If you’re attending Solar Power International with the goal of visiting every booth in the exhibit hall, we urge you to reconsider. You could walk the floor all three days that the expo hall is open, 22 hours in total, never stopping to network with industry peers, attend an education session, or grab a bite of food, and you’d still be hard pressed to see all 700 exhibitors. You’d have about 90 seconds with each of them.

There are many ways to squander opportunities at an industry event when your attention is split between meetings, learning about new products and industry trends, navigating through a sea of people in a crowded convention center, and attending to all the notifications and alerts on your phone.

To help make the most of your time in Anaheim this month, or at any other trade show, we asked a few solar contractors and BayWa r.e.’s own sales manager Scott Snyder for some conference planning recommendations.

All the tips we received share a common theme — go with a purpose and stick to the plan.

Here are some specifics you can keep in mind:

  1. It’s never too late to schedule an appointment

If you walk up to an exhibition booth and start asking questions, you might get five minutes with a company representative. Making an appointment will get you dedicated face time, and more of it. What if the show is just days away and you haven’t booked meetings yet? “It’s never too late,” said Snyder. “Even if you’re on the way to the airport, you don’t know if there’s a rep who has some slots open in the calendar. A good rep will try and make time or follow up immediately after the show.”

Don’t be put off by the idea that meetings are for bigger companies, or only for new customers either. Trade shows give you the opportunity to experience a vendor’s sales process and evaluate customer support. “If you get the cold shoulder from a rep and feel like they don’t want to see you, maybe that’s an indication that they’re not the best partner for you,” Snyder says.

  1. Watch out for rabbit holes

Some exhibitors make a big effort to draw a crowd to the booth. Try to have your most important meetings early so you don’t fall down the rabbit hole, marveling at the latest tech innovation or immersing yourself in conversations until time runs out on the day.

Barry Jacobson, President of Solar Impact in Gainesville, Florida, planned an early arrival in Anaheim to attend an off-site meeting of the Amicus Solar Cooperative, a jointly owned group of local contractors who band together to share best practices and participate in group purchases. “That’s a big part of what we’re doing [at SPI],” Jacobson said, reconnecting with other members of the coop, meeting vendors, and engaging in workshops about energy storage and safety.

Chris Koczaja, the CEO at Lightwave Solar in Nashville, Tennessee, generally spends about half his time in the exhibit hall paying attention to what exhibitors are saying about new products and the other half taking note of the conference attendees around him. “You get to see who else is talking to all these exhibitors,” he said. In doing so, Chris can initiate side conversations and gain more insight into what’s happening in the market.

  1. Start converting weaknesses to strengths

Anytime you’re out representing a company in public, especially in front of industry peers, it’s natural to try and leave people with a positive impression, sharing knowledge and demonstrating your ability to solve problems. “It’s easy to look at what your strengths are,” said Snyder. “Maybe take a deliberate look at what are my deficiencies.”

Maybe you’ve struggled at some point in the past year with cash flow management or inventory management. Whatever the weakness is, build into your conference plan some opportunities to talk about the challenges you’re confronting and ways to resolve them.

  1. Return to work with a purpose

The first few days back in the office after a week away can feel as hectic as the conference itself. You may have to catch up on email, voicemail, and deadlines that can no longer wait. Before you leave for a trade show, plan a team meeting for right when you return, while ideas from the conference are still fresh in mind and before you get swept back up into the usual routine. And bring back a shortlist of takeaway messages that you can use to implement change in the company.

Last year, Lightwave Solar identified SPI as an opportunity to learn about residential energy storage products. Knowing most of the vendors would be in attendance, Koczaja and other attendees from Lightwave Solar prepared questions in advance and collected answers during the show. “We came back with a lot of information that we were able to disseminate to the team,” he said. After the show, Lightwave Solar ordered LG Chem lithium-ion batteries from BayWa r.e. and started installing them for residential customers.

  1. Don’t forget to have fun

Attending a weeklong conference can leave anyone feeling like you need a vacation, or at least a serious foot massage after walking the trade show floor. Remember to take care of yourself, drinking plenty of water, eating healthy food, and enjoying some leisure time when you can.

Barry and Elaine Jacobson, who run Solar Impact as a husband-and-wife team, have used SPI as a jumping-off point for visits to the Grand Canyon and Bryce National Park and Zion National Park. These kinds of side trips can sweeten the deal when SPI is in Las Vegas, “our least-favorite destination,” said Barry Jacobson.

“It’s always fun,” he said. “It’s fun to have someone else buy you drinks, see people, and talk to people who can relate to what you’re doing.”

To help with all of these, BayWa r.e. Solar Systems has a lot planned at SPI.  In our booth, you can enter to win free products, play our “Giving Game” to support solar charities and attend Happy Hour. We have meeting opportunities, as well as our r.e.lax lounge, a private meeting room on the second floor of the convention center accessible to our customers.