03 October 2018

Pavel Sirovatskiy

Head of bizdev

How to get the most out of a conference: tips from ISPsystem business developers

A conference business trip is like a sprint at Olympics: You get ready for months in order to do your best on day X. For a couple of days, you need to tell a lot of new people about yourself and your company and learn about them as much as possible. You need to be fast and precise. The given article will help you avoid many mistakes and teach you to adjust your schedule quickly.
This is the second article of the cycle where we share our experience of conference trips. Read about preparation stage here.
And now I’m going to tell you about:
  • what to do first when arriving to the conference;
  • details to be considered;
  • how to lead negotiations;
  • how to use informal meetings.
And at the end we’ll discuss what to do if your beautiful schedule has messed up.

Before the conference

I recommend to arrive one day before the event starts. It grants you at least two advantages: you have some buffer time in case something unexpected happens and a chance to cope with jet lag and acclimatization. Remember: something unexpected such as lost luggage or flight delay tend to happen when you travel with a few transfers.
Would you be happy to have your first business meeting in t-shirt and jeans that you wore the whole previous day? We were not when it happened in Singapore where our carrier lost our baggage and we had to meet with the largest local telecom provider in their office with this outfit. Luckily, people on that end of the table had a sense of humor.
One more piece of wisdom: choose a hotel around the event venue. It might be more expensive but you will save time and money on taxi and won’t have to struggle with the local transport system.

Checklist before departure

So, you have done a big job: found contacts, scheduled meetings, created a schedule, bought tickets, booked hotel, etc. It’s a lot but still not enough, and the most important part is still ahead. Check and prepare the following things before you depart:
1. Clothing. Use the unbeatable classics jacket + shirt + trousers or jeans. It will give you a couple of points.
2. Business cards. Order them if you don’t have them yet. Business etiquette is quite slow-changing so exchange of paper business cards is still an obligatory part of any business meeting. The bigger the company you’re meeting with, the more chances to spoil your potential deal by not having a business card. Your business card must arrest attention. We tend to use the so-called pie-cards when a business card is made of two thick paper sheets glued together. Many people pay attention to it and even try to rip it apart.
3. Booklets and handout materials if you have any.
4. Gifts. Yes, gifts. We always bring small courtesy gifts and give them at the end of the meeting. It might be honey, tea, a small wooden hot pad - anything related to Irkutsk where we’re located. People like it, while we use it as a chance to end our meeting on good terms. I don’t remember anyone who would react negatively on such gift or consider it as an effort to “buy” them. For us, it’s also a simple expression of our gratitude to a person for his/her time. Besides, such gift helps people better remember us. There is a lot of people on the conference, and your colleague might have dozens of meetings just like you. Due to the gift, it will be easier for him or her to remember us: “Ah, yes, it’s Pavel from Russia who has given me this tea and honey”.
A story. Once upon our first conference visits, we spent more than an hour at customs trying to convince them that tea that we brought with us is really tea but not something illegal. Small sacks without any tags on them, dried herb leaflets inside - yes, it might look like something but not tea. So, if you go abroad, check the custom rules of the country you’re entering.

One day before the conference

Take the most out of your time before the event.
Check technics and prepare everything you might need tomorrow. Charge your phone and powerbank (it will save your life when your phone dies and there is no time and place to charge it). Prepare your laptop or tablet if you plan to demonstrate your product. Buy a couple of bottles of water as you will have to speak a lot. Have a couple of snacks to charge your internal batteries e.g. chocolate bars.
Look for photos of people you plan to meet with and save them on your phone. If you have never met a person, it might be almost impossible to find him or her even if your meeting is scheduled properly. Always ask for contact phone number to be able to call if you will be running late or there is nobody at the meeting point. And learn all the names!
Learn more about the other side. If you have time, search for any information about the person you’re meeting with, especially in social networks. You may find a lot of really useful information about the person and his/her interests.
A couple of years ago I met with one potential client from Argentina. His Facebook profile told me that his is a big football fan and supports his national team in every second post. It happened during the World Cup where Argentina played in final. I started with this topic, and we enjoyed the next few minutes discussing football and found a few mutual links before switching to business. He became our customer later, and we get in touch in Facebook from time to time.
Remind about the meeting. I strongly encourage you to send a reminder about the next day meeting to every person you’re meeting with and ask whether there are no changes in plans. Unfortunately, even the blood oath taken a few days before the conference cannot serve as a 100% guarantee that the person will be there in time. The reminder will improve the chances that your colleague will not forget about the meeting, or, if the plans have eventually changed, notify you about this in response.
Write down the topics of your meetings. Create a document with all meetings: topics, questions, things to discuss, results expected, etc. Add information about the other company, their size, clients, services, prices, and everything that might come handy. Save this file on your phone and add to shortcuts to be able to open it swiftly and re-read if needed. Don’t overestimate your memory: you will have chaos in your head soon after your first couple of meetings. This file will help you remember quickly who you’re meeting with next and about what.
Of course, it is much better to do it all beforehand, not one day before the event. If for some reason you have not done this yet, dedicate more time to preparation.

During the conference

Day X has finally come. I recommend to arrive to the conference having some time in reserve, at least 30 minutes before the first meeting. You need time to register which is not always (or always not) fast. Furthermore, it’s good to have 10-15 minutes when you can walk around the conference hall. Find your meeting points and track best routes between them.
If you still have time, prepare for your first meeting, re-read your schedule and the document with information about meetings. Check your business cards, phone and Internet connection.

Meetings

The process is started, you have your first meeting. I can give a couple of universal advices from my own experience in negotiations.
Meeting place. As I have outlined in the first part, the best option is to schedule a meeting at the booth. The booth is easy to spot. The only problem is that normally a lot of people are crowding around the booth. In this case, after you have met your colleague from the other company, find a more quiet place close to the booth or leave the building together and have a walk - it’s always better to talk outside. Alternatively, use the meeting tables or rooms if the conference organizers can offer them.
Beginning. Always start your meeting with a small talk. Ask about things not related to the meeting, how is the conference, etc. Use data that you have digged out a day before. First, it is required by the business etiquette. Second, it is a good chance to become closer before switching to business topics. Always take the person character into consideration. If you meet with a closed person, not really talkative, or tired, you’d better put off formalities and go straight to the business.
Demonstration. If you meet with a potential customer and discuss your product, show it in action. Always demonstrate functionality if you have anything to show. Always take into account the Internet connection. It is better to buy a local sim card with access to the Internet.
Photo. If your colleague is open and communicative, suggest taking a joint photo or selfie after the meeting. It will be a good opportunity to remind about yourself later by sending this photo.
After the meeting, ALWAYS write down results of the meeting: what was discussed, decided, found out, promised, etc. This is very important. You will forget about everything you discussed soon after it if you don’t write it down - the next meeting will displace it all. Save the resume of the meeting anywhere you can: save to the phone, write down on your hand, or use a business card. By the way, this is the reason we like business cards with the white empty flipside: you can write on it when you are short on time.

What might go wrong

And now, I have some bad news. Even if you were 110% ready, sent emails to everyone, called everyone, was not late for any meeting, and you’re just a good guy, it won’t save you from obliviousness, negligence, and unprofessionalism. People tend to NOT come to scheduled meetings, forget to warn you about changes in their plans, keep silence, and don’t even feel sorry for that. It happens, and you can’t be 100% sure that it won’t happen to you. But you can try to amend it.
What shall you do if no one came to the meeting? And what is the chance of such scenario? Per our statistics, about 10% of all meetings go off without any warning - the other person just doesn’t come. This percentage might be higher, it depends on the person, manners, your previous business relationships, conference format, availability, etc. After all, he/she might be running late from the previous meeting, just like you.
If 5 minutes left and nobody came, grab your phone and start calling (this is why we asked for the phone number, remember?). Doesn’t pick up the phone? Send SMS or a message. Doesn’t reply? Forget about it. If your dialogue partner is true professional, he or she will contact you later, and you will be able to reschedule your meeting (remember about free slots we have left). If this person is irresponsible, he or she will never reply to you. Do you need such person as your client or partner?
What if the person didn’t come for the second meeting too? Forget about it, delete the phone number, don’t lower yourself and don’t lose face. We had a case when our potential big client didn’t come for the first and for the second meeting in row, didn’t reply to calls and messages, but responded two hours later “Where are you?”. Well, we just replied that we are not ready to meet anymore, maybe next time.
What to do if the person you shall be meeting with is ignoring you? It might also happen. You agreed to meet at specific time and place, and this person is there but is talking to another person (colleague, sales manager, event organizer, etc.). And he/she sees you but asks to wait until he/she finishes. If it happened, then be brave, interrupt their dialogue, and ask how much time he/she needs. If much, then cancel the meeting and reschedule it right away. If not much, then wait for not much. The person continues to talk with another person? Well, it really takes the biscuit. Don’t lose your face and your position in negotiations, just leave and send a message that you can’t wait for more and suggest to move the meeting. If you are interesting to this person, that he/she will apologize and reply to you.
What to do if your schedule went off too much after a few shifts and delays? Well, it must have happened sooner or later. It might be for the better, as it says that you’re popular and have a lot of meetings :) When we have a booth, we sometimes have so many visitors that they have to stand in lines to talk to us. Therefore, I recommend to have a few free slots for such situations and visit the conference with a colleague or two so that there would always be someone to cover you.
Dear author of the article, you don’t understand: the schedule went off so badly that neither a colleague nor slots will help. In such case, find a couple of free minutes and send messages to everyone you can’t meet. Apologize and ask to move the meeting to the next day. Later you will think about what to do with that. It is better than not to come for a meeting at all or be too late.
What to do if you found a long free space without any meeting in your schedule? It might be a good chance to fix yourself and your schedule. Find some time to write down the results of previous meetings. Check messages, emails, missed calls. Have a snack if you haven’t yet had time to eat lunch. Swing by the booths of other companies which you haven’t been able to schedule meetings with.

Parties and networking

A conference is not only about negotiations and business meetings. Oftentimes, organizers have the informal part that starts after the formal one ends. It might be a 1-hour drink reception, bar crawl, or a big party with rock stars.
You need to be there at any rate. Such afterparty is a good place for networking. Here you can communicate with the same people but more closely and in the informal way. Sometimes deals are made here.
A story from our experience. At one of such informal events I met with a representative of the company, who I haven’t met before. I didn’t know his name. We talked about things not related to business. Occasionally my name on the badge arrested his attention. He stopped talking, grasped his phone, started to look for something, and then showed the screen to me. It was the email from me. I tried to contact him a few times (we wanted to integrate our billing system with them) but I didn’t know it was him! Before that meeting he hasn’t replied to my emails. He apologized, we had a laugh, and I took a promise that he will reply to me after the conference. And he did! Would it be possible if we haven’t met at that event? I don’t think so.
Use any opportunity for informal communication to find such contacts and develop your business. I recommend to read the book “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi. It contains a lot of good recommendations.
On the whole, this is how the typical day of the typical conference looks like. If the conference goes for more than one day, every other day would be identical.
I would like to finish this article with a couple of recommendations that also might come handy.
Do you need to attend speeches and lectures? You might but choose them selectively. Most of speakers want to sell something to you disguising it under an interesting topic and big name. We look through the list of speakers, mark those who are interesting to us, and book place for them in our schedule. Positions of such bookings are always flimsy: if we should have a meeting at the same time, we always ditch visit of the speech. Normally, we attend not more than one speech per the conference day. It is better to attend one but the most interesting speech than dissipate your attention among a few boring ones.
Is there any sense to meet with people outside the conference walls? Yes, there is. Not all companies will be at the event, not all of the attendees will find time for you at the conference.
As I have mentioned in the first part, we always have a couple free days before and after the business conference. You can meet with people in a cafeteria, bar, or any place that your colleague finds best. It happens that there is not enough time at the conference and you would like to continue negotiations outside the event.
Resume

I can tell much more but the article format doesn’t allow to tell everything. Write in comments whether the article was useful or if conferences in your business area are different. In the last part, I will tell about what you need to do after the conference.

Pavel Sirovatskiy

Head of bizdev