The last thing attendees want is the same old reception format at events with crummy, meager food, too-long lines at the bar and extremely loud music. Not only are these complaints bothersome at welcoming events, but they block attendees from achieving one of their main goals — networking to create and strengthen relationships. In addition, a reception that falls flat for any reason can generate attendee gripes throughout the entire event via social media.
Opening receptions are crucial at events because they set the tone for meetings and conferences. “The opening reception is important because it tees up everything,” says Claudia Betzner, executive director of the San Diego-based Service Industry Association (SIA). “We have a lot of content for our annual meeting, and it’s important to set the stage for that. If the welcome reception is successful and everyone is engaged, then the next few days will be productive. People will partner and talk with each other and set up meetings.”
“We have a lot of content for our annual meeting, and it’s important to set the stage for that. If the welcome reception is successful and everyone is engaged, then the next few days will be productive. People will partner and talk with each other and set up meetings.” — Claudia Betzner
That’s why Betzner planned a speed-networking activity for the opening reception at SIA’s annual conference last March at The Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Speed networking was a good way to encourage mingling among the 200 attendees from the United States, Europe and Asia. “Every few minutes, a bell would ring and people moved to a different eight-person table and talked to different folks. The purpose was to get them to network with more people than those in their own company or from their own countries. The speed networking lasted about an hour, during which we had about six 10-minute segments.”
Feedback from attendees after the conference showed that the activity was a big hit. “They said it was a good idea to have a networking speed round,” says Betzner. “They said that, because of the session, they were able to talk with people they never would have talked to and open up more business-to-business partnering opportunities.”
Other versions of speed networking also can spice up opening receptions say planners. For example, divide attendees into teams of three and rotate them among different “idea stations” (tables) in a ballroom to generate and share ideas. After a while, rotate entire tables of people to create an entirely different mix of ideas and networking.
Another version encourages attendees to find others with whom they have much in common. Every attendee finds one other person and holds a two-minute conversation in which both people write down everything they have in common. Each attendee switches to another person every two minutes when a buzzer sounds. The session ends after 30 minutes, and the people with the most in common are the winners.
The object is to find someone in the room who has the most in common with you. Everyone starts with a pen and paper. At the horn start, each person finds someone else in the room and has a two-minute conversation in which both people try to find as many things in common as they can. After two minutes the horn sounds again and everyone switches. After 15 minutes, the people who have the most in common are declared the winners.
While some opening receptions are held in ballrooms and meeting rooms, others take place in exhibit halls among exhibitors. Such receptions can be rather perfunctory. However, the New York City-based American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) added extra touches to its opening reception at its annual conference, which was held in Montreal in November, and was attended by 2,300 people.
The reception was held in the exhibit hall at the Montreal Convention Centre. “We try to make it exciting for the attendees,” says Carine Desroches, ASME Meetings Manager. “Before we open up the hall for the reception, we ring a bell and everybody gathers in front of the exhibit hall where there is a huge ribbon across the door. We serve champagne and hors d’oeuvres to everyone, and our president says a few words. Then we have a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and everybody goes in for the reception.”
The reception is designed to encourage exhibitors, professionals and students to network with each other. “We do the reception in the exhibit hall because it’s more interactive than having just a room full of engineers,” says Desroches. “Members get a different take on things because they talk with exhibitors about more than products. Attendees also like having the reception with students to network with them and share ideas. There is a lounge area where they can all sit and talk.”
Entertainment can make an opening reception memorable. “People like to be entertained plus it gives them a talking point,” says Brandon Koenig, CMP, the president and founder of Meeting Solutions, a Wheeling, Illinois-based meeting and conference planning firm. “If people don’t know each other, and there is a good act going on, it brings up a reason to start a conversation. People turn to each other and say, ‘Wow, that magician is amazing. What line of work are you in?’ ”
The decision to use entertainment — and the type to choose — depends on several factors, including the type of group, its goals and membership demographics. Groups choose from among a wide range of entertainment options to meet their needs, says Koenig. “We have used jugglers, musicians, Cirque du Soleil-type performers and mimes. It depends on a group’s budget and how grand or small they want their reception. And it depends on the type of atmosphere they want to create.”
Koenig wanted to create a relaxed, outdoor atmosphere for a reception during a conference last year in Las Vegas at the Green Valley Ranch Resort Spa Casino. “We held it by the pool on a beautiful night,” says Koenig. “We had colored up-lighting on the food stations. There were enough bars, and they were far enough apart so that people didn’t feel crowded or have to stand in long lines for drinks. We made sure that someone else on the banquet staff — a server or someone else — could jump in and help a bartender if needed.”
Music was the key to the reception’s atmosphere. “We had three women who strolled while playing the electric violin,” says Koenig. “They did three or four 15-minute sets. When they weren’t playing, we had soft background music. It wasn’t so loud that you couldn’t talk. That was important to this group.”
Musical entertainment works for some receptions but not for others. The Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) held an opening reception for its annual conference last year at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront. There was no music. “We have had musical entertainment in the past, and that didn’t add anything,” says Phil Harris, AECT executive director and planner of the annual conference. “One year we had a jazz group made up of our members. That got thumbs down because it was too loud and people couldn’t carry on a conversation. In Jacksonville, there was already enough noise with 750 people in the room. You had to be close to your conversational partner to hear the person.”
Additional entertainment ideas to engage attendees: a comedy act that pokes fun at the organization’s CEO; a mime who acts out the organization’s conference theme; a “living statue” that portrays the conference’s theme via dress and pose; an ice sculptor who crafts the organization’s theme or logo in a live performance; a magician who works the theme or message into his magic act. Other ideas: The organization’s top officers can perform karaoke of a song that matches the conference theme; “fire eaters” can provide a theatrical introduction for any “hot” new program or service.
Many times a lackluster reception can be overhauled simply by providing the right amount and types of food. Under-ordering is a big turnoff for attendees. “It’s tied to knowing your counts,” says Koenig. “The biggest thing to know is how many people will attend and have the right amount of food and staffing. I’ve seen planners not order enough, and it has happened to me as well. A lot of times people are just coming off a plane to a reception, and they are starving so they eat dinner at a reception and the food runs short.”
Providing enough good food also encourages attendees to remain and network. “A lot of times, when you go to association programs, there is limited food and beverage,” says Koenig. “So vendors grab their clients and take them out for dinner, pulling them away from the opening reception. We like to provide enough food and beverage to get people to stay, thinking ‘Why should we go out to dinner when we have so much good food.’ Our sponsors really appreciate that so they can talk to people.”
Some groups, on the other hand, may want to cut back on the amount of food to meet the needs of attendees. “It’s important to have a clear, articulated purpose for your reception,” says Harris. “We spend a fair amount of time discussing the purpose of our large group activities. It’s what caused us to cut time and food load of our opening reception in Jacksonville.”
At that meeting, Harris cut back on the amount of heavy food. “We also cut the time of the reception by a half hour,” he says. “It had been a two-hour event and we reduced it to an hour and a half. We did it so people wouldn’t feel so full and give them more time to go out to dinner afterwards and network, which has turned out to be a significant way to engage new members. One of the things we look for in selecting our location is the number of restaurants within walking distance of the reception.”
It’s important to match the types of food with the attendees. “You have to make sure you satisfy different needs, especially those of people coming from different cultures, countries and ethnic backgrounds,” says Betzner. “Make sure you have a variety of breads, meats, vegetables, cheeses and desserts. There needs to be a carving station and a vegetarian option.”
Room setup is another factor that contributes to having a good opening reception. “In Jacksonville, we didn’t have enough tables and chairs for everybody, and that was part of our planning,” says Harris. “We didn’t want everybody to sit down. We felt that they would mix more if they were standing, and would just sit there if we had seats for everybody.”
Koenig agrees that having fewer seats than there are people makes for a livelier reception. “Absolutely have fewer,” he says. “Have the tables in the middle but spaced out probably six feet apart. Don’t have tables next to the food or bar because you want people circulating and not clogging things up.”
Koenig advises interspersing tables with highboys — tall round tables around 30 inches wide on which people can rest food and drinks. “You want to have lots of highboys, not a lot of big round tables,” says Koenig. “People who come by themselves are leery of sitting at a big table not knowing anybody else.”
Planners offer the following additional setup advice.
Consider attendees’ flight arrival times to ensure that they have enough time to check into hotels and clean up before the opening reception.
Don’t hold opening receptions more than three hours long because they can exhaust guests, especially those who had lengthy flights, before meetings start.
Have someone circulate with spare name badges to make sure everyone is wearing one. Badges are important because they serve as icebreakers and encourage networking.
Designating people as welcome ambassadors to encourage attendees to mingle also helps ensure successful opening receptions. “Our host committee circulates and grabs people who sit by themselves to introduce them to others and start a conversation,” says Koenig. “Lots of people come to conferences and don’t know anybody, especially if they are new to the industry, so you always want to have a committee or group of people who are willing to look out for them.”
Harris agrees. “It helps to have members pull in first time attendees to get them acquainted,” he says. It helps seal the kind of personal relationships that are a hallmark of the networking activities that happen at our convention. We are trying to figure out more ways to encourage the networking of new members.”
One final tip: While planning opening receptions, planners should keep in mind that every detail of a reception, good and bad, is shared live during the event. “Every one of our members has at least two devices on them,” says Harris. “There were people commenting on the food and using text messages, Twitter and Facebook to share great conversations with others who weren’t participating. That’s something we don’t have to encourage. They do it automatically.”
Planners should not underestimate the power of an engaging opening reception. As Koenig says, “It’s important to lead off with a nice welcome reception because it lays the basis for your whole program.” The last thing planners want to do is repeat what they do at opening receptions year after year. Adding new touches annually encourages networking and promotes attendance. AC&F