How do I Conference Like an Adult?
February 3, 2019 6:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to a large (45k attendees) professional conference (HIMSS) the week after next, and I'm looking for some tips on how to make this a good experience. I have attended a lot of regional conferences and smaller national conferences, and I tend to feel like I am not getting max benefit out the them. Some of my questions: What is the best way to interact with vendors? Is it worthwhile to interact with vendors we already do business with? How do I meet new people without being weird?

I'm a director-level analytics/IT leader at a small health care consulting firm. By far my favorite thing at conferences is the sessions - I like listening to presentations and learning things. It tend to do that and ignore other conference-related stuff, but I think this is limiting the value I get from conferences, and may definitely be limiting the value I get from a large, expensive conference like HIMSS. I also tend to get intimidated/overwhelmed/get imposter syndrome at conferences and not really meet a lot of new people.

Also possibly relevant - we are going to be making significant investments in software in the next 12 months. I'm an influencer for some of those purchases, decider for others. I definitely want to use the conference to see what is out there for the categories we are going to purchase in.

What started me thinking about this was that one of our vendors mentioned that my boss (a C-level executive) was going to a dinner they were hosting at Epcot, and asked if anyone else from our company was attending the conference. I let her know I was. This did not result in an invitation to said dinner at Epcot, sadly, but it did get me thinking that there are probably 8000 receptions and dinners and breakfasts and teas and whatnot going on where it would be easier to meet people and than randomly in the hallway or whatever. How do I find out about these and get invited? Is it rude or weird of me to even think this way?

Other questions - Any tips about meeting new people at the conference? Best practices for interacting with vendors? Do I need to set times to meet with them or just roll up to their booths? Does it make sense to visit vendors we already do business with? What are your best tips/hacks/best practices for making the most of a conference this size or for HIMSS specifically?
posted by jeoc to Work & Money (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I’m a vendor who goes to conferences a bit like this (though in a totally different field) and part
of why I’m sent to these events is to connect with the people I already do business with!
posted by cakelite at 7:22 AM on February 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

Are you part of any special interest groups etc? Like a Latinx Caucus or a Machine Learning SIG etc? They frequently have gtg’s at conferences.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:41 AM on February 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you have a pre-existing meeting with a vendor, book it in advance. The vendor may arrange for hospitality depending on the size of account and your position.

You can go visit vendors booths but this will not yield a breakfast or dinner invitation.

Meeting random people at a conference is fairly easy. Get your food, plop down at a half full table, and introduce yourself. Mealtimes are great for networking. You will also meet folks in the Starbucks line, waiting for the keynote, etc. Don’t be shy and start a conversation, others are there for the same reason.

For a large conference you must plan in advance, study the map, and take sessions in the same geographical area in a day. Do not try to criss-cross the conference space which for a 45k conference will span miles, stay in one area each day and pace yourself.

Also do not cheap out on accommodations, if you can stay close to the conference centre this helps. There is nothing wrong with going to your hotel room for a 90 minute nap mid-day if it will get you through the dinner and party schedule.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:46 AM on February 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Great recommendations so far.

I'm attending HIMSS for the second time and prioritizing goals ahead of the conference to more effectively use my time. Regardless, there's so much to do that your days will be filled even if you don't.

-Presentations for the education sessions are available for download after the conference though you may want to see a few engaging speakers or interesting topics to be able to ask questions and network with similarly interested attendees.
-There's quite a few SIG sessions and meetings, and if you're a HIMSS member, your local/state chapter may have an event planned
-Definitely pre-book with vendors where you can as you'll get access to the product team, VPs, and any break-outs/lunches/dinners. You can reach out to your vendor account reps to connect you. I am in a similar role as an influencer so I'm meeting with vendors for products/services under evaluation for purchase or for existing ones to understand development road maps or discuss our team/client issues.
-Having a hotel near the main venue is a lifesaver for a quick break between meetings or events, but I unfortunately have not booked mine yet so will be Uber-ing from further away.
-I was the only attendee from our group, and I'm fairly reserved. By the second day, I was connecting with folks from similar companies, roles, or just personal interests grabbing a coffee, taking a break at a table, at a session, etc.

Send me a message if you have any more questions or want to meet up!
posted by palionex at 11:58 AM on February 3, 2019

Wander into conversations that look interesting (at any given location). Wander away if they cease to be interesting. Inject thoughts when you have something to contribute that isn't being said. Have business cards on hand and hand them out to folks you want to continue conversing with after the conference. Don't be afraid to walk into these conversations - they are public by nature.

The bar can also be a great place to find conversations. If you don't drink, order a coke with a lime in it or something else that could be mistaken for a boozy drink so you will fit in contextually a little better. If you're not super-abrupt about it, walking away from a conversation that you don't find interesting won't upset anyone (and do this! your time is limited, don't waste it on conversations you don't want to be a part of).

Don't contribute anything to a conversation that would make you cringe if someone were to tweet it. When telling war stories, anonymize those stories (eg: "I once dealt with a vendor that did XYZ", not "Once, IBM did XYZ").

It may feel awkward to do this sort of socializing, but if it makes you feel any better, a significant percentage of the folks doing this socialization are also feeling awkward.
posted by el io at 3:00 PM on February 3, 2019

Definitely meet with the vendors you already have relationships with and with any vendor who might be competing for your business soon. You should walk through the exhibitions hall, stop at each vendor's booth and tell the person at the info desk you are interested in xxx technology. You can just ask to hear about what is the current offering, ask questions, give feedback on any current issues or annoyances you have. This is exactly why vendors have booths at these sorts of conferences. The company I work at will be at HIMSS and one of my employees will be there. I am expecting that many connections will be made from these types of interactions.
posted by sulaine at 7:33 PM on February 3, 2019

I'll be at HIMSS too. I would second (or third) that you should meet with vendors you already do business with - they might have new things or future things to talk about, you might meet people in their organization other than the contacts you typically work through, and you might get some useful connections to their other partners or customers.

There's a certain amount of randomness in meeting people at networking receptions, in the cafeteria line, etc. - I don't really count on anything coming out of that. Sometimes it does and that's great.

I would turn the overall questions back around to vendors that you are specifically interested in - reach out and say "hey, I'm going to be at HIMSS, do you have any talks / demos / meetings that I might be interested in?" If you are an influencer or decider for major upcoming purchases they should bend over backwards to get your attention. That's why they are there. Let them work for it.
posted by allegedly at 8:04 PM on February 3, 2019

Are any extrovert colleagues from local conferences going? People like to show how many folks they know, and often genuinely enjoy helping people meet others, and it can be beneficial for them and you to get you started rolling in the introductions (as long as you mingle on your own in the long-run) and may also have some good ideas of who is in the same industry/niche/special interest.
posted by typecloud at 6:45 AM on February 4, 2019

Setting a time to meet with your existing vendors, and vendors you are considering doing business with is definitely A Thing, and I didn't realize that before the conference, so that was a great tip.

There were also a ton of talks happening in the actual booths, which I didn't anticipate and some of them were really interesting.
posted by jeoc at 6:45 AM on April 12, 2019

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