Attending conferences and trade shows in your field or industry is one of the best ways to network, find new clients, and catch up on new industry trends. However, these events are typically not cheap and often come with a $300+ price tag. For example, the upcoming New Media Expo (NMX) in Las Vegas runs $897 for an all-access pass- and that’s before you pay for airfare and a hotel. The good news is that you can attend pricey conferences and trade shows completely free. Here’s how.
Volunteer your time.
Conferences and trade shows are massive undertakings that require a lot of labor. Many of these events offer free session passes in exchange for just a few hours of your time as a volunteer.
When checking out a conference or trade show that you’d like to attend, find the contact link (usually located at the bottom of the website) and write the event organizers about volunteer opportunities. Keep in mind that volunteer slots are filled quickly so it’s best if you start making inquiries months ahead of the event.
Present a talk.
There’s a good chance that the conference or trade show you’re itching to attend is in a field related to your current work. As such, you probably do have a topic or two that you could present at this event. If you’re nervous about public speaking or don’t think you’re a big enough name in your field to warrant a talk, don’t worry: most conferences and trade shows offer exhibitors the chance to create and display posters too.
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Participating in a poster session is one of the most common methods that I’ve used to get into conferences. Being on the exhibitor floor with your poster (or product) also brings people to you, allowing you to make valuable networking contacts without having to chase anyone down.
Get a press pass.
If you’re a journalist for even a small town newspaper, you have a golden opportunity to use your press pass (typically obtained through your publisher) to get into all kinds of conferences and trade shows for free. However, what if you’re not a journalist? Not to worry; thanks to the recent revolution in media, bloggers, writers, photographers, videographers and podcasters can also qualify as “press” according to the U.S. Press Association. You can obtain a basic press pass containing your photo for just $43 (students pay $35) from the USPA.
On another note, if you are an online/offline publisher with a large enough following, you may ask the conference/trade show organizers directly if they would give you press status in exchange for covering the event on your blog, website, newsletter, etc. Since organizers typically want to increase attendance at the event and at its recurrence the following year, they are very interested in working with folks who can spread news about it now and after its conclusion.
Get corporate/organizational sponsorship.
If you work at a company or are part of an organization or club, find out if this entity offers any kind of sponsorships or scholarships to your conference/trade show. In some cases, the company or club may not offer passes- but the non-profit it supports (companies often do this for a handy tax deduction) does. Do some online sleuthing to find out which, if any, charitable organizations are being supported by your workplace. Then, target them too.
If the answer is still no or you are no longer employed, network with some of the sponsoring companies or organizations of your target conference or trade show. Sponsors are usually listed on the website of the event and mentioned as being gold, silver, platinum, etc. given their level of patronage.
These companies might already have representatives at the show, but they may also be agreeable to paying your way as long as you help with booth/table set-up, handing out promotional flyers, etc. In this case, it helps if you already know someone from the sponsoring company and can network your way to those free passes.
Find/win free passes online.
Sometimes, you can Google your way to free conference/trade show passes. For example, when I searched for free passes to Y’all Connect, a corporate blogging conference that’s held in Birmingham, I found at least two contests giving away free passes. The NMX event that occurred earlier this year had at least two contests giving away free passes. Free Comic-Con passes were being offered on at least three sites after I input “free comic con passes” on Google search.
And unexpectedly enough, I even found free passes to the AACR (American Association of Cancer Research) meeting being offered online by an exhibitor, and on Craigslist no less.
What if you try all the methods outlined above and still can’t get a free event pass? My advice is to get creative. Find some outside sponsors- maybe even from your pool of readers or clients. Make a promise that if you raise enough money to go to your desired conference or trade show, your sponsors will receive something in return like a detailed report or article or a blog post series. Or maybe you can meet with and later present one of the big names attending the event as a speaker or mentor to your sponsors. You might even wish to crowdfund your venture and offer something back to your backers.
The possibilities are certainly out there if you’re looking for a way to get into a conference or trade show for free. Perhaps you have found an alternate way for cracking into conferences and trade shows (and no, sneaking in the back door doesn’t count)? If so, please leave a comment below. Thank you and good luck!