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This morning, I was asked to give a few tips about staffing a booth at a technology conference—or, indeed, any conference. This got me thinking—there’s things that I do at a conference that come out of years and years of experience doing it wrong, and then tweaking it the next time.
I’ve been to a lot of conferences. And I’ve spent hundreds of hours staffing the booth.
To skip to the punchline, everything flows out of deciding what the conference is for. If you know what you hope to get out of the event, everything else flows out of that.
If your goal is to make connections, then that influences how you interact with people. If your goal is to demonstrate a product, well, that leads you in a different direction. It’s not usually that simple—there’s usually lots of goals. But everything you do should serve those goals. Otherwise you’re wasting opportunities.
So, for example, here’s a few:
Try to Remember Your Conversations
You’ll meet eleventy bazillion people at the conference, and every one of them will have an interesting story, and you will promise to follow up with them next week.
They will hand you a business card, and you will promptly forget why you have it. Even before they are out of sight. Don’t let this happen. Write a note on the card as to why you are following up with them. You might even go so far as to take a selfie with them so that you’ll remember who they are.
(Note: This isn’t always culturally appropriate. In Japan, in particular, writing a note on someone’s business card is very disrespectful. Educate yourself on culture when you travel.)
If you use Evernote (you should), put the card and the selfie, into Evernote, with a note to yourself. Pretend you are writing it to someone else who will follow up with them, because by the end of the nine-hour conference day and the three drinks at the booth crawl mixer, you’ll have no idea what you talked about.
Roll Out the Red Carpet
On the practical end of things, at the end of a six-hour booth shift, your feet will hurt. A lot. Taking a square foot of carpet lets you survive that and still be able to do it again the next day. If you forget, a piece of cardboard from the box your booth swag came in can help a lot too.
Get Them on Camera
People love to come to your booth and tell stories about what they are doing with your product. Get a video camera, take it with you, and ask them if they’re willing to tell the story on camera. This makes them feel listened to, and it gives you marketing material and user stories, which is one of the most important things you can bring back from a conference.
Here, too, this won’t work everywhere. Some people feel quite free telling you a story, but if they go on camera they have to get the approval of their manager, as well as their marketing and legal teams. If they say no, let it go, and ask if it’s okay to take notes, or if they prefer to be referred to anonymously.
But get the story written down, since you will forget. See above.
Pack a Snack
Booth hours are long. Have I alluded to that? I’ve also observed that the last ten minutes of the last hour of the last day of a three-day conference lasts roughly a million years.
You’re going to get hungry. Pack a snack in your bag. And a phone charging battery. You’ll need both of them.
Invite People to Join You
If you’re staffing the booth, people will generally assume that you’ve got it covered. But if you ask them to help for an hour—even a half hour—some people will find the time, as long as they know they’re not responsible for the whole day.
Make a Google doc listing the hours for which they can volunteer. Make sure that these times correspond with the conference schedule so that they can come when they’re not attending a talk, and leave in time to attend the next talk. Expect that people will not sign up until the last week before the conference, because that’s when they’re planning what talks to attend.
Ask them what their expertise is, so that when someone asks a question, you can say, with confidence, I don’t know, but Julie will be here at 2:30 and she’s an expert on Outreachy. Or whatever the topic may be.
People are, for the most part, glad to come be part of the solution, and share their expertise. But people usually like to be asked. If you don’t ask, most people won’t proactively volunteer.
Don’t Take All Your Gear
Conference booths are tiny, and there’s no space for your stuff. If you lug your laptop, your novel, and your yo-yo with you, there won’t be time to use any of them, and you won’t have anywhere to store them, so not only will you be tripping over them, you’ll also be worrying about who is going to steal them. Leave them all in your room. Take your phone or your tablet, and a charger battery (like I mentioned above), and a pen. That’s all you’ll need.
Conferences are fun. Don’t miss out. There’s evening events. There’s after-hours dinners with friends, old and new. There’s swag. There’s awesome talks. Make the most of the time. You can sleep when you get back home. All of your coworkers that didn’t get to go are jealous of you, mostly because they don’t always realize what hard work it is standing around all day. But don’t miss out on the fun of the event. You’re in a new city, seeing new things.
Be sure that you take a half day, or even a few hours, to see the city. When you look back on the fact that you visited Seattle, Paris, Berlin, Chicago, and didn’t see anything but the convention center and the hotel room, you’ll wish you’d taken that time. If your manager doesn’t agree, you are clearly in the wrong job.