For seasoned attendees, the hallways, session rooms, and networking events of the National Conference & Business Fair (NCBF) can seem like an annual reunion of friends, colleagues, and collaborators. Yet every year we also welcome new faces with fresh ideas and bold voices in need of support.
In the first installment of our three-part themed NCBF “Let’s Chat” series, we sat down with members of the 2016 Host Committee to discuss topics on every attendee’s mind—including how women business owners can prepare, implement a plan for success, and follow-up with potential clients.
In a conversation moderated by Laura Berry, Founder and CEO, of Cogberry Creative, LLC, the conversation with Sheila Benson, CEO, Employment Screening Services and Terri Hall, President, Doubletake Studios Inc. tackled the do-and-don'ts and the ins-and-outs of WBENC's landmark annual event.
Here is an excerpt of that conversation:
Everyone has been the newbie before. Do you remember your first time at the National Conference & Business Fair?
Sheila: My first conference was in New York in 2003. We'd just joined WBENC, and we just jumped right in and exhibited as well. So I took on a whole crazy schedule because I thought I needed to meet everyone at everything. It was so overwhelming. It was just absolutely crazy, because I had no idea what to expect.
The first thing that I tell everyone now is: "Prepare before you go. Look at all the companies. Take your time." Today, the conference is so much larger than it was then. Take the time to prepare before you go because it will be worth it. We haven't missed a year since then.
Terri: The first one I attended was the year after Sheila, probably 11 years ago in Las Vegas. I'd recently become certified in 2004. I really didn't know what I was doing with the certification, other than I had a client who was certified and said, "Oh, you should get certified." I went to this conference and, it was a little intimidating at first, but I met a couple of WBEs on at that first conference that I'm still in contact with to this day. Really, I ended up not focusing as much on corporate contacts, because I found numerous WBEs who could use my services. I really have enjoyed doing that. It works for my business.
So what are some direct tips for a first-time attendee preparing for this event? What can business owners do to prepare for the WBENC NCBF?
Sheila: Do your research. Look into who's there. I would prepare by knowing whom I wanted to see and only target those people, because it is overwhelming otherwise. You only have so many hours, and spending your time going down the Business Fair rows and giving everybody your business card is not going work.
I think if you do your due diligence, and you know who the contact is that you want to meet or you want your card or your information to specifically go to someone, then you know exactly what to say to them, and you know where they're located. You've prepared your conversations. If you have specific handouts that might be viable for them to make a decision, or you know if an important RFP or opportunity is coming up on their schedule—you need to know that.
Another WBE may be able to make that personal introduction, and sometimes that means putting in a little more time. Once the workshops are available, see if there is anyone you want to see are at a session, then get there early because they fill up and that's certainly a great time to meet the facilitator and panelists or to get a personal conversation with them after it's over.
I take five or six people with me, and everybody has a target of four or five people they want to meet or companies we want to work with. I try to find out who within that organization is going to be an advocate for us, and then we would send out something, telling them we're going to be there, asking them for an opportunity to just take a few minutes of their time when they're there.
We ask for a drink or lunch or just 10 minutes even. We start early. Then, we would wait for a response. If we don't hear something, we'll send a follow-up. If they do confirm time, then as we get closer, a couple of weeks out, we send another notification and then right before we left, we would send another.
Our goal is that they know we were truly focused on just them. They're extremely important to us and they're not just part of the herd. You've prepared. You have your messaging ready. They know you have something important you want to talk to them about. That works for us.
Terri: All first-time attendees should attend the session specifically designed for first-time attendees. It’s really helpful. Don't bite off more than you can chew. I think when you're going to NCBF for the first time you need to do a lot of observing and learn how these interactions go on.
I'm thinking sometimes the observation and educating yourself a little bit to understand how some of the things work will help you.
Also, take advantage of your Regional Partner Organization (RPO) and ask them to introduce you to different people. Use them as your conduit to meet others. I know many times, if I've wanted to meet someone, all I had to do was ask my RPO leader Nancy Allen, (President & CEO of Women’s Business Development Council of Florida) who was more than happy to make those introductions.
Being involved locally is important. One of the WBEs in my RPO is an etiquette expert, and we’re learning about dressing for success at a local event this evening. We have a lot of people coming to it, which is exciting. I'm also active on the board of our RPO, and when I go to south Florida for business, it's nice to get to know other people within your region as well.
I always tell people to arrive the day before the conference because there are opportunities to have meetings before the conference even begins. What do you think about that?
Terri: Since I became involved with the Women’s Business Enterprise Forum, I’ve always arrived a day early anyway. I always felt I've gotten more accomplished by being there early. Now, I actually like to be there half a day earlier than the day early. If we're there for Monday for the Forum, I like being there Sunday afternoon/early evening, because it gives you me additional time with some of the people that you want to see. I would definitely recommend that.
Sheila: I totally agree with that. I think people are a little more casual on that day. They tend to let their guard down a little, and so it's a great time to meet people in different settings and just to have a casual conversation, and that sometimes leads to more.
Terri mentioned how to prepare and dress for the conference. What should attendees expect to wear?
Sheila: I think first and foremost to have a lot of business cards. But I believe in dressing for success, which for me is business wear. There are some opportunities for business casual, and then the final night may be a little dressier or business formal or cocktail. I think it's kind of like a job interview, honestly. I think that you feel better about yourself, and people are going to take more notice of you if you're dressed professionally. Be comfortable, because you're going to be walking a lot. The four-inch heels probably aren't the greatest choice—even though I love heels—for the trade show. But we all have lots of experience and have learned how to pack our flats in with our heels too. It’s just smart to be prepared for that. There’s a lot of walking.
Everyone has to deal with day-to-day business and clients. Do you have any tips for how you can keep your focus on the networking and on building these important relationships while having to manage a business at the same time?
Terri: Since I don’t have a big operation, it seems very difficult for me to leave it. Yet, at the same time, I think when your attention's divided with checking emails and typing in the midst of people talking, you lose something.
That's one thing I’ve noticed is with technology getting more and more proficient, we all have a tendency to have our attention divided in two or three different areas and not concentrating on the task at hand. Sometimes it's disruptive whenever someone's speaking. If people could be a little bit more “in the moment” and try to set aside time to contact their office or answer emails and not do it in the midst of workshops and speakers, I think that would be beneficial.
If you’re present, you get to meet more WBEs on a one-on-one level. It can happen anywhere! Honestly, some of the contacts I've met have been circumstantial because we had something in common. In Las Vegas, I met one WBE because we just missed the tram. We started talking and ended up doing work together.
Sheila: I would suggest that if first-attendees come with people, even friends from your RPO, try not to spend all your time with those people. Separate and get a different table for breakfast, for lunch, for seminars, because it forces you to talk with other people, other WBEs from around the country, and it is a great opportunity to learn about other people and find out what they're doing. I've gained a lot of business and a lot of friends from doing that.
How do you follow-up so you can make an impression for next year's conference?
Sheila: We do a lot of personal notes, a lot of follow-up emails. Personal notes make a difference because they get a lot of emails. They do not get a lot of personal handwritten notes. It's just a lost art.
Let's say we find someone we really want to do business with, and they say, “Look, we have an RFP in two years or we just signed a contract.” What we want to do is we want to get on that cycle. Build that relationship. We find that we close more contracts when we have a relationship with someone within the company. If an RFP goes out and we don’t have a relationship, chances are, we’re probably not going to get that business.
So even though your contact may already have a partner or a vendor, find out how you add value. That's the one thing that we're really encouraging our people to do, is form relationships with someone. It may not be the person at the conference. But they might know the right someone.
Just find creative ways to bring value to those particular people, and we'll get a greater opportunity down the line to do business with them. We don't give up just because we don’t have business now. We get on their cycle. It's taken us a while to get there. That's why I think it's important for first-time attendees to know, as they're growing their companies, all of us, like Terri and I, who've learned these things the hard way. If they can take their journey and narrow it just a little bit and do some of these things, the opportunities for growth are tremendous, whether it be other WBEs or Corporate Members.
Terri: That was a great answer. I also send a lot of handwritten notes. My business is a relationship sale. When I get someone’s business card, I usually write notes about the person on the back of their card, so I can remember details once I get back. Usually, something that pertains to them personally or professionally that's distinct about their business. If I happen to be in that area or they're near me, I do try to make connections that way as a follow-up. I do think that face time is always pretty valuable if you can get it, because that is how you build a relationship.
Learn more about the 2016 Host Committee!