Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2023

How to Create Connection-Friendly Events

Most people say they are happy if they can walk away from a conference with a few ideas they can implement back at the office. But the gift that really keeps on giving isn’t the content they collect. It’s the connections they make while on site — that, after all, is the real reason most people attend meetings and events, especially now that most of the content they crave is just a Google search away.

While planners know networking is key, it’s a lot trickier to pull off than just providing an urn of top-notch organic French roast and some crunchy crullers during the coffee break. Liz King, CEO of Liz King Events, shared some of her top tips for facilitating meaningful networking during a session she led at the Professional Convention Management Association’s Convening Leaders conference earlier this year.

• Provide a first-timers orientation session. It’s hard enough to be the new kid at the conference — why not do what you can to introduce them to the conference, your key VIPs and each other? You can do all that at the session itself, but then give them something to do, she suggested. One idea: pair them up and send them off to the expo floor to find five things they agree are worth sharing among the larger group, then have them share those things on social media (with your event hashtag, of course) or regroup and report out at a follow-up first-timers session.

• Encourage people to schedule meetups in advance. This begins by showing attendees how to set up and use their profile on the event’s mobile app. It may bear repeating, but keep educating them on how they can use the app to find others they would like to meet and then schedule meetings. “I recommend that attendees make their first five meetings early, so they have people to go to sessions with and have lunch with from the start,” King said.

• Provide attendee bio booklets. Whether you do it in a digital or print format, people appreciate an easy way to find people by name, company, bio and picture. In addition to helping people find each other on site, it also can be a good connection tool for postcon follow-ups.

• Consider taking advantage of wearable technology options. From bracelets to badges, there are myriad ways now to enable attendees to do some high-tech networking using geolocation. Some devices connect to LinkedIn profiles to help attendees find someone they might have connections in common with who’s standing within 100 feet of them at the reception. “A lot of mobile apps now can give you some structured things to talk about.”

• Offer “brain dates.” If you don’t like the name, you can call it something else, but the main idea here is to give people who share an interest the ability to find each other and then carve out time and space to talk about that interest. “You can go into the app and say, ‘I want to talk about this topic, and I don’t see it on the session list. Let’s meet at 2 p.m. at this area and talk about it.’”

• Take full advantage of badges. This may be Networking 101, but all too often, badges don’t end up being the icebreakers they are supposed to be. Make sure the first name is big enough that people can read it without having to stare at the person’s chest; ditto for the company name, she said. “Think about putting on the badge things like Twitter handles and also leading questions and fill-in-the-blanks (my superpower is _, talk to me about _, etc.). They are great conversation starters.”

• You have lots of data on your attendees — use it. “I think this is the next big thing for events,” King said. “We know a lot about our attendees — how can we use that to help with networking?” One example: give people personalized recommendations about sessions and exhibitors based on what you know about them. “If you can add geolocation to it, that’s even better.”

• Don’t forget the fun factor. Even the most serious scientist at your event likes to laugh, believe it or not, so don’t be afraid to inject a little fun. For example, King said one event she worked with asked everyone to wear bright colors. Not only were the event photos much more interesting when people weren’t all in black suits, it also gave attendees something to talk about. Or you could ask them to bring a certain object, then let them run with it, she said. “They could ask their social media networks which color shirt to wear and have people vote — just put it out there and see what people do with it.”

• Ask them to take a selfie. One way to kick off a general session is to ask people to take selfies and post them on social media with the event hashtag. While people may laugh awkwardly with their neighbor at first, “it gets people laughing right away and gets them talking to the person next to them. Maybe they’ll even take a picture together (talk about promoting networking at your event!),” she said. Collect those photos posted to your event hashtag and display them on the big screens throughout the day to keep the buzz going.

• Create a photo map. Print out a huge map and hang it in a high-traffic area. Attendees can pin where they’re from, and before long, they’ll be able to find others from their neck of the woods to connect with both on site and back home postconference.

• Hold entertainment breaks, not just coffee breaks. Find ways to keep their attention during the break, besides coffee, by providing meditation, an improv group, music — anything that gets people laughing and interacting with each other, King suggested.

• Make follow-up as easy as possible. If you’re using an event app, make sure there’s an easy way to export the connections they make outside of the app. And, while you will need to moderate it and feed it with fresh content, consider creating a private Facebook or LinkedIn group to help keep people connected after the event. — Sue Pelletier


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