Conference hacking for beginners: my top tips

By Hans Raffauf on January 16th, 2013

When, as a student, I had no money but a burning desire to sneak my way into every technology, design and innovation conference in Europe, I had to develop a few strategies to dodge the bouncers and clipboard lovelies. What I learned at them made me the entrepreneur I am today.

It would be irresponsible for me to share every trick I know, so here are just twelve of them. If you can come up with a brilliant #13 (ideally something I’ve never heard of) and whack it in the comments below, I’ll let you in to my invitation-only founder summit hy! Berlin next week – but through the front door.

1. Badge sharing

This is a perennial favourite for every conference hacker and is regularly very successful. Split the cost of a ticket between two (or even three) and swap lanyards and wristbands outside the venue. Only a challenge when the wristbands are tight or those tricky fabric things.

Depends on: having friends
Successful at*: everywhere

* NB: past performance is not a guarantee of future success. Especially now.

2. “I need to speak to my boss.”

March up to the speakers’ welcome table and tell them you’re someone’s PA, preferably someone important. There’s next to no chance they’ll check. Say you’ll be in and out in five minutes and the speaker’s participation in the conference depends on him getting this message. (You might try printing out an old Presidential inaugural address and saying it’s their speech.)

Depends on: swagger
Successful at: Deutsche Telekom Innovation Day

3. “I’m with him.”

Similar in approach to method 2, but often more effective. It does depend on having a top-notch speaker happy to insist that you accompany them everywhere, or else.

Depends on: connections
Successful at: Picnic Conference

4. Keep a vase of wristbands

An incredible number of conferences, afterparties and other private events use those identikit rubber wristbands. Keep every one you can lay your hands on in a vase at home, and get friends at the party to send you a picture of the band for colour-matching purposes.

Depends on: tools to reapply the wristband if it’s cloth
Successful at: Backstage and after-parties at gigs

5. Pretend to be someone else

Arrive early-ish and give the name of someone you know will be there – ideally not a speaker, in case the person behind the desk knows what the speaker looks like.

Depends on: your network, a bit of research, remorselessness
Successful at: LeWeb

6. “I’m a plus one.”

Pick a major sponsor and say you’re in their allocation. Helps to have nicked a business card from that company: your collection of business cards at home is your friend.

Depends on: How cute you are, oddly
Successful at: nightclubs, after-parties, speaker lounges

7. “I’m a student.”

Appeal to the organiser’s better nature, either on door or by email beforehand. But email is cheating: rock up and try your luck on the day. Offer to pay a pathetic nominal sum to elicit sympathy. Say you’re working on your own start-up and you’re desperate to meet investors. Rarely will you be turned away. If you actually are a student, even better: take your student card and shove it in as many faces as possible.

Depends on: the kindness of strangers
Successful at: SIME Copenhagen

8. Cry, bribe or fight your way in

Desperate times call for desperate measures. It helps to be a girl for this one. Apply mascara liberally before you arrive.

Depends on: someone on the door who wants to sleep with you
Successful at: everywhere, if you’re convincingly upset or angry

9. Take the back passage

I’ve never actually slipped in to a conference by the back door or via the toilets, as it’s a bit of a coward’s way in, but it works well if you can suss out the building, or if a friend inside can hold open a door. Beware of alarmed exits.

Depends on: knowing the venue
Successful at: universities, public buildings and anywhere else with lots of disabled access and fire escapes

10. Pretend to be staff

The big conferences have a lot of staff. Arrive two hours early and tell whoever’s on the front door (which may well be no one) that you’re a member of lighting crew, or serving staff.

Depends on: being early and dressing appropriately
Successful at: anywhere with caterers

11. Print your own

Takes some chutzpah, this one, but if you have a morning spare and access to a badge – for instance, if it’s a three-day conference and you only want to go on the last two days – get yourself down to the office and mock up a badge of your own. You’ll probably need a good quality badge to scan, in case of bar- or QR codes.

Depends on: having a printer, scanner and Photoshop
Successful at: venues with inattentive or short-sighted staff

12. Ask for someone’s old badge

As easy as it sounds, and often overlooked. Watch out for people leaving the venue with a determined look on their face and ask them if they’re coming back later. Then, combine the student method above with a few kind words and you’ll find most people more than willing to hand over their pass.

Depends on: being faceable
Successful at: TED (no, really)

13. ?

Over to you!