When I attended my first travel conference—TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange)—last year, I had no idea what to expect. Luckily I had some online friends who showed me the ropes and made me more comfortable in the new setting. Up until that point, my blog had largely been a hobby. But after connecting with dozens of talented professionals, I realized it could be so much more.
Last month I attended the 2017 Women in Travel Summit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was blown away by all of the attendees’ willingness to collaborate and help one another, regardless of their area of expertise.
So in order to help others navigate what can seem like an intimidating experience, I’ve compiled six helpful tips for making the most of your first (or second or third) travel conference.
1. Make business cards & bring lots with you
It may seem like an unnecessary expense, especially if you’re just starting out, but business cards are a conference essential. One of the best parts of any travel conference is the connections you make. But those connections are useless if they don’t know how to get in touch with you after the conference is over.
Remember: business cards don’t have to break the bank. I designed my own and printed them using Moo.com‘s incredibly helpful templates. The process was fast, easy, and fit the limited budget I had for promoting my blog. (This isn’t a paid endorsement—Moo.com is really just that awesome).
I also recommend bringing a fine-tip Sharpie that you can use to jot notes on the cards of people you meet. Trust me, after a few days of handshaking and introductions you’ll be glad for the reminder of what you meant to follow up about.
2. Take advantage of pre- and post-conference experiences
If you’re able to fit it into your travel schedule, take advantage of some of the incredible pre- and post-conference opportunities most travel conferences offer. Oftentimes these trips and tours offer behind-the-scenes access you might not typically get as a regular tourist.
Before last year’s TBEX, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in beautiful Stillwater, Minnesota. More recently, the Women in Travel Summit hosted an early morning yoga class overlooking Lake Michigan at the incredible Milwaukee Art Museum. Both of these experiences granted me access I wouldn’t have otherwise had because of my participation in the conference. The best part? Most times these experiences are free and included as part of the conference experience.
3. Create a game plan
In essentially all aspects of my life I’m a Type A, over-planner. The way I approach conferences is no different. I like to familiarize myself with the schedule and know everything that’s going on before I ever arrive so I can evaluate my options. Now I know this won’t be everyone’s mentality, but creating at least a loose game plan will help you get everything you want out of your conference experience.
Are there sponsors you’re dying to meet? What about a speaker whose session sounds life changing? Or a craft brewery you can’t wait to sneak away and sample? Create a quick list of priorities and “must-do’s” before the conference to make sure you don’t overlook everything once you arrive.
4. Put on your “journalist” hat
I am not a natural networker. While I enjoy meeting new people and learning from their experiences, initial networking interactions has never been my strong suit. This is where my journalism training comes in handy.
When I find myself in a networking scenario where I’m feeling anxious or unsure, I put on my journalist hat. Instead of feeling self-conscious, I convince myself that I’m in work mode, interviewing this new person about their business, interests, or organization. Once we’re engrossed in conversation I’ve found I’m a much more confident networker.
5. Don’t be afraid to play hooky
Yes, you’re in town to attend a conference and learn from its speakers and your fellow attendees. But a big part of travel conferences is the travel itself. Be sure to find time to get out of the conference center and explore your host city. Take advantage of a free early morning time slot or a long lunch opening to get away and head out into the community to explore.
6. You’re home. Now what? Follow up!
Even after you’ve returned home, the days following a conference can be a bit overwhelming. With so many ideas for new content swirling and potential partnerships dangling in the ether, it can be hard to know where to begin. During the conference, I always keep a few pages of my current notebook open to scribble random ideas and to-do items. Once I’m home though I like to sit down and brain dump everything I can think of that requires action—immediate or otherwise—into one big list. From there it’s much easier to divide and conquer all of your new action items without missing something important.
I can’t reiterate this enough: Don’t forget to follow up. Even if there’s not an opportunity for you to work together right away, immediately reaching out to your new connections after a conference is crucial. By reaching out immediately, you establish that contact while your in-person interaction is still fresh in their mind. Then a few months down the line when you find a way to work together, you’re much more likely to be remembered.
While everyone’s best practices are a bit different, I typically try to follow up with new connections about a week after the conference. This gives both of you time to get to your next destination and get caught up on everything you missed during packed conference days before your message arrives in their inbox.
Have you attended any travel conferences? What are your tips for first-time attendees?