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Conference Etiquette: Tools to Survive Your Next Industry Event

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Michael looked forward to attending his first industry conference. He was entering his third year in the accounting field and wanted to meet the right people and stay on top of industry trends. Unfortunately, he was unprepared for the conference. He didn't know what to bring, so instead of asking someone for help, he packed only casual clothes. Unfortunately, there was a black-tie dinner, and he was forced to run around the city looking for a tuxedo to rent. Michael also forgot to bring the latest company brochures and ended up giving away all of his business cards well before the three-day conference was over. While he was able to overcome some of these issues, they left him stressed and anxious, and he wasn't able to enjoy himself. Michael vowed to be better prepared the next time.

Conferences, trade shows, seminars, and meetings should be wonderful learning experiences, and also fun. The education and connections will happen naturally, but there are a few “etiquette” tips that will help you make the most of your events. Follow these and tips and you’ll be sure to avoid any embarrassing, or even costly, mistakes.

1. The Opening Reception

  • Prior to attending to the conference, do your homework and figure out whom you would like to meet and see over the next few days. Scan through the welcome packet and highlight any names of people you’d like to see. Upon arrival, make it your mission to network with the highlighted attendees.

  • Don’t come so hungry that you attack the bar area and food area as soon as you arrive. Networking is a time to meet and greet, and then eat and drink. About a half hour before the opening reception, get a snack. Make it something light but filling, like an apple or a smoothie. Then, you won’t be starving during the opening session. The purpose of this event is to meet and greet people, which can be made more difficult when you’re carrying a drink and a plate.

  • If you are alone at the networking or opening session, start off by approaching another individual or small group of two to three people. It can be awkward to approach a larger group, as bigger groups are harder to break into and make it more difficult to start a one-on-one conversation. After you have your initial conversations, ask your new contacts to have a drink with you or meet you near the buffet for food.

  • Move around the room. When you meet someone, introduce yourself, exchange business cards, talk, and possibly set up another time to meet or a time for a call when you return to the office. Shake hands as you leave, thanking the individual before moving on to the next person.
2. General Sessions or Educational Sessions
  • Come to the session prepared with notebook paper and pens. If you forgot to bring some, you may be able to find a notepad in your hotel room or at the front desk, but it’s certainly better to be prepared ahead of time.

  • Don’t take up two or three seats. Move right on in and meet someone new by sitting down right next to them. Introduce yourself. Enjoy their company before the speaker begins. Arrive early, sit in the front, and learn as much as you can.

  • This is a time to learn. If you’re with a chatty attendee, politely tell them that you would love to talk after the session. Be polite, sincere, and firm. Tell them right at the beginning of the conversation. If you wait too long to say something, you can get hooked into the conversation, and it will be more uncomfortable to get out.

  • Respect the speaker. As a speaker, it can be frustrating to be on a stage in front of a group and realize that attendees are chatting amongst themselves. If you must have a conversation or make a phone call, please leave the room out of respect.
3. Networking Events
  • Bring hundreds of your business cards. Your primary purpose should be to meet people and hopefully bring back business to your company. Don’t run out mid-way through the tradeshow.

  • Start and end each conversation with a handshake. Always stand up when you meet someone to shake hands.

  • Making small talk is easy, even if you’re shy. Ask people about when they arrived, their travel, their hometown, the weather; talk about the conference, the trade show, or the speakers. These topics open up the conversation. Just avoid any emotional topics such as politics or religion.

  • Ask people questions about themselves. People love to talk, especially about themselves. They will even bring out the pictures of their kids and pets. Genuinely listen to each conversation and you’ll find yourself making a lasting connection.

  • Wear your name badge. Instead of using a lanyard, which can make the badge nearly impossible to read, pin the badge on your clothing, preferably on the right side (it’ll then be easier to read when you shake hands).
4. The Final Night Closing Gala
  • This is usually a seated meal, so remember the basics: Introduce yourself to everyone at the table. Don’t reach over the table to shake hands -- get up and move around the table, or meet everyone before you sit down.

  • Use the code “BMW.” This is an easy way to remember which utensil belongs to you. From left to right, it means the Bread and Butter plate is on the left, the Meal is the middle, and your Water (and any other drinks) should be on the right. When you sit down, immediately take your napkin and place it on your lap. Remember, if it is in the coffee cup or your water glass, remove the one to your right. If someone takes your bread and butter plate, ask the wait staff for another plate; place the bread on your entrée plate or don’t eat any bread.

  • Do not eat until everyone at your table is served. If you are waiting for a special meal, let everyone know it’s okay to start eating because your meal will be late.
These are the etiquette basics that will allow you to have a comfortable and fun time at your next industry conference.

About the Author

Colleen A. Rickenbacher is a business etiquette expert and author of Be on Your Best Business Behavior and the forthcoming Be on Your Best Cultural Behavior. She helps clients stand out by improving manners, image, and communication skills. With her past experience in event planning, as well as her skills in etiquette, Colleen helps companies such as FedEx, Microsoft, and Marriott polish their image for increased profits. For her speaking, training, or books, visit or call 214-341-1677.
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