Writers Guide to Choosing a Trade Show

What’s on the iPod: The Wrestle by Frightened Rabbit


It’s been a nice, short week for me. I was off on Monday, and now I’m in Cape May enjoying some time off. Okay, as a hurricane bears down, but it’s an adventure, and it means I’m not in front of a project. It’s been a busy summer. I’m ready for a short break.

In a conversation over on Anne’s About Writing Squared forum, the discussion was around deciding if a particular conference attendance would be worth the money. It’s great to say “I’d love to go to this” but if you’re spending close to $1,500 (as in this particular case), you need to know if the potential is there to connect with people who will hire you.

Not all conferences and trade shows are alike. For example, an association I belong to has an annual conference. It’s an educational conference for writers and editors. What are the chances I’ll be able to sell to other writers? Pretty damn slim. And frankly, that is a conference to attend to learn new skills and meet other writers and editors.

What conference or trade show to attend is going to depend greatly on the mix of people at whom the conference is aimed. Are you about to attend a nursing conference with nurses in attendance? Unless there are plenty of vendors, there’s no point. Nurses rarely need writing services. However, that one-day finance seminar I attended worked because I sat next to people who were indeed in the business of hiring a writer.

So what do I look for in a conference? This is my list. Yours could be different, but you won’t go wrong if you start here:

Exhibitors. I look at how many companies are exhibiting. Why? Because those are your potential clients in most cases (not all). The more, the better. My chosen conference has over 2,000 exhibitors. Plenty of opportunity. Would I attend one with hundreds? If it fit with my background, sure. With ten? Probably not worth it.

Press passes. I attend one that gives out press passes. To qualify, you have to show that you’ve been published or writing in that area for the last year. Easy — I write for the association magazine. I maintain a blog on the industry, as well. However, some conferences have no requirement. You simply walk in and get a free pass. Since many conference fees can run into the thousands, free is what you’re after. In some cases, press passes are not given out. If that’s the case, you really need to consider if the price paid is going to be justified by the work you receive.

Attendees. In one case, I attended a financial seminar because the attendees were both marketing people and senior management people who would be in the position to hire me. It was an intimate meeting — under 100 people. That gave me time and opportunity to shake hands, have conversations, and ask questions. If you’re considering an event that has a small attendance, make sure the people you’ll be around will be in a position to hire you.

Distance/cost. I’ll admit I skipped my chance to go to Hawaii. The conference was held there right after the recession had hit, and the cost of airfare was prohibitive, as were the hotel charges. Plus, I’d talked with a number of regular attendees who weren’t going because of the cost. Good thing I stayed home — the attendance was dismal that year. Consider how much it will cost you to attend. Will you have to buy meals or are there plenty of parties and hospitality suites? (I bought one meal in New Orleans, and that was a lunch on the way home.) Is the venue easy to afford or are you going to be in it for thousands? Is it close enough to make sense?

Prep time. I like to give myself a good six months of prep time before a conference. You could get ready within three months, but my process of setting up meetings starts early. I’m trying to appeal to vendors who will need new marketing materials for the show. You could simply go in with the goal of getting a face-to-face meeting to discuss future projects. Either way will work.

Desire. Some years I just don’t want to go. Two years ago my conference was in Denver. Yes, I would have loved it, but it was wedding madness here at home. I couldn’t justify going, and my head wasn’t in that place. Too much wedding stuff happening to concentrate on the prep. Maybe you feel compelled to go, but the venue or the time of year just doesn’t appeal. Nothing says you have to. And nothing stops you from contacting your potential clients without attending the show.

Writers, do you go to trade shows, seminars, networking events or conferences?
How do you decide what event you’ll attend?

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