I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m writing “sorry guys I haven’t been that active but…” every time I open a new post. My next year’s resolution is totally going to be “being more consistent with the blog”.
[Not saying sorry but] I have been away, far away from home, very busy at international conferences in the last months. As you read some time ago I went to the US, to Philly, for NAFSA, and just last week to Geneva, for EAIE. Basically, the two biggest conferences for higher education in the world.
So I started thinking that, at my first conferences two years ago, I had absolutely no idea of how to face them, how to prepare, what to expect. Right now I finally feel pretty comfortable in a 50’000 m2 hall filled with thousands of people.
I want to help: let me please share the knowledge with those of you who are just diving into such an overwhelming job task!
Little note: when I write “conference” I actually mean something wider than just a conference. It could mean a trade show, an expo, a conference and much more. What I have in mind is something like this:
10 GREAT TIPS TO HANDLE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCES AT BEST
1. Wear comfortable shoes
It might look like you are going to be in an indoor hall. What is actually going to happen is that you will be walking for hours from booth to booth, and then, as it often happens to me, straight to the “reception” (read: party) part of the day. If you have sore feet all the time, and from the very first day, you are not going to be able to enjoy yourself, or even do your job properly. The same applies too if you plan to stay in your booth all the time (see tip nr 4: bad idea). You are going to stand up for hours, even the most comfortable shoes are going to become a nightmare.
2. Have backup shoes for emergency times
And then there’s girls like me, who can’t say no to high heels. In this case my solution is to bring two pairs of shoes. When I leave from the hotel, I have my sneakers on and my high heels in the conference tote bag. Then I head straight to the expo toilets, change my shoes, take a last glance in the mirror for any make-up mistakes and then head to the booth. I do the opposite when the expo time is up for the day.
3. Know how to drink (and when to stop)
It might (will) happen that you will drink a lot of wine and other similar tasty goods. For example, at the last conference I have been at, every other booth had their special national drink to offer visitors, starting from 2 pm. The day might (will) continue like this until the “reception” (party) part of the day. Business means drinking, so if you don’t want to screw up business, DON’T SCREW UP DRINKING. Know your limit, you have probably learned where yours is during your studies, and keep the alcohol levels under it. Having a fun time is necessary, but remember that you want to look decent, and to avoid a hangover the next day at the conference.
4. Don’t stay in your booth
At these events, you are surrounded by hundreds, sometimes thousands of like-minded people. Moreover, all these people are there BECAUSE they want to mingle, which is something they don’t get to do in their office. Why do you want to look like a tiger in a cage? Go out there and meet people! There are so many opportunities you haven’t discovered yet among those participants…
5. Talk to everybody
Especially if you have very specific goals, for example you are a salesperson. Of course you should give priority to the people who will actually bring you business, that’s why you’re there. However, don’t let work goals limit yourself. You don’t know what is going to happen in the future. People that might seem pointless to talk to could turn out to be amazing partners, could introduce you to someone incredibly interesting, or just be exceptional human beings.
6. Take your business cards everywhere with you, even in the evening
At conferences it is very common that people speak a different language than yours, or maybe the place is just too crowded to be properly heard. Giving and taking each other’s business cards is a great way to get people’s names and, most importantly, to be able to keep in touch after the conference is over.
Extra tip: write the outcome and requests of the meeting with that person on the business card you just received. Some cards even have a special “notes” section. Mine does, on the back:
7. Jokes and smiles are great!
Who wants to be serious all the time? After hours and hours talking the same talk, you just crave for a little humanity coming out of your interlocutor. That’s what makes jokes and smiles particularly effective at conferences. You will also let go some of the tension coming from such a big event and people will put you in their minds in the “happy person” drawer.
8. Wear smart but comfy clothes
Normally conferences dress code is “business casual”. Great way to put it: don’t overdress, because it’s not a wedding nor a gala. Don’t underdress, because, as I was taught some years ago, you want to always look better than your prospective client, so that they will want to “join your team” and do business with you. You know, the usual “cool kids” situation. What I normally do is wear a very simple dress, like a little black dress, with a simple jacket. Very often, if I am feeling too elegant, I leave the jacket at the booth. If I am wearing a super nice jacket then I wear jeans to turn the “smartness” down a notch. Bottom line is: play smart with style.
9. Don’t bring a purse, bring a backpack
Do you really need a purse at a conference? Are you going shopping or something? A purse really gives the wrong idea about your intentions, plus it doesn’t fit much stuff inside. A professional smart backpack is a lot bigger and looks more professional and functional. Especially if you carry your laptop around everywhere like I do.
10. Prepare for chitchat, especially about topics that you don’t know about
Believe me, it will happen that you really want to talk to someone, but you just don’t know how to break the ice. That’s happened to me many times, as I feel I am an “outgoing introvert”. So what I did to help myself out is writing a list of topics (or even questions) that you know people are going to be responsive to. Some of them are: “How is the conference going today?”, “What is your main goal at this event?”, “What is the focus with your business right now?”. If you want to go easy (and that’s the approach I recommend) ask about last night’s party, about their city, tell them how nice their booth is (only if you really think so)! Being a girl and being surrounded mostly by men, I also had to learn a little bit about football and more “manly” topics so that I could make jokes with them. Any topic counts as long as your interlocutor’s eyes light up.