More than 27 million people attend conferences, trade shows, and conventions each year, and according to Meetings & Conventions magazine, the main reason they go is to network. It's no surprise then that in their brochures and on their websites, conference organizers take great pains to stress the fantastic networking opportunities the event provides.

But many would-be participants shy away from the conference experience all together because they're intimidated by the size of the event and their lack of networking skill. While those who do attend often don't take full advantage of what the event has to offer because they don’t know who to talk to or what to say. They wander the floor without a plan and meet people by default, missing key opportunities to make high-impact connections that could really make a difference in their business.

Networking successfully at a big event like a trade show or conference comes down to taking charge of your own experience by developing a cohesive plan, leveraging all available resources, and using your time wisely.

Here are 7 tips for maximizing networking efforts at your next big event:

1) Expand your search for non-obvious events. It may be a given that you need to make an appearance every year at the big trade show for your industry, but you also should broaden to other events your target market might attend. The more tightly defined the conference is, the chances that your competitors will be there too will be slim, and the more likely you’ll be able to differentiate yourself. You might choose a specific demographic niche, such as women or baby boomers, a professional niche, such as lawyers or doctors, or a special interest niche, such as sports or gourmet food.

One year when I wanted to fill my business consulting practice, I attended the annual conference for the American Cheese Society, which puts on a great multi-day event for cheese makers, retailers and distributors culminating in the Festival of Cheeses (if you like gourmet cheese, trust me, it’s a must do!). Not only did I have the best time learning how a whole new industry works, I also won a number of consulting projects from companies who had never met a business consultant before, but sure needed one.

To find trade shows or conferences in your industry or region, check out Trade Show Week ( or Trade Show News ( Also search online for associations in subject areas in which you have a personal or professional interest, then check their websites for information about their annual conference.

2) Clarify your goals. Think about what you hope to gain at the conference. Most people go for a vague combination of information and inspiration, but the more specifically you can articulate what you are seeking, the better you’ll be able to choose how to spend your time.

Last year, for example, I attended a conference on behalf of a client and laid out some very clear goals: “To find out what other companies are doing to reach Hispanic audiences and to identify potential partners to help my client enter that market.” Having such clarity of purpose helped me narrow down which breakout sessions to attend, which speakers to meet, how to introduce myself to them, what information to collect, and what questions to ask fellow participants.

Having clear goals makes it easier to hone in on making the right connections and engage in meaningful conversations. Otherwise, your networking efforts will be unfocused and important conversations will go nowhere.

3) Don’t sell. Unless you’re attending a true industry buying event where the purpose is to bring buyers and sellers together to place orders and get deals done, most conferences are set up more for information sharing and connecting. In those cases, people are rarely primed to buy. No one is walking around thinking, “I’m really in the mood to hire a consultant today” or “I’m not leaving until I spend millions on computer software.” So avoid turning your conversations into sales pitches, even if you know for certain that you can help.

Better to use the face-to-face time with other participants to establish a genuine connection by asking questions and understanding what their goals are, rather than talking about your company and your services. The purpose is to make an impression as a helpful resource, someone with whom they’d like to continue the conversation, not as a used car salesman ready to pounce.

4) Focus your discussions. Connections happen through conversation, but if you’re not prepared, most of your discussions will consist primarily of small talk. While some of this is necessary to get the ball rolling going, too much won’t advance your relationship very far. After building rapport with someone, you want to move quickly into more interesting territory. Ask questions about what brings him to the conference and what he’s looking for. People love to talk about themselves and find it easy to do so, so there won’t be much work for you but to listen. Then once it’s your turn, you can share your own objectives on what you hope to accomplish at the conference. Perhaps you’ll discover commonalities, ways you can help each other, or possibilities to make connections to other folks in your respective networks.

5) Get the right people to come to you. No matter how hard you work the event, you can’t possibly get to every person you need to meet. You can be much more efficient with your time, however, by attracting the right people to you. One way to do this is by asking a question in one of the presentation sessions. But don’t just ask the question. Use a quick five-second intro to preface it.

A gentleman in one of my workshops tried this during the Q&A session of a conference seminar. He raised his hand, stood up and said, “My name is Bob Smith with The Mergers & Acquisitions Company (note: name and company changed). We help privately-held businesses find an exit strategy, and my question is…” then he launched into his question. He said that after the session, five people approached him and he got business from three of them. Why? People knew what he did, his question was smart, and he sounded confident. He never would have found those specific people on his own in the room of 200, so he did something to make them seek him out. They self-selected, making his job a lot easier.

You can do the same thing. All it takes is some prep work before the conference to pick the keynote or breakout session most likely to attract your biggest target audience, develop your intro and question tied to the topic, and practice so you speak effortlessly and forcefully. Then stand back and watch what happens.

6) Ask organizers for help. Conference organizers want you to meet your objectives so you’ll come back next year and hopefully bring some colleagues as well, so don’t be shy about enlisting their help. It’s a simple two-step process. First, you have to find one of them. One place to look is the registration desk, or, even better, if the conference is big enough, the Speaker’s Lounge, where speakers check in and hang out before and after their talks. You can also see them in the back of the seminar room making sure everything is going smoothly. Often, they’ll be holding walkie talkies.

Second, you have to articulate your request. If there’s a specific person you’d like to meet, say, “I’d love to say hello to Mr. X, would you mind introducing me?” Or, if you’re looking for a specific type of person but don’t have a name, you might say, “I know there are some folks here from ABC Company, what’s the best way to find them?” or “I’m looking for someone in the PR field, is there someone you could introduce me to?”

7) Get out of the seminar room. As a speaker at conferences, I should be biased towards encouraging participants to stay in their seats at keynotes and breakout sessions and soak up as much information as possible. However, as a networker, I know that conversations during breaks and meals and in the hallway can be extremely valuable for building relationships that can help your business.

Be sure especially to take advantage of any unique networking opportunities offered at the conference. More and more, organizers are trying to facilitate connections among participants through structured networking events and other creative programs. A conference I attended a few years ago in Washington D.C. offered a dine-around event where participants were divided into small, pre-determined groups (to separate people from similar companies and professions) and set up for dinner at local restaurants. I shared wine and great food with industry leaders who are still part of my network today.

Although Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is just showing up, networking successfully at conferences, trade shows, and conventions takes a little more effort. By just showing up, you’ll probably still have a fine time, get useful information, and meet some nice people, but a little focus and upfront prep can make the experience more relevant for your needs, and result in a much bigger payoff for your time and investment.

© 2003-2007, Liz Lynch.

Author's Bio: 

Liz Lynch is a business networking expert whose products, programs and seminars help entrepreneurs and business professionals get clients, build their business, and reach their goals through networking. If you're ready to start networking smarter, get your free networking tips now at