Preparing for Industry Conferences: What to Do Before, During, and After the Event

While your success as a water lab manager relies primarily on your effectiveness as an in-house administrator of staff, supplies, and processes, it's also important to keep up on developments within the water testing sector at large and network with peers in other labs.

That's where industry conferences come in, such as the American Water Works Association's Water Quality Technology Conference and the Water Quality Association's Convention & Exposition. Conferences enable you to learn about developments in water testing, meet new colleagues, and catch up with those you know. And, just as importantly, they present a valuable opportunity to market your lab's services and successes.

It's crucial to approach conferences with a plan that maps out what you hope to accomplish, how you will manage your time while there, and what steps you will take afterward to capitalize on what you learned.

Before the Conference: Make a Plan of Action

As you're choosing a conference and planning how you want to approach it, think about what you wish to achieve when there, both for you and your lab. Is there a specific type of client you hope to target? Or, are you thinking of trying to build a new or larger network of suppliers?

Regardless of the target, make sure it's clear in your mind before you go. If you're taking members of your staff, assign them each a particular goal, whether it's a person to meet or a session to attend.

Once your goals are established, plan your day (or days) as thoroughly as possible. Take a look at the conference as a whole. Determine which sessions and events you're interested in, but also, if possible, find out who will be in attendance. Whom would you like to meet? If they're presenters, put their sessions on your agenda and make sure to sign up early, as spots may fill up quickly.

If you're especially interested in meeting someone, don't leave it to chance by lingering after a session. You may be able to email them in advance to introduce yourself and perhaps arrange a meeting. Be careful not to overbook yourself, however, as time at conferences tends to fly by.

At the Conference: Listen and Connect

There's bound to be a lot of information thrown at you, and you're not going to remember it all. Aim to take good notes, which you can better organize once you're back at the lab. At the very least, at the end of each session, write down three key takeaways and any follow-up questions you may have regarding the session topic.

Then, make a point to connect with speakers, especially the ones whom you were most impressed with. Some conferences have set Q&As for this sort of discussion, but not all. If you spot them during a break, open with what you thought of their panel and then ask any lingering questions you have. They are likely experts in the subject matter, so don't shy away from these conversations.

A conference's social events are one of the best ways to get to know your colleagues from around the industry. Take advantage of these more relaxed settings to enable longer, more substantive conversations. If your lab has a vendor table, you might feel tied to it, but make time to break free. Additionally, network with other vendors. While you may not be in the market for a new solution, it can be highly beneficial to learn what new tools and services are out there. Vendors are also a beacon of knowledge in terms of challenges and trends within the industry, so even a short conversation could greatly inform your strategy going forward.

After the Conference: Continue the Conversation

If you're proactive, you and your team will have exchanged a lot of business cards. Take some time to set aside the contacts whom you really think could help your lab. Then, do a little further research on each person and their company, and write down any personal information you may remember to reference in future conversations.

After a few days, make a point of writing a note or sending an email to the contacts you are most interested in developing connections with. The goal at this point is not to sell them services, but to simply begin to solidify the relationship. Start by either telling them you enjoyed meeting them or by sending along an article or information that might be of interest to them.

Then, conduct periodic checkups to develop the relationship. This step, of course, will vary depending on whether the contact you made is a potential new supplier, new client, or a colleague with whom you want to develop a working relationship. In the first two cases, you may want to discuss business specifics sooner rather than later. In the latter case, you may want to engage with them more gradually by reaching out to discuss some industry news.

Having a successful conference experience requires a strategy. You wouldn't think of managing your lab without a detailed plan that looks at least a year ahead—and probably even further out. Similarly, the key to getting your money's worth at a conference is to know upfront what you want to get out of it, and then exactly how you're going to go about getting it.

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Jeff Rowe
Writer and Editor

For the past 25 years, Jeff Rowe has worked as a writer and an editor for the nonfiction and professional markets, including researching, writing, and editing feature articles, blog posts, speeches, project reports, and magazine essays. He has published numerous articles and essays on developments in health care and health information technology, the home medical equipment market, natural resource and environmental issues, and food topics. He has also been editor and community manager for numerous industry-targeted websites, as well as author of a developing series of novels set in medieval Spain.