Ask any attendee at an association meeting why they attend, and networking will likely be a top reason. Post-meeting surveys taken by a range of small and large associations over the years show that networking is a huge draw. Indeed, many attendees consider networking their most vital activity and want networking events that provide valuable professional connections, knowledge, ideas and business contacts.
Truly productive networking events do more than simply put people into a room with name badges, drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The best sessions creatively inspire networking and drive membership by encouraging attendees to return year after year to renew contacts with valued friends and acquaintances.
Association planners and leaders say that networking is most effective when it is peer-to-peer. “People really want to talk to other people that do their same job,” says Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, senior vice president, meetings and expositions, ASAE, The Center for Association Leadership. “Networking is more engaging when you talk to people who experience the same things you do. We encourage this at our annual conference with a lot of smaller networking events along with our larger events. The more you target networking events to specific attendees, the more successful they are. I call it industry segment targeted networking.”
Targeted networking events were among the more than 600 functions at this year’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Atlanta, which attracted more than 5,000 people. The conference included a multitude of strategically created small networking events. “We target them by job title and function,” says Ledoux. “We know the number of people who attend, the type of food and beverage they like, and what they liked and didn’t like about past networking sessions from their evaluations after past meetings. We consider that in choosing the size and type of room seating. We premarket to attendees who might be interested. Say it’s a reception for marketing professionals. We send them a postcard or email that highlights the reception.”
ASAE lends creative touches to networking sessions to spur interest from attendees. For example, Ledoux describes this year’s networking function for first-time attendees, which attracted more than 200 people. “We put a smiling ‘newbie/bee’ bumble bee sticker on their name badges. We also put a paragraph in our conference program book asking members to look for people with bees on their badges and welcome them. It helped connect the newbies with others in a fun way. During our big opening reception, we designated an area for them and had a sign with a lighted star on it that invited newbies and veterans to network with each other.”
The most creative networking events are surefire icebreakers that bring people together with smiles and laughs, according to most planners including Bill Ruby, the co-chair of the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group (MEG). Ruby, the vice president, operations for Spartanburg, SC-based Denny’s Corporation, the largest family-style restaurant in America, says they started off the MEG meeting in Denver in October with an offbeat networking/introduction session that set the stage for forging connections during the entire three-day gathering.
The group, comprised of more than 100 restaurant marketers, suppliers and vendors, gathered in a meeting room at the Grand Hyatt Denver to kick off the event. “We called the meeting to order, and everybody stands up and does the secret MEG handshake,” says Ruby. “We demonstrate the handshake on stage and sometimes have a video and photographs on how to do it. Then people do it with each other. We make a big deal out of it on purpose to bring everybody together to break the ice. It takes everybody’s guard down.”
After the handshake sets the tone for networking, the group passes around the microphone so attendees can introduce themselves and share interesting personal facts. The information encourages networking throughout the entire conference, says Ruby. “If somebody says something like I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan or I love sushi, and another person has those things in common, it’s a way for them to connect with that person in the hallway and say ‘I loved what you said.’ ”
The novel approach provides a comfort level that carries over to MEG’s “networking lunch,” “networking dinner” and “networking breaks,” as they are labeled in the group’s program.
MEG’s creative and purposeful networking pays dividends for members, including Ruby. “There is a gentleman I have known for years at MEG who is a beverage consultant. I feel very comfortable calling him out of the blue and saying. ‘Do you think this is something our company should pursue?’ We bounce ideas off each other and work through challenges,” says Ruby.
Some associations tailor creative networking to members who, for whatever reasons, don’t mingle much. For instance, Kimberly Eskew, the executive director for The Society for Hematology and Stem Cells (ISEH) based in Chicago, noticed that its members called “junior investigators” (junior researchers) were reticent about networking at the organization’s Annual Scientific Meeting, which typically attracts more than 600 people from around the world.
The junior investigators were missing out on the benefits of networking, says Eskew. “It’s important because it helps their careers and reputations in the field. The more people a junior investigator knows, the more likely it is that they will get a better job and move forward. They were partly shy. Some of it was the language barrier. And a lot come on their own from small labs and aren’t there with others who might already know people.”
So during its four-day 2013 annual meeting in Vienna, Austria in August, ISEH introduced a unique game to encourage junior investigators to network. “We created a bingo-type card unique to the group,” says Eskew. “Each of the 25 squares had a one-liner related to the field of hematology and stems cells or something personal. They try to find ISEH members who fit the criteria in each box and have them sign the card and provide their email. The first person to turn in the card before the conference ended received a free membership for next year.”
Eskew ticks off examples of the cards’ one-liners: “Has cloned a novel gene. Speaks more than three languages. Has published in Experimental Hematology (the official ISEH journal). Has seen all of the Oscar nominations. Likes Woody Allen movies. So, they might walk around saying, ‘Hi, do you like Woody Allen movies? Would you sign my card?’ ”
The cards had an impact immediately after they were distributed during the networking session for junior investigators, attended by 100 people in the courtyard of the Imperial Riding School Renaissance Vienna Hotel. “We used a space that has an open feel to it so people can get up and walk around with their cards. Once we passed out the cards and the committee chair explained the game, everybody started moving around, the level of noise got louder, and people were laughing and having a much better time.”
A much different version of the bingo-type activity was just as effective with a much larger group. Eskew, who also is operations senior manager for the Chicago-based National Association of Orthopaedic Nurses (NAON) and a senior manager with association management company SmithBucklin, used the strategy during the group’s four-day 2013 Annual Congress in San Antonio in May.
The cards were distributed to all 6,000 attendees in their registration bags. The cards included one-liners such as: “Like NAON on Facebook. A NAON member for at least 10 years. Has orthopedic nursing certification.” Attendees turned the cards in at the end of the conference, and they were entered into a raffle. The winner received free membership for the next year.
The cards ignited networking like a wildfire. “It was very effective,” says Eskew. “During the 15-minute breaks between the courses and sessions, we saw people whipping out the cards and talking and trying to find people as they were heading to their next room. You saw people huddled in groups with their papers talking to each other, trying to complete their cards. It was like that the whole time.”
Some associations creatively encourage networking around specific topics. For example, the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE) based in Washington, DC, is introducing an innovative format this year in November at its annual conference in Amelia Island, FL, which will attract about 500 people.
The association will set up a “learning lounge” in a hotel ballroom. Apryl Savino, CMP, ICE conference director, explains how it works: “We are using our content to drive networking. We will have eight areas in the room where people can participate and engage with one another around a different topic. Each group will have a person who will facilitate conversation between members around a topic. But it’s a free-flow environment that encourages people to move from one area to the next and mingle based on their interests,” says Savino.
The areas will be set up to encourage different types of personal interactions and allow attendees to move to areas where they feel the most comfortable networking and have greater interest in a topic. “We have theater-style that encourages people to listen to a presentation, and we allow plenty of space around the theater to encourage them to engage with each other and those who are listening,” says Savino. “We also have round-table areas where people talk in small groups face-to-face. Every area will have its own seating arrangement, lighting and signage.”
The format is designed to help attendees fulfill one of their top reasons for coming to the conference. “People say that what they get out of the conference is meeting people with similar issues so they can help each other. We want to facilitate that for more people,” says Savino. “Having all these areas focused on different targeted topics allows people to connect based on similar interests, troubleshoot problems and discuss challenges. It gives everyone talking points focused on an issue or problem, as opposed to that awkward first meeting of ‘What do you do and what company are you with.’ ”
While groups can creatively spice up networking events in a variety of ways, it’s important not to ignore the basics. Here is advice from association planners and executives on how to improve networking techniques.
Use name tags creatively to encourage interaction among attendees. Here are three ideas. One: Add an “Ask me about __” line on the name badge. Attendees can fill in the blank as they wish. Two: Have people make their own name badges and encourage them to be creative and funny. Three: Leave space on the badges for attendees to write the names of their Twitter handles or other social media connections.
Use registration lines to encourage networking. For example, organize the lines by geographic area and city rather than the alphabet. This can encourage people to strike up conversations while in line.
Use food to encourage conversation. Serving “interactive” foods such as fajitas and fondue encourage people to gather in small groups around food stations, where they are bound to talk to each other. Along these lines, have at least one buffet meal because it sparks engagement.
Set up a social media platform where attendees can chat with others, ask questions and connect with people who share similar interests. Allow attendees to create a short online profile that includes topics they want to learn more about and areas where they can serve as a resource to others. This can be done via LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
Finally, evaluate networking events. “After meetings, we send out evaluations to all members asking questions about every aspect, including a few questions about networking,” says Eskew. “We ask if they had enough time to network and if we provided enough avenues for networking to occur. We also judge by looking at networking events to tell if people are interacting to get the connections they need.”
All association planners and executives want attendees to come away from meetings with much more than business cards and a series of short and superficial conversations. Instead, meetings should provide a chance for attendees to relate on a deeper professional level and build lasting relationships that benefit and enrich their careers — all of which will bring them back again next year. AC&F