First impressions matter.
They matter at work.
They matter when you’re out and about in public
And first impressions especially matter at an event where you’re meeting dozens of industry professionals face-to-face for the first time.
Because you might have built a solid rapport with Charlie over hundreds of phone calls and emails, but you’ll damage it instantly if you’re embarrassing to be around or make others uncomfortable with your poor presentation.
Technology has made face-to-face meeting more important because we now meet less and less.
Just because you can have a conference call in your pajamas does not mean you can rock a Rolling Stones T-Shirt to the Conference – even in Vegas.
Don’t be the guy whose personal presentation and social skills are so poor he has colleagues second guessing their previous positive opinion of him.
The reality of conferences is that most people are there to network as much as they are to learn new things about their field.
However useful the speeches and presentations are, the real value for a lot of folks is going to be the exchange of business cards.
You want to look like a business card worth having.
Why Dress Matters at Business Conferences
The nature of big, crowded events is that judgments get made in a hurry.
Everyone only has so much time and there’s more people to talk to than they could ever manage.
Looking sharp is your ticket to looking worthwhile.
It may sound a little unfair to guys brought up believing that everyone should be treated equally, but a well turned-out man in a suit looks more important than someone in a pair of khakis and a polo shirt.
And in a conference setting there’s actually some fairness to that — everyone knows going into it that they need to grab attention, and the man who dresses sharp is clearly someone who can evaluate a situation and come up with the right solution for it.
So by looking good you’re not just looking like a more valuable contact — you’re proving that you are a better businessman than someone who didn’t bother.
How Sharp to Dress?
With all that said, you still have to look like the right man for your specific job.
Not every industry is a suit-and-tie industry! Trying to look like a top exec when you’re a skilled programmer is likely to cause people looking for programmers to pass you by — thinking that you’re a hiring manager rather than a worker!
So as you prepare for your conference or trade show, be thinking about your goals and the situation you’re going to be going into. Focus on four basic fundamentals:
- Industry and Type of Conference
- City and Country
- Climate and Activity Schedule
- Your Position and Goals
Industry and Type of Conference
Think of your industry in broad strokes: is it conservative? Trendy? Way out on the exotic fringe?
You want to fit into at least the broadest possible characterization you can think of. No matter how sharply turned-out it makes you look, a suit and tie is going to look out of place at most gardening and landscaping seminars or dog training exhibitions. Give a nod to reality before pulling out all the stops on your wardrobe.
The type of conference you’re attending is also relevant — a half-day seminar followed by a dinner event means social dress, while several full days of panels and talks would call for a more formal business standard of dress. Neckties up until dinner is a good rule of thumb in most business climates, while evening outfits should be a little more relaxed.
City and Country
While the conference guests set much of the tone, it’s worth remembering that every hotel or convention center is a product of its environment. The staff and the other guests will play a part in how you look as part of the crowd.
American settings are, generally speaking, less formal than equivalent events in Western European or South Asian countries, although large cities are an exception. Within America you can safely expect New York and the east coast in general to be the most fashion-conscious sites. Since everyone there will be well-dressed, it behooves you to wear your business attire plus a touch or two of fashion — a pocket square or an interesting cut of coat, say.
Large convention centers in other American cities tend to be by and large indistinguishable, in terms of fashion environment. Dress neatly and well within the boundaries of your profession and try to avoid seeming too much of a dandy. Good style is already eye-catching — you don’t need to be ostentatious on top of it, particularly in Middle America (I love you Iowa).
Climate and Activity Schedule
Your basic hotel setting is climate-controlled — sort of a no-brainer. Long sleeves and a jacket will usually be fine, though the jacket may need to be light, particularly in the winter when indoor temperatures are raised.
If the conference moves beyond the hotel, however, or takes place at a compound of multiple buildings, be sure to take exterior temperatures into account. A good suit loses its appeal very quickly when the wearer is sweating and flushed. Even if 98% of your time is spent in a hotel you’ll need to prepare differently for Las Vegas in June than you would for Boston in February.
How active you plan on being is also extremely relevant — some clothes are comfortable to sit in for hours and others are very definitely not. Your conference clothes should always fit well enough that you can both move from place to place briskly in them and sit for several hours if needed.
If the schedule includes multiple events over a long day, a change of underclothes or even shirt and jacket may be worth bringing. A quick change of undershirt at a convenient lunch break doesn’t seem like it would make any visible difference, but you’d be surprised how much better a man who can sit comfortably looks that someone who’s fidgeting with his clothes.
Your Position and Goals
The key question in all of this: what are you trying to accomplish at the conference?
Most people will usually fall into one of two basic categories: shopping for people or selling themselves. Broad terms, but they’re basically applicable whether you’re interested in hiring workers, landing a job, or just building useful contacts that can help you achieve long-term goals.
Dress to represent yourself as what you need: an employer, a potential employee, or just a savvy figure in your industry. Hiring managers may want more of a “power” look with navy blazers and bright ties, job-seekers will need to look traditional and respectable in conservative colors and patterns, and self-promoting experts can always use a few original touches in their outfit.
The key to remember here is that all of these people are always, always, always selling themselves. Even a well-placed man who likes where he is in life can always benefit from looking like the right guy to talk to.
The Challenge of Packing
Many conferences are travel affairs. If you’re lucky they’ll be in driving distance, but often you’re flying…..which was fun in the 70’s on Southwest airlines (do some research on their specials!)…..but no so much in 2012.
Luggage and carry-on space allotments are just getting smaller (and more expensive), so packing wisely and efficiently is an essential conference-goer’s skill:
Pack Interchangeable Clothing
Flights get delayed, conferences run late; coffee gets spilled. Plan an outfit for each day — but make sure that the pieces from one day’s outfit can, in a pinch, be paired with pieces from another day’s to make an entirely new ensemble.
Classic menswear will serve you well here. Stick to white or lightly-patterned, mostly-white dress shirts that can be worn with any color of jacket and trousers. Gray trousers work with almost any outfit; so do navy blazers. Use smaller pieces and accents like ties and pocket squares to customize, but build off of a traditional and interchangeable base.
Dress Sharp on the Flight
Save yourself the space a suit takes up by wearing one on the flight (or a jacket and odd trousers, if that’s your level of dress for the conference). It’ll also ensure that you look good from the moment you get off the plane — you never know who’ll be there to meet you at the airport, or who you’ll see during check-in.
Sample Packing List — Two-Day Conference
- Business suit: charcoal gray or navy blue, single-breasted jacket
- Second suit or a blazer/odd trouser combination, depending on events
- Pair of gray wool trousers
- Three white or white-based collared dress shirts
- Three neckties — conservative colors but patterned
- Three pocket squares — at least one plain white
- Two pairs dress shoes — at least one plain black lace-ups
- Belts to match shoes
- Socks to match trousers — at least one pair per pair of trousers
- Three white cotton undershirts
- Your choice of underwear
- Weather-appropriate overcoat (can also be worn on the plane as needed)
- Business-appropriate briefcase or leather notepad case as needed.
This is obviously just a sample — adjust as needed, following the advice from the article.
Remember, businesses and industries organize conferences because it’s useful for them to pick and choose out of all the active figures in the field. You’re one of those figures — so make the effort and stand out.