I hate traveling for work. It's not that I mind the mechanics of travel; I pack light and optimize everything from my clothing to my snacks. I also have the advantage of being able to sleep any time and anywhere, including on planes while surrounded by crying babies. Rather, I hate being away from home.
As a result, I practically never travel for work unless it's for a major event where I can meet a whole host or relevant people. When I do go, however, I always come back with a thick stack of business cards and a ton of new friends.
Here are my secrets for rapidly (and sincerely) building rapport.
1) Do your homework in advance. Whenever I attend an event, I prepare a mini-dossier of key people and facts. I even include their Twitter or LinkedIn profile photo so I can identify them from across the room, rather than having to rely on badges.
The key though, is not to seem creepy. It's not a college test where you need to show your work. My two tactics are either to ask leading questions that will surface the facts I know I want to discuss, or to play Columbo. "Hey, I've got a vague recollection of hearing about X. Was that you?" That sounds a lot better than, "I was looking at pictures of you last night in my hotel room."
2) Jump on in. This isn't dating, and you don't need a fancy pickup line. Just find someone who is temporarily by themself, walk up, and say, "Hi, I'm Chris."
Be calm, relaxed, and comfortable, and the people you talk with will feel the same and open up.
3) Be patient. Rookies are way to eager to cross people off their list, and will join the scrum around a popular person. It doesn't work in picking up a date, and it doesn't work here. You look desperate and make people feel awkward. Wait for your chance; it will come.
Similarly, when you start talking with someone, give them your full attention, even if they aren't on your target list. First, they might be a great contact. Second, it's rude to stare off in the distance, looking for someone more "important". Third, if you have an animated conversation, full of laughter and energy, it will draw other people over, foster new connections, and show you in a good light.
4) Always focus on the other person. Nothing is more interesting to folks than their own concerns; nothing is more pleasant than being able to hold forth on something they love. Be sincere and curious. Don't worry about delivering your message; reciprocity and the desire to help you will practically compel them to ask what they can do for you.
5) Cozy up to the staff. Show sincere appreciation to the stressed-out organizers, and they will generally want to help you with intros, VIP passes, and other helpful goodies. This includes the assistants and tech people, who will really appreciate the rare attendee who reaches out to them.
6) Participate. At any event, there are opportunities to participate, such as volunteering to come up on stage, or asking questions during Q&A. My secret is to always be ready to go. No one ever wants to be the first volunteer or ask the first question, leaving you a massive opening to exploit. You have to be good, of course, but you can help yourself out by thinking of questions throughout the presentation then loading your best one on the tip of your tongue.
Don't get too greedy though; people who hog the airtime look like assholes. That's why volunteering when no one else dares is so effective--people are grateful you fell on the grenade for them.
At this most recent show, I employed all my tricks. I was able to reach about 75% of my target list, I met tons of other people, many turned out to be stellar contacts, and by the end of the two days, people who had known each other for years, and to whom I had been a total stranger 36 hours before, we're repeatedly referencing me in their presentations and comments.
Now it helps that I love the spotlight and taught public speaking, but these techniques can work for anyone, even shy technical entrepreneurs.