Most people baulk at attending national meetings and conferences. Now, with COVID concerns, there’s an even bigger excuse to stay home. I get it. Traveling to events can be expensive and exhausting. Here are some tips for marketing during a pandemic. But then, my counter-culture marketing mind kicks in. There can be even bigger opportunities in spaces that are less crowded. Small business owners can benefit from events that provide face-to-face time now more than ever.
Over the years, I’ve seen the tremendous benefits showing up at these events can have on your business. You’d be surprised at how helpful those contacts you make can be in other areas of your life too. Face-to-face encounters are so much more powerful for building relationships.
What many fail to realize is immediate sales, deep insight from training sessions, or introductions to famous people isn’t the point. At least it’s not for those who work these encounters effectively. What really matters is the relationships you build for future needs. Going in with the right strategies works for national events as much as for local ones.
Find centers-of-influence at small business events
It’s usually pretty easy to spot who’s running the show, who the board members are, and which participants, speakers, & exhibitors are well-connected. Even if you go alone and know no one, you’ll quickly start getting introductions if you get friendly with these people.
Instead of trying to meet tons of people, spend some time early trying to identify the leaders. Shoving business cards in people’s hands isn’t the answer. Do you really think your name will be top-of-mind when everyone returns home with a huge stack? If you leave the event with half a dozen great contacts, you’ll be better for it than if you pitched to hundreds.
Discover what networks your new contacts have access to. Ask questions designed to determine how you can help them. Recognize, particularly if it’s an event planner or board member, they’ll be very busy with the logistical tasks of the program, so respect their time.
Often the best time to meet these people is prior to scheduled activities or during continental breakfasts that are usually a part of such events. Arrive at the beginning and plan on staying as people filter in and out.
Lunch is another opportunity. Sometimes seating is assigned, but if not, seek out a table that has a couple of people at it that you’d like to meet.
Most of the planners don’t attend the educational sessions, unless they’re speaking. Either consider choosing based on who’s presenting and attending, or skip a few and discover some of the players hanging out in the lobby or managing the sign in tables. Offer to help. It’s amazing how quickly you can make a friend when you’re willing to do some grunt work that fell through the cracks.
Become a respected small business contributor
At most national events, there’s discussion of future work and roles being doled out. This could involve a regional meeting, committee work, board slate support, advocacy activities or promotional tasks. Stepping forward and offering your time or expertise will not only make you memorable, but it will put and keep you in touch with industry or association leaders.
When you talk to people, show you’re interested in what they are doing and are willing to help with their success. Of course, you need to be impressed with their work-product, but if you can provide a referral, offer a contact, or agree to send along some resource material, you’ll stand out from everyone else trying to pitch their own stuff.
Dress right. This can make a huge difference at such events. You need to be comfortable, but usually it’s a bad idea to stand out too much, particularly if you’re sloppy or too casual. You can call ahead and ask what people will be wearing. Usually, you’ll get a business casual response – dig deeper to find out what that means.
If you have a lot of advance lead time, find out if they need speakers. Ask about planned presentation topics. If you can offer your expertise for programming needs, particularly if the event includes training, you’ll often get an invitation to apply. This is an outstanding way small business owners can benefit from events. Being introduced as a featured speaker gives you instant credibility. Of course, you have to earn it again once you step on stage. Your name and business will also be promoted on programming material at no cost to you.
These events are designed to be social too. If you’re all business talk people will be put off. Plus, you might as well enjoy the vacation, even if it’s a working one.
For introverts quiet time in a hotel room alone might be part of the routine to recharge. Extroverts head out to dinners and parties in the evenings. Whatever helps you relax after a long day to get ready to face the next with vigor is a smart choice.
Think long term to benefit from events
Ideally, you leave these events with new allies that will stay with you for decades. If you make the right impression with the players, those relationships will provide benefits you hadn’t initially imagined. It’s not just about selling, it’s about introductions, resources, influence, promotional opportunities, and access.
As with most things, the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) applies. Eighty percent of the people there probably won’t be good long-term supporters, but that other 20% can be incredible.
Remember, it’s not so much about what you can get today, giving is more important at this stage anyway, but what you do to build relationships for later needs. You don’t know what your circumstances will be five, ten, twenty years from now. I’ve been shocked at the kindness and connections people have provided decades later for things I never saw relevant at the time. Small business owners can benefit from events when they take the time to foster relationships, often with unexpected dividends. That’s sure been the case for me.