At a recent trade show, I was caught completely off guard by some of my Generation Y peers. Some wore torn jeans in spite of the “business casual” dress code, many seemed to avoid talking to other attendees (instead they texted with their head down while walking the aisles), and one group of very animated young professionals visited my booth with beers in their hands — at 2 p.m.

You probably spend more time organizing shows than attending them, so it might be easy to forget that you're still working, even though you're now working the other side of the reg desk. If you have never had the chance to go to one of the meeting industry trade shows, here are three virtually free, easy-to-implement strategies for making the most of it.

Strategy 1: How you approach the trade show determines whether you trade up.

Before attending the trade show, visit the sponsoring organization's Web site to identify events, vendors, and industry people you want to meet. Pay special attention to connections that could be valuable throughout your career. You might even create a list of questions to ask when you meet these great new contacts.

If the trade show has an online social network for attendees, join before the conference starts and connect with three to five people you want to know more about. Arrange to meet them at the trade show when the free food is served. Now you get a free meal and a new contact!

Strategy 2: Be memorable for the right reasons.

Carry a small notepad or journal with you — often they are included with your registration — and make notes of the people you meet at the trade show as well as the things you learn. By the end of a busy trade show, it can be hard to keep the details straight.

Make it your goal to give away a certain number of business cards each day. You can meet people by asking to join their table during lunch (usually all the tables are in use so you have a good reason to ask to sit at a table with an open seat), by standing in line for freebies at vendor booths, or by participating in a trade show-sponsored activity such as a karaoke contest. Try especially to meet people who have lots of ribbons attached to their name tags. These people know lots of other people at the trade show and can introduce you to their friends.

Remember that word spreads fast given the tremendous concentration of people at trade shows, so be memorable for the right reasons. Just because the alcohol might be free doesn't mean you should relive your college freshman glory days. Word spreads fast at trade shows because everyone is constantly talking.

Strategy 3: Follow up so you're not forgotten — and so you don't forget.

A week after the trade show, send a short e-mail to the contacts you made. Include where you met them, for example: “Hi John. This is Jason Dorsey. It was great meeting you at ________. Can we continue our conversation next week?”

If you really found value being an attendee instead of a planner at your industry's trade show, consider asking to participate on next year's planning committee. This is usually a volunteer position but the payoff can be enormous. You typically receive free registration, and maybe even a free room, and you will definitely gain recognition at the event and get to hang out with industry VIPs. This can be a huge win for your career.

What you do in the time between setup and teardown can dramatically affect your career. And if you see my exhibit booth, stop by and say hi. You will likely see my flip-flops peaking out from my conference tote bag.

Jason Ryan Dorsey, The Gen Y Guy, is an acclaimed keynote speaker and consultant on strategic ways to bridge the four generations in the workplace. He can be reached at