Training, strategizing, motivating, marketing. All of these are among the typical objectives of meetings and events. Networking among participants, on the other hand, often happens as a byproduct of the activities during the meeting. Attendees have opportunities to get to know each other at receptions, dinners, sessions, exhibit hours, city tours and so forth. But companies that truly appreciate the value of networking treat it as more than an afterthought, proactively fostering introductions and relationship building among attendees.
The value of networking is clear across different types of meetings: National sales meetings, for example, will often convene representatives who have not had much or any face-to-face interaction. Client-facing meetings clearly benefit from host company representatives and potential clients developing a rapport. And even peer-to-peer networking among external attendees can benefit the host company, insofar as attendees will realize the company has created the environment for those connections to be made.
“Making it all about networking turned out to be a really powerful strategy, because people were in great moods and almost forgot that they were really working.” — Kathryn Jurgensen
“We definitely understand the value of peer-to-peer networking, and if we can be the host to those opportunities, it typically has a ‘halo effect’ for us,” notes Karen Zunkowski, director, global events at Landesk, a South Jordan, Utah-based software company. With this principle in mind, Landesk is proactive about facilitating networking at its user groups and other events. Indeed, one should not assume that networking will happen automatically in the context of a meeting. “It doesn’t always come naturally” to them, she observes. “You do kind of have to encourage the typical IT manager, the core delegate that we come in contact with, to interact a little bit.”
A fine example of prioritizing networking in the design of a meeting comes from the HPSI’s four-day National Meeting & Tradeshow, most recently held in August at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Irvine, California-based healthcare group purchasing organization welcomed about 500 attendees to the event, including exhibitors, customers and HPSI representatives.
Kathryn Jurgensen, CEO of Raleigh, North Carolina-based Premier Meetings & Recognition, planned the event, and in her experience, the overt emphasis on networking was uncommon. “Usually companies try to create networking but they act like they’re not; it’s kind of under the rug. But this year HPSI unabashedly made it all about networking.” The approach worked. “The thing that most of us noticed right away, during days one and two, is that making it all about networking turned out to be a really powerful strategy, because people were in great moods and almost forgot that they were really working.
“It produced this almost perfect synthesis of camaraderie and business opportunities, so nobody felt odd about approaching somebody. I’ve gotten feedback from sponsors, VIPs and employees on the event, and I’ve never had this many compliments on a meeting.”
Part of the strategy was to limit both the number of vendors attending and the amount of training sessions for HPSI salespeople. As to the first, “we used to have about 120 vendors during the three-hour period (of the trade show), but the opportunities to spend good, quality time with our vendors significantly diminished,” explained Kirk Hess, executive vice president, sales with HPSI. “So we determined our top vendors and limited it to 60 for the morning trade show, 60 for the afternoon. That way our vendors got quality time with our sales folks, and they were able to really talk about the product offering as well as building that relationship. There were other networking opportunities for vendors who didn’t make the cutoff, such as webinars and conference calls.”
As to the training sessions, “in the past, our four days would have been filled with training,” says Hess, “not just at the trade show but then at breakout sessions where they’re meeting with vendors and getting training. This year, we really trusted our folks: ‘We’re giving you a three-hour block of time now, please fill it and use the vendors that are onsite and the VIP customers to build those relationships.’ Fortunately, they really came through and did just that.”
But HPSI and Premier Meetings & Recognition did much more than simply allot more time for networking. “One thing we really tried to do this year was to get the interaction with both the VIPs and our vendors happening in different types of environments,” notes Steve Borgquist, executive vice president, national accounts with HPSI.
Creating varied opportunities for networking is indeed one of the psychological keys to fostering it successfully. Whether or not a person becomes more outgoing among his or her fellow attendees can depend on the setting and situation. So, it makes sense to offer as many different networking environments as possible during the meeting.
Receptions and cocktail parties are typically the first that come to mind as networking vehicles. However, it often happens that only those who are naturally inclined to making new connections will do so, and the goal is to get everyone conversing with those outside their familiar circle of acquaintances. Host-company representatives can help to facilitate that by making introductions. Sales reps, for example, can introduce clients to each other, or even organize gatherings that are likely to lead to new connections. “Oftentimes sales reps will host their customers after our evening event and sometimes combine their customers because they know they have similar interests or challenges that they’re working on,” says Zunkowski.
One limitation to receptions and cocktail parties, she points out, is C-level executives who might not perceive much value in attending them. And these are just the individuals that many attendees will want to connect with. “Depending on who they are, they may go for a while for the food and drinks and then leave unless there’s something compelling to hold them there,” she explains.
“Typically there would need to be a specific activity they want to participate in to draw them to the event, or the opportunity to speak with people they wouldn’t normally have access to, whether it be industry experts or even their peers at perhaps some higher-profile companies. So an ordinary cocktail reception might not be enough of a pull (for top executives),” she says.
Banquets, dine-arounds and the like are another classic venue for networking, but here the interaction often will be limited by the seating arrangement. First, people tend to sit with those they know: “That’s been a problem with our sponsors in the past,” says Jurgensen. “All nine people from one sponsor company will sit together. We had to break them up.” Second, diners are usually limited in potential connections to those near them at the table. To some extent, this problem can be ameliorated by eschewing long banquet tables in favor of smaller round tables. “Sometimes customers are here, and your vendors and sponsors are at the far end of the table, and the opportunity to interact really doesn’t happen,” Hess notes. “So instead of having them at the long rectangular table, which is often the case in big restaurants, we’re there at the Grand America and in round tables with 12 (attendees per table), where everyone can talk and participate.”
Jurgensen further improved the interaction by creating a free-flowing dining experience where participants did not feel compelled to stay in their seats: “Usually we’ll have a dinner in the ballroom with a screen and slideshow, and we use the foyers for cocktails. This year I put tall cocktail tables in the ballroom with bars in the back. There was no structure, no awards given out and no slideshow. So instead of sitting at a table and only talking to people at their right and left, they kept moving around and sat down when they wanted to. It brokered introductions.”
As a seasoned planner, Jurgensen points out that “We all know we can sit at a table of 10, and there is not a lot of opening up.” An unusual dining experience, however, can serve as a conversation starter among attendees. To achieve that effect, a planner may need to think beyond the typical restaurant or ballroom environment.
For example, Teri Abram, president of Dallas, Texas-based EventLink International, once took a group of top brokers and leadership from a commercial real estate company to a ranch accessible to the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa. “We had a good ol’ Southern barbecue where the executives rode up on horses to greet everyone,” Abram recalls. “We sat everyone in picnic-style tables and had a country-western band.” The express goal of the event was to get everyone relaxed, “talking to each other and laughing,” she says. And that includes attendees who would not be very extroverted in the typical dining situation.
Receptions and dinners are passive networking environments in that attendees need do no more than enjoy the F&B if they choose. Some guests, however, may be more apt to strike up conversation where there is a mutual activity they can discuss. Activities of various sorts are thus popular as networking mediums, but care should be taken in selecting one that allows for conversation. Those that are very strenuous or otherwise immersive, while sometimes good for teambuilding, are not ideal for building rapport among a group.
“For some of my Hawaii programs, for example, they want everybody to snorkel,” says Jurgensen. “Well, you’re not talking to anybody when you’re snorkeling. When you’re parasailing, you’re not talking to anybody — and there’s a maximum exposure for embarrassment.”
In contrast, hiking usually does not challenge attendees enough where they become more focused on the activity than each other. At HPSI’s National Meeting & Tradeshow, attendees could select from three different hiking paths surrounding the Grand America Hotel, based on their level of proficiency, and they would end up at three different summits, respectively.
“Even if they didn’t make it to the summit, they got up to the Twin Lakes. And there were folks that were planning on just doing the walk around the lake that had no hills, but as they went through the aspen groves it got prettier and prettier and the conversations kept going,” Hess relates.
“The activity also corresponded with our theme, Race to the Summit,” Borgquist adds. “Every year, our purchasing consultants that build the most profitability and revenue in their territory receive a Summit Award.”
Activities with an element of (good-natured) competition tend to get participants more emotionally involved. As such, they can be even better icebreakers than activities missing that element. Playing golf in foursomes is a classic example, and the HPSI meeting added that to its various networking opportunities. “Not all of our vendors went on the hike, because it may not have suited them,” says Hess, “but it seems everyone in our industry likes to golf. We had about 145 participants.” Borgquist notes, “We strategically made sure we put together our VIPs, vendor partners and ourselves with the right people, so the foursomes were all paired based on business needs.”
There are, of course, many other competitive options besides golf, and group demographics should be the guiding factor in choosing among them. Abram’s commercial real estate client’s upcoming event at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is instructive in this regard. The event will stress networking between the leaders of the client company and another real estate firm it is merging with. “The purpose is to integrate the two teams and figure out how they are going to work together moving forward, and just to get them to have some camaraderie, since they were formerly competing,” Abram explains. “Basically, 650 people are going to be hand-selected to attend this event with the goal of them getting to know one another.”
It was desirable to include some competitive activities at the venue for guests, since “commercial real estate reps are typically very competitive.” But at the same time, “they didn’t want to force any participation for attendees that are so high-level,” says Abram. “So we’re setting up somewhat of a competition, but not a forced competition. On the field, we’ll have golf putting and then up on the concourse we’ll have the speedway simulators, bocce ball and video games. Whether they do well or not, they’ll get a point for participation and more points if they do better, and the points are going to keep scoring on the jumbotron. What we hope is that as they start seeing the scores building, they’re going to want to start participating and meet their other team members.”
A networking event that Abram arranged for a food distributor also included a competitive game presented in a casual way. “They wanted to have their initial networking event in a ballroom, so we created trading cards where each attendee’s photo was on the card” along with information based on some fun questions asked of them during registration. “For example, what’s your favorite food or what’s something embarrassing that happened to you? And during the event they were encouraged to go through and exchange cards, and then there was a competition as to how many cards you collected from other attendees,” she relates. “For this group it worked perfectly; they were mingling and exchanging cards.”
Arguably, nothing instills a feeling of closeness more than a common cause, and closeness begets conversation. “A philanthropic activity or effort that you’re doing in conjunction with the conference has a tendency to draw people into conversations,” Zunkowski observes. It could be, for example, providing the opportunity to put together food packs for a local food drive during registration. “We’ve also invited attendees pre or post to help volunteer to do simple IT tech installations at a local school, or to collect school supplies for local districts,” she says.
Networking activity at a meeting is not easy to quantify. Deals closed with new clients in attendance do imply new connections, but the converse does not hold: Many new, valuable connections can be made that do not translate (in an obvious way) to sales for the host company, especially in the case of client-to-client connections or those among internal attendees.
“We also want to measure what we call the viable relationships,” says Jurgensen. “We all go to meetings and meet people we never see again; we want to see who’s staying in touch, who’s referring. Are people getting new referrals back from the meeting?” To this end, post-event surveys can include questions about new connections made. But the overall value of networking to attendees is not in question: Abram notes a very telling response across the many surveys she has sent out: “On 99 percent of our post-event surveys, attendees ask for more networking.” C&IT