February is almost upon us, and that means it’s officially Catersource + The Special Event (CS+TSE) Show month! If Austin will be your first CS+TSE experience (welcome!) or your first conference overall, you may feel a bit intimidated to enter the fold. Rest assured, much of the prep work before heading to the conference remains the same for first-timers and well-seasoned attendees.
Have no fear—we’ve rounded up expertise from CS+TSE veterans to ensure that you’re making the most of your stay in Texas.
Evergreen tips for newcomers and CS+TSE regulars
One thing is true across the board, regardless of how many times you’ve made it to the conference: everyone wants to see strong ROI and maximize their attendance as much as possible. Attending a conference is an investment of time and money, so coming unprepared isn’t ideal.
If you’re unsure where to start, education is your best bet. “Figure out what you really want to tackle this year. It's great to have something specific you're looking to crack so you can use the topic as a sounding board,” suggests Vijay Goel of Bite Catering Couture.
When it comes to mapping out your sessions, Jacqueline Vizcaino of Tinted Events Design & Planning notes, “Don't look at the schedule as just a morning or afternoon block; map out your day and include a variety of education or networking to stay energized—a mix of large and smaller speaker sessions and the exhibition floor. Plan rest periods to rest, nourish (take snacks), and hydrate yourself.”
Kevin Dennis of Fantasy Sound Event Services wants returning CS+TSE folks to come with a clean slate. “Don't assume that everything will be the same as the previous year. There are always updates to the schedule, new sessions to see, and new things to do in each locale.”
Your networking to-do list
Yes, even networking needs a plan of action. Speakers and attendees alike are often so busy on-site, so you want to try and plan ahead as best you can.
According to Shannon Tarrant of Wedding Venue Map, the CS+TSE app is an amazing conference companion, especially for networking. “Take advantage of the app before you go! Log in to complete your profile with a current headshot and make connections with other people in your category. Find out what events they'll be attending so you can meet up in person.”
Dennis adds, “Not everyone will have the same schedule as you, so I would start connecting with people you want to see a few weeks prior if you can. This way, you can schedule a coffee or lunch date early on rather than trying to plan something while at the conference. Most people will have their schedules locked down for the most part by the time they arrive, so don't wait until the last minute!”
“I'm a speaker, so I would never suggest skipping the great educational content,” notes Goel. “However, if you are in a compelling conversation in the hallway track and it’s someone you're really clicking with, make sure to get their information and connect solidly (text, phone, chat) with a scheduled follow-up so that your conversations extend into friendships well past the conference.”
If you’re a returning attendee, Vizcaino recommends, “Reconnect with those you met at previous conventions and plan intentional meals or speaker sessions. Set aside time to see how you may support each other and introduce the other person to at least one other professional they had not met.”
And don’t forget to pack…
There’s nothing worse than getting to your hotel, unpacking, and realizing that you forgot something (we’ve all been there!). Make sure that you’re also considering the locale; it’s a great idea to keep an eye on the weather and put the location into Google Maps to get a lay of the land.
Nora Sheils of Rock Paper Coin and Bridal Bliss advises prioritizing comfort first. “Comfortable clothing and footwear are a must for conferences. Sometimes, speakers are spaced out, and there can be quite a bit of walking. AC can be blasting at times, so bring a light sweater or coat if you chill easily. Don't forget snacks. Bring some protein bars or snacks to tie you over until you can grab a good meal.”
And then there are some things that you might simply not know to bring if you’re a first-timer. Tarrant says, “Here are the top things that I see people forget when they attend conferences: a portable charger for your phone, a refillable water bottle, small snacks, a comfortable tote bag or backpack, and, believe it or not, business cards.”
With Austin being a central location for industry pros, Catersource + The Special Event is well worth the trip for continued education, the tradeshow experience, and connecting with peers from all over the country. We’re hopeful that this year will be its best yet–I can’t wait to see you there!
Meghan Ely is the owner of wedding PR and wedding marketing firm OFD Consulting. Ely is a sought-after speaker, adjunct professor in the field of public relations, and a self-professed royal wedding enthusiast.