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Get the most out of trade shows

Although it may be hard to persuade your boss to let you go to a conference, some preliminary planning can help you argue your case.

Over the years, I have attended quite a few technology trade shows and conferences, and I've also approved requests from other people who've wanted to attend such events. Although it may be hard to persuade your boss to let you go to a conference, some preliminary planning can help you argue your case. And the effort is worth it -- trade shows and conferences can provide your career with a needed boost.

Homework pays off
If you're searching for an event to attend, start with the Internet. Use the Web to learn about hot industry topics and find out which conferences address them. One way to search is by looking at particular vendor Web sites for events those companies may be participating in.

Chris Gervais, a technologist for Boston-based Partners HealthCare Inc., says that planning is the key to success. "I look ahead one or two quarters at the conference schedules of some likely targets," said Gervais, who's fortunate to be able to attend many shows. "Gartner, Forrester, Open Group, IDG, O'Reilly and Burton are some of the conference organizers that are holding shows that I'll attend this year. Then I match up some early-stage or proposed initiatives at Partners that would benefit from the knowledge disseminated at the shows."

Find out from leading experts in your field about seminars or conferences that they'll be going to, either as presenters or regular attendees. You can also get recommendations from members of trade organizations and user groups.

Who's on the agenda? 
Once you've identified a trade show or conference you might like to attend, study the agenda. Examine the names and qualifications of the speakers and presenters. If you have questions about the event or are unsure whether it will cover the topics you're interested in, call or write the sponsor. Allan Braan, a regional technology manager who works in Chicago, agrees. "The more qualified the presenters are, the higher the quality of the event."

Attend shows that draw crowds
Consider how well attended the show or conference is. As a general rule, one of the benefits of these events is the opportunity they afford to network with other attendees -- so if the particular show you're considering isn't well attended, you may want to find another. Suni Brabhu, an IT manager who oversees 20 system administrators at a company with regional headquarters in Orlando, Fla., agrees. "Other attendees [are] available to answer questions, [and] they actually help solve current problems by providing expert knowledge and advice," he said. "You can also get referrals to others who can help solve real problems you are having."

List your objectives
Develop a list of questions that you hope to get answered. This is also one of the best ways to make your case to upper management for why you should attend.

As you're creating your list, review the agenda. Select sessions to attend based on the questions you would like answered. If the event will include vendors, review the list of vendors and find out where they will be located. This is particularly important at larger events, to ensure that you'll be able to see those vendors most likely to know the answers to your questions. If there is time remaining, you can visit other vendors, too.

Have you picked the right sessions? 
When you think you may have found the right sessions at a given trade show or conference, ask yourself the following questions about each of them:

  • Will this keep my skills up to date?
  • Will this help me be more effective in my job?
  • Will this potentially solve technology-related problems my company may be having?

If you can answer yes to all these, you've found the right sessions, and the right event.

Gervais, an IT architect, uses a similar methodology. "Getting exposure to the architectural issues that can affect business decisions is one of the key elements of a good show," he said. "If it's mostly vendor presentations, I'm generally not interested, but presentations about architecture and its translation into business value by addressing gaps, issues or opportunities is what I look for."

Once you're at the show, remember that there are no tried-and-true rules for exactly how you should be spending your time, other than this one: Remember why you are there. If the event takes place in a city away from home, the city and its sights may be a distraction. Remember that the goal should be to come away with all of your questions answered.

Finally, when you're on the plane headed home, re-evaluate your experience at the conference and determine whether it was worth the time you spent there. If you came away with the contacts and answers you needed, put that information to good use. Then start thinking about what you'll get out of the next show.

More information links: 

>> Is it possible to meet continuing education requirements at trade shows or conferences? What trends do you see in the future for trade shows or conferences?

>> 2002: The year of the tanking trade show

>> Best Web Links on conferences

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