’s presentation from inception through execution.  And don’t forget to invite them along for the fun…it can be a thankless job if you have to miss the final output seeing the impact of your efforts in the positive responses from your audience.

Arriving early does not necessarilly mean to the conference venue, although there are often pre-conference events that provide great opportunities to network with smaller groups before the start of the main conference events.  These are often local tours, golfing, or community service events specifically curated for the local community.  Review the agenda for the conference early enough and before making your travel arrangements so that you can take advantage of these events. Note: When making travel arrangements, always book the conference hotel in advance.  While it may not be the venue where you would typically stay for reason of cost, brand or location, it is always the place that you want to be throughout the conference.  Use the conference hotel public spaces in-between events to sit and work, and to facilitate those random interactions that are impossible to plan for.  All the planning won’t beat the random contact you make at the hotel bar or elevator that leads to a meaningful connection. 

Generally, arriving early is meant for conference events like receptions, meals and general sessions.  Take the time to get familiar with the room; are there specialty food or drinks being served?  Is there a bar at the back of the room that is underutilized?  Find a space where you can see people enter before the room gets too crowded to do so and engage early arrivals in conversation.  Again, random meetings are often underrecognized and provide valuable connections.  Don’t be afraid to strike up conversation with someone you don’t know. Often early in the event there are less people in the room and there is more of a chance to get into an individual conversation one-on-one, that will ultimately turn into a group conversation where you are already engaged and not trying to walk up to a group already conversing.  This works especially well at an event you are attending for the first time and where you do not know many of the attendees.  Also, be aware of the current events at the conference to facilitate these discussions.  Make sure to attend the opening session, which is often a thought-provoking motivational speaker.  These speakers and topics are pre-selected to engage the audience in conversation following the presentation, so utilize that topic in lieu of something like…the weather.

Finally, staying late does not necessarilly mean staying at the venue or location for a few extra days of R&R, although if the conference plan was maximized to its full potential, then you will need it.  What it does mean, is that that every event has its own group of late nighters, who will explore the local landscape or just continue to network in the conference hotel bar. Which is another reason to stay in the conference hotel. So, not that the conference must end with a full-on bender, but staying awake and coherent enough to have casual conversations after many of the conference-goers have turned in for the night can lead to more personal conversations, that again, lead to more personal relationships.  Contrary to the old saying, “nothing good happens after midnight”.  Well for the professional conference-goer, its usually not the case.

So, in summary, hopefully you have learned some tactics and tricks about maximizing the business development effectiveness of attending an association conference.  With a bit of pre-planning and a lot of onsite activity, pretty much non-stop, the event can lead to stronger business relationships.  As I was told by a client early in my career, “just because we socialize outside of work, does not mean that you are going to get a job.  But when we do have a job together, we will be better equipped to manage through hurdles when they occur”.  Clients that understand this thought-process will value the time you spend with them at “their” association conferences, as well as the sponsorships that make the events more fun and beneficial to its attendees.


About the Author

GLENN A. THOMPSON is the Vice President of Business Development at W.M. Jordan Company.

Customers across Virginia and the Carolinas rely on Glenn and his team of business developers and marketers to demonstrate unique approaches and solutions leading to successful project outcomes and an excellent customer experience. A graduate of Virginia Military Institute with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, Glenn has over three decades of experience in construction, two of them with W. M. Jordan Company.

His past project management work includes the award-winning renovation of the Old State Library into the Commonwealth’s only executive office building (Patrick Henry Building), which holds offices for the governor, cabinet secretaries, and various other state agencies.  He also managed the VIMS Marine Science Research Complex and the Hopewell Regional Library projects. Glenn’s transition into business development led to the expansion of W. M. Jordan’s Higher Education market footprint from its roots in Central Virginia to now cover the entire Commonwealth of Virginia, working with every public institution.

Passionate about building, Glenn works tirelessly to promote industry collaboration through his work with the Associated General Contractors of Virginia (AGC-VA), American Institute of Architects (AIA), and American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC). He served for 8-years on the board of directors for the AGC-VA, starting as the Richmond District president in 2009, continuing with the formation of the Industry Collaboration Group – a joint committee with AIA and ACEC, and culminating with his term as state Chairman in 2015. Collaboration is at the heart of any successful business, and Glenn continues to work tirelessly to promote collaboration across our entire industry in his leadership role with W. M. Jordan Company.

Glenn A. Thompson, W.M. Jordan Company
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