5 Ways to Make Your Travel Conference Count
It’s peak season for travel industry trade shows and conferences. If you’re a home-based agent missing the human touch, or a retail agent digging around for fresh ideas beyond your storefront, can be a short vacation from the isolation of working alone. If you’re a retail agent, conferences can be a goldmine of fresh business ideas. Either way, attending travel conferences can help you sharpen your competitive edge––connecting you with other agents, vendors, and consortia, and keeping you up-to-date with industry trends to so you can attain travel agent jedi status.
But the time and expense of attending trade shows add up fast. So before you master your handshake and pack up your suitcase, it’s important to make a plan in order to maximize your time. Here’s a few tips to get the most bang for your buck (hint, it includes making many, many lists).
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
First things first: How do I decide which conferences to attend? There are tons to choose from. So here’s a few things to consider before you blackout your calendar with conference commitments:
- Budget: You get to be your own travel agent. Take a long hard look at the cost of attendance including lodging, ground transport, airfare and food per day per conference. If you make a conference budget, you will automatically gravitate toward conferences with a higher value to you. If money is tight, go local!
- What is the Topic? And how might it help your agency? Maybe you need a break from industry jargon and would rather attend a social media or marketing conference to help you develop a skill that’s not (technically) core to selling travel. You don’t need to limit yourself to industry events!
- Who Will be There? It’s not about climbing social ladders, but making sure you’re around travel professionals who will help you grow as an agent. Who are some of the panelists & presenters? What are they talking about? Who else is going? Perhaps, more importantly, who is going back and why? Reach out to people who’ve attended the conference before so you can test the waters and see if it’s a good fit for you. Does the conference align with your professional goals?
Funny you should ask. Below is a game plan for trade shows.
Here’s what not to do: I hate to admit this, but I’ve gone to some conferences only because I wanted to see friends who live states away. While this is a worthy outcome, you may not be surprised to discover that spending all my time hanging out with people I already knew––while fun––did nada for my professional development. Shocker.
Do this instead: Ask yourself this: How can this event help me move toward my professional goal or business growth? Write down a goal (or goals) for your conference. Write down a few action steps to help you move toward that goal. Heck, you can even write it down and tack it on your mirror.
It can be anything, whether it’s networking focused, skill-building, or educational/research. Maybe you want to make connections with suppliers from a certain destination; expand your travel agent community; find an industry mentor; learn a little more about GDS; learn about fraud prevention. The sky’s the limit.
A goal will go a long way in helping you prioritize what to do once you get there too. That way, if you do go astray to grab a martini while you miss a panel that is completely unrelated to your goal, you won’t feel as though you missed out in the end.
Don’t do this: Don’t wing it all the way. Really, don’t do it. Please learn from the error of my ways. I promise you you’ll end up lost in a sea of vendor booths. If you go with zero plan, you may risk gravitating toward booths you’re already familiar with or those which are shiny and sparkly but have nothing to do with your business.
Do this instead: The agenda is your map. Study the map. Even if it’s just on the plane on the way over. Make a list of which booths/panels/presentations/seminars are the most important for you to hit up––which ones are most aligned with your goal(s)? What vendors are you selling the most of? Is there a supplier you’ve been having a difficult time reaching directly? Are there any suppliers new to your host that you’d like to check out? What strikes your interest but perhaps you’ve never even heard of them before?
Make a personalized schedule for yourself. Again, it’s fine to stray and to build in some down time, but a game plan is great to come back to if you feel like you’re beginning to get a little lost.
Don’t be Shy: I’m a tried and true introvert, a wallflower at its best. This can be a push for me. But it’s not about selling yourself as much as it is about just being yourself and owning your business and career accomplishments and goals. If someone gives a great panel and it truly resonated with you, don’t hesitate to tell them—even if they have a line of admirers out the door.
Make a list of at least three people you’d like to meet. (If there aren’t three people you’d like to reach out to, this is not the conference for you.) Introduce yourself after their awesome panel or pick their brain at one of the social functions. Ask for their contact info, then stay in contact (more on that soon!). Ask a few follow up questions or express a more detailed appreciation via email (maybe wait a week for this). You might find a peer you can commiserate with or a mentor to guide you.
If you’re not one who needs to dig too deep to tap into your social butterfly nature (ahem, I am thinking of a certain amazing coworker of mine with an infectious sense of enthusiasm), a list can still provide a good structure to make sure you’re connecting to people with purpose. Either way, making genuine professional connections is the bread and butter of trade shows and conferences. Be yourself. Be interested in others.
Don’t Forget to Bring Business Cards (that you had printed at your local print shop). It seems like a no-brainer, but if you’re an artist like me who is mildly weirded out by business cards, it bears a reminder. You don’t have to throw them around like confetti, but they’re good to have so you can give one to each of the three people you so bravely approached. When you get someone else's biz card, write down a detail about your interaction to help you remember them when you return from the conference and your brain is spilling over with information (more on this soon!).
Many conferences will have a smart phone app where you can scan business cards and upload a profile for your agency among other awesome organizational and scheduling tools . . . Hellooooooo 21st century!
This brings me to our grand finale:
The conference maybe over, but your work is not yet done. It’s important to debrief with yourself (or a new fellow travel professional friend!) once it’s all over. Did the conference help you move toward your goals? Is there anything you’d do differently in the future? Are there new topics you’d like to pursue further?
But most importantly, you’ll want to reconnect with new folks that you met at the conference while your face is still fresh in their memory (and vice versa). This is a great opportunity to put your LinkedIn account to work. (And if you don’t have a LinkedIn account, by all means rush to your computer and set one up right now! Do not pass Go!). This way, you can remember who to reach out to when you get home.
The Harvard Business Review has an awesome article that details strategies on how to turn business cards into long-lasting business relationships. Reading it will help you ditch your Rolodex, amp up your tech-savvy ways AND give your social media accounts a major workout.
Because I’m dorky, I made a little cheat sheet for you at the top of the article! If you didn't already, be sure to download it! You can think of it as your conference compass. How do you feel like conferences have helped your business? Are there any conferences you’d recommend to other agents? Share in the comments below!