Many small businesses are gearing up for conference season. It’s a time that relished by those who love the networking, learning and parties. And it’s a time that’s dreaded by others – those who can’t stand another exhibition booth or business card draw.

I’ll admit that I avoided the conference circuit for many years. When I first started out in business, I felt that the prices were steep and the benefits dubious. But when I decided that I had to invest in my business (and myself) in order to grow, I realised that conferences were a one-stop shop. In a couple of days, you could do all your research under one roof, meet a tonne of industry contacts and learn a few things along the way as well.

Apart from the wide range of conferences available in Australia, I’m meeting an increasing number of entrepreneurs who are being seduced into attending industry-specific conferences offshore. I did that myself at the end of last year when I went to Los Angeles for an online marketing conference for entrepreneurs.

I recently spoke with Sydney-based small business entrepreneur Philip Shaw, who runs search engine marketing consultancy CleverClicks. Last year, Shaw spent a month travelling around the US attending four separate conferences. He believes the benefits to his business were well worth it and describes some of the experiences as “life-changing”. This is a big call for attending a conference. So why does he rate it so highly?

1. Why did you decide to go to four conferences in a month last year?

“One of my main competitive advantages is professional development – that’s why I make it a priority to regularly attend conferences and training. Whilst I am a big supporter of Australian conferences, in the field of online marketing, the US is still the place to be. I try head over every 12 to 18 months.

“It makes sense to choose the right time of year where I can attend a few conferences in the same trip to get the biggest bang for my buck. I also participated on some invaluable Google endorsed training in New York and Los Angeles which is not available in Australia.”

2. On what basis did you choose your conferences?

“As I’ve attended quite a few online marketing conferences over the past few years, I have learned which ones are most worthwhile. I find the best ones are well worth the price premium that they charge. The quality of the keynote speakers is an easy way to gauge the quality of the conference. Sitting in boring sessions is very frustrating, so it pays to put in the research hours.

“I generally favour conferences that have been running for a number of years. In terms of content, I try to get a balance of sessions on the skills required for the services I currently offer, but also some views of the where the internet and web business models are heading.”

3. Did you find them useful? That is, did you walk away with implementable ideas for your own business?

“Absolutely! They are life changing. I really felt like I had taken a giant step up since returning from my last trip. My clients are experts in their business and not online marketing, and rely on me to know where the industry is heading and what is most relevant for their businesses. The networking is also invaluable. I made some excellent industry contacts that I will look to build on in coming years.

“I strongly recommend using the social tools on the conference’s website to help networking with other Aussies, and foreigners. I have recently hired an Aussie guy I met in a New York conference. We had connected a month before on the conference’s website for a ‘beer meet up’.”

4. Did you have much time for “time off” during this period?

“I attended 20 days of conferences/training in five weeks and still had to run my business so there was very little time for touristy things. I had been to all the cities before so I didn’t really feel like was missing out. I made time for some exercise and that was about it. In the future I will try schedule a bit more for time off.”

In addition to Philip’s tips, here are a few of my own.

* Ensure you have at least a day on either side of the conference to settle in and recover.

Conferences are long days and hard work. If you think you will fly in and fly out, while squeezing in the conference, I guarantee that you won’t be awake for half the sessions – especially if you are still recovering from jet lag. Don’t try to be Superman and be realistic about what your body can cope with over a three- or four-day period. Plus, adding an extra day gives you time to follow up with people to consolidate the new relationships you’ve started in the lobby bar.

* Stay in the nearest hotel, ideally the same one the conference is being held in.

The last thing you want to be doing is traipsing a long way to your own hotel, laden with folders and other conference paraphernalia. Nor do you want to be queueing with hundreds of other conference-goers for the loo! You can just head back to your room and escape the hordes. And remember, some of the best networking is done in the lobby, so staying in the hotel means you have a great excuse to hang out there.

* Choose your conferences wisely.

I agree with Philip Shaw in that you should review the keynote speakers and consider the reputation of the conference for shelling out the cash to attend. In addition, I recommend that you speak to people who have been to the conference before. If you don’t know anyone, you will often find testimonials on the conference website from people who have gone in previous years. Contact them and ask for their honest opinion. That’s what I did before I went to the online marketing conference last year and, thanks to the glowing reports I heard, I was convinced. (And yes, the investment was worth it.)

Overseas conferences offer you a different perspective on your industry and your business. Getting there, particularly from Australia, can be a considerable investment. But they can also give you a competitive edge and a headstart on innovation.

By Valerie Khoo


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