Putting a Value on Conferences

Attending conferences and conventions can be a pricey proposition. You've not only got to pay for the ticket to the conference itself, but you've got to budget for transportation, hotel, food, and anything else that might come up. Depending on how involved you are in the conference, you may have additional expenses, too: floor space, promotional items, display materials and signage. It adds up fast.

And, unless you've got something you can sell while you're at the conference, none of those costs can be recouped directly. Calculating the value of conference attendance can be difficult – but it's worth doing, if only to push you toward making the most of your visit.

What Do You Need from a Conference?

Small business owners are often told that conferences are crucial for networking, as well as to keep up with industry developments and news. But you have to ask yourself why you are going to a particular conference. If there are people worth meeting – prospective clients, ideal employees, and so on – then a conference is an easy way to find everyone you ever want to talk to in one place. If you're networking for the sake of building a fat address book and nothing else, though, your attendance is not valuable to your business.

The logic behind attending a conference has to be clear. Recently, I attended the interactive conference adjunct of the popular South by Southwest festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. Many of the attendees seemed to be creating startups or were involved in very different industries than my own. While it's a fun conference to attend, it’s expensive enough that I wouldn’t go unless I could clearly show that I was getting something out of it.

Hang with the Right Crowd

Choosing the right conference is not as simple as picking the biggest trade event for your industry. If you've been to a few of those events, you've probably noticed that the speakers tend to be the same, as are the vendors and other attendees. Don't be afraid to go looking for value in smaller or more focused events than those that everyone ‘must’ attend.

Carefully study the promotional materials and exhibitor list of a given conference before you commit to attending. The simple truth is that some people are more valuable to listen to and meet than others.

Plan Ahead

It takes quite a bit of preparation to attend any conference or convention. Travel arrangements alone require significant planning. But don't stop there. You can increase the value of your attendance by determining exactly what you want to get out of your visit ahead of time by setting some goals.

  • Are there specific people you want to meet face to face?
  • Are there vendors who you want to check out?
  • Are there particular educational sessions that can have a meaningful impact on your business?

Before I decided to attend SXSW this year, I made a list of people that I could meet with while I was there, as well as a list of specific sessions that would be useful to attend. Some conferences make such efforts easier than others, with online planning tools and links to vendors and attendees’ websites.

With your goals understood, carefully plan how you will spend your time once you arrive:

  • Schedule appointments with key vendors and important customers. Don't expect to just meet up with them on the convention floor;
  • Choose which speakers to hear and educational sessions to attend and make reservations, if necessary;
  • Look for specific events that will allow you to connect with people in your industry or field that you might not otherwise be aware of.

Of course, you can't plan for everything. There is a certain element of serendipity that goes along with networking at a conference. Simply by being at conferences and conventions with people who share your interests and who are looking to connect with businesses like yours, you'll be on track, even if you don't have time to read every single speaker bio and sit in on every lecture.

Running the Numbers

Figuring out the cost side of the equation is easy. Open up a spreadsheet and create a list that includes, at the least:

  • Convention tickets;
  • Travel and transportation;
  • Lodging;
  • Food;
  • Promotional materials;
  • Your time, both before the event (planning and clearing your desk) and during the event (opportunity cost, or how you would otherwise spend your time building your business).

Actual costs are easy to quantify. The benefits are not so easy to determine, and you may not realize them for some time. But you can still drop them into a spreadsheet and make some estimates:

  • Vendor contacts;
  • Client and customer sales;
  • Business process improvements;
  • Product improvements;
  • Industry knowledge;
  • Increased industry profile.

Sometimes the numbers just don't work out, no matter how great a conference seems. Or sometimes the numbers don't work out on their own. But maybe you can tip them in your favor by adding value. You might apply to be a conference speaker or create a special product or service you can offer to other conference attendees. Whether you decide to change the business value equation this way or not, you have to know what the numbers are before you can start to tweak them.

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