Bram Schipper attended the Competitive & Market Intelligence conference in Luxembourg. Photo Bram Schipper

How to attend conferences as a student - for next to nothing

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Bram Schipper, Master’s student Science and Business Management, managed to attend an extremely expensive conference on competitive intelligence for next to nothing. He shares his story of how he achieved this. “Make sure you’re not scared off, and do come up with creative suggestions.”

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As part of my studies in Science and Business Management, I’m currently doing an internship at Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices. My task there is to see how we can improve insights into competitors, and what’s needed to do so. I quickly ended up at competitive intelligence, a way to look at competitors systematically and structurally. Except, to be quite honest, I didn’t really know what it meant at first.

My desk research cleared up a lot, except I did still wonder how this would work in practice. Are there examples? What should you think of? What are the possible pitfalls? These types of questions remained unanswered. After some Googling, I quickly found an international competitive & market intelligence conference, organised by ICI, the institute for competitive intelligence in Germany. Tonnes of experts, and even the authors of the articles I’d read, would be present. There was just one problem: tickets cost 1,190 euros! Oh, and it was in Luxembourg to boot.

So, I contacted the organisation to see what options there were for students. I quickly received word that there was a special student ticket: for 690 euros. I looked at my screen and had to laugh a little, because yeah, of course I didn’t have that money either.

I decided to be a little bit bold

I decided to just be a little bold and say so. I also added something more to the email: that I might have something to offer them as well. I hadn’t actually thought about what this could be, but figured it was worth a shot. The response? Send in your suggestion. So I soon had to come up with creative ideas to support that boldness.

In the end, I managed to attend the conference for 150 euros on the condition that I’d do some support functions during the conference. I was also tasked with writing an article, promoting the conference at my university, sharing things on LinkedIn, and sharing it with people I was going to talk to for my research anyway.

Before I knew it, I was borrowing a car and was on my way south

Look at what a little creativity can achieve, I thought. At that time, I also showed the added value of the conference to my internship company – and thankfully, they were willing to pay for the remaining ticket price.

And how did you get to Luxembourg, you may think? I asked around in my network to see if anyone could help. Before I knew it, I could borrow a car, and I was soon on my way south. I slept in the conference hotel included in the ticket price, but I’d also looked at some other options such as AirBnB and hostels. This shouldn’t be the biggest problem, and you should look at these costs as an investment in your future!

This is the first thing I wanted to share. Don’t be put off by money or other obstacles; be creative, and look at what options there might be to get in anyway. Especially when you’re a student, there might be more options than you’d expect. Use your creativity, be brave, and don’t forget to be a little bold.

I’d had business cards made especially

Then, the moment was there. On Tuesday, I got in the car to drive to Luxembourg. Shirts neatly pressed. Jacket on the back seat. Ready to go. For the first time in my life, I was going to attend a conference. During the drive, I noticed I was a little anxious. Did I bring my business cards – which I’d had made especially for the conference? Forgot my passport, is that a problem? Whatever, we’ll see. What’s it like to be at an event like this, what did I learn? I’ll gladly tell you more!

Checked in and all, I walked to the organisers to introduce myself, and before I knew it, I was participating in ‘The Challenge’. There weren’t enough people, so they’d asked whether I’d join? Of course! We were given a case in which we had to think about how a competitive intelligence department of a large milk production company should be organised. The first moment of networking, the first moment of new knowledge. A great start, I figured. Then we went to the pre-drinks. A buffet, people trickling in. Talking, introducing myself, making the right impression, shaking hands; the real networking had started. After a few hours, I decided it was time to go, and to prepare myself for the upcoming days.

I think the next few days were comparable to a career event. Two hours of talks. Break. Talks. Break. Talks. Etcetera. The big difference? All the presentations provided new insights, and they included real-life examples. The breaks are the moments to expand your network with experts. Everyone talks to everyone. Thankfully, I quite like doing that, and you definitely shouldn’t be scared to walk up to people. The participants are basically from all over the world: Canada, Israel, China, Europe, everywhere. It’s a community where everyone welcomes you with open arms. Knowledge is shared, and business cards are exchanged. It’s a good way to learn a lot and to expand your network, so use it! And the best thing? At the end of the event, I was on stage! As a student in front of a room full of experts, so share my ideas about ‘The Challenge’ – an opportunity I grabbed with both hands, of course.

Everyone’s willing to chat

In the short term, the connections are definitely valuable for my research. I spoke with multiple scientists who gave me new articles and the most recent knowledge about competitive intelligence. The connections with experts are also easy channels for asking real-life examples and to test ideas. For the long term, they might be valuable as well, because they were curious about my plans for after college…My most important lesson: everyone’s willing to chat. So walk up to them, hold out your hand, and start to introduce yourself. But don’t talk about yourself for too long; it’s much more interesting to let the other person talk. Learn from it. Gain knowledge from it. Because the people at a conference like that are the experts in their field. Exchange cards, and spend your nights connecting on LinkedIn. New connections for now, for my current project. But who knows? Perhaps for the future as well.

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