5 Ways to Make Your Travel Conference Count
Travel conference season is upon after a long hiatus. If you're a travel agent in 2021, it may be that you haven't traveled in nearly two years. (For those who aren't travel advisors, this is approximately two decades in standard human time.)
Travel advisors' sorely neglected social networking muscle needs to be exercised. And by social networking, I do NOT mean Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, TikTok, or Zoom. I mean face to face, IRL, mano e mano, talking to an actual person—or (GASP!) a group of industry peers—sitting across a table from you. You might even hug them!
Well, I have good news. The peak season for travel industry trade shows and conferences is returning. In a typical year, a travel conference offers a reprieve from the isolation of working at home, offering the opportunity to discover fresh business ideas and engage in current industry education. In a post-pandemic year like 2021, it means reconnecting with the very industry peers and community who lifted up one another during what is likely to become the most challenging year for the travel industry in known history.
Beyond my recommendation to give a lot of hugs, and soak up the camaraderie of your peers, here are a few other logical resources and strategies to make your next travel conference count. My goal is to make your networking and learning more efficient so you can maximize your time giving hugs. Let's get started (Spoiler alert: LOTS AND LOTS of LISTS, so make sure your download our worksheet to go along with this article).
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
First things first: How do you decide which conferences to attend? There are tons of travel events to choose from. So here are three things to consider before you black out your calendar with conference commitments:
When it comes to planning your conference, you get to be your own travel agent. Take a long hard look at your budget and don't forget to include 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!
How can this conference help your agency grow? 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!
The other thing to consider is choosing conferences with diverse topics and presenters on its agenda. Do all the panelists, speakers, and attendees look like you? Or do none of the panelists, speakers, or attendees look like? If either of these extremes is true, you're at risk of stagnating. Attend a conference where you feel represented and with panels and events that promote understanding and allyship with travel communities outside your own (whether it be Black travelers, LGBTQ+ travelers, or travelers with disabilities).
If a diverse array of panelists, panel topics, and speakers is not offered, contact the conference organizer and let them know that's what you're looking for in a well-rounded conference experience. Let them know that "business as usual" is terrible for business.
3. Who Will be There?
It’s not about climbing social ladders but making sure you’re around travel professionals who will help you grow professionally. Who are some of the panelists & presenters? What are they talking about? Who else is going?
Perhaps, more importantly, who is going back to the conference 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? Does it align with your mission?
Now that you've made progress on how to narrow down the plethora of travel event options, here's how you can make a game plan to get the most out of your travel conference investment!
Set Goals for Your Conference (and ACHIEVE Them!)
In my other life as a creative writer, I used to attend conferences for the sole purpose of reconnecting with my long-distance writing peers. While this is a worthy cause, you may not be surprised to discover that spending all my time hanging out with people I already knew—while fun—did little for my writing development. (Shocker.)
Here's how you can learn from my mistake: Step by step (Don't fret . . . our downloadable cheatsheet has an exercise where you can complete all of this, so make sure you have it handy!)
1. WRite down three conference goals:
Are your goals networking-focused? Research-focused? Education-focused? Maybe you want to make connections with suppliers from a certain destination, find an industry mentor, learn about group air, or how to customize trips for clients with adaptive needs. The sky’s the limit.
Keep these goals in mind when you choose what events and panels to attend. It will help decide what to prioritize at the conference. Is your goal to learn more about Tulum, Negril, and Banff (heck I don't may, maybe your niche has a far reach!). That will make it easier to prioritize what panels you want to attend, and which booths to hit up at the tradeshow.
2. Write down three action items for each goal
It's easy to make goals, but action items will make sure you achieve them. If your goal is to get your learn on about Palace Resorts maybe your action items will be:
- Go to panel on Palace's Cancun post-COVID resort updates.
- Connect with Amy Jo who booked $300,000 at palace properties in 2019.
- Visit the Palace booth at the tradeshow to get specific updates on your best client's favorite Palace resort location in Ocho Rios.
3. Stay accountable
Here's the kicker about setting a goal. You don't want your goals to stagnate in the "goal-setting" phase. You want to make sure they move onto the "goal achieving" phase.
Keep yourself accountable by sharing your goals with a trusted industry peer, friend, partner, or even an industry-related social media group. Ask someone who is close to you to set aside time with you (5 min.) mid-conference and post-conference to check in on your goal progress.
Ready to start goal-setting? Click below for HAR's conference worksheet. (You can either fill it out as a form online or download the blank PDF to print out and complete old-school style).
Study the Conference Agenda
Some people are good wingers. Maybe you're one of them. But don’t improvise all the way. Really, don’t do it. You want to avoid getting 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.
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. This is going to be really really easy because you've already set a bunch of amazing goals.
Which ones are most aligned with these 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 build in some downtime, but a game plan is great to return to if you feel like you’re beginning to get a little lost.
If you're an advisor, there's a pretty good chance the social butterfly in you flies free on the surface of your being. But if you're on the shy side and your inner social butterfly is still pupating in a chrysalis, then this networking might be easier said than done.
Regardless of your temperament, it's important to focus your efforts. Make a list of at least three people you’d like to meet. (Psst: If there aren’t three people you’d like to reach out to, this is not the conference for you.) Seek them out. Introduce yourself after their awesome panel or pick their brain at a social function.
If you do not need to dig too deep to tap into your social butterfly nature (ahem, I am thinking of a few amazing coworkers 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 tradeshows and conferences. Be yourself. Be interested in others. Networking isn't about social climbing. It's about showing up and owning your professional accomplishments and goals.
Log Their Contact
Don’t Forget to Bring Business Cards (that you had printed at your local print shop). Business cards are your friend. Perhaps this dates, me but I like the old school physical business cards that are shiny (and in very rare circumstances leathery!)
You don’t have to throw them around like confetti (but heck, I won't stop you so long as they're made with recycled paper), but they’re good to have so you can give one to each of the three people you so bravely approached and to all the others you meet along the way.
When you get someone else's biz card, jot down a detail about your interaction with your conference swag pen to help you remember when you follow up. It will help jog your memory and theirs when you connect with them after the conference.
Many conferences will have a smartphone app where you can scan business cards and upload a profile for your agency among other awesome organizational and scheduling tools . . . Hellooooooo 21st century! If yours doesn't get your own. It's worth it. Scanning biz cards into your app is a really good introvert activity when you need to look busy while you take a break from the crowds.
This brings me to our grand finale:
The conference may be over, but your work is not yet done. It’s important to debrief with yourself (or with a new fellow travel professional friend!) once it’s all over. Here are a few post-conference steps to take:
- Update your contacts list.
- Take a look to see if you reached your goals. Would you recommend this conference to a friend? Is there something you'd do differently next year? Did the conference inspire you to expand on your goal?
- Reach out with any conference-related follow-up questions to presenters or new industry peers you forgot to ask: If you're kicking yourself for not asking a question at a panel, reach out to the panelist while it's still fresh in your mind.
- Reach out to new connections: 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.
- Fill out the conference feedback form: Earlier we talked about making sure the conference provided what you ended to expand your professional horizons and leave you with a few actionable takeaways. If the conference lacked representation or diversity in points of view, this is a great time to let them know.
The worksheet will walk you through all of this if you didn't download it already. 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 for other advisors? Share in the comments below, and make sure it's listed on our event calendar.
*Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated and republished on the publish date listed at the top of the article.