Every few months, it seems there’s a new program or sales tool coming out that can give you a decisive edge over the competition. It can be hard to keep up, but experienced and successful agents understand that an occasional tune-up is crucial to keeping up with today’s market — and one of the best ways to do so is by attending conferences that are relevant to your practice.

In any given year, there is at least one insurance industry conference or chapter meeting held somewhere close to you. Many insurance professionals know that conferences are great opportunities to meet representatives of companies that offer products they can add to their portfolio, create business alliances, build their reputations, and unearth new tools and strategies that can be incorporated into their business.

But it’s not always easy to find the right conference, and many agents don’t know how to get the most out of them. Following are a few tips for finding conferences that deliver resources to your practice, as well as how to incorporate these resources into your business.

Finding the right conference
You can’t spend every other weekend attending conferences. You’d rather be closing deals, which means you may only be able to attend one or two conferences a year. The challenge is to make that investment of your time and money worthwhile.

For most agents, this means looking for larger conferences that will deliver more resources, programs, and product offerings than smaller events. If you live in a large city, a local conference will probably suffice. Other agents may have to shoot for regional or national conventions.

If you belong to a specific industry group, you’ll automatically be invited to their conferences. But if their meetings tend to be small and local, you may want to look around for larger conferences that offer more, so see if your group maintains a list of additional upcoming conferences. (See below for a list of major insurance conferences slated for 2008).

As you identify potential conferences that you’d like to attend, look for those that fit with your marketing goals, strategies, and, as best as possible, your schedule. Always remember that conferences aren’t so much your opportunity to get away and recharge, but rather to upgrade your existing practices and stock up on essential and relevant tools.

Get the most out of every event
What did you do at your last conference to make it pay dividends? Many people simply attend a few seminars and spend the rest of their time collecting free drinks, free food, and free promotional items.

If that describes you, then you may be wasting an opportunity to get something more important out of your conference. Seminars and workshops can be valuable, but just as important are the alliances and information you can reap through savvy networking.

Proper networking is not an innate skill for most people — you actually have to work at it. So following are five tips to help you get the most out of any event.

  1. Plan your target events and experts
    Before heading out to an event, review the schedule of presentations and note those you’d most like to attend. Identify why you’re going to the event. And, more importantly, identify key people you want to meet. If you don’t have a clear goal, such as “I want to meet ABC carrier’s representatives” or “I want to meet this expert,” then you could miss the best opportunities.

    Helps you avoid: Spending your time and money on an event that doesn’t translate into new expertise, new business opportunities, and a stronger reputation in the insurance community.

  2. Take notes on every business card
    Keep your pen handy, because taking mental notes just won’t cut it. Whenever you get a business card, avoid the temptation to simply stuff it into your pocket. Write down the important things you’ll need to remember when you follow up after the event. And here’s a new trick: Do the same thing when you’re handing out your own card. Take a quick second to write down the key information you would like them to remember later on when they’re sorting through that big stack of cards they’ve collected — a little extra information jotted down on your card will help it stand out of the crowd.

    Helps you avoid: That after-event amnesia. Why did I want to contact this person again? Was I just taking their card to be polite? When you can’t remember the details, you’re more likely to avoid following up.

  3. Quit following the crowd
    Conferences are often the time to catch up with people you haven’t seen in a while. It’s tempting to spend most of your time with them. Don’t! Make an effort to break away from the people you already know. You should especially avoid spending too much time with co-workers who just want to hang back or stay to the side. Before you even step foot in the convention, compile a list of new contacts you’d like to make. Include specific names if you can.

    Helps you avoid: Stagnant results. Forging new relationships is much more difficult than hanging out with your pals, but it’s also more valuable.

  4. Don’t get “after-partied” out
    After-parties are another great chance to network, but it’s easy to go overboard. Set a limit for yourself, whether it’s the time by when you’ll make it back to your hotel or the number of drinks you’ll have. Do what it takes to hit the floor the next day alert and ready to meet more people.

    Helps you avoid: Missing out on prime networking opportunities as you snooze through presentations and lurk around the coffee service.

  5. Be serious about following up
    Avoiding the follow-up is probably the biggest mistake most people make after an event — and the most costly. All your networking efforts don’t amount to anything unless you take the initiative to follow up with each of your contacts. Don’t wait for someone to follow up with you. Make it a top priority or those contacts will get stale and you’ll forget them as you ease back into your daily routine. As soon as you return to the office, pull out those business cards (you know, the ones with all the detailed notes on the back). During any free time (and make sure to carve some out each day), take the time to add the experts you’ve met to your contact list.

    Helps you avoid: Lost opportunities and wasted time. The last thing you want to do is walk away from an event with a lot of ideas but no new relationships or tangible benefits to show for it.

As an insurance agent, it can be difficult to keep your head above water while dealing with the daily grind. You have enough trouble keeping up without taking time off for conferences. Just remember: Attending industry events is not a waste of time, nor is it something that takes away from your day-to-day business. It’s essential to improving your practice, which in turn can help you gain more clients, gain more sales, and boost your bottom line.

Jeremiah Desmarais is vice president of marketing at Norvax. He can be reached at jdesmarais@norvax.com .