Networking tips from The Big Easy
By Leslie T. Snadowsky
From staging parades in the French Quarter for thousands of conventioneers to orchestrating fireworks displays over the Mississippi River, planning intimate dinners at world-famous restaurants and hosting business conferences at area 5-star hotels, Diane B. Lyons knows how to throw a party and let the good times roll in New Orleans.
Since 1991 this founder and CEO of ACCENT-DMC, a DMC Network company, has provided meeting professionals and convention planners with a veritable gumbo of local expertise and unforgettable experiences. ACCENT runs 100 programs in every major meeting city in the U.S., as well as in Canada and the Caribbean.
Lyons is no stranger to attending professional conferences and working a room and said her stratagems (and gris-gris) could bring you some luck at your next industry function.
Pass a good time
Certified meeting planner and destination manager Lyons said she has produced events for 10 to 10,000, providing services for conferences and conventions in places like the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and The Caesars Superdome. She also started a side enterprise called ACCENT on Children’s Arrangements, a national company with staff trained to provide on-site childcare services at conventions, conferences and meetings.
Before attending your next event, Lyons said you should have a plan in place. “We all love to go to conferences because they’re in fabulous places like New Orleans or Las Vegas or in Hawaii, and your boss is paying you to go, but what’s your goal? Are you hoping to get one new client? Are you trying to find a mentor? You should come up with a strategy before you board the plane.”
Kindness of strangers
In the Crescent City you can always meet someone new at a Mardi Gras parade, and Lyons stages at least one a week for her clients. Featuring second-lines and Mardi Gras Indians, Lyons said parades are an exciting way to move groups from one venue to the next and draw people to your events and exhibits.
Lyons said the best way to meet new contacts at a convention is to ditch your work-krewe. “At a conference, don’t sit with people you know,” she said. “The stranger you’re sitting next to might be the client you’ve been looking for. And when conferences are broken into different tracts, spend some time attending events that aren’t in your tract. You’ll hear new ideas and meet new people.”
Lyons said most conferences offer a specialized app that attendees can access to find out the latest information. She said some even include games and prizes for making the most connections.
“There are some people who are so competitive,” she said. “Before the conference even starts some attendees have already accumulated 100 points when maybe the goal is to get 500 points. Connect to the app, and find out who you know, who you want to know and where you want to be. I recommend uploading your photo and adding where you’re from and what events you’ll be attending. That way people who want to meet you can keep track of where you are.”
Show me something, mister
Lyons’ destination management consulting and event-producing company provides authentic New Orleans experiences to her clients to make their events more memorable. She advocates bringing experiential events on-site because when attendees take part in informal hands-on experiences together, it’s a memorable way to meet meaningfully when everyone has their guard down.
“I went to a conference a year ago, and there was a place where we were all making flower crowns,” she said. “We sat with people we didn’t know (yet) and were surrounded by buckets and buckets of flowers and wires. Even the guys made headdresses. It was a great interactive opportunity. At another convention we were painting shoes for children in need. They gave us plain white Vans, and we decorated them. Those kinds of breakouts make it easy and fun to network. As a conference planner, you want to have hands-on activities that break down the boundaries between people.”
After spending a few days meeting new contacts and exchanging business cards, it’s time to keep your connections fresh and viable. Whether you send a note or interact via text, email, videoconference, or through social media, this is where the work really begins.
“I think preparing for a trade show or a conference is half the battle,” Lyons said. “The followup is most important. When your event is over, do you just go back to your regular routine and then don’t follow up or try to connect anymore? That’s when it’s the most important time to follow up. Writing notes to new contacts stating where you met them, what you talked about, what your connection was, is the best way to develop deeper connections.”