Don't be a wallflower.

Headed to Las Vegas for the shows? You'll be joining thousands of exhibitors, tens of thousands of retailers, and dozens of the industry's foremost experts. Don't go home without knowing any of them. Here's some tips on meeting new peers, and even potential mentors: 

RESEARCH WHO YOU'D LIKE TO MEET. Get an exhibitor list before the show and do some Googling, so you have at least some information on your key targets, says Andrea Nierenberg of The Nierenberg Group. 

PREPARE A NETWORKING TOOLKIT. Nierenberg suggests including items such as business cards and two cases  one for yours and one for those you receive. Also critical: breath mints, a mirror to check your smile, hand sanitizer and hand cream. You're ready to go! 

Be on all the time. When does the networking start? The minute you get on the plane to head for Vegas, says Nierenberg. Too many people only put on their networking faces the minute they walk through the doors of the show each day. And let them drop the minute the event ends. Pre-show, post-show, even while waiting in line for an overpriced hot dog — these in-between moments are often the best opportunities to meet people.  

Don't overthink things. Your opening line doesn't have to be brilliant. All it has to do is open a conversation. Nierenberg is a networking queen, and her suggested lines are as simple and casual as you'd hear in a hardware store: "What brings you to Las Vegas?" or "How was your trip here?" or, for a business expert, "I just read an article you wrote ..." 

CHALLENGE EACH OTHER. It's a big mistake to go to a seminar or a party with a friend or fellow team member and then clinging to each other like frightened boys at a high-school dance. Instead, Ivan Misner of Business Network International suggests using your partnership to challenge each other. Say you'll meet back at a certain place after you've collected 10 business cards from people you've met.  

SIT NEXT TO A DIFFERENT PERSON EACH TIME at conferences. Just because you've made a new friend at Las Vegas, doesn't mean that you should become inseparable, says Misner. Then, if you'd like to meet again with someone you hit it off with, invite several different people you've met for lunch ... or a quick cup of coffee. 

HELP THE OTHER PERSON FIRST. Do this when you want to meet someone who will help your business, says Nierenberg. It's much easier to do with peers, but you can even do this with major figures. If someone you would like to know is giving a seminar speech, for example, go up and introduce yourself and tell them how much you're looking forward to their speech. And then offer a service: "You must be thirsty ... would you like me to run and get you a Coke?" or "If it would help, I'd be happy to collect business cards from people for you after your speech is finished. I'd imagine you'll be pretty busy talking to your admirers once you're done." 

DON'T WORRY ABOUT EMBARRASSING YOURSELF. The only way that you'll turn somebody off is by spending too much time listening to what Nierenberg calls "that popular radio station, WIIFM — What's In It For Me??"

Stay friendly, stay focused, and try to be of service. If you do that, valuable relationships will naturally develop.


A version of this story first appeared in INSTORE in May 2008.