Networking is one of the main reasons people attend your event, meeting, or conference. As event professionals, we want to ensure we are creating a valuable, inclusive experience for everyone to ensure success. Here are 5 steps event planners should take to create a perfect storm for networking success.
Networking is a crucial component to every face-to-face event. In fact, networking is second only to learning in the decision making process for your participants as to whether or not they will attend. For organizations and associations alike, creating a valuable experience with the opportunity for participants to meet new people, share ideas, and build their professional network can carry enormous weight. No matter what stage you are at in the planning process here are some ideas to prime your participants.
Make it FUN!
Playful energy at events always results in happier participants, more positive memories, and an inherently inclusive environment. If you give people the opportunity to have fun - the rest is easy! Try to incorporate activities that participants will want to do and have to do together. A golf game is the gold standard of old-school networking mixed with sport, but if you’re constricted by meeting space and time, there are lots of ways you can inject fun. I have witnessed something as simple as giant board games (think Jenga and Connect Four) scattered across a meeting space transform a room. You can gamify the entire event too; either by forming teams and playing a casual game like a Pub Quiz, or by playing a game with you name badges. One great example is to give each person one half of a famous duo, and then incentivize participants to find their duo (the Robin to their Batman), learn 3 things about each other and report back to registration for a small prize.
Design Sessions to be Collaborative
If your participants are encouraged to practice good networking throughout your program, especially in the educational sessions (the learning time), they will be far more likely get more out of your receptions and evening events (the networking time). Encourage your speakers to build a mini networking component in to every one of their sessions. Something as simple as asking participants to get up and introduce themselves to the closest person to them that they don’t know and talk about who they are, what they do, and what they are hoping to get out of the session will make everyone feel more connected. If your speakers ask for a few examples from the group afterwards it will also serve remind everyone that they are there for a bigger purpose. They are not just there to passively learn, but actively engage with the material and one another.
Make Movement a Priority
The last thing you want at a networking event are a bunch of people clustered together in a tiny space, fighting for a high top table to set down their drink. I think we’ve all been there; once you find a parking spot, that’s it. You’re there all night talking to the same 3 people and before you know it the event is over and you made zero new connections. Of course, choosing an appropriate venue and space for the event is important, but the layout in that space is perhaps even more important. Do you have a bunch of small tables that encourage cliques and bunching, or do you have open lounge-style pods with couches and comfortable chairs? Is the bar right next to the main seating area, or do people need to get up and move across there room for a drink or something to eat? Think about setting up your space so that participants are forced to move throughout the space throughout the event, not just stay in one spot.
Maximize your Marketing Efforts
One of the best ways to make sure your participants are getting the most out of their networking events is to simply make sure the right people are coming to your events. Are you attracting the same group year after year, or do you have a good mix of returning guests and new faces? Are people even attending the networking components, or are they ducking out early? Remind prospective participants about the culture surrounding the organization or association, the objective for the event, and that they are welcome. If you focus on inclusivity and support in your marketing materials people will want to come and take part because engagement is an expectation, not an afterthought. The way you market your event can make all the difference between a group of stressed people in a room thinking of it as more time away from their loved ones for work and an energized, alive group who are just happy for the opportunity to be there.
Listen to your Participants
As with any event, you need to survey your participants afterwards. A common mistake for event professionals is to survey the event in general and not ask specific questions about different elements. Follow up with everyone and get feedback; specifically asking them about the networking aspect. How can you improve if you don’t know what people expected or didn’t expect, liked, or didn’t like? You might even get some great ideas for next time! If appropriate, engage your participants on social media and invite them to continue the conversation and connect online after the event has ended to help solidify those bonds and bring the group together as a community as well.
Networking is one of the biggest reasons people attend events, but the thought of being in a room full of strangers can create a lot of pressure and stress for your participants. Creating an environment that fosters fun, collaboration, and a shared community atmosphere where ideas are valued is the key to a perfect storm of effortless networking. If you design your event with this level of engagement in mind, your participants will naturally interact on the level you want them to, creating the perfect storm.