Four great plays to help you score at this season’s conferences.

Attending an agriculture conference is one of the best investments you can make. Where else can you find industry heavy-hitters, the inside scoop on your customers and competitors, content curated for your specific sector, world-class speakers, contests, connectivity and more new leads than you can shake a stick at?

If you’re not gearing up to get the most out of every industry conference you can handle, you could be missing out on some of the most valuable business opportunities of the season. Our guide will help you navigate the conference arena with confidence, excitement and a healthy return on your registration fee.

Examine the Conference Agenda

Your first step should be to take a good look at the conference agenda in order to prioritize your areas of interest, and make the most of your
valuable time.

“One advantage that the Internet affords us is the ability to find background information on the event speakers,” says Todd Hyra, western business manager for Secan. “You can look at some of their past content, and decide whether it’s something relevant to your business that you want to invest your time in.”

Hyra notes that larger conferences often give attendees the chance to hear renowned experts – an opportunity that should not be overlooked.

“When you go to a large conference, the quality of speakers is something you can’t see anywhere else, so I take advantage of seeing a world-class speaker and learning that expertise,” he says. “It can be technical, or just inspirational – either one is worth it.”

If there is a presentation on the agenda that doesn’t resonate with your business agenda, this time can be dedicated to other priorities. “I carefully choose my sessions, rather than trying to appear actively engaged in every session throughout the entire conference,” says Marty Seymour, director of industry and stakeholder relations for Farm Credit Canada.

“I only attend topics relevant to my business,” he says. And when the schedule provides a window of free time? “I spend time in the hallway visiting with others in the industry, gathering valuable insights and expanding my network.”

Plan Your Networking

If expanding your network is your goal, there’s no better place to be than at a conference. These events provide a prime opportunity to make many valuable connections all in one place, over a small period of time.

“Conference and show networks include a wide range of exhibitors, but equally valuable are other visitors to the show,” says Seymour. “Don’t underestimate the value of these shows to expand your network.”

One approach to connecting at events is to spend quality time engaging with both old and new contacts. In a concentrated sector like agri-retail, the fact that many delegates are already acquainted adds value to the conversations being had over coffee. It also provides an opportunity to familiarize yourself with newcomers who may help your business down the road.

“Agriculture is a very small industry,” says Hyra. “I find quite often that attending events is a great way to stay in touch, reconnect with old colleagues, or meet people you may work with in the future.”

There are also opportunities to be found in power-networking – aiming for a high volume of new names to add to your list of contacts. To do this, Wes Woods, marketing representative for Secan, suggests making a point to spend the majority of the conference in the company of people you don’t already know. 

“I like to go out and meet new people, and spend time with contacts from different areas of Canada, or who might work with slightly different product lines,” says Woods. He notes that branching out from your comfort zone and areas of expertise has the potential to expose you to conversations and insights you wouldn’t otherwise encounter in an average business day. 

“In fact,” he says, “I know guys that go to conferences and deliberately have their staff flare out around events in order to make as many new contacts as possible.”

The best setting for making new connections varies, with important conversations taking place everywhere from hotel restaurants to coffee shops to the hallways between sessions.

“It’s also important to go to the icebreaker reception,” says Woods. “You’ll run into lots of industry people and pick up good information there.”

Researching the who’s who of attendees ahead of time is another way to prepare for success at a conference.

“Always check the registration list,” says Woods. “You can tell who’s going to be there, and maybe it’s someone you want to speak with, or have been meaning to do some business with.”

He suggests reaching out before the event begins to plan get-togethers with other attendees, but makes sure to stay mindful of their own agenda at the conference. “I like to schedule something like breakfast or coffee – something that won’t interfere with the event program.”

Hyra recommends cross-referencing the delegate list with communications and emails from industry acquaintances you have yet to meet face-to-face, and looking up their headshot on the company website or their LinkedIn page. “That way you can put a face to the name ahead of time,” he says. “Then when you do encounter them at the event, you’re ready for them instead of drawing a blank.”

To easily keep track of new contacts and make sure to remember their face at the next encounter, Nico de Waal, technical account manager for ATP Nutrition, shares the unique way he uses his smartphone.

“Every time I get a business card, I take a picture of the person’s face – of course I ask for their permission first,” he says.

“I back up their information and photo to my Outlook, and save it to my phone. That way, every contact in my system has a face associated to it. When my phone rings, a face comes up instead of just a name or number.”

De Waal explains that this technique is especially useful in agriculture, where contacts who work for one organization can potentially be lost if the person changes jobs.

“It’s great to use this to track people as they move from one business to another. You’ve got people who move from Cargill, to Monsanto, to BASF – this is my way of keeping track of who is who. It’s not just a business card, it’s a person.”

Pace Yourself

Carefully scheduling your networking around presentations and sessions does more than ensure you’ll be at the right place at the right time. It also gives you the opportunity to realistically plan your days and nights with enough downtime to prevent an early burn-out.

“Pace yourself,” says Woods. “A lot of people go extremely intense at the start of an event – but they are often three or four days long.”

Doing too much, such as a full day of presentations and workshops with breakfast, lunch, dinner and after-dinner meetings, can lead to exhaustion by day two or three – resulting in a less productive mindset during what are often the most important keynote presentations.

“You’re better to pace your activities, so that you can get the most out of the time you’re there,” he says. 

For delegates planning to get a bit of work done while on the go, Hyra suggests the “before and after” approach, instead of trying to squeeze work into an already-packed conference day.

“Sometimes it’s hard to be productive while you’re actually at the event,” he says. “After a long day it’s hard to have the energy to catch up on email and voicemail, so I try to get as much done as I can before or after the conference. At the airport is when I do most of my catching up.”

Connect — Before, During and After the Event

While it’s recommended to do most of your regular work before or after the conference, social media allows delegates to stay connected and active during the event. Most conferences today use a dedicated hashtag on Twitter (for example, #CAARCon at the CAAR Conference) to flow all online mentions of the event activities into an easily-accessed feed.

This feed gives delegates an instantaneous source of information for conference goings-on, and can even be a source of information in the weeks leading up to the event date. For example, an exhibitor may tweet about a special limited-time promotion at their booth, or the host organization might share information about a special announcement. When widely used, a conference Twitter feed can be a valuable resource for up-to-the-minute event information.

Twitter can also add another dimension to networking, as its widespread adoption amongst younger and technologically-inclined agriculture workers has made virtual connecting easier and more prolific than ever.

“A lot of the industry people who meet at shows already know each other from Twitter,” says Woods, noting that a “like” or a “follow” prior to meeting face-to-face is an effective icebreaker. “A lot of people are using social media to help them connect in person at shows.”

Posting to social media during the conference itself can be an effective way to share information with your colleagues and customers not in attendance. A small shout-out to a particularly insightful session or exciting announcement not only spreads the knowledge, but demonstrates your interest in the industry and your own professional development.

However, it’s important not to sacrifice your own engagement for the sake of social media – after all, you’ve paid good money to be there. Seymour cautions that too much tweeting can become a distraction during valuable conference sessions. “Individuals retweeting content during a presentation are not fully engaged, since they are looking for 140-character (or less) sound bites,” he says.

To ensure that your attention is fully focused on the presentation at hand, it is recommended to leave social media updates until after the speaker sessions have ended, and  then share the thoughts and sound bites that stood out as exceptionally valuable.

Whether via social media, a phone call or a brief email, making sure to engage and follow up with new contacts after the event has ended is a key step in converting a “nice to meet you” into a valuable industry contact.

Promptness in following up is key, says Hyra, so that you can start a conversation while your ideas and insights are still fresh.

“I try to follow up as quickly as possible, so it doesn’t drift away – for me, or for them,” he says. “That’s much of what I do at the airport – whether it’s sending an email, or making some notes, so I don’t lose track of that information.”

While other industries often lean heavily on digital connections such as LinkedIn to engage conference contacts, Seymour believes that agriculture is still rooted in the fundamentals of networking.

“Agriculture is still about personal relationship building,” he says, “where handshakes and business card exchanges are more the industry norm.” 

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