Five Ways to Boost Your Career at a Trade Show

Woe for those who rely on job boards and advertisements to advance their careers.  The cold truth is that most job vacancies are filled by word-of-mouth referrals and established relationships.

If you are ready to cultivate job opportunities rather than idly wait for them, take a look at trade shows.  You will have to be on your game in this high-energy arena.  Whether you’re actively looking for change or just flirting with the idea, these tips will help you attract the attention and earn the esteem of your target employer.

Note: While trade shows boast a concentration of real decision-makers, these people are primarily there to do business, not hire new talent.  Don’t treat this like a career fair. Focus your energy on nurturing relationships and gathering intelligence for later follow up.

How to Cultivate Career Opportunities

1. Plan Ahead

Compile and research a specific list of target companies and contacts that you would like to get to know.  Leverage what connections you have to get email introductions.  If nothing else, buck up and make that cold contact. Start small, stay targted, and set realistic goals.

Don’t expect or request much one-on-one time; 15-minute appointments arranged beforehand should suffice. When trying to set up these exploratory meetings, be candid and honest: simply state that you are ‘interested in expanding your network of industry relationships and you want to connect with [target’s name] because of his or her mutual interests, reputation, or position in the industry.’ If your target contacts are unable to schedule a block of time, they may be open to your dropping in for a quick ‘hello’ on the fly.

Unless you are openly job searching, be discrete; word travels fast.  There is an assumed risk if your current employer thinks that you are actively looking for a new position.  Having said that, it is perfectly normal to listen for long-term career opportunities; we all have a friend who is ready for a new job.

2. Use Discretion

The trade show floor is not the most discrete place nor the best time to vent frustrations with your current position.  Never criticize your present employer or shirk your responsibilities; think of the impression it could leave with your target contact.  If you do hint about your company-switching motives, stay positive and keep the door open with a position like: “I love my job, but at some point I may be looking for a new challenge.”

3. Muster your Mojo

Forget about how tired you are. Bring your “A” game.  Dress smartly.  Have fun. Get in your zone.  Give more energy than you take.  Take advantage of social events like parties, breakfasts, dinners, or speaking events.

More than making casual connections or ‘putting a face to the name,’ your goal is to get to know your target contacts and leave them wanting more.  Enter meetings with the intention to ask questions, to learn about your target’s interests, and to ask about the work that he or she is most passionate about.  Everyone loves attention, so be as genial as your personality allows. For more ideas, check out Leil Lowndes’s great book “How to Talk to Anyone”.

4. Bring a Buddy

I love working a room by bringing someone who is either “introduction worthy” or well connected.  You’ll help each other make more connections.  Your buddy’s praise will take you farther than touting your own accomplishments solo.

I like to walk the floor with other successful long-term consultants.  Lawyers, bankers, recruiters, marketing consultants, and private equity investors are the biggest connectors because they work for multiple companies within the industry.  Many have worked hard to earn professional equity.  If they feel you are worthy, they will spend some of their relationship capital to make credible introductions for you. It is also fun to reciprocate by making meaningful introductions for them too.

5. Serve Appetizers

Be prepared to share something about your recent, best work in the public domain.  Build interest without dominating the conversation.  For example, you might say that you have been working on a social media marketing campaign, and you recently launched a viral video that complements your brand and product strategy.  Don’t go into details, leave them wanting more.  After the trade show, your basic “Nice to meet you” follow-up note could include a link with a casual “Check out that video I directed.” You can’t just talk a good game, you need to be the real deal.

Quality over Quantity

It is important to remember that quality is more important than quantity. Set realistic goals and remember to invest heavily in the relationships that you have already established.  All relationships need to be nourished, so do everything you can to be of service to your network.

Yes, this will take some extra effort.  You will have to hustle to apply these principles to your trade show routine consistently.  The reward is worth it. Gradually, you will build more meaningful relationships in the industry and earn access to the largest pool of career opportunities; the ones that are never posted.  With time, you and your hard-earned connections may become the vital link for other ambitious and talented people who are deserving of the best opportunities.