How To Do IRL Conferences Good (and other stuff good too)

Tips for IRL Conferences, for those used to being an attendee/speaker, to being a professional exhibitor


10 min read

Conferences are expensive endeavors for sponsors: beyond just the booth space, there's booth graphics to order up, swag and demo equipment to ship, talks to prepare, and most expensive of all - the employee time spent traveling and representing the company at the conference.

I've been passing tips back and forth among friends and founders each conference season, so I decided to write some down today.

Read all the way to the end for the best new conference ideas I've seen this conference season.

Before the Conference

Events/Operations Team

  • Hiring professional entertainers: don't be surprised that many tech employees are introverts and not ideal booth staffers. I have seen companies have remarkable results hiring improv comedians (self explanatory, but have to vet/prep), tour guides (great at yelling), portrait artists (people like pictures of themselves), barbers (covid haircuts) and especially magicians (there are dedicated tech magicians who will weave your tech into their patter. NOTE: please make sure the magicians are good... or it might fall flat) to draw a crowd.


  • Booth swag: have TWO levels of swag - "cheap" ones for the low-commitment "just walking by" people, and a "premium" one for "friends of the company"/high level potential customers (e.g. backpacks, collectibles - be prepared to turn away folks who aren't suitable for this).

    • It's quite popular to have shirt printing stations, but they never turn out well and always seem to be a giant waste of money, space, and time

    • make swag/graphics/material generic/reusable/regiftable

      • very few companies make swag for women. Good opportunity if you have a good female swag idea/want to work on diversity

      • Jim Walker at Cockroach Labs introduced donations instead of swag which went to a great cause and reduced junk

      • Swag for devs with kids are usually a hit: we gave a cute purple octopus for Airbyte and every parent descended upon us.

      • Swag for the company brand you are aiming for:

  • Booth costumes. Mildly embarrassing, but always a hit! Make conferences more like conventions!
  • Planning afterparties, lunches, happy hours

    • Try not to plan this blind. The ability of people to come to your side event is very dependent on venue, and vibe. The best situation is to go for 1 year first to identify opportunities, understand the vibe of the conf - some confs are so busy (Kubecon) that you'll never be able to drag people away for a midday event, others (dbt Coalesce) we've had success hosting an afterparty a 10 minute walk away. Never plan an event on the last day of the conf, many many people leave early.

    • Collaborate with other companies to hold bigger events and increase reach, while reducing individual cost. After doing this a few times, I will always look for "friends of the company" to constantly do this with.

    • Make invite only events including branding for VP level and above, which allows you to get high quality facetime with hard to reach folks

    • The main goal of the side event should probably be to increase existing affinity rather than to get people who are completely new

  • Show floor Treasure Hunt (thanks to my colleague Chris Rose)

    • Find friend companies who will also have a booth at the conference

    • Make a treasure hunt/bingo card for people to visit all the booths

    • Split the cost of a bigger prize

  • Well before the conference, let your community know that you will be going, and give your fans instructions on how/where to find you on the exhibition floor and what talks/workshops/afterparties you will be organizing:

    • Website (perhaps prepare dedicated conf landing page) and event calendar

    • Slack

    • Socials

    • Newsletter

    • create short, easy to verbalize URLs for all of the above

Marketing Team

  • Prepare visual aids: a lot of conference booth staffing involves just talking, but it can help greatly to have a demo (video or live demo, including with/without internet). I've been involved in situations where we bought iPads simply just to display key slides while we explain things. I suspect the most important images should also be printed large for the booth graphics, so they can simply be pointed to by anyone:

    • what 1-3 diagrams reliably make people go "ah, I get what you do now"?

    • what social proof can you show? logos, up-and-to-the-right charts, influencer quotes

    • what 1-3 blogposts/videos do you send people to depending on their profile?

  • Have a good call to action: "Here's a brochure" and "Let me scan your badge" are the normal ones, but one of the more effective CTAs I've ever done is having users deploy a site on their phone live at the booth and tweeting about it, building some social proof for others to come by the booth to check out what the fuss is all about. (This is best used in combination with the next tip)

  • Raffles > gifts for lead collection: Humans have a well documented desire for BIG no-lose lotteries rather than small, boring, but sure things. Accordingly, you probably get a lot more leads and interest by spending $5000 on one prize than spending $10 each on 500 gifts.

    • "Lego does ridiculously well" - Kilian Valkhoff


    • To amp this up a bit, create a game with prizes - eg. at the recent Svelte Summit, Storyblook's booth had Speed Tetris, with a leaderboard, that was a huge hit. This makes booth duty fun. Try to make the game on brand for a bonus prize. Prizes can be given onstage at the closing ceremony for extra free exposure

Applicable to all:

  • Deciding who should go?

    • Speakers: Most conferences offer sponsored talks, so offering something introductory/on brand is usually the move, but some folks dislike a straightforward sales pitch ("too vendorey!"). However, you can also go for special situations:

    • Make sure to have adequate staffing. "Staff correctly. Do not expect one person to do all of this. Fewer strategic, well-executed, fully staffed sponsorships > lots of understaffed and haphazard events." - Sam Julien, Director of DevRel Auth0/Okta

    • Overstaffing:

      • Conferences are mini offsites - getting some teams together so they can hang out during/after the conference can be a nice work-related activity

      • Some remote companies just decide to only meet at conferences and seem to have a good time


  • Just before the Conference: Practice how to pitch your company: We will have a future post on this, but it's a good idea to gather all employees who are attending and give a briefing on main talking points, goals, and let them ask questions - not merely to answer them, but so that others may also benefit from hearing the question.

During the Conference

  • Prep/practice lead capture: "prep your lead capture and make it as quick as possible. Maybe this is an iPad with an application/sign up or proper lead capture device w badge scanner… whatever it is, pick something, make it fast, and test it ahead of time." - Michelle Bakels of React Miami

  • For every attendee: Take notes on notable interactions for coworkers - sometimes these can be dumped in a dedicated Slack channel or conference doc, but it is very very very very likely that you will have some conversation with a customer or user that is relevant for someone else in the company, and that should not be kept in your head. If you do not write it down it will be lost. Take pictures where possible to support and contextualize - sometimes showing rather than telling is better.

  • For DevRels: Especially watch for what topics are hot.

    • What topics are always on every conference schedule? These are derived by a mix of speaker desire and organizer interest.

    • What talks had a large, standing-room only crowd, and what was poorly attended? This often has less to do with the quality of the talk and more the effectiveness of the title and the notoriety of the speaker

    • What talks had significant interest online, both during the conference and in the after-conference videos?

    • What questions and misconceptions do people who you meet have, and how can you address them earlier in your DX journey?

  • Some folks treat Conferences as IRL networking opportunities, and actively work the show floor and go up to people in person to "build a network" - but you have to have something to offer. It can be very effective if you have one impressive product or an impressive CV, but many people don't. So I actually recommend "turning IRL content into online to network" - examples here and here. It is an example of Picking Up What They Put Down and works reliably. Once people have familiarity with your content online, their in person interaction with you when you "network" becomes much different and friendlier.

  • For events/marketing folks: Take inspo from other vendors - swag, events, booth strategy, the way they pitch

  • Nice to have: Have a theme that relates back between booth to talk, talk to booth

  • Using conferences as bizdev: There's a good argument that using conferences as leadgen is pointless - most people will only have a very casual "just walking by" interest. I've met devrel/marketing leaders who have decided that their booths are merely a front, for the real purposes of building relationships with key influencers, potential hires, and business partners


After the Conference

  • Follow up with notable contacts, add them to mailing list

  • Blog takeaways for people who didnt go

  • Decide if you want to go next year, book places early and plan earlier (can never plan early enough)

Context - the Conference Season calendar

Each year after Labor Day in the US (early Sept), the fall conference season kicks into gear:

  • Sept: Salesforce Dreamforce, SaaStr Annual, Circle Converge

  • Oct: Google Cloud Next, KubeCon+CloudNativeCon NA, DjangoCon, QConSF, Hashiconf

  • Nov: AllThingsOpen, GitHub Universe, ODSC West, Twilio SIGNAL

  • Dec: AWS re:Invent, Microsoft Azure+AI Conf

Highlighted confs from Spring conference season

- March: Data Council - April: (Facebook F8 is on hold) - May: Google I/O, Reactathon, Stripe Sessions - June: Snowflake Summit, Databricks Summit, Apple WWDC, MongoDB World, render(ATL)

I've just come back from Big Data London myself, and am about to head to dbt's first IRL Coalesce. I am an experienced attendee and speaker, but increasingly as a developer relations person I am supporting conferences as a sponsor/vendor/exhibitor. Many friends and founders are hitting the IRL circuit with enthusiasm, but perhaps could use some help. Hence, this post!

The best ideas of dbt Coalesce

The above was written before I left for dbt's first IRL conference. I came back with lots more inspirations:

Dressing up in a huge duck costume

I already mentioned this one. It's really great for a certain kind of brand, and especially for photo opps!

Giving people a place to sit

So you can host chats, play games, give a casual inviting vibe

The winner: creating an interview show

By far the most interesting booth at dbt Coalesce was the "Hot Table" by Mode Analytics. It was a very expensive video wall (we guessed $50k) and a gameshow based on the extremely popular Hot Ones YouTube series.


On Day 1 I wasn't that impressed, it seemed like a "fellow kids" gameshow gimmick. But on Day 2 Benn Stancil showed up and started interviewing CEOs of other data companies and the crowd surged:


This was the genius move: an IRL Conference is also when the top influencers and founders in your space gather. Most of the time they don't have anything to do. Hire a professional video guy, create a very visually impressive backdrop, and create content while drawing a huge crowd for your booth.