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How to Network at Trade Shows, Even if You Hate Conferences


By Guest Blogger, Ryan Williams

Does the idea of attending an industry trade show make you cringe? Yes, me too. You’re not alone.

Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, trade shows can be a grind.

I get anxiety thinking about thousands of strangers on a trade show floor with clammy hands, mindlessly passing around their business cards. People glad handing like politicians is an exhausting thought to ponder.

Does this site of this SXSW interactive trade show photo make you want to shrink into a ball? Yes, me too.

Photo Credit: WTOP

To make matters worse, conferences can be so inefficient. I often go home with hundreds of business cards, and most of these cards go right into the recycle bin.

Do you suffer from conference business card fatigue syndrome?

From that stack of cards, I’d say that 10% of those cards are from people that I ever want to talk to again. It’s not personal. But 90% of the people at my industry trade shows aren’t people I’ll ever follow-up with. And often that is a mutual feeling. J


How many of these people will I ever work with from #sxsw ? Less than 1%?

A post shared by Ryan W (@ryanjwill) on

Photo: My business cards after SXSW Interactive

Why do industry trade shows feel like speed dating for business?

In reality, trade shows can transform your business. Trade shows can help you to meet your business heroes, acquire new customers and they allow you to make friends with people IRL (in-real-life). If played the right way, trade shows can be very rewarding.

The thought of attending a major conference may be daunting, but it’s important to navigate through the noise of a big event. It’s imperative to make an effort to build bridges to both your community of friends, customers, or subscribers and to peers and colleagues in your field. And to make the conference smaller, I’d like to offer some help.

Here are 7 ways to strategically build your business at trade shows:

Photo Credit: John Corcoran from Webinar Ninja 2015


  1. Plan influencer lunches or dinners: Plan a lunch, host a group dinner, or organize an “invite only” event at the conferences you attend. Pick a date, time, and the guests ahead of time. Think about a group of 5 to 10 people you’d like to invite to a low-key lunch/dinner. You don’t have to pick up the tab, and it can be as simple as pizza and beer. As an organizer, you will get more value than you will ever realize. Planning smaller, more intimate events gives people a chance to take a break from the circus of the main convention hall and wind down a little. I’ve met close friends at lunches and dinners when attending conferences this way.


  1. Build a friend-base not a customer-base: If you are hesitating to drive or jump in a plane to attend a conference with thousands of other people, maybe this reality will change your mind: people enjoy working with people that they like. And the better people know you, the more likely they are to hire you, recommend you for other work, or join your community. Make the effort! This is how the world works. You refer people who you know IRL and who you trust. And often the personal connections you make at one event can lead to unforeseen opportunities years later. Attending events is about the long game, not the short-term gain.

Los Angeles Podcasters Meet-up, 2015


  1. Host or attend a smaller community meet-up: I’ll share a secret with you: A key to making new friends at big conferences is to pare down the event into smaller pieces. Focused meet-ups are a good example. You can actually speak with people that you have something in common with rather than chat with random folks you will never see again. Meet-ups make conferences more efficient and they’re focused on you and YOUR business. Find the relevant meet-ups on Meetup.com and if you don’t see one for your category, create one!

Want to get more tips and ideas? Grab a FREE copy of Ryan’s 46-Page Collaborate and Thrive workbook

  1. Don’t buy a ticket and hang out in the lobby – Trade shows can be expensive. I often recommend to NOT buy a trade show ticket. Thus you can avoid all of the crowds and talks. Yes, I know it sounds counter-intuitive. If you avoid the trade show, you can focus on separate meetings, smaller lunches and influencer dinners. Also, you can save money by not buying a ticket. Often the real deals get away from the noise of the larger event.
  2. Find under-valued up-and-coming conferences: Attending new and up-and-coming conferences before they get super popular is also a smart strategy. If you’re an early adopter of certain niche conferences, when the conferences get bigger and more well known, you will already know the lay of the land. You’ll understand who the key players are, you’ll have met the organizers, and you’ll increase your chances to speak and expand your profile even further. Find the under-valued conferences where you can get to know people!

Ryan Williams at VidCon 2017

  1. Book yourself as a speaker or panelist: If you have the talent or desire for it, I always recommend speaking at conferences. When you speak, it obviously gives you a platform to meet others. It also gives you an edge, because people will come talk to you after you speak rather than you having to seek out them. You need to be eloquent and smart, but as long as you are your authentic self on-stage, you’ll rock it. You want to be hunted, not be the hunter. J
  2. Treat your trade show like a family reunion: When trade show communities come together, it’s a powerful thing. Conferences are often the most logical and convenient places to cement strong friendship bonds. Our lives get busy, and we often miss chances to see former colleagues and collaborators. Treat conferences like a reunion for friends to get together every year. Friends are the people who will collaborate with you in the future, recommend you for work, and help open doors for you along the way to success. And events are where you can make these connections rock solid.

I’ll be honest with you. I can’t stand “networking” in the modern digital age. Why? Too many people focus on building short-term “relationships” instead forming long-term business friendships. Taking the long view when meeting people is a key to success for 2017 and beyond. You need to not JUST meet your peers but also make friends with them. If you connect with people whom you actually enjoy being around, in the long run you will naturally find ways to support one another. You have to make the conference smaller, and then you will thrive in the new economy.

Want to take it further? Grab a FREE copy of Ryan’s 46-Page Collaborate and Thrive workbook

Laura Posey

Laura Posey is Chief Instigator at Simple Success Plans. Her driving mission is to show entrepreneurs how to double their business while taking more time out of the company to make a difference in the world. She is an avid traveler and is always looking to connect with readers around the world.

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