There is infinite value to a business conference — value in terms of relationships built and in terms of deal flow. The two obviously go hand in hand, which is why our business development team at Saratoga Investment Corporation is so active on the conference front. Between myself, Marissa Mann and Mark Weaver, we attend about 100 a year, 30 to 40 of which I do myself or in tandem with one of them. That means one of us is pretty much always hustling through an airport.
The idea, of course, is to get all you can from these gatherings. And to do that, there are several things to keep in mind:
Have a plan: I mentioned in a previous blog post all the things you should pack for a business conference — everything from a phone charger to business cards to a thumb drive containing whatever presentation you might be giving (if you are doing so). But your planning should go way beyond that. You should be sure to get your hands on the attendee list ASAP, so that you can map out your networking opportunities — just feed that information through your CRM and identify which groups should be a priority. I also use scheduling software called Calendly, which allows me to coordinate my schedule with those of the people I hope to meet with.
Immerse yourself: Participate in the conference, as opposed to just being an attendee. Give a presentation. Get yourself on a panel for one of the breakout sessions. I think those who run these events really appreciate thought leadership, because while the networking aspect of these things is important, there’s always the hope that the content will be a value-add and make us better originators.
Understand that the conference isn’t just about the conference itself: It’s also about the cocktail hours and the dinners and the golf outings. I’ve always found that more basic blocking and tackling gets done in 20-minute meetings where it’s like, ‘OK, now I know what your firm does, now you know what my firm does, let’s try and make a deal.’ But the relationship-building occurs at the dinners and on the golf course, because we’re all human. Also — I’ve found I can learn more about a person, what he or she is really like, during those unguarded moments on the golf course. If someone is throwing a temper tantrum after every missed putt, that’s probably not someone with whom I want to build a relationship. I mean, life’s too short, right?
Do the follow-up work: What you do after the conference matters as much as what you might have done during it. That means sending thank-you notes, follow-up proposals, etc. Whenever I have a meeting at a conference, I leave it with action items. It’s not just, ‘Hey, it was good to meet you.’ It’s like, ‘OK, I’ll send you this deal or I’ll introduce you to this executive.’ … ‘I’ll do X, Y and Z.’ The follow-ups really create the relationships. … It’s that give-to-get mentality. It’s also important to input your learnings from these meetings into your CRM, so that the information is better institutionalized within the firm. That’s how these things can have lasting impact.