7 Strategies for Making Conference Connections — Get Ready for #SHRM14

Conferences offer many opportunities, professional development being one of the most significant.

And one aspect of professional development that’s often overlooked is building a professional network.

This isn’t an activity you should just undertake in your hometown. Because the business world is global, our professional network needs to be global too.

Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that making connections at conferences can be tough. It’s hard to walk up to a stranger and introduce yourself.

So with the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference right around the corner, I thought I'd list some of the things I’ve done to meet people at conferences.

1. Find out if your local SHRM chapter or state council are planning a get-together

First, if you’re not connected to your local SHRM chapter or state council on LinkedIn, Facebook, and/or Twitter, you should be. It’s a great way to stay in touch with what’s happening, especially if you can’t always make it to a meeting.

And if you’re not a member, connect with them anyway. Maybe you’ll find a good reason to be a part of the organization.

Once you connect with them, see if anyone starts talking about attending the conference. I know my local chapter and state council have held get-togethers at conferences in the past. Everyone usually pays their own way. It’s just about people from the same place getting together at the annual conference.

2. Ask your colleagues and consultants if they'll be there

Speaking of people from the same place getting together, this is a perfect time to see if you have any colleagues attending the SHRM annual conference. If you’re a multi-location operation, find out if any of your co-workers will be there.

Also, if there’s anyone you do business with, ask them if they'll be at the conference. Think about the vendors your organization regularly does business with – staffing firms, technology providers, training consultants, and the list goes on. In my business, I always check to see if my clients are attending the conferences I’m going to.

3. Attend SHRM annual conference orientation

Conference organizers are always planning new ways for attendees to experience the event. Even if you’ve been to SHRM before, conference orientation will tell you what’s new. The other thing that usually happens at conference orientation is some sort of icebreaker opportunity to meet people. If you like icebreakers and want to meet some people, stop by orientation.

I have to put in a promo for this year’s orientation speaker, Simon Bailey. I’ve known Simon for years and he’s one of the most dynamic speakers I know. So if you go to orientation, be sure to tell Simon that I said “hello”!

4. Join the online conference community

Many conferences are creating online communities to support their events. SHRM has a discussion board to ask conference questions. Last year, I saw several people creating groups to encourage walking and tracking steps with their Fitbits and Jawbones.

There were also small groups getting together to discuss industry specific topics. I know from my hospitality days that I was always looking to talk with other HR pros in my industry about unique challenges like tipped employees, etc.

5. Attend a dine-around or tourist gathering

Another topic of discussion was finding people to do some of the fun stuff the city has to offer. Last year in Chicago, I remember seeing a group get together to experience Chicago pizza. Another group met to play kickball for charity.

There are plenty of things to do at the conference. You don’t have to do something that you think is boring. Find the event or restaurant that you want to attend, and sign up. And when you arrive, don’t feel you have to meet everyone.

I know we talk about elevator pitches all the time. Forget the pitch. Just introduce yourself. “Hi, I’m Sharlyn.” It’s a given that you will be asked two questions: 1) where are you from and 2) what do you do. Focus on having a nice time and learning a couple of things about the person you’re speaking with.

6. Visit the expo hall

Don’t avoid the expo, please. Don’t assume every vendor is out to sell you something. Many vendors realize that conferences are a time for building relationships. They want to get to know you.

And for those of you attending the conference who might be quietly (or not so quietly) looking for new opportunities, the expo is where you want to be. The people working in the expo are skilled about their product/service. They know what’s going on in the industry. They have the connections to make introductions.

Make friends in the expo. I have and never regretted it.

7. Follow the conference hashtag #SHRM2014

Twitter is a great place to follow conference happenings. If you’re not on Twitter, be sure to get an account before you leave home. Twitter is a great way to follow what other conference attendees are doing and saying about the event. You never know… you might find a colleague that you didn’t know was attending, or a last-minute gathering that you’d like to join. Also consider following the #SHRM2014 hashtag now, in advance of the conference. It’s a great way to connect with fellow attendees, get sense of the buzz around the conference, as well as hot topics attendees, SHRM organizers and vendors are discussing.

Mix and mingle

Over the years, I’ve found that I’m not alone when it comes to feeling the awkwardness of traveling solo – especially to conferences. There’s no reason to let that put a damper on building a few new professional relationships.

So get out there, build your network, and make at least one new connection at the next conference you attend. It's a great way to advance your career. See you in Orlando!

Your Turn: What techniques do you use for building your network at conferences?

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