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6 tips to get more from a fire service tradeshow

Large tradeshows can be daunting, but these organizational tips will give you a more productive experience

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I first came across the term, “conference commando,” several years ago in a piece by Scott Kirsner in Fast Company magazine entitled “The Conference Commando Field Manual.” Kisner described a conference commando as:

"… people who treat a few days at an industry or professional gathering as a surgical strike that generates value for their company, that helps their career, and that shapes their perspective on the future. These conference commandos live by the guiding principles of an economy built on networks — that whom you know is as important as what you know, and that you have to update what you know by continually encountering new ideas.”

You’re a leader and manager within you’re organization, right? You probably have a “snail mail” in-box at work that’s teetering on collapse, an e-mail in-box that hasn’t been clear since the day it was set up, and more daily “brush fires” than … I get the picture.

So when you have the opportunity to attend a tradeshow to see what’s the “latest and greatest” in apparatus, equipment, and services for the fire and EMS world you want a proper ROMTI (Return on My Time Invested).

And let’s not forget that your organization has got a dog in this fight as well. The cost for registration, airfare, lodging, and meals represents an investment by the organization of at least a couple thousand dollars per person. So your bosses are going to be looking for a good ROTIY (Return on Their Investment in You).

You should have a plan prior to attending one of the major fire and EMS conferences so that you maximize your time. Here are a few of my time-tested techniques for being in the field as a conference commando.

1. Leverage technology to stay informed
Use your wireless device to stay connected with your social media accounts. but with a twist. For example, set up a list in your Twitter account that contains the user name for the conference, for example, @FireRescueIntl was the user name for FRI 2013.

Then add Twitter users that you want to follow during the conference or show. This will keep you in the know about conference or show events, changes to schedules, hours for social events, etc.

You can also use text messaging, instant messaging, direct messages in Facebook, Twitter (and most other social media apps) to keep in touch with other attendees as the day goes on.

2. Divide and conquer
If you’re attending the tradeshow with others from your organization, don’t roam the vendor area like a wolf pack on the scent of a herd of elk. You can take one of two approaches in the use of your people power.

First, access information regarding what vendors will be attending via the show or conference and a map of the vendor area. Determine what products or services you want to gather information about and make a list. Then divide the list among those from your organization who are going.

Second, if you want to scan the environment to gather a little bit of information about a larger number of products or services, divide the vendor display area into sectors. Then assign sectors to individual members attending using a map for each sector. Direct each member to keep moving in their assigned sectors so that they gather a basic set of information from the largest number of vendors.

If you’re going to be there for more than one day, arrange a meeting time and place at the end of the day to compare notes. I’m a huge believer in an end-of-day debrief because you can discuss some of the more interesting things you’ve seen, and keep everyone pumped up for the rest of the show. Schedule a more structured debriefing back at your home base before everyone gets back to their busy routines.

3. Use that camera on your phone
You can use your smartphone or tablet to take notes, take pictures and record videos and gather contact information. The apps available on both the Apple and Android platforms for these mobile devices continue to evolve. This is the real “recon” function of your attendance: gather intel on products, vendors, tools and techniques to share when you return home.

I like the Evernote app because it lets me take the photo with my phone, file it where I can add descriptive text, put it in a folder and add tag words to make it easier to find later. By organizing as you go along you’ll save yourself time sorting through notes and photographs trying to remember why you were interested in a particular vendor’s products or services.

I also use my phone to take a photo of the new people I meet — along with a quick note about them — and then file those in Evernote in a separate conference people folder. Later when I’m talking to that person on the phone or communicating by email, their picture helps me to make a better connection.

4. Be social
Facebook is a little unwieldy as a conference app. However, the Facebook Messenger app is a great real-time tool for keeping in touch with one or multiple friends during a conference.

You can reach your Facebook friends right on their phones, quickly message them to meet up after the current session, or make plans with entire groups for dinner or other events at the end of the day.

The Foursquare app is a must for larger conferences and tradeshows. When you and your fellow attendees are on foot gathering your intel from vendors, Foursquare quickly shows you where everyone is. Also, since multi-day conferences and shows often have official and unofficial parties after the learning is done, Foursquare helps you quickly determine where the best networking is taking place.

5. Organize business cards
One upside of attending conferences and tradeshows is that they provide great opportunities for networking. One of the downsides is that the more people you meet, the more business cards you acquire.

When you get back home and face the inevitable backlog of work that piled up while you were gone, you’ve got a pile of business cards the size of Mount Everest. The CardMunch app enables you to quickly scan business cards at the show send the card’s information directly to your LinkedIn account.

Another great networking app is Evernote Hello. Once you give your permission to the app, Evernote Hello can connect your DayTimer, LinkedIn profile, Facebook account, phone contacts and more.

6. Organize expenses
Who doesn’t hate getting back home from a tradeshow or conference and having to sort through a pile of receipts to prepare an expense report? Or find out that several key receipts are not to be found? Say hello to the Shoeboxed app.

Use Shoeboxed to take individual pictures of your receipts. The app automatically enters the vendor, total amount, payment type, date and expense category.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.