Social media has made us more networked that ever. It’s easy to connect with people around the world from our desks and living rooms whether we’re wearing a suit or pajamas.
But instead of replacing the need for person-to-person interaction, our digital world has made in-person networking events more important than ever. Even young people, who are the most familiar and comfortable with digital technology, crave the chance to meet people in the real world.
“As we start to see a younger generation coming in, their preference is to have more networking opportunities,” says James M. Hobbs, senior director, global programs for Meeting Expectations, a full-service meeting planning and association management company in Atlanta, Georgia. “These face-to-face opportunities create such dynamic and fulfilling outcomes. I find that when people come together, they might have spent a week throwing emails around, but in a few hours they can come up with really great solutions.” They can also make new contacts, form new partnerships and perhaps even find mentors, which is vital for young professionals in particular.
Networking is often one of participants’ favorite things about any meeting or conference, and it can yield a number of positive results. “It’s the most effective way to spark collaboration amongst employees, resulting in innovation across your company,” says Amy Manzanares, senior vice president, events for LEO Events, a global events agency based in Tennessee. “When executed correctly, internal teams, who may typically work within silos, are encouraged to step out and develop relationships with peers and even superiors from an array of departments.
“The beauty of networking events is that they are easily adaptable,” she adds. “They can be stand-alone or elements of a larger event. If you’re looking to disrupt your typical meeting — which is oftentimes a smaller, individual gathering — transforming it into a networking opportunity will foster quality engagement between participants. If you’re executing a larger-scale experience, including networking sessions can add a touch of personalization for your attendees through providing an outlet for their expressions and their voices.”
There are many things planners can do to make networking events more exciting, entertaining and beneficial to attendees. But no matter what tack you take, Hobbs emphasizes that it’s important to remain focused on providing attendees with a great experience. “There are so many wonderful and talented planners out there who might get bogged down with all the logistical details, but you can’t forget about the overall experience and what it is you want your attendees to walk about with,” he says. “Think about the creative aspects of it and give people a memorable experience.”
If user experiences should be at the top of the planner’s pyramid of priorities, what components should be in the underlying layers if planners want to create great networking events?
Who you’re going to invite is the next thing to consider. “You’ve got to make sure you have the right mix of people that have similar interests and needs,” Hobbs says. You need to have an audience that wants to talk about the same types of issues. Will your networking event invite people who have the same job function, such as human resources professionals or programmers? Or will you focus on people who are interested in an industry, such as tech, insurance or automotive?
Once you know who you’re inviting, communicate details about the audience to invitees. “I have found the best networking events happen when there is clear communication of the attendees who would benefit most from attending, along with the general purpose and content for the event,” says Nancy Medoff, vice president of global sales at BCD Meetings & Events, a full-service global meetings and events company headquartered in Chicago.
“Networking events in conjunction with a large conference or meeting work well because there is a targeted attendee list,” says Kelby Hicks, project account manager for Ashfield Meetings and Events, a full-service international meeting and event company based in Ivyland, Pennsylvania. “If you are planning a networking event in conjunction with a larger event, make sure it is held in the first few days when excitement is still high. Stand-alone gatherings work well, but only if they have something to grab attention and attract attendees. This doesn’t require grandiose ideas or an outrageous budget. It could be as simple as a local restaurant changing their menu and offering your attendees a chance to sample it before the general public.”
Amanda O’Leary, HMCC, account manager, venue sourcing for Ashfield Meetings and Events, has a few more tips for stand-alone events. “Timing and location are key,” she says. “Many networking events do take place after business hours, so it is important to remember travel time to and from the event. Pick a location that is centralized to your client base and provide a full list of vendors who will be in attendance.
“It’s also important to remember to take the client’s personal time into consideration,” O’Leary says. “The most successful events are those in which the client can come and go freely, as opposed to a set schedule. Keep the event to a few hours where the attendees can come and go.”
One of the biggest challenges at networking events is actually getting people to network. “While working a room and making connections with unfamiliar people may come naturally to some, for most it’s not that easy,” says Manzanares. That means a big part of the event planner’s job is to figure out how to make people feel comfortable enough to open up.
Providing some munchies and alcohol can be a big help. “Food is a great equalizer,” says Hicks. “People are more comfortable when they have something in their hands. Food allows for natural conversation and gives you something to focus on when the conversation reaches a lull.
“The challenge for planners is to keep the food exciting and interesting, but at the same time easy to eat while mingling and chatting with people you’re trying to impress,” Hicks adds. “Try to not complicate the entire event by picking a menu that requires attendees to work for their food. Networking events are more casual and usually don’t have a lot of seating, so any food selections should be something that can easily be eaten while standing or walking.”
If possible, play some nice music during the event, Hobbs says. Tunes shouldn’t be too loud, as they can hinder conversation. But something that will appeal to your audience, and blends easily into the background, can help create a party atmosphere.
“If you have the resources, creating a more intimate atmosphere can further encourage interaction among attendees,” says Manzanares. “Using furniture to create a casual look and feel can result in major impacts on the consciousness by taking the high-stakes, down-to-business pressure off your attendees.”
Furnishings and snacks can go a long way toward making people feel more comfortable. But what are some specific ways to get attendees talking once they have a glass of wine and are seated on a comfy sofa?
“You’ve got to be able to create a method for people to identify who they are and what products they work with,” Hobbs says. “In the past we’ve done buttons with icons on them, and the icons designate what a person does as a professional or what kinds of products they use. It’s creating that linkage between people so they can spot each other.”
Another idea is to create more structured networking. At one of Hobbs’ events, he created oversized placemats and put them on tables labeled with various themes. Meeting attendees were asked to sit at the tables with topics or themes that interested them. A moderator facilitated the conversation, and attendees took notes and jotted down ideas on the placemats.
“When you give people the tools they need to start dialogue, they come out with meaningful solutions to problems — or they meet someone who could potentially help them in the future with a problem they’re having,” he says. Assigning people to help facilitate networking among event attendees can ease the transition into a new conversation. “At a recent conference, we used whiteboard signs so ambassadors could write topics that people showed interest in or signed up for through the event app,” says Manzanares.
Apps and software solutions also can help break the ice among participants. Many meeting apps allow meeting registrants to create a profile, then search the other profiles to see who else is attending the meeting. “If people set up their profiles and identify their jobs and products properly, it really helps attendees find each other during the conference because it will match them up during the event and help them create that dialogue,” Hobbs says. Or attendees may choose to connect and initiate conversations on social media ahead of the event.
Technology can help people connect ahead of smaller events, too. If people RSVP on a platform where others can see who is attending an event, they can check out everyone’s LinkedIn page or company bio to see if they want to connect with them. They can look at their posts to learn about their hobbies or interests, which can be a great way to determine what they have in common outside of work.
One of the big trends in networking events is tying them to a company’s corporate social responsibility plan, or finding other ways for attendees to give back to the community. Hobbs is working to put together a build-a-bike volunteer session for a future event. Teams of people with similar jobs would work together to assemble the bikes, which would be donated to an organization that serves low-income children.
“I recently attended an event where they incorporated CSR by having us pack school supplies into backpacks for children who are less fortunate,” says O’Leary. “This was a great way to network and socialize while providing a service as well.” She does add a word of caution, however: “CSR can be a great addition to the event, but only when clients are allowed to be paired up with vendors while working on a certain task.”
Today’s event participants crave gatherings that are more experiential in nature. A great way to make a networking event feel more like an experience is to add a theme. “(Recently) I was given the task of planning an event for 1,100 people in conjunction with a large conference in San Diego,” says Hicks. “The conference and our event was scheduled for the middle of August, right in the heart of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. I knew I wanted to capitalize on that excitement. “With the Olympic fanfare and theme song playing as they walked into the rooms, our attendees were greeted with two giant screens livestreaming the Olympics. We had five different food stations, each representing food from the five Olympic continents (the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia). Our guests loved it! They could mingle as they tried each of the different food stations. We had a GIF booth (complete with props) that our attendees thoroughly enjoyed. And we had the Olympics on in the background, which helped the flow of conversation.”
Another option is to make a networking event something fun and out of the ordinary. “A networking event can be anything — an interactive show, a sporting event, a healthy activity such as a group fitness class,” says Medoff with BCD Meetings & Events. “As long as there is an environment for discussion and collaboration, the sky is the limit.”
More and more large events are creating networking zones where people can meet each other informally between meetings. Oftentimes these centers have soft seating and charging stations, which makes them a nice place for people to relax when they have down time. But they can be slightly more structured as well.
“You can do something as simple as putting puzzles and games on the table, so as people are going on their breaks, they’ll sit down and work on a puzzle together and get to know each other,” says Hobbs. “We also do little ad-hoc lightning sessions. I’ll have big whiteboards out there and someone might put up a topic they want to talk about and when they’ll be in that area to talk about it.”
No matter what type of networking event you plan, make sure you follow up with attendees and get their feedback. “Asking attendees directly what they experienced as successes or failures sets you up to improve future events,” says Manzanares. That may be the best thing you can do to craft successful gatherings in the future. C&IT