Barely a week passes in Europe without a conference, expo, trade show, summit or talk. There are more than a few people who like, professional Hackathon competitors, spend a good part of each calendar year, carry a souvenir tote bag and wearing a lanyard at a convention centre.

Conferences are great, you can listen to world renowned speakers, connect with friends from around the world and meet potential clients, customers and investors. Especially when you’re in tech, the sheer number of events that you can attend in the hope of opening opportunities for your business is staggering. But not all events are created equal and it’s worth taking a careful look at what you can expect to get out of them as either an attendee or exhibitor.

Which conferences to choose?

It’s worth taking a look each year at the international conferences in your sector and writing up a tentative schedule in a shared calendar in your workplace. Take a look at the themes, topics, and speakers of last year and this year to get a feel for each event. Then take a look at what the rest of your schedule looks like during these times.  It can be tempting to focus on big conferences like CES, IFA, and Web Summit, but depending on your sector (IoT, SaaS, AI, Bitcoin, mobile apps etc)  you may get more benefit from smaller events and trade shows.

Side event, Slush, Helsinki Side event, Slush, Helsinki

It’s also worth paying careful attention to events scheduled in your home city. Even if you don’t attend all of them, it enables you to keep tabs on satellite events, visiting speakers, and free social events.

What are your priorities?

Consider prior to each event what your purpose is in attending. Is it to increase your companies profile, get users, build your database, network, seek investors or something else? What can you do to achieve these aims?

I see a lot of startup businesses who spend a lot of time attending events with other startup founders. Short of participating in a pitching competition to a bunch of VC’s (who might not even have a history or interest in investing in your vertical) the value can be questionable.

The Next Web surveyed a number of startups in 2014 and found that  66 percent of c-level founders attended up to 10 such conferences in the past two years.  Their aims were exposure, meaningful, biz-dev opportunities, investors, recruitment and connection to influencers.

Yet, 70 percent of them never achieved any of these goals. And while 100 percent of them exchanged business cards, and over 90 percent followed up on relevant leads, more than 60 percent said nothing substantial came out of it.

Exhibiting: Waste of money or revenue generating?

Exhibition booths, Web Summit, Lisbon Exhibition booths, Web Summit, Lisbon

Exhibiting at a conference can be eye wateringly expensive. At many European conferences like Web Summit, a stall will be barely a small part of a bench (see above), let alone a sit-down booth.  Then, of course, there are the costs of flights and accommodation for more than one staff member (you really need at least two for staffing a stall for the duration of a conference).

Part of your decision is to find out if there are any perks of being a stall holder. Maybe you get free tickets to the event and to attend exclusive events with VCs and speakers? Maybe you there’s a shared lunch room or space where useful conversations can happen with people that you might never have access to otherwise?

10 things to consider before you exhibit at a conference

  • What stage are you at? As a journalist, I often meet startups at conference booths and am interested in them, but discover that they are a year or so from bringing their product to market-usually too early for me to write about them.
  • What is your purpose in attending and how will you achieve it? Make a plan.
  • Are there people in the city you are visiting that it would be beneficial to meet? Reach out.
  • Do you have time? Standing up all day is exhausting and you’re taking not only time but mental space out of working on your product both before and after the event.
  • Is the booth places at a corner or at the middle? How visible will you be?

Exhibition booth, Mobile World Congress, Barcelona Exhibition booth, Mobile World Congress, Barcelona

  • Do you have anything to show besides apps and pamphlets?  If you are doing only web/app, it is more likely people will ignore your booth. I’ve seen drones, robots and VR equipment used to good effect to attract people’s attention.
  • What information will you be collecting from people you meet and for what purpose? Have a follow-up plan in mind for after the conference.
  • What will you give out? Business cards and flyers are typical and it’s always nice to see some more interesting ideas, like sweets, portable mobile phone chargers, flip flops and umbrellas. You can save pricier items behind the booth for more valuable people.
  • Use social media to reach out and make attendees aware of your stall. Taking photos and posting them on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram is a great and low cost promotional tool.

Tech Open Air, Berlin Tech Open Air, Berlin

Before you attend your next conference

Whether you are going as an attendee or an exhibitor, here are my top tips:

  • Read the program carefully and draw up a list of who you want to listen to, meet etc.
  • Contact them with plenty of advance notice (especially journalists!) Offer a range of contact details as conference wifi is notoriously bad.
  • Out of conference meetings are also completely fine, especially if you invite those you want to meet to join you for drinks or an event.
  • If you want quiet, private meeting spaces, book those in advance so you have somewhere to chat. No one likes to be pitched whilst they are lining up for the cash machine (I’ve heard this happening before).
  • Take time to walk through the exhibition floor, it’s a great way to get a feel for trends and interesting businesses.
  • Don’t underestimate side events, everyone likes a change to unwind and people are more likely to be open to a chat with a beverage in hand.
  • Give yourself plenty of breaks, drink at least as much water as booze and get a decent amount of sleep.
  • Be open to starting a conversation anytime and anywhere. Waiting for beer, in the line for the loo? Go for it. Wear a company t shirt or at least a badge. Brownie points if you talk about something besides your business!
  • Be active on social media during the conference. Make sure you tweet and use right #hashtags.

Last but definitely not the least, after the conference, follow-up with people you met at the conference. Some of these will be a proforma kind of email newsletter, others more personal, With these, offer to connect people with others that may be helpful, send them the link to the band you were talking about or the obscure recipe for chili chocolate milkshakes. Building connections can have lasting effects, sometimes in a very good way.