Networking is one of the main reasons people attend events in the first place. According to Forbes Insights, 85% of people feel that they build better business relationships when they can put in some face time.
Despite all of the modern tools we have at our fingertips today, networking, at its core, hasn’t changed much. It’s still about developing mutually beneficial relationships between all parties, sharing information, and making connections.
That said, getting attendees to make those meaningful connections on their own isn’t always easy. As an event professional, it’s your job to ensure that attendees get the best possible experience, which means helping them find and connect with the right people.
In this article, we’ll explore some out-of-the-box networking strategies that get attendees talking to each other the old-fashioned way.
Though this example is a few years old, Summit Outside’s offline, outdoor business experience brought 900+ tech entrepreneurs, investors, and innovators to the mountains.
While the conference still focused on sharing business ideas with other industry insiders, it also offered yoga, paintball, and mountain biking activities to shake things up a bit.
You don’t necessarily need to design a whole outdoor experience to take something away from Summit’s example. Rather, it’s worth considering that “alternative” activities like hiking, yoga, or a friendly game of softball might be a great way to get people talking in a way that goes beyond the usual “so, what do you do?”
Offer Hands-On Classes or Workshops
An estimated 69% of millennials attend live events to challenge themselves and break away from their daily routine. Simply listening to lectures won’t satisfy that desire for interactive, connected experiences—otherwise might as well just listen to a webinar, right?
Instead, why not teach attendees something they can apply to their jobs when they return home. For example, at MIMA Summit, the program featured a content marketing workshop that provided hands-on training for setting up a content strategy. Attendees received templates, real-world examples, and ran through exercises that allowed them to practice new skills.
Another example is the Adobe Max Conference, which allows attendees to sign up for the workshops they’re most interested in. The conference offered over 200 courses from animation to 3D painting, logo design, to automating Photoshop.
Provide an Opportunity to Give Back
The idea that volunteering is a great way to connect with like-minded people is nothing new. According to Eventbrite’s 2017 Millennials Report, 4/5 millennials say they attend live events to connect with others and 75% say participating in a live event is more impactful than engaging offline.
Adding a volunteering activity gives attendees the chance to bond with like-minded individuals who share a similar set of values. Whether that’s mentoring kids, planting trees, or feeding the hungry, offer attendees the chance to give back to the community while making new contacts.
Create a Designated Networking Area
Aside from planning out specific sessions and networking activities, you’ll want to create a space that allows attendees to relax, get comfortable, and connect with new contacts.
You might consider setting up a lounge, coffee station, or bar with plenty of seating, quiet, and refreshments. This space can be used to host VIP meet-and-greet sessions, invite-only mixers, and happy hours. You might also keep this space open for “freeform” networking between sessions allowing attendees to recharge and take in a quick conversation.
Another idea is designing an “after-hours” networking space for late-night mingling. You might offer cocktails and appetizers or go full-on party like ANA Marketing Week and bring in a DJ.
Personalization is hot right now. From email marketing to content and sales offers, today’s customers expect an experience that is tailored to their unique set of needs.
Every attendee signs up for an event with a specific networking agenda in mind—why not tap into that desire early on and give each attendee a list of people to connect with based on their interests, industries and other factors ahead of the event.
It’s difficult to walk into a room and pick out a handful of people that will bring value to your organization–offering a list, or even a personalized schedule allows attendees to get down to business and make the most of the experience.
If your event caters to different segments, you might consider designing a flexible program for attendees. So, if you’re running a marketing conference, you might organize a series of workshops for people that work in the B2B SaaS space and another for consumer products marketers.
These separate tracks not only ensure that guests attend the sessions most relevant to them, but also opens up an opportunity to network with people with similar interests. You might offer something as simple as a list of recommended contacts and sessions ahead of the event. Or, make like SXSW and introduce an app with personalized recommendations.
What’s more, asking your attendees for more information about their business goals and who they’d like to meet can help you learn more about them—that’s information that can be used later when planning future events and in your sales and marketing strategies.
Build Bonds Around Food Experiences
Look, everyone loves to eat. Not to mention talk about food, photograph meals, and share their most impressive culinary adventures on social media. As such, it’s worth considering building networking sessions around interesting food experiences, whether that’s a coffee or wine tasting event or bringing in local food trucks.
Consider hosting VIP dinners or taking a page from the Digital Fork playbook. The company hosts invite-only events for digital marketing executives with high-end food experiences and moderated conversations. Having a moderator that keeps the conversation on track prevents any awkwardness or lulls that can happen when strangers dine together.
Build in Some Unstructured TimeLook, activities are great for fast-tracking those organic connections by breaking the ice and breaking attendees out of their comfort zones. However, sometimes, it’s nice to just chat with a new connection without any rules or gimmicks involved. Click To Tweet
Happy hours, onsite meals, and other types of “down time” between sessions can be just as productive for making connections. We recommend scheduling unstructured time after some of the other ideas we’ve listed, as it provides an opportunity for attendees to reconnect with some of the people they’ve met earlier.
Another option is organizing these sort of “freeform” sessions by curating smaller groups. This builds on one of the ideas we’ve mentioned above—offering a more personalized experience to attendees and connecting them with people in similar industries or that align with the same business goals.
Ultimately, networking events are all about encouraging attendees to create new bonds over shared interests, values, or business goals. As an event planner, your job is to facilitate engagement so that attendees walk away from the experience with new contacts that can help them achieve their business goals.
While the mix of sessions and activities is up to you, it’s worth noting that you’ll want to provide a variety of networking opportunities that cater to different personality types. Some people prefer learning a new skill in a hands-on workshop, while others may seek out opportunities to bond with others by volunteering or playing a game. Where some enjoy ice breakers, others get more out of unstructured mixers.
Need help designing a program that nurtures new relationships? Echelon Design can help. Our team will work with you to design immersive event experiences that set the stage for making new connections. Contact us today to learn more about our process.