In our post-conference surveys we often ask delegates to tell us what their main objectives were for attending. One of the most common responses is conference networking. Of course delegates attend for educational purposes, but interacting with others who work in the same field, live the same day-to-day challenges, and have similar experiences, is what adds value to this face-to-face interaction.
From experience, I can confirm that if I attend a conference and leave having made no connections, the rating of my overall experience will be lower, even if the educational content was exceptional. And on the other hand, if the educational content was mediocre, but I made some valuable connections, my overall opinion of the conference would still be positive. As an event planner, you want to see your guests connecting with each other as well as engaging in the content or experience that is being presented. Ideally, every delegate would leave saying “I learned so much and met so many great people…”, but sometimes it can be difficult to ensure conference networking actually happens.
Helping to Make Conference Networking Happen
Here are a few suggestions to help you facilitate conference networking and provide an enjoyable experience:
1. Encourage conference networking prior to the conference: If you have the ability and the legal right to share your attendee list, DO IT. Give delegates an opportunity to find out who else will be at the conference and who they might want to network with. If your attendee list is available on a social media platform or interactive webpage, you may also want to give delegates the opportunity to connect with each other in advance via personal messages or social media.
2. Make first time conference attendees feel welcome: Let them know that you are aware that this is their first time and that you are making it one of your objectives to ensure that they meet others and have an enjoyable first experience at your conference. Provide them with information about various events they can choose to attend, what are the best ways to meet people, who will be available on-site to answer their questions, etc. The more comfortable and confident a first-time attendee feels, the more they can focus on conference networking versus figuring out where they should be at what time.
3. Encourage return attendees to network with new people: Create a list of experts, long time volunteers, board members, and other leaders and give them the list of first-time attendees. Remind them that in order to ensure the continued success of the conference, it is crucial that first-time attendees have a good experience. If you identify first time attendees, (for example with ribbons or stickers) this will also make it easier for your return attendees to spot them in a crowd. These regulars need to be reminded to network out of their cliques.
4. Split your delegates into smaller groups: Offer smaller breakout sessions, workshops or discussion group opportunities. Creating small groups will assist your delegates in overcoming the awkwardness that can happen in large plenary sessions.
5. Social Media: Use it. Create event hashtags that can be used during your conference and create discussion groups. This interaction on social media could trigger face to face meetings. To find out more about the importance of face to face meetings, read: How to Create Value for Association Members – Face to Face Networking.
6. Plan Happy Hour events: Some of the best conversations and connections happen in relaxed environments. Invite your delegates to meet in a casual atmosphere after the last session of the day. This creates intimate group settings where they can build relationships. Note that by happy hour, I don’t mean that you have to organize events with alcohol. Any afterhours events will provide quality conference networking opportunities and this can include tours to local attractions, a group run, outing to a local event, etc.
7. Create conference networking space: It can be difficult for your guests to find a spot to sit down and network during the conference if during each break period they are holding a plate and a drink in their hands and have nowhere to sit. If your venue allows it, create a small space with seating, tables, lounge furniture, and Wi-Fi, where delegates can sit to relax. Odds are they will be sitting beside someone they don’t know and a conversation may be struck.
To quote a post from the very popular Event Manager Blog Killing the Cliques and Other Networking Tips for a Successful Annual Meeting “Networking and human interaction are what drive your event’s future attendance so it’s crucial you help build connections”.