For start-ups and other small businesses, it can be easy to dismiss corporate events and exhibitions as not being worth the investment; particularly if you have a limited budget in those crucial early stages of your brand’s development.

With the right planning and preparation, attending business events doesn’t have to be expensive, and the opportunities to network and generate brand awareness can far outweigh the pros of investing a small fee and a few hours of your valuable time. Plus, you get the chance of an ‘unplanned wildcard’ of bumping into just the right someone who changes things overnight.

Yet despite the wealth of opportunities available at your fingertips, one of the biggest issues faced by smaller businesses and start-ups is that they’re often unaware of the most effective ways to maximise their opportunities without incurring too large a cost. With that in mind, here are the top opportunities for start-ups and small businesses at events and exhibitions:

Share your knowledge through social media platforms

As a start-up or small business owner, you’re probably already aware that most events and exhibitions now include an “ask the expert” session. As these allow speakers to address a room full of ready and waiting prospects, they can act as a great opportunity for you to shout about your brand and expertise, though you’ll need to brand yourself as an industry spokesperson to really make an impression.

Not sure where to start? Social media usually does the trick when it comes to establishing yourself as a “thought leader” in your field.

Start by being vocal about industry issues and communicate them to your target audience- just don’t forget to use popular, relevant hashtags in your posts (particularly in the case of Twitter), and connect with as many big influencers in your chosen industry as possible. LinkedIn is also a great platform for this as it’s a business-specific social network.

When creating your social media profiles, you should also make sure to include key achievements and any speaking experience you’ve gained over the years. Event organisers are always looking for more participants to fill presentation slots at businesses exhibitions, and social media gives them access to a large talent pool.

If the opportunity does arrive, you might want to consider collaborating with industry peers to present your topic, perhaps to give alternative viewpoints from different processes of the supply chain. Remember, if you have a compelling topic and the evidence to back your presentation, you could potentially be a retuning speaker.

Take advantage of trade press (where possible)

It’s not just social media that creates these speaking and networking opportunities, however. Within many industries, the trade press can be key in identifying the main movers and shakers (and you could be one of them). Just remember, you don’t need to be a big player in the industry to make the rank. Sometimes a little innovation is all it takes!

Liz Brookes, Director of Grapevine Event Management said: “Events are a great opportunity to meet and engage with key influencers within your sector.

“Attending an event, whether as an exhibitor, delegate or speaker, is an investment in your time, and the benefits to be gained far outweigh any potential costs you may need to pay at the outset.

[…] And if you’re invited to speak, even better. Featuring alongside some of the key players within your sector not only builds your personal brand, but that of the business you represent.”

Engage with attendees through live participation tools

As is the case with most events and exhibitions today, “live streaming” and “hashtag” chats (the latter of which is commonly used on Twitter) have become something of a trend.

These modes of “live participation” offer an avenue for your target prospects to immerse themselves in the experience, providing them with a platform to discuss questions and answers as the event progresses. Not only can it give you some useful insight into the industry issues your audience cares about, but it can create a valuable opportunity for start-ups and small businesses to develop brand awareness by actively participating in these conversions.

Alison Battisby, social media consultant and founder of Avocado Social said, "if you are not using social media as an event speaker in 2017, it could be damaging to your brand. Using social media at events is a great way to get people engaged, create long term relationships and expand awareness of your brand and events. These days I find when I speak at a conference, I get a buzz of activity on my Twitter and LinkedIn profiles showing that people like to stay in contact, or ask you questions via these tools - or simply to validate your experience and credibility."

Even when you feel your industry acumen does not qualify you as a speaker at certain events, you can still be a part of the conversations created by other speakers.

As Lesley Williams, the Sales and Events Development Assistant at Production 78 explains, event apps are one of the main trends that brands need to know about for 2017.

She said: “The mobile applications which will be used in events in 2017 are already being considered by every event planner and manager.

“Expect more event apps bringing gamification principles—competition, achievements and rewards to guide attendees toward desired behaviours—to conference-based learning. Users will be rewarded for participation, like accumulating points for consuming and sharing content.”

As well as hashtag chats, make sure you utilise these apps to build rapport with potential prospects.

Liz King, CEO, Liz King Events, techsytalk said, "As an introvert, I've benefitted greatly from social media when it comes to maximizing networking connections at an event. While I'm definitely not the life of the party, I can follow the event hashtag and make connections with people that way. Then - when we meet in person for coffee or to chat, the conversation is much more comfortable!".

Make the most of networking opportunities

Often, the main reason a business owner will attend an event or exhibition is to connect with as many people as possible. Just think about it; attending an event will easily put you in a space with like-minded people who are all looking to do business. This offers you a prime opportunity to introduce yourself and your business. Planning-ahead and booking in with people if you can as people will see that you are serious about making the most of their time.

Just like in any other walk of life, people want to engage with people who are interesting, and have something relevant to talk about. Don’t be ‘that guy’ (or gal) who insists on talking about themselves and does not ask any questions or care about the person you are talking to.

To get the most from events, you need to make sure you talk to the right people. They can be hard to pick out, but don’t get caught out by being trapped by an over-enthusiastic pitcher or feel obliged to stay talking to the same people for the whole event. Have some pre-planned ‘ejector seat’ lines that are polite and leave everyone feeling that you valued their time. If you are really stuck just run for the toilets and hide until the danger has passed!

Even if you can’t talk with everyone in detail, promotional items (such as branded pens) are an effective way of reinforcing your brand after the event, plus they can be a good ice breaker for starting up conversations!

Consider all options when choosing business events

Finally, make sure you think carefully about the events and exhibitions you attend. Whether you’re an exhibitor, guest speaker or even an attendee, make the most of your time and money at the right industry event.

To gain the best opportunities for your start-up or small business, you should also be aware of where your customers are coming from, as well as the areas you want to market your brand to. For example, if your target market comes from Birmingham or Manchester, you should look up events in the vicinity instead of searching too broadly.

As mentioned, social media can be a great platform for finding out about local events (even if you’re not planning to share your wisdom as a speaker). Websites such as the Business Events Finder are also a good place to start looking for local events.

There are many great opportunities for start-ups and small businesses at events and exhibitions- make sure they form part of your marketing strategy in 2017!