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Business Or Party?

Deciding to attend them doesn’t demand too much effort – and sometimes you’ll be signing up months in advance. But do conferences necessarily make good business sense? Chris Muller weighs in.
Image: ©Shutterstock Image: ©Shutterstock

It’s not very hard to convince yourself or your employees to attend a conference. In fact the opportunity to spend a few days away from work is so attractive people will often do anything to make it happen. I once jumped off a pier into rough seas wearing full-body spandex to try win tickets to a conference in the US. A surfer had to save me from the rip, but my crazy streak got me there.

Here’s the thing: conferences are synonymous with social mingling, afternoon drinks, and after parties. Not to mention hotel mini-bars – and proper bars, too. All these elements – coupled with a few days away from work, exhausting travel time, and plenty of other costs that quickly add up – mean that conferences can end up being as unhealthy for your budget line as they are for your liver.

Despite the many glaring red flags, though, there are numerous ways in which your business will benefit from the conference experience.

Here are three reasons I’ve found them to be beneficial not only to employee morale, but also to our business.

Golden nuggets

A conference is not just a series of structured keynotes – there is so much more going on, both during and outside the formal sessions. Conferences are often melting pots of ideas, experiences, questions and answers. Whether these are shared in a formal session, over a drink, or while washing your hands in the bathroom, you could come across a ‘golden nugget’ that’s invaluable to your business’s success.

In early 2015 our company had already spent months working on an eCommerce-eLearning solution with minimal success. Around the same time a few of us travelled to our first tech conference. During one of the keynotes we came across our first such golden nugget. The speaker outlined a personal journey of scaling an eCommerce solution using only three developers. It was an eCommerce tool none of us had previously considered. Talking with the speaker afterwards he mentioned they had also developed an eLearning solution that paired well with their eCommerce solution. It was a lightbulb moment that radically impacted our own thinking and just three weeks later we launched our first fully functional eCommerce-eLearning solution.

Sparking relationships

I’m not a fan of the term ‘networking’. Many people feel they have accomplished ‘networking’ if they have replaced their stack of business cards with an assortment of new business cards. Whether or not these are acted upon, or whether there were words exchanged along with the business cards, is of little importance.

I prefer the term ‘sparking relationships’ – not only because it is more personal, but because it really describes what should be happening when we engage in this thing everyone calls ‘networking’. Meeting people in person, even once, creates a level of trust and familiarity that could otherwise take months to achieve online. Whether you happen to meet your next angel investor or a breakthrough client, or make a connection with a new trail-running partner or fellow coffee connoisseur, sparking these relationships is always of value.

During one out-of-town conference, my colleagues and I hit it off with representatives from another company based in the very same city as our own. One evening of cocktails later, and we were comrades. The irony is that both our teams had had to head out of town for a conference in order for our paths to cross. It would never have happened back home, but our interactions under those circumstances sparked a business relationship that’s had great knock-on effects. We’ve even ended up travelling to other conferences together.

Hungry audience

Conference keynotes are hit or miss. A great sounding topic with an acknowledged speaker can turn out to be a waste of time, while an unknown first-timer can deliver the most valuable keynote address of the day. While you have limited control over which talks you will listen to, as a speaker you have full control of the room. From personal development to business exposure there are many benefits to be had from speaking at a conference. Conferences provide an incredible platform for you to share
your ideas and knowledge while adding value to the conference.

Giving keynotes will also allow you to view a topic through a different lens. And knowing that you’re going to share your ideas with a room full of strangers compels you to get all your ducks in a row – there’s nothing like this kind of public exposure to convince you to bring your A-game. Whether it’s talking at a local meet-up with ten people or delivering the keynote address at an international conference with thousands of attendees, making your thoughts public in this kind of forum forces you to be prepared. And the chances of getting feedback are pretty good, too.

Good business and good times

Travelling to a conference forces you to take your head out of the ground, and engage with ideas, concepts and questions that may not otherwise see the light of day. This reason alone should convince you to book your next conference trip.

And, okay, I won’t lie. The best part of it all is that conferences really do allow for good business to mix with having a good time. They’re an opportunity to break
from the daily churn and let your corporate hair down at the after party. After a couple of tequilas and karaoke, you may just see your line manager, or a future colleague, in a different light.

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