Photo: Patrick Williams

After I returned from Cultivate’17, I turned right around and headed to the Perennial Plant Symposium in Denver. It was a great time to be out of Texas, of course, and a great time to reconnect with industry friends and make new contacts. The weather and vistas were beautiful, as were the alpine plants and gardens. As a hot and dry climate gardener, it was refreshing to see gardens populated with plants useful to me in my Texas climate, and water-wise installations, as well as witness and be inspired by beautiful alpine plants I know I can never grow.

Highlights from this year’s PPA Symposium for me included the Denver Botanical Garden, which is a must-see destination, as well as a bevy of rock, trough, and crevice gardens filled with the tiniest and most pinchable succulent and alpine plants you can imagine. I’m already plotting and planning where I can create my own new hardscape features in which to tuck tiny plants. Crevasse Gardening: it’s the new “thing” again, y’all.

PPA attendees also had the opportunity to tour a small industrial hemp farm and production facility, Greenhouse Growing System, and were updated by the Colorado Department of Agriculture on the current state of cannabis regulations in a quickly changing segment of the market. It was a unique opportunity to gain insight into a segment of our industry that deserves better inclusion and needs education.

There were many other wonderful features and experiences during the symposium, but ultimately, it’s always the human connections that make these trips worth the time and money. I’m often asked how I make the most of my time at professional conferences, especially by younger industry members. My first response is always “this isn’t vacation, it’s business.”

While I know that many in the industry treat professional conferences like a family vacation, and that’s a valid approach, that’s never been how I operated. Yes, I enjoy the travel and the personal connections, of course; I’ve met some of my favorite friends at industry events. But primarily, I attend conferences because I’m working to further my professional career and business endeavors. Just as important, I need fresh inspiration and a change of scenery now and then to inform my work and make it better. We all do.

I usually take a three-pronged approach to industry events: before, during and after. Or the Recon, Hunting & Gathering, and Harvesting phases, if you will.

Before I attend an industry event I do some recon; I evaluate how it’s going to help me further my professional education and my business network. One must justify the cost of such events to project your ROI. I see who is exhibiting, speaking or attending. Then I reach out to a few individuals about setting up meetings in advance. If you don’t do so, chances are you may not get face time with your desired contacts — there’s too much to do and too many people and businesses to see to leave all those meetings to chance.

During the event, I hunt and gather: I hone in on the topics, products and people that are aligned with my current goals and needs. I typically don’t fill my time with programs; I only attend the ones I’m really interested in and I don’t feel bad about skipping others. I leave the rest of my time for pre-scheduled meetings, impromptu meetings, and gathering information and inspiration. I also always try and do some social media PR for the given event while I’m there.

Can I say one things about business cards to you folks? I’m always shocked at how many people do not have business cards on them at these events. Please, I beg of you, pack plenty of business cards or get a new stock printed before you go. When you can’t swap cards, you’re potentially missing a great opportunity. Are you a student? You still need a business card. Call it a calling card if you like. If you happen to run into me at an event, you can bet one of the first questions I’ll ask you is “May I have a card?” I’ll always have one for you.

After the event, I do a little harvesting. My first task is to gather up the business cards I did receive and follow up with high priority contacts via email. That way we’re formally connected. I also make notes for myself about people I want to follow up again with later for a specific purpose or need. If I didn’t get a card from you, then you may be out of sight and mind by this point. Then, I go through photos and product sheets and typically do some social media posts on my highlights.

Networking is the key to success for most of us in this industry and one of the most valuable features of any and every industry event. If industry events are a vacation for you, and you’re not concerned about generating new business contacts or opportunities, then more power to you. But, if you need to further your career and drive business, then you should plan to take a professional, pre-planned and organized approach to your industry travel; it will be time well spent.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.