Business events: How to avoid the stinkers

Published · 3 min read

Once you’ve been knocking around the same sector for a while, and made your way onto plenty of mailing lists and LinkedIn groups, you’ll most likely find yourself invited to an overabundance of industry events. Be they conferences, tradeshows, workshops, skill swaps, networking events, or some other manner of get-together, there are always more happening than any sensible human would be capable of attending; which makes picking and choosing an important task.

Over the years, and through plenty of trial and error (mostly error, it must be said) I’ve become quite good at separating the wheat from the chaff. There are many variables to think about when deciding whether you should attend a business event, and all should be taken into account when making a decision. We’ve all found ourselves sat in a half-empty auditorium at 11am gritting our teeth through a useless presentation when there’s real work to be done – how can you avoid it next time?

Who’s going to be there?

Turning up at a business event used to be a step into the unknown, but thankfully now with websites like EventBrite and Lanyrd you can actually see who will be in attendance before you turn up. Maybe the event itself looks shabby, but it could be worth attending if a person you absolutely have to meet is there. Similar rules apply for trade shows – look through exhibitor listings for companies you’re keen to talk to.

Cold introductions are always awkward, so make a connection with people you want to meet beforehand. This could be anything from interacting with them on Twitter to sending them an email – let them know who you are, and the schmoozing will be that much easier when you “bump into them”, wine in hand, at the aftershow drinks.

What’s the agenda like?

In my writing career I’ve been lucky enough to attend events all over the world. Some have been worth the combined weight of the attendees in gold; full of fascinating speakers and vital, thrusting individuals to network with in the evening. Others, unfortunately, will numb rather than expand your mind. Once, bored to tears on a junket in Monaco, I took to the hotel bar and drank so much I ran around the F1 track, pretending to be a racing car.

To decide if an event is worth your time, don’t just glance at the agenda – study it with a microscope. Often professional speakers will give the same presentation at multiple conferences – you may be able to find the talk they’re giving on their website, YouTube, or the websites of conferences they’ve previously spoken at.

If the event has multiple tracks, look at each session in every track. You may find some hidden gems taking place elsewhere that you can sneak off to watch, or at least some decent backups if a session you’re planning to attend turns out to be a dud.

Where is it?

There are dozens of events I consider attending in London every year but, living in Brighton, it takes about an hour and a half to get to anywhere in central London. If registration starts at 8.30am that means I have to be out the door before 7am. Add in a few drinks after the fact and I probably won’t be home until 11pm. A 16 hour day is (for me at least) a big ask if I’m unsure I’ll get anything useful from attending.

You should apply similar tests to any event you plan to attend – especially if air travel is involved. If you’re travelling outside Europe you can basically write off an entire day when you factor in travel to and from airports and hotels. Attend a three-day event in, say, New York, and you could be throwing away a working week without any guaranteed returns. Is it worth the risk?

How much does it cost?

Sometimes, understandably, the question of whether or not to attend just boils down to cost. Some conferences can run into the thousands, and that’s a lot of money down the drain if it turns out to be a bust. They can sometimes be written off as a business expense although though not always, so check with your accountant or HMRC. Conversely, many events – trade shows in particular – are totally free for attendees, so if you come away with nothing it’s not the end of the world.

There are arguments to be made for both approaches – a conference at £1,600 a ticket is certainly a bit exclusionary, but the high price will likely mean that any contacts you make will be of a reasonable calibre.

If you simply must attend an event, but find the cost prohibitive, there are ways around that too. Sponsors and event partners will often be given free tickets to give away to help build hype before the event, and LinkedIn’s “How you’re connected” tool can show you who you know that might give you an ‘in’.

If you’ve done a bit of writing in the past, you could also consider applying for press credentials. There’s no guarantee you’ll get them, but it’s worth a try if it gets you a free ticket, right?

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