03 October 2018

Pavel Sirovatskiy

Head of bizdev

How to get ready for a business conference: tips from ISPsystem business developers

We are frequent visitors of various conferences. After having visited dozens of them, we started to notice that a lot of other visitors tend to attend conferences to (what a surprise!) do nothing. Normally, they schedule a couple of meetings just for the sake of decency and spend the rest of their time loitering, collecting swag, sitting with their laptops, and attending every single sales speech they see. Business meetings? Negotiations with potential clients? No. Chances and money wasted. We used to make similar mistakes in the erstwhile days and now would like to tell you about lessons we learned.
For us, every business trip is an opportunity that we want to make the best use of. We always have the plan and schedule before the event and contacts with a lot of potential partners and clients after it.
Please note! This article will be especially useful for those who attend conferences to meet with clients and partners, search for new leads, develop their business, negotiate, and network. However, our experience might also be of certain use if you go to a conference to have a speech, gather information, find potential vendors, or simply have fun.

In general, I am going to tell you about how to:

  • schedule business meetings,
  • lead negotiations,
  • use informal meetings and networking,
  • not to lose everything after the event.
I plan to have three posts to cover all topics. In the first one, I will tell about preparations for a conference.

What is a typical business conference?

For starters, let’s determine what a business conference looks like in the hosting industry (I can bet that it’s about the same in your business area).

Exhibition area. Normally, those who want to sell something to you (different service, hardware, and software providers) have their booths here. Normally, a booth costs a lot.
Speaker area. Speakers from various companies share their experience (10%) and sell their products (90%).
Conference rooms and face-to-face meeting rooms. You can have your meetings here.
Networking. Organizers might provide opportunities for informal networking, such as cocktail parties, band concerts, or closing dinners.
Duration. A conference might last for one or a few days, normally being hosted in a conference center and divided into a few sections.

Determine your goals

Why are we going to a conference? Our goals are always the following, highest priority to lowest:
  1. meetings and negotiations with potential partners and clients,
  2. meetings and negotiations with existing partners and clients,
  3. networking, new connections,
  4. speaking and panel discussions,
  5. search for potential vendors, i.e. those who might offer something valuable to us.
To be honest, I see that a lot of attendees use the opposite order. First of all, they loiter around and look at what is offered in the exhibition area, then they listen to a few speeches and maybe hold a couple of unscheduled meetings afterwards if the time allows. I have to admit that we have been doing the same before too but then we realized that it’s a bad option for business development. Nowadays, we use a different approach. Every hour is worth its weight of gold, thus we strive to schedule as many meetings as possible, dedicating up to 90% of our conference time to them.
I cannot guarantee that your case is similar to ours. Maybe you have to attend the event because you need to listen to specific speakers or find new vendors. If so, your priorities need to be revised accordingly.

Create your meeting schedule

If you go our path and give priority to meetings with potential clients, then our next advice would be to create an empty (so far) meeting schedule. Such schedule shall contain a table with all conference days, each one of them being divided into slots for meetings.
Yes, you will have to book your meetings beforehand. The idea of attending a conference without preparation and trying to catch an interesting (and interested) client there is close to being suicidal.
You can create your schedule in Google Spreadsheets or utilize any customized template for Excel. Google Calendar or any other good app may also work. It is crucial for your schedule to:
  1. be intuitive: your head will be full of information in a few hours after the conference starts, and your schedule must help you here to understand swiftly what meeting is coming and whether you have any slot available for the new unplanned but important talk;
  2. be easily editable and allowing to move meetings quickly. Your meetings will be moved all around your schedule from time to time;
  3. be accessible without Internet connection which is always slow on any event;
  4. allow to add and view comments you have left to meetings earlier. Such comments will help you remember the meeting subject quickly;
  5. have a mobile version.
Do not rely on your memory: It will betray you!

Schedule your meetings

Now we need to define who we want to meet with and start getting in touch with them. This is the most important step of the whole operation, which will take most of your time before the conference. Order of your meetings must depend on priorities you have determined above.
What companies?
Conferences might be global or local. If the conference you’re going to attend is global, you can send invites to everyone you know and who have at least some chances to be there, even if they are based on the opposite corner of the planet. If the upcoming conference is local, I recommend getting in touch only with those whose offices are located nearby.
Ongoing negotiations
Think of those you are engaged in negotiations with by now. It might not be your clients but rather those who can become your clients. A face-to-face meeting will help in getting a closer contact and boost your ongoing negotiations. Such companies take well to meet with you: You know them, they know you, your meeting request will not be too cold. You can expect that at least half of such companies would agree to meet if they go there.
Remember those you have been engaged in negotiations with earlier, which eventually hasn’t led to any positive result (please don’t tell me that you don’t keep the history of your past unclosed deals?). A conference meeting is a good reason to get in touch with them again or just call them and ask whether they plan to attend the event. Those who do would rather agree to meet with you since (again!) they know you. A few times, such meetings helped us to warm up deals that seemed to be fully frozen.
Nothing discussed yet
Use the conference as a new subject for the meeting.
Enterprises
Look for those who are always in the public eye. Big and notable conferences try to attract big and notable companies which might potentially be your enterprise customers or partners. Just send an email and ask whether anybody from them is going to be at the event. If you have good direct contacts who won’t attend the event, ask to link you up with their colleagues who will be at the conference. Normally, no one would deny your request and share contacts or at least names, so that you would only need to find the contact.
Companies located nearby
Don’t forget about the location of the event. You’re from NY but the conference will be hosted in San Diego? Look for potentially interesting companies around San Diego. If the upcoming event will be in their area of business, it is highly possible that you meet them there. If for some reason they don’t go there, suggest meeting in their office. When we had only started our trips, we didn’t use such chances. Now, we always keep a couple of days before or after the conference available to schedule a few such meetings.
Speakers and attendees
Sometimes you may find a list of previous attendees on the conference website. If you find anyone interesting there, go ahead and contact them. There is a high chance that they will be present this year too.
In the perfect world, the conference organizers will share a list of current year attendees but it would not happen very often. If you have such list in your hands, then you’re a lucky man. Use it, monitor it from time to time for updates, look for contacts, and get in touch with them. If there is no such list, try your luck anyway and ask organizers whether they have one. Normally, no one would dare to ask for it so why not try? It worked a couple of times for us.
Look through the list of speakers, partners, sponsors, and exhibitors. You may find a few interesting companies there.
Please note that we don’t focus here on how to search for contacts of people you don’t know. I can only say that in our case social networks such as Facebook or LinkedIn work best. Sometimes, we are able to find an email of the desired person in public internet.
Current customers
In the end, you still have your existing clients and partners. Determine your key clients and ask them if any of them attend the event. If they do, propose them a meeting to discuss ongoing issues and topics. We used to dedicate too little time to such meetings. This is a great chance to enhance your current partnership relations. We have clients/partners who did not plan to attend the event but changed their plans after they had found out that we’re going.

How long shall you wait for the reply?

Don’t bother your contact lead with a lot of emails. It’s enough to send just a couple of emails with a few days between them. If there is no reply, it rather means that your target is too busy and will reply later, not interested in meeting, hasn’t received your email, or your email simply was marked as SPAM.
Anyway, there is no sense in attacking him/her with dozens of follow-ups. I would recommend to look for an alternative contact in the same company. If you have no alternative contact, then forget about it and switch to other companies.

Who?

People of which functions and positions are more suitable for meeting? It depends on two key factors (at least).
What do you plan to discuss? If you plan to discuss business and potential cooperation, then look for meetings with any decision maker (CEO, purchasing executive, or just anyone responsible for business and its development). If your topic is technical, then it’d be better to schedule a meeting with someone like CTO.
How big is the company? If the company keeps thousands of employees, it might be difficult to get in touch with its upper management. I’d recommend to schedule meetings with managers controlling projects that you’re interested in. However, if there is an SMB company, schedule a meeting with their top management. Such people make decisions in their organizations and you have much more chances for a meeting with them as opposed to top management in enterprise companies.
Unfortunately, in most cases you will not have a lot of choices. The majority of companies send only one person to a conference, and oftentimes this person is not the one you need. What shall you do in such a situation? We prefer to schedule a meeting with him/her anyway. This way you can learn more about the company, its life and needs and ask to link you up with someone you need. Just remember to say the topic of the meeting beforehand to avoid misunderstanding.
Warning: Do not schedule meetings with everyone you were able to find. If you’re not sure that the meeting will result in anything useful for both sides or you suspect it might worsen your current position in negotiations, don’t waste anyone’s time.

When?

When to start scheduling meetings?
I recommend to start getting in touch with people and scheduling your first meetings not later than 2–3 weeks before the event. In case of earlier contacts, there is a high chance to receive a lot of “don’t know yet whether I go” replies. If you start sending meeting requests later than 2–3 weeks before the conference, you might not have enough time, and schedules of your potential clients might already be packed by that point.
How much time to dedicate to every meeting?
This is very important. If you give too little time to a meeting, any overlap or delay will result in overlapping of the whole schedule. If you dedicate too much time, you might have too long spaces with nothing to do between the meetings.
We used to book not more than 30 minutes for every meeting and tried to have at least 20 meetings a day. One little delay, and everything was going downhill. Our schedule was broken by the middle of the day and we had to move all other meetings and cancel a part of them. It was our lesson learned, and now we book around 30–60 minutes for a meeting. If the conference is open 9:00–18:00, we have not more than 10–15 meetings per day.
It also depends on the subject of the meeting. You plan to discuss a few urgent issues with your existing partner? 30 minutes would not be enough, so go for at least 1 hour. You have scheduled a meeting with the company that so far knows nothing about you and simply wants to get acquainted and learn more about your product? Fine, then half an hour shall be enough. If they are interested, they will visit your website, and you will continue your communication online.
Time buffer
We prefer to book meetings closer to each other with almost no spaces between them. However, we also have at least one free 30-minutes slot every couple of hours. Such pause gives us an opportunity to fix the schedule if something goes wrong and recharge the internal batteries. If your schedule starts to break apart, you will have a chance to fix it during this pause.
I recommend to attend a conference with a colleague. If you’re being late for the next meeting, your colleague will be able to take on it. You might even want to have two different meeting schedules to have more meetings. It’s not a problem, just leave more free slots between the meetings just in case.
Lunch
Sometimes your schedule might become too tight to even dream of lunch. If it happened to you, try to reschedule one of your meetings and invite the person you’re meeting with to have lunch together. This way you will be able to eat and spend your time efficiently at the same time.

Where?

You have a booth
If you have a booth, then schedule meetings at it. Ask organizers about its specific location and number. Make sure that location and number have not been changed.
On one of our conferences we had a booth F11. All meetings we have scheduled were at booth F11. However, a couple of days before the start we found out that our stand is now G11 (the same location but different number). Another company at the opposite corner of the exhibition hall now had F11. So we had to notify everyone we would have meetings with about this fact and also asked our colleagues from F11 to send anyone asking about ISPsystem to G11.
They have a booth
Schedule a meeting at the booth of the company you’re meeting with if they have one. Always agree on specific time and place of the meeting.
Insist on specific time if the person on the other end says something like “just swing by at any time and we’ll talk”. He/she is either not really interested or might be interested but will forget about the meeting without specific time fixed. And even if he/she will not forget, there is a high chance that their booth will be crowded and they will be busy talking with their visitors.
Without the fixed time and place you also can forget about the meeting. Always send meeting invitations over email and ask the other person to confirm and accept it. I also recommend asking for a phone number — just in case if someone would be running late or forget about the meeting.
Nobody has a booth
This happens very often. But no worries. Look through the conference map (normally can be viewed on the conference website) and find the biggest booth or a booth of a company everybody knows in your industry. Choose a booth close to the entrance or around the center of the hall. Schedule all your meetings around this booth and send a screenshot of the map with this booth marked to everyone you schedule a meeting with. Such booth would be seen from any place so no one will miss it. As an alternative option, you can meet around the registration point.

Check your schedule

During preparation, you will have your meeting schedule packed at 70–80% (around 10–15 meetings per day). If you have a few slots still available, don’t worry. You might meet new people occasionally at the event or get introduced by your colleagues. You might also get replies from people you sent emails to a few weeks ago and schedule meetings with them right at the conference. Such free slots provide flexibility and space for such late meetings.
In conclusion, I’d like to remind you that the approach described above is what we find most appropriate for our company. You have a different experience, use different methods, or our advices might not work in your case? Great, just share your experience in comments! It’s always good to exchange opinions.
In the next article I’m going to tell about what happens at the conference, how to lead negotiations, and what to do if everything goes wrong and your schedule falls apart.

Resume

So, what really shall you do when preparing for a business conference?

  1. Determine your goals. Why do you attend the conference?
  2. Create your meeting schedule. Make sure it can be viewed and edited from your mobile device without Internet connection.
  3. Learn conference schedule. Define what speakers and panel discussions you want to attend.
  4. Create a list of companies you want to meet with.
  5. Find names and contacts.
  6. Find the best place for meetings (booth, registration point, entrance, something else).
  7. Start getting in touch and schedule meetings. Add meetings and information about them to your schedule.

Pavel Sirovatskiy

Head of bizdev