By Sue Shellenbarger
You’ve spent days wandering the cavernous halls of a convention center, trapped in windowless rooms, drinking too much coffee and talking yourself hoarse. Does anyone ever emerge from a conference as the organizers intended, feeling recharged with new ideas, contacts and energy?
New York City marketing executive Stefany Stanley does. Among conference organizers she is known as a savvy convention-goer, someone with a strategy for rising above the dreary rounds of networking and breakout sessions. Ms. Stanley says she has gained valuable contacts, ideas and insights from the 15 conferences she has attended in the past five years.
Avoiding time-wasting traps takes planning, self-discipline, skill—and for many, a lot of caffeine. The biggest mistake most conference attendees make is failing to plan ahead, set a personal agenda and report back to colleagues on their results, says David DuBois, president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, a Dallas trade group.
Ms. Stanley, 26, admits to some apprehension as she prepares for 21/2 days at Content Marketing World. This is a conference in Cleveland focused on using content such as blogs and videos to replace traditional advertising. Her employer, Sandra Arnold Inc., or SAI, a creator and producer of corporate events and exhibits, is spending $3,000 on her trip, including a $2,000 pass to the meeting. Ms. Stanley, SAI’s business development director, hopes to return with new digital-marketing ideas and relationships with potential clients and helpful contacts.
A record 70 million people will attend conferences in the U.S. and Canada this year, with attendance expected to peak next month, industry research shows. The experience can be overwhelming. Conferences usually last one to four days. Content Marketing World offers 80 breakout sessions, with time to attend only 11. It sprawls over 270,000 square feet of the Cleveland Convention Center. Sessions include “Breakthrough Moments in Content Marketing.” Eight networking sessions are scheduled to allow the 2,600 attendees time to meet.
Along with the usual speeches by celebrities and exhibits, Content Marketing World provides social activities such as “our own music festival” with a Beatles tribute band and “Shooters on the Water,” an after party starting at 10:30 p.m.
No matter what session conference attendees pick, they worry they’re missing a better one. The best networking may be in one session while the best speakers are elsewhere, Ms. Stanley says. She comes in with her schedule highlighted in neon yellow for “must attend” sessions and amber for “maybe.”
“You really have to be on your A game,” she says. “You’re networking and getting all that information, plus giving your pitch and telling people about your company. It’s exhausting.”
She works out to build energy, rising by 6 a.m. to lift weights and run 3 to 5 miles. On the treadmill, she mentally rehearses different versions of her opening pitch to suit different people. To help her resist the free candy and junk food that abound in most exhibit halls, she stuffs granola bars into her shoulder bag.
Ms. Stanley resists the temptation to befriend other new arrivals and travel with one group. “I have to stay focused on my goals, getting new ideas and new contacts,” she says.
She positions herself by the coffee pot for the first networking session; talking about the coffee can be a good icebreaker. She considers introducing herself to another attendee standing alone nearby, but she hesitates, and the opportunity is lost when another attendee approaches the man. Ms. Stanley tells herself. “You’re here to network. One, two, three, go!”
Meeting conference speakers, who tend to be high-level executives, is a key networking opportunity for Ms. Stanley in her search for corporate clients. She is nervous as she waits in line with a dozen others to introduce herself to Katrina Craigwell, global manager of digital marketing at General Electric Co., after Ms. Craigwell’s presentation on a successful digital-marketing campaign. Ms. Stanley plans to take Ms. Craigwell’s ideas, such as promoting GE research with videos on social media, back to her SAI team. She also hopes Ms. Craigwell will put her in touch with colleagues at GE who might be interested in SAI’s services.
Brazilian by birth, Ms. Stanley values Latin cultures’ emphasis on warmth and spontaneity. When her turn finally comes to speak with Ms. Craigwell, she says, “You were wonderful. I felt as if I knew you.” The executive responds with equal warmth and promptly emails Ms. Stanley’s contact information to a colleague.
Later, as she prepares to introduce herself to another speaker, Ms. Stanley gives herself a pep talk: “What’s the worst that can happen? He’ll say no. What’s so awful about that?” Her friendly approach sparks a conversation about how SAI might help his company, and they part with plans for another meeting. Ms. Stanley notes on each business card the follow-up steps she promised to take.
By late afternoon, her energy wanes. She downs her third coffee of the day. Hungry after having only a salad for lunch, she allows herself a bag of Doritos, then heads for the last breakout session of the day. Blocked at the door by a security guard and a sign, “Session Full,” Ms. Stanley talks her way in with a joke. The guard laughs and opens the door.
Ms. Stanley passes up an opening-night pub crawl. Networking with strangers over drinks “has never proven effective for me,” she says. The music festival on the second evening is unusual enough to lure her. She leaves after 45 minutes. “I prefer to go to bed early and be focused on the next day,” she says. Ms. Stanley once slept through a meeting because her cellphone died, she says.
She now arranges a wake-up call from her hotel, in addition to setting the alarm on her smartphone. At a breakout session on the last day, she finds a seat near the front, only to realize that she already knows the information being presented. Usually, she avoids sitting too close to the front so she can see who else is present, and also so she can slip out quietly if necessary. “I picked the wrong seat” this time, she says. On the last day, more than an hour before a closing keynote speech by actor Kevin Spacey, hundreds line up for seats. Ms. Stanley strides past them on her way to a panel discussion. “I’m not going to not network so I can be in the front row for Kevin Spacey,” she says. “You have to keep in mind your goal.”
Later, Ms. Stanley takes stock: She has reaped several good ideas and a grasp of emerging trends such as using journalistic techniques to attract customers on social media and the Web. She collected 20 business cards, initiated promising relationships with four potential clients, and made five “fair-to-good” new contacts. She isn’t done. Many people only took her card or gave her a colleague’s name. But she will follow up with them all.
Sue Shellenbarger is the creator and writer of the The Wall Street Journal's "Work & Family" column. The former chief of the Journal's Chicago news bureau, Ms. Shellenbarger started the column in 1991 to provide the nation's first regular coverage of the growing conflict between work and family and its implications for the workplace and society. Read more about Sue here.
This article was originally reprinted in HR West Magazine November 2014 issue by permission of Wall Street Journal, Copyright © 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. License number 3484300144322.
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