I wrote this post for the Real Estate Professional magazine in advance of this fall’s National Association of Realtors Annual Convention & Expo, but I thought many of the points were relevant across industries and event types. Take a look and let me know if you agree.

A key objective for most attendees of the annual NAR Convention each year is to meet other agents & brokers, and build a stronger referral network.  Yet, without a strong proactive plan, most agents fail to get the introductions and new relationships necessary to drive significant new referral and customer growth in the subsequent months.

This year, before you head to Anaheim, build a plan around these 12 easy-to-follow steps and you’ll come home with exponentially more business opportunities to increase your sales and income in 2012.

1.     Set goals up front
How much business do want to do next year?  How many new referrals would you need, and how many new relationships do you think it would take to get there?  This may all be “ballpark planning”, but having a goal before you hit the convention floor will help you be more proactive, prepared and ready to execute.

Good goals could include the number of new people you meet, number of business cards collected with explicit & expected follow-up, etc.  Don’t expect to get customer referrals on the show floor.  Starting and fostering peer relationships comes first.

2. Know you’re building long-term relationships, not just short-term referrals & revenue
Don’t expect your new agent and broker friends to send you referrals the following week.  Some might, but most relationships will take long-term nurturing to generate ongoing referral volume and income growth.  Not unlike some of your potential home buyer and seller relationships – they may eventually transact, but not right now (and if you try to rush them, they may go elsewhere with their business).

3. Know who’s going that you want to meet
In the weeks and days before the show, look for those who are talking about their upcoming NAR trip via social networks, hashtags, industry discussion groups such as ActiveRain and more.  Build a list of top agents and brokers in other markets that you’d like to meet.

4. Contact targets in advance (be bold, but sensitive to their time)
Don’t wait until you get to the show to try and set up meetings.  Contact your targets in advance and ask to meet each other, even briefly for a cup or coffee or 5-10 minute introduction.  Be bold, but sensitive to their time and schedule.

5. Take three times the business cards you think you’ll need
The very last thing you want to do is run out of business cards.  It’s far better to come home with a big stack of your own cards than to be in the middle of the best industry networking event of the year, and have nothing but a scrap of paper to write on.  Make sure you have a good pen within arm’s reach at all times as well (vs. buried in your purse or back at your hotel room).

6. Offer a complimentary service to other agents and their customers
What could you offer new agent/broker partners and/or their customers, for free, to encourage follow-up and quick referrals when everyone is back at the office?  A free report of listings in your area?  A free “choose the best neighborhood” consultation for their customers who may be moving?  How about a “get to know our area” presentation for the agent and others in their office after the show?

Consider printing this offer on the back of your business card, or print separate but same-sized business cards to hand out specifically with this offer.

7. Go to all the parties
Your feet will hurt.  You will get tired.  But you’re there to work – to network, to meet others, to take those relationships back home with you.  Find out in advance about as many of the after-hours parties, get-togethers, tweet-ups and other networking events as you can find.  Sign up for them early if they require registration, but otherwise put them on your calendar so you remember when and where they are.  Consider going early too, as it’s the best way to scope out the scene and meet other early arrivers with quality conversations before the scene gets busier and noisier.

8. Catch up on work in public places
If you need to catch up on email or other work on your laptop, don’t do it in your room.  Find a public area like a hotel lobby or corner of the convention hall where other agents & brokers are also walking by.  This won’t be the quietest and more productive space to work, but it’ll increase the chances that you run into someone you want to meet, or that you’ll have a chance encounter with someone new who could be added to your referral network.

9. Meet other service providers (not just other agents and brokers)
Think of the service providers at the show as your gateway to dozens of potential referral sources.  Most of the service providers you’ll see on the show floor have relationships with hundreds, thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of other agents and brokers.  Oftentimes, you can leverage these vendor relationships to get introductions to multiple referral partners at once – either at the show directly or afterward.

10. Ask everyone for their business card
This may seem trivial, and real estate professionals are generally good about this anyway.  But don’t walk away from any conversation at NAR this year without asking for a business card.  Keep a separate pocket in your jacket pocket or purse to put these cards so you can gather them cleanly at the end of the day or show, and have them ready for follow-up afterward (more on that below).

11. Write specific requests and context on the back of their biz cards
Use the card you receive to take short notes about what you may have promised to send your new potential partner.  Write notes with other trivia you may want to remember later (where they went to school, a common interest, etc.).

12. Follow-up immediately after the show
This is the most important part of building an active referral network from the NAR convention.  If you do everything above and fail to follow-up, you’ve killed your opportunity to nurture new relationships into sales and income.

As soon as you get back home, have an assistant or intern or high school student immediately turn your stack of business cards into a spreadsheet.  Write a common follow-up email that you can customize (if necessary) to each person you met.  Add them to your social networks, and follow up with anything specific you may have promised.