Use these 9 tips to boost your conference connections.
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Last fall I attended the CCIM & IREM Success Series conference in Chicago and made some amazing connections during the event. The breakout sessions were right on target and the keynote and general sessions were informative as well. Surprisingly though, I noticed that several networking opportunities were overlooked and missed by many fellow attendees.
Trade shows are really an investment of time and money. Now more than ever before, commercial real estate professionals should focus on the return of each investment in their businesses. Trade shows are not just opportunities to learn about the latest technology and industry strategies — they also are an opportunity to initiate as many new business relationships as possible.
“This is a belly-to-belly business,” says my good friend Jim Tucker, CCIM, a senior adviser with Sperry Van Ness in Richmond, Va. And in fact, it is. Although I naturally gravitate to Jim whenever we attend the same meeting, I rarely spend time with him — or anyone else I know. Trade shows are our best opportunity to “get known” and build future relationships with people we haven’t already met.
During the past 20 years I have attended countless national, regional, and local events. Over the years I’ve tried a number of networking methods and learned several unique approaches from my colleagues. These tips are not only applicable to trade shows but to all networking gatherings and personal meetings. The following nine approaches can help you maximize your networking opportunities and get the most out of your trade show experience.
1.Plan Ahead. Last year at a regional International Council of Shopping Centers event, I watched a group of commercial brokers gather around their company’s booth. In contrast, Robert L. Cohen, CCIM, president of Cohen Properties in Raleigh, N.C., navigated his own course, engaging with everyone he approached. I asked him his secret and he said he planned ahead. He downloaded a participant list prior to the event and identified the key people he wanted to meet. Using a Real Capital Analytics transaction report, he identified properties each prospect owned, the transaction history, as well as the transactional trends he was able to identify. While the majority of attendees simply followed the current, introducing themselves as commercial brokers, Cohen zeroed in on potential clients and discussed their property needs. Who do you think made a lasting impression?
2.Blow Off Your Buddies. When I sit down for a speech during the lunch session at a trade show or conference, invariably most of the seats at my table are occupied by people from the same company. Why waste such a valuable opportunity sharing a meal with someone you see every day? Challenge your co-workers to sit apart and engage in as many meaningful conversations as possible during these sessions or at any conference in general. Make it interesting: Have a contest to see who can initiate the most new-business relationships with follow-up potential. Only share these experiences when you get back to the office and not before.
For example, during the CCIM conference, some colleagues I had not seen in quite some time asked me to join them for lunch. I declined and asked them which breakout sessions they were attending that afternoon and suggested we meet up then. I was upfront with them, explaining that this lunch format was a prime opportunity to meet up to eight people. As it turns out, I ended up sitting with Virginia CCIM Chapter President William C. Overman, CCIM, senior director of retail properties for GVA Advantis in Norfolk, who I had never met prior to sitting at his table. Although Bill probably doesn’t realize this, our meeting was a catalyst to my networking with other CCIM chapter presidents and securing several speaking engagements throughout the U.S. this year.
3.Use the Round Table Approach. After you leave your comfort zone and sit at a table with several strangers, what do you do next? If you are like most trade show attendees, you check your Blackberry and engage in casual conversation with the persons to your left and right. Though you may be interested in the topic of conversation between the two attendees across the table, there are too many distractions.
Sound familiar? Several years ago in a similar situation I made the following suggestion to the individuals at my table: “Excuse me, could we all introduce ourselves? I am here to expand my professional network and I am sure you are too. I always attend these lunches and feel I missed the opportunity to make some quality connections.”
People responded positively and a lively conversation ensued. Next time you are having lunch and staring at your PDA, ask yourself: Is one of the people sitting here with me a potential referral source, client, or lead? If the answer is yes, start a conversation.
4.Starbucks Anyone? There is always a coffee line at a trade show or industry conference. I don’t like coffee, and admittedly I am too thrifty to buy a $5 cup. However, coffee lines are one of the best opportunities to make one — if not two or more — quality contacts. First, you have a captive audience and someone with a common interest in that they are attending the same trade show. Forget the 30-second elevator pitch; you may have up to 10 minutes of complete one-on-one time with your new-found coffee buddy. This is the perfect time to initiate a conversation, find out about one another’s business and services, and confirm the right to follow up. (Always confirm this whenever you exchange business cards with anyone.) And instead of the coffee, I generally buy the $4 bottle of water. While it’s still expensive, the new business contact is well worth it.
5.Acknowledge Business Cards. Scott Rogers, CCIM, managing director of Sperry Van Ness/Real Estate Capital Advisors in Charleston, S.C., introduced me to the practice of accepting and recognizing a business card. Not only does this show a high level of interest and respect, it provides you with a wealth of conversational material.
Most of the time when you give your business card to someone, it is quickly pocketed — and worse — eventually discarded. Perhaps you even do this as well when you receive a business card. Next time, take 10 seconds to stare at the card. Confirm the name, role, location, and services the provider is willing to share with you. Now use this information to start or continue a conversation. Relate the market to one of your past deals, or if a designation logo is on the card, ask how long he or she has been a CCIM. Talk about anything related to the card to show you are listening and engaged. This will make a memorable first impression, and you can be sure a follow-up event is in your future.
6.Play Both Sides of the Card. Nothing is worse than a beautiful office building with lots of empty space, and the same rule applies to your business cards. Less than 5 percent of us make the most of this inexpensive advertising piece. During trade shows you may collect 20 or more cards — how are you ever going to remember each person’s services and the benefits each one can provide for you?
My business card has the staples of name, company, e-mail, Web site, phone, and CCIM designation on the front, but the back also has a list of specialties and services I provide. This maximizes the opportunities for me well after the trade show ends. Announce your specialty, knowledge, and services to the public, and remember to offer your card with the back side up to draw attention to your specialized services.
7.For the Introverted Only. I learned a long time ago that nothing bad will happen if someone blows me off. However, for the more reserved among us, I recommend three easy ways to initiate conversations. First, hang out by the food or buffet table. It’s easy to engage someone in a conversation regarding the latest mystery meat.
Second, take advantage of restroom breaks. If you really want to talk to specific people, catch them in the corridor on the way out of rest stops. They will be alone and more approachable. While attending a trade show in Columbus, Ohio, this practice landed me a meeting with a decision maker of EAS Sports Nutrition in Denver two weeks later.
Lastly, if you are truly introverted, break rule No. 1 and hang out with your friends, but only if they agree to introduce you to a new colleague. This will at least expand your personal network.
8.Go Ugly Early. In commercial real estate circles, this phrase suggests getting the dirt on the table right away so there are no surprises during a transaction. In networking, we occasionally can be too focused on meeting a particular person and bypass scores of potential contacts and opportunities in pursuit of the big fish. If someone is attending the same trade show you are, there is a high likelihood they may have an opportunity or service that will benefit you. Take advantage of all possible opportunities, as the big fish may not always be worth the catch.
Another example of how this approach pays dividends is to take advantage of colleagues’ contacts. A few years back I was at a consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, attempting to reach decision makers in that industry. In this instance, my main target was an individual from Timex, who I had been trying to reach for weeks. A fellow colleague told me she had once worked with an associate who previously worked at Timex, and I immediately asked for an introduction. Within four weeks, I was sitting in a Connecticut boardroom pitching my idea to the same decision maker I had been after in Las Vegas.
9.Always Connect. Introduce your associates to others and your level of respect will skyrocket. On the other end, if I am in conversation with someone and that person doesn’t provide me with his or her full focus, I offer to make an introduction by saying something like this: “I happen to know several people here, perhaps I can help you.” This always gets their attention and gives me a chance to help others make a connection.
Commercial real estate trade shows and conferences are some of the best opportunities to expand your network and ultimately your business. If you take the approach of simply “winging it,” you will gain useful educational information and solidify existing business relationships. However, if you plan ahead and implement some of these simple steps, you may come away with a much stronger professional network and a far greater return on your investment.