Saturday, April 21, 2007

How to Attend A Conference (revised)

I've attended a few conferences and professional get-togethers in the last few years. Here are a few tips as you prepare for various professional conferences.

Before the Event:

Take care of your hotel and transportation needs. Do this well in advance. Don't wait until the last minute. Most hotels have a special rate for the conference, but this block of rooms will not be available too far in advance. Very often, when the official conference registration starts, that's when the special rates start.

Similarly, hotels normally close off the special rate 30 days before the event. So, don't wait too long.

Nearby hotels are sometimes a better deal anyway. Go to,, or and look for a deal. This is much easier in bigger cities. You can get unbelievable deals near large airports. At an "airport hotel" the hotels are all very close. Got to priceline and enter three stars and a ridiculously low price like $60. You'll be amazed.

Also, just try the hotel site directly. If you have a AAA card, enter that.

I generally book hotel rooms and airfare at the same time. If you need or want a rental car, this is also a good time to make arrangements for that.

Final note on prepping for the event: Don't blame the event organizers if you don't have a room or didn't think about airfares until the day you have to leave. Organizers are responsible for creating a forum for advertising where, when, and whether you need a secret code to get a discount. After that, you need to take responsibility for your own details.

Attending the Event:

1. Don't attack the first Microsoft employee you see.
I don't know what it is with people. The first time they meet a Microsoft employee, they dump their latest problem or pet peeve on the poor soul.

MS: "Hi. I'm Microsoft Employee X. I'm in charge of choosing the T-Shirts for major SMS&P Mid-Martket vendor relations luncheons in the Northeast."

Schmo: "WELL! Let me give you a message to send back to Redmond: Licensing Sucks! I bought a license once. What a hassle. I had to register online and enter a bunch of numbers and letters . . . Blah blah blah . . . worst experience of my life . . . and one more thing . . . and if that's not enough . . .."

Leave these poor people alone! The absolute best thing you can do at a conference is NOT make an ass of yourself. Introduce yourself. Tell a funny story, hope they remember your name, and be a person they will seek out when they recognize you in the hallway tomorrow -- not avoid you like the plague.

At the MS Worldwide Partner Conference in 2006, I had an interesting experience. John Endter, from Nevada, and I sat with some partners from the MidWest and two Microsoft Folks for lunch one day. As we were doing "hellos" someone mentioned kids. I had a 14 year old. Someone had a 13 year old. 11 and 8. Newborn. Basically, we talked "kids" for half an hour. When one of the MS folks got up to leave, she said "This has been a real pleasure. We didn't get asked one single technical question."

These are human beings, after all. Be pleasant to them. Pick your battles. And don't pick a battle at a conference. If you have a legitimate issue, then in a few weeks you can email your new contacts. Don't dump the issue on them. Ask very politely if they know who deals with that sort of thing. Let them help you by guiding you to the right person.

Whatever you do, don't carpet-bomb every poor blue badge with some complaint they can't do anything about at the conference.

2. Make sure you have business cards. Take a hundred and don't act as if they cost a fortune. or will sell you a hundred really great, professional cards for almost nothing. 2000 cards is only $49 -- unless they're on sale or you're a frequent shopper. I generally pay about $20 for 1000 cards. They're cheaper than scratch paper. They're cheaper than laser-perf cards (and people won't think you're homeless).

It's sad that anyone has to harp on this issue. Even IF it cost you $50 to hand out business cards for the weekend, just do it. Friends and colleagues and opportunities abound.

3. Go a day early and stay until the end.
Going early is sometimes iffy. But at the major events (e.g., SMBNations east, west, Europe) it's a no-brainer.

First, there are usually some great programs going on. Free seminars. For-pay seminars you can't get anywhere else. People meeting and gathering and talking about the business you're in. Many times I've met someone "the day before" who was only there for the pre-show and wasn't doing the "real show." And if I hadn't gone a day early I would have totally missed out.

Staying til the end. I went to a professional basketball game once (my daughter was in the half-time show). For those of you who don't know, basketball is a game in which the teams take turns running down the court and making points. After five hours of this mindless activity, a buzzer goes off and whoever has the ball last wins. It doesn't matter whether the game is lopsided at half time. It's always a 1- or 2-point game at the end.

And yet people leave early. Why? There's literally one second of the game that matters. These people sit through hours of mind-numbing activity and miss the one second that matters.

Leaving a conference early is worse. Good things happen until the bitter end. After all, if you paid $500 for a conference, why leave at the $400 mark? The final-evening get-togethers are some of the best. This is especially true if you need the attention of a speaker. After the pressure's off and the lights are out, you can finally get some attention.

4. Work to find an agenda and search for "gems." Where you can't find gems,
- Get yourself invited to a focus group
- Make arrangements to do something with someone you want to connect with.
- (In other words, don't waste your idle time being idle. At least meet up with someone and spend your time talking business or pleasure with someone you've met.)

Some conferences post their agenda well in advance, even if it's a work in progress. This is good for you. Read the Bio's. Is this someone you want to connect with? Is it someone you've met online or exchanged off-group email comments with? Networking networking networking.

If you don't connect with people, then you're in a room with 800 (SMB Nation) or 8000 (WWPC) strangers. If you DO connect, then you're in a big "user group" with a lot of cool people you've touched online and finally get to meet.

Sometimes, even at the WWPC, the content can be mediocre. But the SMB community is always spectacular! It's really like a user group filled with people who really wanted to work on their businesses.

After the Event:
My good friend Vlad has some wonderful after-the-conference tips. See

The first posting of this article was a bit timebound (e.g., references to "this year" and "last year"). It is still available here:

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