Recruiting at Professional Events Is a Powerful but Underused Tool

Why Recruit at a Trade Fair or Professional Conference?

Unlike a job fair, in which people decide to attend on their own, a trade fair or a conference is a gathering of the very best professionals in any industry, who all are sent by the company. Because they are sent by their firms, you can generally be assured that they all are the top-performing managers, salespeople, and technical experts.

Having all of the top people in an industry together at once in a single building is an opportunity too good to pass up if you're looking to recruit the best. One top firm found that 80 percent of the people who walked through their trade-fair booth at the largest industry conference were employees of direct competitors who were seeking out information about them. This provides a smart recruiter with a great opportunity to turn the tables on these "spies" and to recruit them away using the trade-fair booth.

Most companies under-use or under-appreciate the value of recruiting at professional events, and only a handful or recruiting directors have even looked at the ROI of recruiting there. A while back, when I was the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, we looked into the efficiency of recruiting at professional events and even college vacation events. What we found was that, when adequately designed, this recruiting strategy produced spectacular results.

Think about recruiting at industry conferences for a minute. Where could any recruiter get the opportunity to have literally thousands of the best people in an industry "locked up" in a building over a three-day period? For anyone who is any good at recruiting, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. They can't get away, and if you have your top people recruiting there, candidates might even approach you.

Some additional reasons why event recruiting is such an affective approach include:

  • The best attend. If you've ever been a manager with the travel budget, you know that you always send your best people to the professional conference that represents your industry and function. You don't send a below-average or average employee. You send the employees who will represent your firm well and who want to go. Top performers get to be top performers through continuous learning and networking.
  • They're great for recruiting diversity. There are few things more difficult than identifying whether a candidate is diverse when attempting to scan their resume for indicators. Scanning resumes involves a lot of guesswork and stereotyping and is inaccurate. At a professional event, it's much easier to identify diverse individuals because you can actually see them in person. I know this concept bothers some politically correct people, but the fact is that you can better identify women and people of color when you meet them face-to-face at an industry conference.
  • Unbelievable access. Every recruiter knows that top performers are busy people. However, at conferences and seminars their time is much more flexible. In fact, you can just walk up to them and talk to them. Most conferences have so much scheduled free time that you might get to spend a significant amount of time with them. If you have a booth in the vendor fair, they might even come up and talk to you.
  • Their guard is down. Most professionals are relaxed at conferences and some even view them as a mini-vacation away from their hectic work schedule. The dress-down mode, as well as the opportunity to browse through the vendor hall and even attend parties, puts these top performers in a relaxed mood. As a result, their guard is not up, which is precisely why vendors like these events, because they can get easy access to sell their product. Recruiters need to be as smart as vendors and realize it is much easier to recruit individuals at conferences.
  • Identifying individuals from benchmark firms is easy. Because most conferences issue name badges, it's easy to document individuals who impress you without being blatant. In addition, because the name tags also have the individuals' company on them, you can quite easily track down individuals from benchmark firms.
  • Finding people with the right skills is easy. Because every major conference has clearly labeled sessions and "tracks," you merely need to attend the sessions which involve the skills and the job type that you're recruiting for. Invariably, there will be someone with the right skills in the room.
  • There are great opportunities to assess their skills. One of the best features of recruiting at professional events is that you have many opportunities to identify top people through their actions. Obviously you can assess the knowledge and communication skills of presenters and panelists just by observation. You should also look for individuals who ask great questions and highlight their best practices before, during, or after the individual learning sessions.
  • It is inexpensive. If you use managers to recruit for you at conferences, the cost to HR can be zero, because the top individuals from your firm are attending anyway.
  • You can send your best recruiters. Incidentally, because the individuals who attend conferences are the very best people at the top of their game, they also are well qualified to identify and assess other top performers. In addition, you get an added bonus because these well-qualified individuals are much better salespeople because they actually share professional values in experiences with the people they're trying to recruit. Few HR recruiters can even hope to obtain the degree of credibility that colleagues have with each other.
  • You can recruit and learn. An added advantage to recruiting at conferences is that the people you send to recruit — whether they are managers, employees or recruiters — have the added benefit of learning more about the subject matter they recruit for.

If You Need Proof That the Very Best Attend Conferences…

Finding out or testing if the premise that the very best attend professional conferences is true is actually quite easy if you have a little time. Simply go to your performance-appraisal professionals and ask them to give you a list of the top performers in each of your critical departments.

Then go to the travel department and ask them to give you a list of the individuals in the department who have traveled to the largest industry event in the last two years. Inevitably, you'll immediately see the overlap within your company. The same would be true at other leading companies.

Trade Fair Recruiting Requires a "Subtle Recruiting" Approach

Because the people you're targeting are sent by their firm to the trade fair or conference, they are often in the midst of doing their job. This means that they need to be approached in what I call "a non-recruiting-recruiting" manner.

Although it is possible to set up a direct recruiting booth at some events, it is much more advisable to look at trade-fair recruiting as a name-gathering and relationship-building process that starts at the product booth. Identifying people and starting up a relationship with them is about all you can expect at a trade fair. In-depth selling and convincing is best done at night after the conference recesses or later through email or follow-up phone calls.

Design Elements of a Great Conference Recruiting Program

I recommend that recruiting put together a written plan with goals and measures before they embark on a conference recruiting initiative. Even though conference recruiting can produce excellent results at minimal cost, a well-designed strategy will still impact the quality and the volume of the people you recruit.

Some of the key design elements and approaches that I have found to be successful over the years include:

  • Data-based conference selection. Pick the right conferences to recruit at by asking your own top people which ones top employees attend.
  • Determine who to target. Attempt to get an attendee list before you go, even if you have to purchase it. If it's not available in advance, check as early as possible after arriving at the conference. Try to guesstimate which sessions top individuals will attend.
  • Make attendees accountable. Once you have identified who you are going to target, you should "pair up" your employees who are attending with your targets. Set expectations so that everyone understands their role.
  • Referrals are king, even at conferences. At conferences, as in almost all aspects of recruiting, referrals from "the very best people" are the key to success. As soon as you get the conference brochure, you should be identifying knowledgeable and well-connected people who are speaking at the conference. Then use your contacts and relationships to encourage speakers to provide you with the names of individuals who impress them during the conference. HR should also work with line managers to identify the influential people who are attending (based on an attendee list) so that they can be used as referral sources.
  • Use "take a smart person to lunch" tickets. One of the tools that I recommend is a "take a smart person to lunch" ticket. This coupon merely states in writing that each individual from the firm is expected to look out for "smart people" and take them to lunch while attending a conference. You might not think that it's necessary, but using this form causes a dramatic increase in the number of lunch offers that are accepted. It just turns out that is quite flattering to be approached and told that you're the smartest person in the room.
  • Seek out opportunities to present and be visible. If your people are good enough, serving as moderators, speakers, and panelists are excellent ways of demonstrating to the attendees that the conference developers consider you to be leaders in your field. The visibility of speaking or moderating gives you the opportunity to talk about your company's best practices. If you give a great presentation, you will become a magnet and people will approach you throughout the conference.
  • Ask questions to identify the best people. One of the best techniques for identifying top people is by asking questions during the educational sessions. By standing up and asking a question, everyone will notice you and, provided you ask a good question, top people will likely approach you after the session regarding any best practices that you might have mentioned as part of your question.
  • Using vendor booths. If you're not giving out something silly like yo-yos, you will find that most of the people who go through booths will be serious professionals interested in what you have to say. In fact, a majority of the people that walk through your booth will be competitors, so I recommend that you have a recruiter in the booth. When people manning the booth talk to someone who seems to be at the top of their game, they signal you to come over and enter into the conversation so that it can be shifted towards recruiting. I also recommend that you offer some significant giveaway that is tied to a drawing, so that you can gather business cards (for later recruiting purposes) of all the people who come through your booth. This is especially important if the conference does not give out an attendee lists.
  • Focus group recruiting. Often, companies hold focus groups at conferences to gather information about issues and to evaluate new products and services. But focus groups are also great opportunities to recruit because you have people "locked in a room." You might consider doing focus groups just for recruiting purposes on the topic of "what does it take to be an employer of choice." You can use the event to highlight your great people-practices and benefits, as well as to gather information about what workers expect in a great company.

Most recruiters select their approach based on emotion, not facts or data. As a result, they spend a great deal of time use recruiting sources that produce mediocre hires at best. One prime example of a time-consuming and expensive approach to recruiting is attending "recruiting events." It might seem on the surface that recruiters should attend "recruiting events," but the fact is that you should do the opposite. You should attend the same events top performers in the field do, not job fairs, diversity events, and career centers.

The world of business is changing so rapidly that it is becoming critical for the top professionals to attend industry events to learn about best practices and upcoming problems. As the economy improves, travel budgets will increase and more professionals will be attending.

Because their "guard" is not up at these events, approaching high quality potential hires is easier and more effective than via other sources. It seems strange to me that a recruiting approach so effective is so underused by most major corporations.

I've asked many people why they have underused professional events for recruiting and the best answers I can come up with our that some events have rules against open recruiting (I recommend a subtle referral-based approach, even when the rules allow open recruiting) and that HR's travel budget is frozen so often that they just can't send recruiters to these events.

The latter argument is the most formidable one, but it is easily overcome if you take the time to work with the CFO's office to build a business case for recruiting at professional events. The ROI is high and it's relatively easy to attribute any success directly to the event. I have outlined the approach you need to take; the only remaining impediment is the courage to try something different.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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