These days, professionals are bombarded with emails about this conference and that symposium. There seems to be one for every day of the week and for every topic within your subject. HR seems to be especially bad for it, perhaps because we are ''people people'' who like to talk or maybe because we haven’t really got Continuing Professional Development right yet, so the only thing that managers can think of to give their staff is a conference.
Many training budgets can’t support the cost of these events any more.
A quick trawl of the internet suggests you won’t come away with much change from £1000 for a day of maybe four seminars. But surrounding all of these events is normally a ‘free to enter’ exhibition, the beauty pageant of providers that identify with the target audience of the conference.
Most people I know poo-poo this part of the day as running the gauntlet of grabby sales people and having been on both sides of the event as exhibitor and attendee I have sort of mixed emotions on the use of them. However, over the past few years, finance being what it is, I have seen a step change in the worth of this section of the event to the stage where I am going to try and encourage you to:
Dump the conference and just go to the exhibition!
Even if you don’t want to source any new providers, the exhibitors are paying an awful lot of money to be there so they will be showcasing the best of their products. At the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition that I went to, there was the latest in digital learning, suppliers of on-demand printing (great for independents), people who have spent time working through the Apprentice Levy, digital publishers and people that take the legwork out of wading through courses for the busy professional.
Of course there were venues and the odd smaller niche provider but these days they know most people come with something in mind and exhibitors would rather spend their time with those who want to talk to them rather than randomly grabbing people in the hope of evangelically turning you into a lead – though some still do and you soon realise who they are by the hungry look in their eyes!
Remember though, these people are human and apart from the really busy times around lunch they might just appreciate not having to give the same patter on a 5 minute loop.
Just wandering round I managed to pick up the trends and had some really good conversations about where other people think the industry is going.
Call it networking with purpose.
I was up-front with people, told them I wasn’t in the market but any provider worth their salt will see you as a possible future client, or if they are polite to you, you might pass on their details and in return you get some really helpful stuff.
I’m not just talking about the free pens and bags, I talked to someone who had studied the Apprenticeship Levy and had produced a guide, I looked at some online learning I want to do, noting a few that I should avoid, and also saw the reaction of others to the products on offer.
The exhibitor hall was also time to speak to other like-minded people, the people who get you and your frustrations, you can talk through what solutions they have and you decide if they offer a suitable product or if you can make the idea your own.
This sort of bouncing ideas round is invaluable, especially if you are in a small team or independent. And of course there is also a full programme of free learning and networking sessions in little ‘crèches’ throughout the arena that might just be the idea you need or put you in very close proximity to another professional to expand your network. Don't be shy with the business cards!
So if you happen to be in the area, or you have a problem you need to sort I would pop in and have a look at the next conference / exhibition for your subject. What have you got to lose apart from a bit of time (set aside two hours and I bet you could fill the day) and so much to gain. Go on give yourself a surprise and see what you can learn!
My top tips for attending HR and L&D Exhibitions
1. Network with a purpose and don't forget business cards
2. Scout cost-free resources for your company
3. Talk with experts for new ideas and insights
4. Keep a look-out for companies you do and don't want to work with
About the Author
Deborah Fairbotham is a Management Development Specialist at Jet2.com and Jet2Holidays.
She has worked in the L&D space since 2003 and has a postgraduate degree in Executive Coaching and an MA in HR and Development from Northumbria University.