Networking at Industry Conferences – Part III
Walt Palmer, CFE, CFI, CPP
Last week, Kevin Plante had an excellent
article on professional networking, its importance,
and what makes for effective networking. In this week’s
column, I’d like to build on the points he makes in the
series we have been doing about taking best advantage of
industry trade-shows and seminars. Previous articles
have included “The
Value of Industry Conferences” and “Maximizing
Educational Benefits at Conferences.” This week we
will discuss how to get the most out of networking at
What is Networking?
“Networking” is a term that get used, abused, and
confused throughout the business community. Some see it
as “being slick” or simply collecting the business cards
at a conference or something as simple as sending a
boiler-plate message on Linkedin to “connect” with
another professional. None of those practices constitute
useful, professional networking – at least not in my
Productive networking occurs when you make a connection
that you build on over the course of time until such
point that the “connection” becomes a “relationship.”
This does not necessarily mean a close personal
friendship. But, relationship suggests that there are
shared reference points, a level of trust, and a
willingness to help each other.
I’ll be the first to admit that I look forward to
industry conferences. At some of the larger shows, I
might know 200+ other attendees by name and have fairly
strong relationships with 50-75 of them. So, for me,
going to a show is a great chance to catch up with my
network, find out what new ideas or activities they have
going on in their business, and ask for their input on
issues that are on my plate. But, the reason I know all
of these people is because I’ve been going to shows for
over 20 years and I have cultivated these relationships
over a long period of time.
The Value of a Network
This article is clearly going to advocate for becoming
better at networking. Why? Because the benefits it will
bring to you and your organization over the course of
time can be invaluable. Notice, I included “your
organization” in that statement. Many times, we think of
networking in terms of what it can do for “me.” And,
certainly, if, for some reason, you were in search of a
new position or opportunity, a strong network can help
you. That, by itself, might be a good enough reason to
finish reading this piece.
However, it is clear that your organization can benefit
from your networking, as well. Over the years, there
have been too many times to count where I was faced with
an issue at work where we were struggling to find
answers and, by simply making a few phone calls, I was
able to benefit from the experience of several other
individuals and organizations which had dealt with a
similar situation and found the appropriate solution.
How many weeks of trial and error, how many adverse
outcomes/results might have been experienced, and how
much unnecessary expense might have been incurred by my
Tips for Networking at Industry Conferences
Even if you accept the notion that networking is a good
thing for both you and your company, there is still the
difficulty, for most of us, in actually building those
links. Some might say, “Oh, it is easy for you, Walter,
because you are an extrovert and enjoy this kind of
stuff!” While some of that is true, it can still be
intimidating for anyone to network and this is why I
want to give you some specific tips for how you might
consciously work on this at an upcoming show.
Introduce Yourself to Others at Your Table. While
waiting for a session to start, take a few minutes to
introduce yourself to the others at your table. All it
takes is for one person to start the process and you’ll
find that everyone follows suit. There are lifelong
connections I have made in my career that germinated by
a simple introduction at a seminar session.
Go to the New Attendees Orientation. If the
conference has a welcome reception for first-time
attendees, go to it. First of all, you know you will
share one thing in common with everyone in the room.
Second, you will know that they are all as nervous as
you. And, third, you will look like a professional with
great poise if you initiate introductions and break the
ice. Plus, there will be several experienced individuals
in the room from the trade association and, probably,
some representatives from their advisory council. Meet
them and you have a gateway to many other introductions.
Attend round-table session. These sessions, by
their very nature, provide greater opportunity to speak
with the other participants, hear what is on their
minds, and solicit their input. I rarely attend a
round-table session where there is not an exchange of
business cards among participants.
Ask a Trusted Vendor to Make Introductions. If
you work with a vendor partner who you trust and who is
attending the show, ask them to introduce you to other
practitioners they trust. Most conferences feature an
exhibit hall environment and this is an easy way to make
several connections an hour and start with at least some
common frame of reference.
Step Away from Your Comfort Zone. If you are
attending a conference with several other people from
your organization, there is a natural tendency to hang
out with these folks at every session, at every
reception, and at every dinner. However, if you never
step away from the group, you may never meet anyone
else. As a group, plan some time to leave “home base”
and meet some others.
Leverage Your Co-workers and Friends. On the
other hand, attending a conference with several people
you know also represents an opportunity. Ask your
co-workers to introduce you to some of their contacts or
professionals they have worked with at other companies.
The combination of your relationship to the one party
and their shared history makes it easy to find common
ground to discuss.
If you will have the courage to act on some of the above
recommendations, you will be on your way to building a
real professional network. This is not to say you will
walk away from one conference with strong relationships
with each of these people, but you will have a base to
build upon. Remember, the best relationships are those
that are built on over the course of time.
Good luck and I look forward to meeting you soon!
Walter Palmer, CFE, CFI, CPP is president of PCG
Solutions, a loss prevention training and awareness
firm. Prior to founding PCG, Palmer spent sixteen years
in retail in LP, inventory control, and operations.
Palmer is cofounder of LP Magazine and LPjobs.com and
serves on multiple industry advisory boards. He is a
frequent speaker at industry event both in the U.S. and
internationally. In addition, Palmer is a member of the
American Society for Training & Development, the
International Society for Performance Improvement, and
the Society for Human Resource Management. He can be