Whether you exhibit at an industry conference or simply attend one, there are plenty of benefits to reap. Here are some tips for maximizing what you get out of conferences.

Make New Contacts

The best value of conferences is the fact that you have the potential to meet a wide range of people. They might be good sales contacts, or they could be others in your industry you can collaborate with. You could meet someone you’d like to hire, or someone who can introduce you to a contact you’ve been trying to meet.

The key to keep in mind is that you don’t go to conferences to close sales. You go to network, which means you start a relationship with people. Get their business cards and give them yours, and ask lots of questions about them. Avoid straight up pitching your product, unless they ask for it specifically (if you’re exhibiting, naturally you would do more sales pitching).

Spend time at the mixer events in the evening getting to know as many people as possible. Don’t be afraid to let your hair down and talk about something other than business. That’s the fast way to building a relationship: talking about a contact’s golf game, dog or family.

After the event, send a physical note or email following up. A simple “nice to meet you” usually suffices, but you may want to mention something you discussed as a way to remind the contact about your conversation.

Put it on your calendar to check in every few months, just to see how your contact is doing. If he’s on social media, follow him and engage with him that way. Pay attention to what he’s doing, socially and professionally, and see where the relationship leads.

Learn Something

Industry conferences offer workshops and seminars to teach people in your field how to get ahead. Don’t forego these sessions to network, as there’s value in them as well. Before the conference, look at the schedule and map out your day with the sessions you think you’ll get the most out of.

Take copious notes, and think about how you can apply the knowledge you get at your company.

For Exhibitors

If you’ve decided to set up a booth at a conference, get a strategy beforehand about your goals. Are you trying to sell product at the show? Get contact information of potential clients? Bring all the marketing material you have, as well as visuals that will entice passersby to stop and ask about your product.

A way to get more people to stop by your booth is to offer a valuable giveaway. IPads, not surprisingly, are big giveaway items these days. Have people drop their business cards in a fishbowl, then choose a winner at the end of the day.

Most conferences have machines you can scan attendees’ badges with so that you collect their contact information. Back at the office, create a database in your email marketing system with email addresses from the show, and follow up. You might offer a special post-show discount to this list as a thank you for stopping by.

Post Mortem

After each conference, assess the value it provided. Did you meet enough people to make it worthwhile to attend next year? Were the number of leads enough to justify the cost of exhibiting? You may not have gotten the value you wanted out of the conference; in that case, mark it off your list for the future.

Keep a calendar of conferences nationwide that are scheduled for the next year, and build your plans around this schedule. Look for conferences close by first, then determine your budget for flying to others.