March 21, 2016

Last week, I completed my breakfast taco research, packed my bag, and hopped a plane to Austin. My mission: test out the validity of Relate’s seven tips for making real connections at conferences. Where better to observe the challenges and triumphs of conference connections than SXSW—a conference beast drawing over 80,000 attendees from around the world. I’m happy to say that most of the tips worked: I came away a handful of new peer contacts, a few business connections, and I reunited with an old conference buddy. Here are a few observations:

The conference uniform is alive and well

The conference ‘uniform’ is meant to make an attendee stand out in a sea of strangers. Think an eye-catching hat or a brilliant white suit amongst many constant blues. While true, what we didn’t initially recognize is that the effectiveness of a conference uniform is directly tied to the scale (and character) of the conference. For a customer service conference of 500, my daily polka-dot dress might be recognizable, but for 80,000 unique SXSW attendees…not likely.

For a customer service conference of 500, my daily polka-dot dress might be recognizable, but for 80,000 unique SXSW attendees…not likely.

Enter the king of conference uniforms. One that defies all limitations. Not only would it work in an event of hundreds but it was the most eye-catching uniform at SXSW 2016. The king of conference uniforms is the “Where’s Waldo” costume. Yes, from the book. I spotted him—score one for me—each day in crowds of thousands. Holding court at a hotel bar, charging his phone outside of a panel, and crossing a crowded street. Each time I saw “Waldo” he was surrounded by other attendees who were taking his photo, exchanging information, and connecting with him. I was always rushing to my next session so we never personally spoke, but to this man, “I salute you, Waldo SXSW 2016, you know how to work a conference uniform.”

ABN: always be networking

We wrote that conferences are better when you take in as much as is meaningful versus as much as is possible. This protects you from the dreaded conference hangover where you can’t remember whom you met or why they were important. That being said, while you want to have a healthy balance of activities and rest, you should always be prepared for an impromptu networking moment. I heard two women sharing information while sitting next to each other in bathroom stalls. A colleague met Ludacris, the rapper in the hotel gym and again later in the elevator.

A few ways to prepare for spontaneous connections:

  • Have an elevator pitch ready: your name, your company, why you are at the conference, That last bit is for starting a conversation.

  • Ensure you have an easy takeaway for your new connection. That can be a business card, your Snapchat name, or bottle opener emblazoned with your email address.

  • Smile, listen, and get their info. It’s not easy to make a great first impression when you are decaffeinated, dehydrated and exhausted. But a smile and a few questions can go a long way! Get their contact info so you can follow up once you catch a few zzzzzs.

Fortune favors the bold conference attendee

One of our tips from the guide is to “Be Brave” and grab attendee attention by asking questions in sessions. Remember that old saying, “If you have a question, chances are someone else is thinking it too?” This is conference gospel. Over and over again, I heard conference attendees asking the same questions I wanted to ask. Seeing that there were a lot of likeminded people at the conference helped me get over my initial nervousness and finally ask one of my own.

Not only did I receive helpful advice from the panelists, on the long walk back to my seat two additional attendees shared their stories and experiences with me. One of those responses was an actionable suggestion that I can introduce to my organization this week. I would never have gotten this information without swallowing my nerves and making my voice heard.

Be the charger you want to see in the conference

Besides SXSW Waldo, the most popular attendees were those who packed a portable USB equipped charger (or two). Even with the hundreds of charging stations, electronics were constantly running out of juice. Packing a portable charger ensures that you’ll always be in the green. And if you offer your charger to someone sweating bullets at 3%, Pro tip: this works great at airports too.

Were you at SXSW? Did you see Waldo? Let me know about your interesting conference connections.

Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.