How To Make The Most Of A Small Business Convention

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Small Business Conventions

You’ve heard the cliché so many times it almost as annoying as a Ke$ha record: You have to work on your business, not just in your business.

You’ve also heard people tell you that you need a vacation. That, of course, is laughable.

But, you can almost combine the two in that magical combination that is the industry convention. It’s a chance for you to get away while at the same time improving the overall reach of your business. So, if you’re going to shell out the cash and take the time off, make the most of the experience before, during and after. How do you go about doing that? Well, that’s why we’re here to help.

Before The Convention

The first thing to do, obviously, is pick the convention. And, yes, location might play some factor as you may feel that Las Vegas would be a more valuable travel experience than, say, Pittsburgh.

But beyond that, you need to decide what kind of conference you need to go to. Sure, one directly related to your industry is obvious. But if you run a business like logistics, food service, personal services or insurance, that can possibly support other industries, their conventions can be just as valuable to drum up new contacts.

After you’ve figured out where you’re going, contact the convention organizers and find out who else will be there. Sometimes they will send you a guide ahead of time with a list of all the attendees and exhibitors, but if they don’t make every effort to get that information.

Once you have it, spend time planning out who you want to meet with and set up those meetings AHEAD OF TIME. People’s schedules fill up rapidly, and you want to make sure the most important people get face time with you.

Getting a Booth

The next big decision is whether or not to get a booth. If your company’s finances make this cost prohibitive, it’s not a must-do at a convention, and we’ll talk about what to do without a booth a little later.

But booths are an invaluable tool when you want to make a lot of new contacts quickly.

If you are bringing a booth, you need to stand out. You need to have a booth that people across the convention are talking about and want to visit, and you don’t need a guest appearance by The Incredible Hulk to do it.

First, make sure your booth is visually appealing. Not just a table in front of a curtain with a sign, but some eye catching blown up photos of what you do that will get people to look. Or a real-life version of your product. Or a model. Whatever it is, make sure it’s appropriate but will get people to engage.

Next, bring food. Pens are great and all, but every single exhibitor at your convention has branded pens, and the chances of those ending up on the night table of a Holiday Inn are a lot better than you think. Food, however, will get people to stop. It doesn’t have to be crazy; it can be something as small as miniature candy bars. But if you feed people they will, at the very least, stop to talk to you.

Carnival-style games with small prizes are another good way of getting people to engage with you. Shooting ping pong balls into fishbowls, a dart board, a prize wheel, or even a game of concentration with your logos and products all work. Then offer a small prize – like some of the food you’re giving out or a promotional item you’d have otherwise given away - to those who win.

Raffles are also great ways of amassing new contacts quickly as you can have convention goers drop their business cards in a bowl to win a prize and, voila! A bowl full of new contacts. No need to go overboard with the prize, either. Investing $300 in a 2-night stay at the local Hilton won’t get you much more information than a pair of computer speakers.

No matter what you do, the more you can get people to engage with your booth, even if it’s not business-related, the more likely they will be to give you business.

While You’re at the Convention

If you came to the convention booth-less, don’t worry. There’s still plenty for you to do. Walk the convention floor and visit every booth you can, getting contact information and leads from every person you think is relevant.

Be extra careful to make notes on every business card you get with the specific information you got from that person. That way you don’t end up with a giant stack of cards at the end of your trip and the only one you remember being the guy who printed his card on beef jerky.

Make sure to not only meet with people who could be potential customers, but also suppliers and those in support industries who might be able to make your job easier. Similarly, if there are people there with businesses you can support, make sure you let them know what you can do.

Don’t sleep on the Happy Hours either. Even if you don’t drink, this is where you can meet people in a more relaxed environment and establish the kinds of friendly relationships that help your business grow. Just, obviously, be careful how much you drink. Having the “post-convention hangover,” where you not only feel bad, but remember everything you said, is not a good way to go home.

After the Convention

If you have a booth, hire a company to set it up and tear it down. Not only does it save you time, it saves you having to walk through airports with 80 pounds of brochures and branded koozies, not to mention whatever bulky items you’re using to decorate your booth.

Booth or no booth, the absolute most important thing you can do after the convention is follow up. Remember those notes you took on business cards? Now is when you reach out to all those people and recall specific opportunities you discussed.

Don’t get discouraged if people don’t respond immediately since they’re following up too. But also don’t be afraid to hit them up a few times within a few weeks. This isn’t a date you’re asking for, persistence is actually a good thing.

Through all of that, if you present yourself and your business well, a trip to a convention is a goldmine of new business. With proper planning, effective networking and timely follow ups, you can use your “vacation” as a time to work on your business, while at the same time getting out of your routine and maybe, possibly, getting to relax.


Matt Meltzer

Matt Meltzer is a professor of business communication at the University of Miami. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and holds a bachelors degree in business administration from UM, as well as a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida.

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