Karen Horting, CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, understands firsthand how the design of a meeting or event can make or break networking opportunities. In her role, she oversees the organization’s global initiatives in support of women in engineering and technology.
“We know that people with large, diverse networks are more successful and more likely to take risks. Therefore, we want to make sure we are providing an environment for our attendees where they can grow their network, make contacts, meet people who are helpful to them now or down the road, and let them share their expertise with other folks,” Horting says.
Even in this digital age with everyone glued to their smartphones, Horting believes there’s still a craving for the face-to-face interaction that comes with in-person networking opportunities.
“There’s nothing like a connection made in person. Conferences play a critical role in providing those opportunities for face-to-face interaction,” Horting says.
Horting and her team at the Society of Women Engineers design the association’s events so that there’s ample space for networking. For example, they recently set up a “social media lounge” at their recent annual conference and career fair in Austin, Texas. This lounge provided people the opportunity to interact with each other in a low-pressure environment. They also organize various events that are specifically designed for networking and interaction.
“We try to utilize the hallway spaces at our events so that if people are going between sessions, they have the opportunity to network,” Horting says.
To further enhance networking opportunities, it’s important to build in time where there’s nothing scheduled, especially at international events. Horting and her team have received feedback at some of the organization’s overseas events stating that people want more unstructured time so they can network.
“We make sure to not completely pack the agenda with programming, and have time where there’s nothing competing so people can network,” Horting says. “We have a mobile app that people can use to find others at the event with similar interests. We also leverage social media for people to connect before the event so they can meet face-to-face while at the event.”
In her role as meeting planner and interim executive director at the Obesity Medical Association, Carly Crosby recognizes that at their core, meetings and conventions are about human interaction and a shared experience. Content and education are integral to the learning process, but it’s the personal interactions that give content its context and emotionally connects learners.
“Connecting attendees through networking is essential to creating an experience and grounding those individuals in the mission of the organization,” Crosby says. “We are in a constant state of improvement when it comes to networking. We use technology, such as conference apps and games, to incentivize attendees to attend an event. We encourage interactions with leadership during roundtable discussions. We also rely heavily on our membership committee to act as ambassadors to first-time attendees or new members. It’s important to reinforce a welcoming culture from the classroom to receptions to offsite activities.”
Chrystal Huskey, CEO, Event Integrity and owner, Logistical Meetings & Events, says technology can provide new ways to help attendees break the ice.
“Using a live poll to create a custom game specific to their area of expertise and challenge attendees is a fun and less expensive way to use technology for a large group of people,” Huskey says. “Live feeds via social media are also affordable but bring a modern feel to the event.”
As owner of Logistical Meetings & Events, Huskey creates experiences at meetings and events as a way to enhance networking.
“You can do this by engaging the attendees early — let them see what options they have for building their schedule,” Huskey says. “Also, creating an experience within the flow of the space is a great way to not only control a crowd, but also get people in a positive state of mind for enjoying the event.”
This is something the Downtown Denver Partnership used when planning the 2017 Denver Startup Week’s kickoff breakfast.
“We wanted the crowd to have a fun entry that got them excited; it was a kickoff after all,” Huskey says. “Plus, we wanted people to network with others before the program started, and at 7 a.m. that can be hard to do. We staggered guest entry and had lots of coffee in the galleria where the guests hung out after check-in. When it was their group’s turn to enter, they walked down a blue carpet, had their photos taken and hopped on an escalator to the ballroom. Groups were able to enter together as a newly bonded group.”
Before they entered the room, which was filled with lights and screens that had live Twitter feeds, they heard energizing music chosen specifically for the group.
Experiences aside, when it comes to networking, event flow is also important. If your attendees are a mixed-interest crowd, having elements that aid in conversation throughout the space is paramount. Determine the kind of tables needed and what kind of networking will take place. Will the focus be on sitting down and reviewing something over food or having a cocktail while chatting? Will there be a photo opportunity? Also, such things as spaces with large windows and proper sun shading during the time of the event are important as the temperature of the room can affect attendees’ comfort level and impact networking efforts. And the volume of any music playing should allow for conversations.
Drew Navolio, director of marketing and partner at David James Group, a marketing agency that runs events for associations, worked on planning the social media lounge at the Society of Women Engineers’ conference and career fair. He says meeting planners need to move people from one place to another.
“Changing the environment lets people connect over something that isn’t the convention center or meeting space,” Navolio says. “Also in large rooms, such as a ballroom, break up the space with kiosks, signage, table space, perhaps even smaller grouped seating areas such as couches, to make the space feel more intimate.”
And while exhibit hall receptions are nice in theory, they don’t really produce the networking opportunities they once may have. Find a local establishment or eatery and host smaller receptions. Allow for audiences to fracture a little and choose where and with whom they network.
Also using a variety of furniture displays allows for different types of “meeting” spaces in an event design. Leverage what the hotel or venue has — i.e., high cocktail tables, large banquet rounds and low cocktail tables. The different surfaces and seating arrangements provide attendees with a variety of options to suit their style of communication and what works best for them. If the budget allows, bringing in some key lounge pieces can further accomplish this goal.
“Different people have different communication styles,” says Sydney Wolf, MPI member and sales manager with metroConnections. “The more they are supported and made to feel comfortable with the physical setup of the space, the more apt they will be to communicate.”
The idea of incorporating activities or interactive sessions into a meeting schedule is also a great tool for association planners to make the most out of networking schedules. By using an icebreaker activity or “give back” event, you are able to rally attendees around a central cause and allow for easy conversations to happen. Association meeting planners can work with a teambuilding expert who can help pull together an activity that breaks a larger group up into teams that work together on a similar goal.
“Attending a conference is all about wanting natural and easy conversation to happen,” Wolf says. “The more ‘conversation starters’ association planners can provide to give attendees something to talk about — the better.”
Most conferences and events these days have three generations represented in the audience. As such, each distinct group has a unique avenue by which they choose to network. Millennials will look for ways to connect through a mobile app or digital interface of some kind. Gen Xers and boomers, less so — they may prefer more face-to-face interaction and require a space that accommodates that type of interaction.
Technology has dramatically affected the way we communicate in all aspects of life. “Specific to conferences, technology provides a platform for communication in a variety of ways,” Wolf says. “For example, attendee-to-attendee messaging within a conference app allows for easier and more efficient connections to be made. The exchange of information can happen faster.” You can use the information within the application to look up prospects and help connect names to faces much faster. When used correctly, the conference technology can be used to help educate yourself to make networking that much more efficient.
“The permeation of smartphones in the last 10 years makes some kind of custom mobile networking platform a mandatory component of any meeting or event,” Navolio says. “We’ve combined the two at our ‘social media lounge’ at the Society of Women Engineers’ conference and career fair. The lounge encourages mobile interaction while providing a space for face-to-face networking.”
As mobile apps advance, they continue to make strides in connecting attendees during an event. Attendees can connect with each other based off searching key terms. They also can share information and connect after the event is over, and not even have to cross paths during the meeting or event.
“The advent of social media, particularly Twitter, also facilitates instantaneous updates and promotion of networking events,” Navolio says. “Live Twitter feeds make it easier to drive attendance at networking events — even as its happening, highlight special features and communicate any last-minute changes and updates.”
Technology, experience and return on investment are three focus areas for today’s association meetings and events. Showing value through education and true relationship enhancements are key. And measurable results that show the value in not only the event, but also the organization that they are paying to be a part of or considering becoming a part of, will continue to be important for attendance and ongoing association/membership participation.
“This is becoming especially important as costs in hotel, travel and other accommodations are increasing causing participation costs to also rise,” Huskey says. “The experience is the bonus for showing up and is what will help attendees consider joining again next time.”
While education and learning are important to the success of an event, networking plays an important role in what attendees gain from participating. As Horting notes, the events where people feel like they’re making good connections are the ones they see as valuable and the ones they will continue to attend.
“You can get professional development at a lot of places, but growing your network and meeting the right kind of contacts is not always easy to do,” Horting says. “Your event will stand out among the rest if it is designed to encourage networking and allow people to make those connections.”
To make networking opportunities successful, know your attendees’ wants and needs. What are they going to want to get out of the event? Just because a meeting planner may have tried something and knows it works with some groups doesn’t mean it works for all crowds.
“Constantly ask yourself, what problems or questions does this group have that we can provide a solution for within the networking environment?” Huskey says. “Sometimes they just want fun, sometimes they want to be entertained, and sometimes they want a takeaway. Figure out what the majority would be happy with and make sure your efforts are focusing on that throughout the planning process.”
And while there has been a major surge in technology over the last 10 years within the conference and meetings world, industry experts predict we will continue to see technology play a vital role, however, we also will see a shift back to the emphasis on face-to-face and authentic communication that people are so desperately craving.
“Networking is where the passion for the field comes through,” Crosby says. “It is where learners become champions of the organization, and where relationships are forged for years to come.” AC&F