Let’s face it, conferences aren’t cheap. Hotels, flights, dinners… even a small 3 day show is quickly hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. When you factor in lost time for travel and preparation… You’re going to want to maximize the value of that commitment.
For this article, I am focusing on B2B conventions, where you are mostly interacting with other companies in your sphere of influence. Consumer-based conventions require different skills and strategies, but much of this will still be meaningful.
Go With a Plan
Before you even get started, ask yourself “What would a successful convention look like for me?” Are you trying to get your demo to a publisher? Are you looking to sign clients up to use a new product? Are you looking for products to sell? If you don’t have a clear answer to this, don’t even bother going.
When you do have a clear answer, research how you’re going to measure that success. Number of signups? Dollar value of contracts signed? Now look at the shows available and ask yourself if the people you need to reach these goals are there. Different shows have different audiences, and you want to be at the right shows. Talk to people who have been to those shows. Look at old brochures and websites. Make sure they have what you want before you even start planning. Remember: Not going is still an option at this point. If your research shows that you can’t make a valid business case for it, skip it.
If you are taking the time to go halfway around the world, don’t shortchange yourself. Get there early enough to deal with the jetlag. My trick is to get there a few days ahead, and make a mini-work-vacation out of it. Two nights of sleep will make you a new person, and buys you the time to schedule a few special visits with local companies in their offices before the show. If you plan in advance, you can usually manage at least one nice relaxed pre-show dinner with a local company, which is often more useful than the show itself.
For those with significant others… You’re paying for the hotel anyway. Having them come along and check out the city while you are conferencing it can be a great way to take some of the relationship-stress out of a travel-heavy lifestyle. Usually conferences are held on weekdays, so sticking around for a weekend after the show is a pretty easy sell for most companies, and buys you a really cheap mini-vacation.
If you are travelling far, it’s likely you’re flying through somewhere else to get to your conference. Most airlines allow cheap, or even free stopovers. On some airlines, adding a stopover in their hub city may even work out to a cheaper ticket – I’ve used this many times using Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong. If you have clients or partners in cities between you and the conference, you can often schedule a meeting there very cheaply, saving you travel and cost to go out there as a separate trip. Or, conversely, you can arrange to stop through a town you’d like to visit over the weekend on the way back – another way to score a cheap mini-vacation.
And don’t forget your miles! Use loyalty programs for airfare and hotel booking, and use the same credit card. Do a little research and figure out which airline group gets you to the shows you most frequently go to, and book through them every time. Over time, this will pay off.
Research and Promote
Your promotion efforts should start at least a month before the conference. Walk through your contact list and let them know you’ll be there. Post on social media. We even make themed images for Facebook for each conference: images get more attention in any social feed. Make sure to #hashtag the conference itself, for retweeting and promotion. This kind of blanket promotion is useful, but it’s only the start.
Your most effective promotion will be targeted, and will require some research. Take some time and look through old conference brochures. See who was there the last few years, or at similar conferences. Where are your competitors advertising and distributing? With a little bit of elbow grease, you can dig up a lot of names, and with only the most limited of LinkedIn skills, develop a lot of new contacts. Mail them directly to see if they are going to be there, and set up meetings. Protip: They don’t even have to be there. Most of them will give you a “Sorry, we’re not going to be at that show” message. No worries. “Sorry to hear you won’t be at the show, let’s set up a call the following week instead!” If their only reason for turning down the meeting was not being there… they just ran out of reasons to blow you off.
Different people have different scheduling methods. All of them share one major point: Start early. Schedules fill up fast, and you’re going to want to get the top people in your list locked down as soon as possible. If the conference has some kind of meeting system, register at least one person from your studio early – this gets you in the meeting system, and available for other people to look up as they join the conference.
My actual scheduling method is simple: I start from 10 A.M. and fill in meetings on the hour until all the event hours are full for all days from 10 to 4. Then I go back and fill the half hour periods following the meetings I am less excited about, reserving full hours for the critical meetings, so we have the time if I run over. I leave 4:30 and after open, because sooner or later you’ll need to schedule impromptu meetings, and those are the most likely times that people will still have available late in the show. Try very hard to not take “Let’s get together sometime at the show” as an answer. Put that down in a schedule, or it won’t happen.
A side note: If you are on a schedule, show up or die trying. Every minute of a convention is critical, and when you skip a meeting, you’re wasting some of the most valuable time of someone’s month. Aside from the fact that this is a douchey thing to do, it’s going to be remembered. There is a special place on my shit list for someone who schedules a 9 A.M. meeting with me and then blows it off. Most people aren’t given the opportunity to do that to me twice.
Get the Booth
For years I spent every show running back and forth across the show, wasting 5-10 minutes between each meeting not knowing where to go, looking for people, and missing god-knows-how-many meetings. Screw that noise. Every show has a “cheapest booth” option. It’s usually not too pricey, and for that you get comfy chairs and a table, a plug to make sure your laptop/phone are always powered, and a spot that everyone can find on the actual conference map. You’ll find every meeting is more relaxed, fewer meetings are missed, and you suddenly have 20% more time than you had before. As a side bonus, the chance of someone walking by, seeing you taking a meeting, and then knowing where to find you later is much higher. And that’s serendipitous power right there.
If you can’t get the booth (and you really should consider it), then next best is one single, memorable location that is close to the main show floor. Assume any coffeeshop, restaurant, bar, etc. near the show that you have not specifically reserved a space at will be full and unavailable. That being said, one company I knew called a bar next to a conference, and for a very small fee reserved a single table at the back of the bar for the entire show. Interesting move. It even came with free beer.
Note, you don’t have to go crazy decorating a booth at a B2B show. Nobody cares. A tablecloth with your logo, or a simple stand-up display poster of your games is more than enough. You’re going to be scheduling all of your meetings before the show anyway, so attracting people you don’t have meetings with is more likely counterproductive than helpful. I do find, however, that having an extra bunch of power plugs for the people I am meeting with to power their phones during my meetings does generate some positive vibes, as well as a couple boxes of Altoids or mints. Everyone wants mints at a conference.
First and foremost, make sure you have a working phone with power for the whole show. Bring extra cords. Bring power bricks. Do what it takes. If you are without a powered phone, you’re operating at a deep disadvantage. Assume the WiFi at a convention will be useless, and have data. If travelling overseas, get a calling plan with cheap overseas data, or invest in a dual-sim phone you can drop a spare prepaid data card in, and make it your first purchase when you arrive.
Make a slideshow. Keep it short, simple, and to the point. Use that in every meeting. Practice it before the show, and have it down. Put it on a tablet instead of a laptop, it’ll be lighter and the battery will last longer. If you are buying a new laptop, consider an ultralight 2-in-1 tablet/laptop for precisely this reason. Make a second version of it with a lot more text. When the show is over, this is your key followup material. But for the love of all that is holy, don’t be the guy who reads every slide out to someone in a meeting. People hate that guy.
Dress comfortable. You’re going to be on your feet all day, leave the heels at home. For the game industry, nobody takes anyone in a suit seriously. Dress casual, and leave the low cut tops, short skirts, muscle tees, etc. at home as well. Simple, classy, functional casual clothes will put the attention on you, and leave you comfortable enough to make it from a 9 A.M. breakfast to a midnight party without stopping, multiple days in a row. An extra sweater for cold conference rooms fits in any backpack, and will be a godsend.
You have absolutely no excuse to not have business cards at a conference. It’s rude and makes you look like an idiot. Even junior high kids in Japan have business cards. If you run out, Moo prints them in 24 hours and delivers to hotels. Absolute worst case, go to the hotel business center, print out a few pages on A4 paper and cut them out. Make sure you tuck 10 spares in your wallet in case you run out or lose the rest. If you really mess up and don’t have any cards, write your info out on your phone in a word doc or something, and have people take a picture of it. But… seriously, don’t be that guy.
The number one mistake people make for their health at a convention is getting dehydrated. If you’re in a place where tap water is safe, a simple water bottle is enough. Failing that a couple bottles of bottled water are a godsend. I usually bring a couple energy bars as well, for when I get too slammed to do a lunch, and need some energy. Forget the energy drinks – they have minimum value, and lead to big energy crashes later.
Most conferences record the lectures. Conference lecture videos are what I watch when I eat breakfast for a week or two after the show, and it’s a far superior method for information consumption. You can stop, rewatch, take notes, and if it sucks, you can opt out without having to be the guy who gets up in the middle of the lecture like a jerk. Most importantly, every hour you sit in a lecture is an hour you aren’t taking meetings. And you go to conferences for the meetings.
That’s not to say you should never hit up the lectures. For younger people who have fewer meetings to take, and fewer people they need to meet, showing up for lectures can be a useful way to spend time, especially if they are unrecorded. (And dammit, convention people, record your lectures!) Possibly the most valuable use of lectures is when someone you’re really interested in meeting is there speaking, then showing up and cornering them post-talk to ask intelligent questions and pass off a card can be a great way to make a connection. Even if you don’t have an immediate need to work with that person, getting in front of them, asking smart questions, and showing them that you are interested may serve you well later when looking for a mentor, or a job. Just make sure you’re not wasting their time, or annoying others with obvious pandering. If you are making an impression, make sure it’s a positive one.
In general, unless you are sure that most people want to know what you’re asking, don’t ask questions in the Q&A part of the lecture. Convention people are busy, and they want to get the info from a speaker and leave. Let them go. Don’t be that guy who wastes everyone’s time with deeply specific questions tailored to your specific needs in public Q&A sessions. Everyone hates that guy.
Never Eat Alone
Your top meetings at a conference are meals. People pay attention, stay longer, and are just generally easier to talk to over food. Schedule them early with your most important partners, starting with the dinner the day before the show starts. Plan enough time to get to and from these dinners, and make sure you make reservations well in advance at places that are easy to get to.
I have found breakfasts to be the secret, unheralded power meetings. Smart people are alert, and ready to do business in the mornings. Also, people rarely schedule breakfast meetings, so you’re much more likely to get on someone’s schedule there than at dinner, which tends to fill up fast, and often conflicts with speaker dinners, parties, and other events.
Sell Less. Listen More.
You’re going to be tempted to spend your time selling. Don’t. People don’t go to conventions to buy things. Nobody signs agreements at conventions. They go to conventions to meet people, exchange ideas, and learn who they should be talking to. You know how you get people to think you are worth talking to? You listen. You respond intelligently. You engage.
When you meet a new person, your goal is not to tell them about you. It’s to find out about them. The good news? That’s easy. They want to tell you about themselves. They came all this way to tell you about themselves. If you ask, they are going to tell you everything you want to know. They are giving you all of that information. Free. Take it. Ask questions. Don’t worry about telling them more than the basic details about you. You’re going to get the card, you’ll have the email address. You can come back to them later with the details of what you’re up to. If they are the right person, and you have something of value to offer, they’ll be more than happy to get that info from you later.
Party Like a Professional
If you’ve scheduled and planned properly, you’re going to be booked for 14+ hours a day. Humans aren’t meant to do that. If you get sick, all the hard work you did will be wasted. Schedule for your health. Make sure you are scheduling nice long meals to unwind. Go to bed at a decent hour. Stay hydrated. Buy hand sanitizer, and use it frequently. And schedule out a minimum of 8 hours of sleep, showering, and taking care of your basic human needs every day.
Every conference will have a bunch of big loud parties with free drinks, a dance floor, and thumping music. Screw those parties. They are worthless, and I wish conferences would stop having them. Nobody gets any business done there, and all they do is tire you out and make business hard to do. If you want to go to a dance club, you have all the time in the world to do that when you’re not paying thousands of dollars to be at a conference.
What you are looking for is invite-only parties, with small crowds, held at places with quieter music and real opportunities to actually meet people and talk. Don’t worry too much if they are the “right people” or who is throwing the party – focus on finding places where you can actually converse, and you’ll find value in the conversations.
How to find parties? Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and other social media groups. Most conferences will quickly develop a “social message party thread” and some of these even live in-between conferences. Sniff around to see if your friends are on – or better yet, start your own and grow it. Being the guy who knows where the good parties are is golden opportunity at a conference.
When you get to parties, behave like your mother told you to. Find the hosts of the party you are at, and thank them for the invite. Even if they are some ad agency you have never heard of. You would be amazed how few people actually take the time to thank the people who are buying all of the food and beer. Be the guy who does. It makes an impression. You’ll get on more invite lists like that. And it’s just good manners.
Most importantly, remember how I said the most important meetings of the show are breakfasts? Yeah, don’t show up for those hung over and useless. Drink moderately. If you don’t usually drink, don’t allow anyone to pressure/shame you into drinking. You’re not there to drink. You’re there to work. No matter how free the drinks are. You paid thousands to be there. A couple watered down mojitos aren’t worth it. If you want to have something in your hand, get a soda. If anyone gives you grief for not drinking, they suck. Ignore them.
Chris Natsuume of Boomzap
Christopher has been making games since 1994, including titles on PC, console, and mobile. He is currently the creative director and co-founder of Boomzap Entertainment, one of the top independent casual game development studios in the world. He is also the host of the People Make Things podcast.