Should you go to one of those expensive business conferences abroad? If you have the winning strategy, definitely
From the beginning of my career in business, networking has been one of my favourite strategies to meet fascinating people and role models as well as new clients. Networking happens naturally at events where business people gather, like business conferences. I have been to a plethora of conferences as an attendee, as a speaker and as an MC.
Trade shows, trade missions and business conferences are a wonderful (if somewhat intense) way to grow your business or expand your horizons in your job. But you have to have a specific strategy. Mine is three-pronged:
- understand exactly why you’re going,
- make the most of the event
- and follow up.
Not enough time or money? You can – and should –
I often hear people wondering whether business conferences are worth it. Many doubt it, so they never go, and see it as a frivolous waste of time and money.
Unfortunately you are robbing your career and your business of vital “fresh air” by not going.
By getting out of your normal place of work, you step into a different headspace, one where you can work on your professional goals instead of only reacting to requests or emergencies. Regularly thinking about your strategy in business, and about your personal brand in general, is essential or complacency will set in. (Read more about enhancing your personal brand by asking yourself these 6 questions, by taking these 9 action steps and by taking these three litmus tests)
A huge barrier that people use to self-disqualify, is the usual two-headed monster: no time, no money.
Would your business really collapse if you took the day to work on it, rather than only in it? Would your boss be averse to the idea of you updating yourself on industry developments, networking and generating new ideas a couple of times a year, if the event is a good fit? Very probably the answer is no, and no.
The other head of the monster, no money, might be more easily tackled than you think. I never tire of repeating this: there is so much help available for corporations and SMEs, if only we will ask for it.
Many enterprise agencies will have financial help available in the form of trade shows or conference grants, covering entry fees, transport and accommodation. Before you rule out the idea of attending a conference on another continent, make sure you’re not overlooking some funding opportunity.
As a case in point, I was MC at a “Trading In Ireland” conference in Bristol. At that conference UKTI announced that it would cover transport and accommodation for attendees who wanted to go to CorkMEET, the largest of the business conferences of the Gathering in Ireland. My own business benefited from a similar grant when Enterprise Ireland provided half of my expenses to travel to an industry-specific convention in Orlando.
Such funds are well employed since going to a conference can help a business grow and will ultimately contribute to the wider economy: a growing business means more revenue through more sales, and subsequently more tax intake.
So you are at the conference – now what?
I can’t emphasize enough how important, vital, trade missions and business conferences have been in the growth of my business. The main aim of the Bristol UKTI conference was to encourage people to set up trade links with Ireland, which is promising both as a market and trade partner.
Now of course several speakers spoke about the good, and improving, macroeconomic picture in Ireland. This is always a good start, but when you are yourself in the position of exporting to a country and visiting that country in the hope of striking up strategic alliances, you also need to have some practical information when you find yourself on that foreign tarmac.
In my experience of starting off in the UK, US, Malta and other countries, you need to meet as many people as are willing to meet you – begin with agencies like Enterprise Europe Network, inward foreign direct investment organizations (e.g. MIDAS in Manchester or ConnectIreland in Ireland), business hubs (Chambers of Commerce or Enterprise Ireland), business networks (e.g. IIBN) and the Embassies.
They are spectacularly networked and their mission, sometimes their sole mission, is to make business links easier: they are on your side.
Any agency whose mission is to make trade easier is your first port of call.
You will benefit from their hefty address book, contacts and generous introductions. This is another reason I recommend attending business events and conferences: you can build your foreign trip around them for maximum effectiveness. Make sure to plan as many meetings as you can either side of the event.
It’s also crucial to know exactly what you want to achieve during the conference. “Listening to the speakers” is a worthwhile goal, but a very limited one. Your work isn’t done when the last speaker has stepped off the podium. In fact, that’s when it starts.
Why are you going? To touch base with existing clients? To find out more about a specific industry contact you’d like to approach? To practice your networking skills? These are all valid reasons to attend. Bear in mind, though, that it’s unlikely you will come home clutching to your heart thousands of pounds’ worth of contracts. Business conferences will lay the groundwork of future expansion.
On the first trip, plan the next trip
Indeed, the best way to approach any business event, and especially one that is held abroad, is to see it rather as the start of something bigger. When you fly out, your main goal is to set up your next trip: who will you meet the second time you go, what will be your objectives on that second trip? From there, you can reverse engineer your first. Of course, not everything can be planned to the minute and you have to be open (both your mind and your diary) to opportunities. But knowing the general direction you want things to take is paramount.
And then the hurdle at which a lot of people unfortunately fall is following up. This is absolutely essential if you want the contacts you made at the conference to bear fruit.
I actually block off half a day or a whole day when I come home from a business conference to follow up with leads, prospects, potential joint venture partners, people who could help with marketing my business to their network and also of course anybody I got on with particularly well.
I’m always mindful of what I can offer them in return. We might meet for a coffee, I could tell them about an event that would be worthwhile for them to attend, introduce them to some of my contacts, etc. I put everything into a spreadsheet and regularly update to measure the impact of that session.
Business conferences and events require a lot of work and energy but they are a great use of your time if you can make sure to use that time properly: some of my biggest contracts have come from these kinds of events and with exactly this process.
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