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Conferences: A Time To Work 'On' Your Small Business, Not 'In' It

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I make a point of attending at least two professional conferences every year. Despite my last-minute qualms before getting on the plane, I'm always happy -- post-conference. My mind-chatter pre-conference goes a little something like this:

"How can I afford to take this time off when I've got so much to get done back at the office? Is this conference going to give me a return on the money it's costing me to travel there, take a few days off and stay at the hotel? Will the information I learn and the people I meet result in any real business development and acceleration?"

"No matter how much I dread the long flights, early wakeups and late nights associated with conferences, every single one of them has been profitable," says Charles Tran, founder of CreditDonkey.com. "I'll meet people that I think I'll never relate to, but then, surprisingly, six months down the road, our paths will cross, and that random contact is now a great way in the door."

So what's the best way to make sure you get the value you should from a conference? When doing your due diligence consider:

Are the speakers of a caliber likely to offer new insight or highly useful information?
Are the breakout sessions and topics on target with my current interests and level of learning?
Do the types of attendees fit with my business development goals?

If the conference meets the above criteria, then it can be a great chance for you to step back from working "in" your business and work "on" your business instead.

"Live conferences allow the entrepreneur to clear one's head of distractions and begin mapping out a framework, vision and an implementation strategy to grow one's business, increase profitability and become a more competitive enterprise in today's economy," says Charles Gaudet II, President of Managed Marketing, LLC.

How to make a conference worthwhile:

Create a connection strategy: Jasmine Bina of JB Communications says conferences provide a great excuse for cold-calling people you'd otherwise have to get an introduction to. "Find the attendee and/or press lists and scan them for people you'd like to meet and get in front of; then call and set up meetings beforehand," suggests Bina.

Give yourself a technology holiday: Set up your email to send an automatic reply that states you will be away at a conference and will respond by X date when you return. If you have staff get them to handle emergencies in your absence, and instruct them to only contact you when they aren't able to handle a situation.

Finally, leave your BlackBerry, iPhone and other PDA devices in your hotel room when attending conference sessions. If the thought of this creates so much separation anxiety you can't breathe, then commit to only checking your email, voicemail and text messaging thrice daily during the conference -- am, pm and at lunch time.

Apply to speak: Most conferences use a combination of paid keynote speakers and non-paid industry experts for their breakout sessions. If you've got the goods, find out the process for applying as a session speaker at a conference you want to attend. If you're chosen, they probably won't pay your travel but will most certainly comp you for the conference. Being a speaker also has a cachet that will garner you access to other high-level participants at the conference. One hint: Make it clear in your proposal that your speech will be high on content and low on self promotion. The thing conferences organizers fear most - and attendees hate - is someone who hawks their wares from the platform.

In a world where virtual meetings rule the day, the benefits of getting out there and pressing the actual flesh of your peers are beyond measure. So do your research, get out your calendar and make a date to attend a conference. What you learn and whom you meet might just move your business to the next level.

What are your tips for getting the most out of a conference? We would love to hear your thoughts.

This post was originally published on the Xero.com, and is re-produced here with permission of Xero Accounting Software

Karen Leland is a freelance journalist, best-selling author and president of Sterling Marketing Group where she helps businesses create killer content and negotiate the wired world of today's media landscape -- social and otherwise. For questions or comments, please contact her at kleland@scgtraining.com.