Ensuring High ROI on Conference Attendance

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Conferences, industry days, forums, and other face-to-face activities have long been corporate marketing plan staples in every industry. These events can create an environment that brings together prospects and existing customers, competitors, partners, and suppliers under one roof to network and make lasting impressions. When the number of in-person events dropped during the pandemic many companies significantly scaled back marketing efforts and spending to save costs elsewhere. After all, conference attendance can get expensive when adding the cost of admission, travel, lodging, meals, transportation, and time away from work to attend.

For many small businesses in the government contracting market, these events can be invaluable in the networking, brand awareness, lead generation, and customer interaction opportunities they can provide.  While it is incredibly important to be cost-conscious as a small business in the defense industry, the return of in-person events presents a unique opportunity to get back in front of the prospects you care about. When it comes to conferences in the federal sector, where you are matters. With hundreds if not thousands of events being produced and held specifically for the federal sector every year, it’s clearly not practical to attend every show that seems interesting.

The following ten tips will help you make sure you see a positive ROI and get the best results from conferences you decide to attend.

  1. Start with the basics: Ask yourself what you want to accomplish by attending an event. Identify your goals and narrow them down to a primary objective.
  2. Then determine which events cater to your market or niche. Make a list to start from by checking industry associations, pages like govevents, trade media, or even with large prime contractors. Then, narrow it down by looking into the event producer. Are they reputable with a history of successful, large-scale, well-attended events or do they have very little evidence of successful past events?
  3. What does it cost to attend or exhibit? Is it local? Do you have to send multiple employees to host a booth? Determine the expense of time, money, personnel and compare to the ROI that would be expected from that.
  4. Next, if it is an annual or bi-annual event, what does attendance at previous conferences look like? How many people, exhibitors, competitors, and leaders in your industry typically attend?
    1. In-person events like AFCEA WEST boasted somewhere in the ballpark of 14,000 attendees in the years pre-pandemic, the return of the in-person event in 2022 (two years into the pandemic) boasted half of that level with about 7,000 attendees
    2. The number of attendees is also important to consider when thinking about potential visibility. Small businesses especially need to understand how to stand out amongst the masses of other attendees.

Now that you have decided on the conference(s) to attend you’ll want to make the most of your attendance.

  1. Study attendee lists and floor plans. Make a list of the exhibitors, attendees, speakers, prospects, and competitors you want to meet with. Take note of where they will be and when.
  2. Schedule meetings ahead of time and identify the conference sessions you want to attend along with what you want to get out of them. Plan to have an elevator speech as well as a more focused pitch for meetings with prospective customers. Bring materials for taking notes and capturing information at the meetings, panels, and sessions you attend.
  3. Whenever possible come prepared with specific opportunities to talk to target prospects about. Bring specific and relevant informational materials, projects of mutual interest, or specific synergistic capabilities, not general info that will get lost in the weeds
  4. Plan to advertise your attendance before you go! Utilize the hashtags, follow the event page for updates, post about your attendance on social media, use linkedin and other channels to determine who is talking about and attending the event and actively engage with their content. Write brief notes about what you’re getting out of the conference at the time and be sure to tag people that are at the conference that you want to see or have already met with on linkedin and other socials as well.
  5. If you exhibit— take the right tchotchkes. In the age of cyber awareness, most vendors know computers in the federal sector are locked down yet year after year I continue to see companies bringing USB drives or other plug-ins. Bringing SWAG that shows the lack of market awareness can do more harm than good. Alternatively, great giveaways are not only memorable but lasting. Several years ago, I was at a ChallengeHER event at which attendees each received a Rebecca Minkoff canvas bag that says, “Shop Small”. Due to the quality and the lasting message, I still use the bag to this day.
  6. Finally, don’t forget to do a write-up after you attend! Let people who couldn’t attend live vicariously and give them the highlights, share the knowledge you gained, and follow up with everyone you met. Make sure to take note of what worked and what didn’t as well as noting whether there might be interest in exhibiting or speaking at a future conference. Follow up with hashtags and quick notes with photos during the event AND after the event to stir up buzz about your attendance and start conversations for weeks and months after the event.

Conferences and other industry events can be invaluable resources for growing small businesses. These tips will help you pick the best events and identify and maximize ROI on the events you decide to attend.