Friday, March 01, 2013

How to handle an expo

     If you read my previous post, you know that my Training Magazine conference experience was stellar. I've already touched on major points concerning how to present yourself at a conference, and the importance of awareness. However, one of the biggest mazes to navigate when attending a professional conference is the expo hall. The best explanation I can offer of the expo is that it is a giant room full of 10'x10' booths that are manned by people who are incredibly excited about their company and products. The sheer size of the expo can be daunting, and then huge banners and peppy people in polo shirts are thrown into the mix, and it is the perfect recipe for a panic attack. Thankfully, however, I deconstructed the entire expo concept with Trish Uhl and figured out that there is a method to all of the madness. Now it my turn to impart my limited, but helpful, wisdom to you on this confusing matter.

     One of the things I learned prior to my expo exploration is that I needed to have a game plan. I read through the booklet highlighting all of the individuals speaking at the conferences, and all of the companies hosting booths in the expo hall. There are blurbs about each organization - what the company's focus is, who is representing the company in the booth, and the products offered. I sat like a loser on a bench outside the expo hall for an hour and half before it opened reading the pamphlet and decided which booths I should visit. Yes, I looked lame, but at least I had a better idea of what I was going to do once the hall doors swung open and sucked me in. Plus, by looking at every vendor on paper, I was able to know which companies my boss already had relationships with, which ones we were interested in knowing, and who had products that could be helpful to us. 

     When I walked into the expo hall, I was immediately overwhelmed, even after my preparation. I still had no idea where to start. And on top of everything, corporate representatives were staring expectantly at me, which only added to the pressure I was under. Thankfully, on day one, I was able to follow some new friends through the expo and learn the ropes while following the group, instead of being forced to blaze the trail myself. One of the things that I discovered was the existence of electronic scavenger hunts within the expo hall. With the mobile app SCVNGR, I was able to visit specified vendors and ask highlighted questions in hopes of discovering the answers so I could earn points in the game. While it seemed silly at first, it proved invaluable. By taking part in the game, I was able to add even more structure to my expo wandering. When going to an expo, check and see if there are any of these opportunities. If there are, take advantage of them. 

     On the flip side of things, if you are going to be a booth representative, there are some things that you should know before jumping in for the first time. The person responsible for putting the booth together should make sure that those in the booths are trained on what the intended outcome is to be, as well as what is appropriate for dress and decorum. It seems obvious, but if you are being tasked with this job and don't have much structure, you need to ask your superior. It's better to have too much clarification than not enough. If anything, just be sure that you manage the expectations of how you are supposed to drive people to the booth, the intake process is, and what the follow-up process will be after the expo. You should also know that the goal of the booth is NOT to close business details, but rather to generate business leads. This affects the way you will speak to booth visitors. Ultimately, you want to be engaging, but not pushy. You aren't a used car salesman trying to sell 1996 Dodge Dynasty to a grandma. Rather, you are a peer trying to help a colleague out by providing a potential business solution to a problem they have. Ask questions of your booth visitors, instead of spewing information. By interacting with the visitors this way, you can draw the person out and look for a chance to hep them, even if it isn't with your company. This may seem counterproductive, but if you are able to be useful and help solve their problems, you'll also be memorable. Plus, whether you can help them this time around or not, you still generated a lead for your group. When working with others in your booth, be sure to to be aware of the interactions of those around you, and help manage the conversations. At the end of the day, driving people to the booths is about visibility - people love complimentary offerings (cookies and small candies are especially popular) and no one wants to miss a party. If a booth seems fun, people will congregate to be sure that they aren't missing out on something. 

I'm looking forward to my next chance to expo-lore, and here's to hoping you are now, as well!

~Katelind Hays 

Training Magazine Conference Experience

     Last week, I became an official professional grown-up person and embarked on my first business trip. The Training Magazine conference held in Orlando wound up being a fantastic opportunity, and one that I am seriously grateful to have had the chance to experience. Prior to my departure, though, I'll admit I was incredibly nervous. Thoughts like - What counts as business casual attire? How would I know what to do? Who would I talk to? - swirled through my head. Thankfully, my boss, Trish Uhl, is beyond fabulous and helped me every step of the way. However, I know that there are plenty of baby minions who aren't blessed enough to have such guidance and support. That's why I'm here: to review my experience and offer some insight for those of you in the "completely lost and totally unguided" category.

     My only basis for comparison for this upcoming adventure was my experience with sorority rush in college. It sounds bananas, and I didn't want to admit it out-loud to my seasoned veteran of a mentor. I could hear it now, "Well, I'm glad that you remember talking to a number of college-aged women over the course of five days about a variety of, um, pressing social matters, but this a conference where the most important people in the field come and interact with one another." So, obviously, I kept this connection to myself, even after it proved to be immensely helpful. Rush is all about putting on a good face, learning about other people, and representing the best your organization has to offer, just like I would be required to do at the Training Mag conference. So, for survival purposes, I applied my best rush tricks (engaging other people; talking enthusiastically about my organization; attempting to be charming) over the three days, and was pretty successful. That's the secret - just be warm and open and it'll go better than you could ever expect. 

     My two biggest fears before the conference were: how do I make sure I'm dressed appropriately? and what if I can't find anyone to talk to? I erred on the side of caution with the attire. Yes, I was told business casual included khaki pants and polo shirts (two things I don't own on principle), but I knew that a pair of tailored black slacks and a shell with a sweater is always a safe bet. I was right, and was reminded of this when I saw a girl my age wearing a crop top and platform flip flops into the conference. Don't be that girl. Go with the black pants. As for my fear of awkward loneliness, I was redeemed by the fact that every single person at the conference is there to talk to strangers, and not in the way our parents warned us about when we were kids on the playground. People are there to promote themselves, their companies, and their products, and they are surprisingly interested in hearing about yours. Thankfully, I discovered this an hour in to my conference journey, as I sat alone at a very large round table, picking at a Caesar Salad that came from a box. I watched as literally hundreds of people walked by, and I saw them seeing my solo situation. As I flashed back to middle school and many lunches spent alone, I realized this was much worse because I was wearing a lanyard that advertised not only my name, but my company. I was already a failure. And then, I wasn't. A wonderful woman named Mary came and sat with me and we chatted for thirty minutes. Because of her, I realized that people didn't see me as weird, but as an opening to meet someone new.

     The most important lesson that resonated throughout my trip was that of awareness. You will meet people who are incredibly powerful, people who are disinterested in the present moment, and those who are unexpectedly fun for such a potentially stuffy environment. The key is knowing you situation, the context of what's happening, and your companions. There are things you can say over dinner after the day is over with friends that you've made, that you should not mention in the middle of a keynote address to the random person next to you. Be aware of your presence and your word choices - they will impact the perception people have of you, and the impression they will take away. Know that social media may not be appropriate in all conference situations. Some companies may not allow their employees to indulge in an adult beverage after a long day. So, tweeting a picture of them holding a birthday cake martini could be harmful to their career beyond what you may initially think. What I'm saying is, step back and really consider the possible ramifications of that status update. Finally, with this awareness, know that it is essential to reach out to the people that you met along the way. Acknowledge your interactions, thank them for their time, and don't be afraid to send that follow-up email after the conference. The relationships you initiate are why you are there, and to allow them to drop off after that first contact is a shame. By following up, you can allow these professional relationships to grow, and I promise your boss will be thrilled with the new business possibilities.

Pack your bags, leave your crop tops and insecurities at home, and enjoy your trip!

~Katelind Hays