Networking at trade shows and conferences for entrepreneurs

Making good contacts is one of the most effective ways to establish and grow a small business. Not only does networking and contact building require a little research, so you can find the right contexts in which to sell your wares, but some degree of bravery is also very helpful. Approaching and engaging strangers to discuss your product or service can feel a little unnerving at first, but these networking tips will help you get started on the path towards becoming better connected.

Why do I need to network?

You might have heard the old adage, ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters’. This is only partially true. Your knowledge and expertise is fundamental to the success of your business, but it’s also important that others too are aware of how you can help them and getting to know the right people is a good place to start.

If you are pretty busy at the moment and you’re asking yourself ‘why network?’ then consider the future too. Building a solid network of contacts can assist you further down the road, both in terms of introducing yourself to suppliers and contractors who can assist you, as well as meeting potential customers and clients who would benefit from your business offering.

Finding the right trade show or conference

It’s sensible to spend a fair amount of research time locating the right trade shows or conferences to attend. Look out for trade show marketing in literature relating to your industry or field. You might have to travel to get to the right shows for you, but the journey can pay off.

Find out what the focus of your chosen trade show is and consider the businesses that will attend the event. Some small business trade shows supply a list of the names that are likely to be there. If you do have an idea of who will attend your chosen business networking event, then it pays to be tactical about who you approach. The secondary benefit of meeting new people is not just to get their business, but to place yourself in a position whereby they might recommend you to others too.

Who should I network with?

It’s tempting to want to attend a trade show or conference with a ‘wingman’ (or woman) with whom you can reflect on the information available, but it’s important to mingle independently too. It’s a good idea set yourself the challenge of giving out a certain number of business cards following a fruitful conversation, or collecting the details of a certain number of new contacts.

Other tips for networking events might be to mix things up by sitting with different people during the various seminars or activities. It’s a good idea too to make a note on the business cards you collect of a defining feature of that individual, plus the details of the event at which you met them so you can easily place them later on.

Don’t rule out networking with competitors too. Often a useful contact can be someone who understands the challenges of your specific field. You can share knowledge or perhaps even collaborate on projects. Feeling like you have an ally who understands the obstacles can be a very useful unexpected benefit of meeting competitors.

Other networking ideas might include holding a stall, or offering to speak at particular seminars or workshops, thereby showcasing your knowledge to a wider audience who will benefit from it and may want to reach out.

How to open a conversation

Mingling doesn’t come naturally to everyone – particularly if there’s pressure not to come away from a trade show or networking event empty-handed. One of the most useful networking tips for introverts is to take the pressure off showcasing your own business by asking questions of others instead. This has the effect of opening up a natural dialogue in which you can respond to questions without feeling ‘on the spot’. Asking questions enables you to learn about other businesses that you can work with or benefit from.

Other networking skills include asking the kinds of questions that take you beyond informal chit chat into more focused terrain. Ask questions like: What does your company do? What type of products/service do you offer? What got you into this industry? What does the future of your industry look like?

General questions such as these can be followed by more specific questions like: Can you point me to [title/name]? Or, Who do I speak to about…? Or, Can you recommend a good…?

It’s useful to buddy up with a peer in another field and consider opportunities to refer new contacts to them and for them to do likewise. This can be a constructive, reciprocal way of networking. Discovering how to build a business network is partly trial and error, but being prepared with some solid opening questions, armed with your business cards and knowledge, and willing to develop the connections you make in the longer term will help you along.

How to continue the new business relationship

Don’t abandon your contact after your conference. Follow up swiftly by email, on a phone call, or arrange a one-to-one meet-up. Connect to their LinkedIn profile and publish articles on there that are relevant and of interest to prospects and let them know about it. They might even be interested in sharing your work with their other connections.

Business networking continues long after the business event, so connect with your new business relationship at intervals. Maintain contact intermittently, even if it’s to send them a short email or notify them of an opportunity that might benefit them. Don’t allow too much time to elapse before your first connection, but don’t pounce on them straightaway. Keep the focus on their needs and your own business needs stand a greater chance of being met.

Now you’re making new contacts and your business is becoming more established, the next step is to make sure you have the right level of business insurance . Contact us to find the right level of cover for your enterprise. 

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