The Insider's Guide to IT Conferences

Tech industry events can be an outstanding source of information and business relationships - if you know the keys to attending like a pro. By Rich Freeman

Say this at least for IT conferences: There's no shortage of them.

“There's an abundance of shows, and some people will tell you too many shows,” says Harry Brelsford, founder of SMB Nation Inc., a Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based host of several well-known partner events. “There's a show every three days.”

Actually, that may be a lowball estimate. Our event directory includes 25 events spanning 87 days, which means one of those shows is under way roughly every other week and on just less than one out of every three business days a year. And our list is far from comprehensive.

DON'T BE A SESSION JUNKIE “When you're a conference rookie, you make sure you're in a session every single second one is offered.” Conference veterans, however, know that informal discussions with vendors and peers are just as valuable, if not more so. Jamison West, CEO, Arterian

Still, most people who attend tech industry events regularly will tell you there's simply no better, faster, or more efficient way to collect the information and contacts you need to grow your business - provided, that is, you know the do's and don'ts of conference going. Here's a look at how to get maximum value from every seminar, trade show, and summit you attend.

Who goes to conferences, and why?
Despite the limp economy, conferences remain big business. In fact, trade shows and conferences in the United States generate $13 billion in revenue annually, according to analyst firm IBISWorld Inc. That's down a mere 0.4 percent over the last five recession-plagued years.

According to Brelsford, conditions are similar for IT events, where attendance has held reasonably steady despite the fact that most channel partners never even go to conferences. “About 10 percent of the population is conference-friendly or conference-aware,” Brelsford estimates. Everyone else is either unwilling to invest the money or not convinced it's worth their time.

[ YOU'RE INVITED: ChannelPro SMB Forum Live on April 10 in Long Beach. This outstanding one-day event open to all MSPs and VARs. Click for Details and to Register. ]

Ask a member of that conference-going core what they get from events, however, and they'll usually cite three big benefits. First, they say, trade events are among the most powerful means of exploring new opportunities, researching products, and sharing knowledge with other solution providers. “I can learn more from my peer in a hallway conversation at a conference than I could on my own in a month, because they've already been there,” says Dave Seibert, CEO/CIO of IT Innovators Inc., a consulting firm and managed service provider in Irvine, Calif.

Second, conferences offer face-to-face access to your most important suppliers and technology partners. “You've kind of got to keep your eye on what the vendors are doing,” says Jamison West, CEO of Arterian, a solution provider and MSP in Seattle. Back in 2011, for example, it was trade show conversations with Hewlett-Packard employees that convinced West not to worry about the future of HP's Personal Systems Group. “There was a lot of fear of them selling that off,” he recalls. “Now I know that that's not going anywhere.”

Most important of all, event fans say, conferences are an invaluable venue for forging and deepening business relationships. “I know folks in Phoenix, Vegas, Southern California, Denver, and other areas that I wouldn't know if not for these shows,” says Joshua Liberman, president of system builder and network integrator Net Sciences Inc., of Albuquerque, N.M. Those contacts come in handy when he needs help with an out-of-town project, and some of them have sent work his way too.

What should you do before a conference?
To get peak return on a conference investment, spend some time before departure setting goals and mapping out a schedule. “Go in with a plan,” advises Dave Sobel, director of partner community at Level Platforms Inc., the Ottawa, Ontario-based maker of remote monitoring and management software. “You're going to get out of it what you put in in preparation.”

Start by determining exactly what you wish to take home from the event, whether it's insights into an emerging technology or details on the top vendors in a new market you're entering. Then figure out which sessions you'll attend and which booths you'll visit in the expo hall to gather that information. Be specific, but realistic. “If you want to see 50 vendors on the showroom floor, you're not going to do that in a lunch break on two days,” Liberman notes.

About the Author