Maria Mihalik is newsletter and supplements editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
Associations that offer only mix-and-mingle networking receptions miss an opportunity to help all attendees share more meaningful interactions. Adding thoughtful structure (and fun) to your networking events gets genuine conversations and connections flowing.
The ballroom looks impressive. The wine and cheese are plentiful. And best of all, the reception is packed with attendees who appear to be happily networking and making meaningful connections.
Look closer, though, and you’ll likely see:
The BFFs, engrossed in conversation and oblivious to the people standing next to them, waiting in vain for an opening in the chit-chat.
The chowers, picking off cheese cubes like snipers at the food table and waiting for someone to introduce themselves.
The prisoners, trapped by overzealous chatterers who fail to notice their captives’ eyes furtively darting around, looking for someone else to talk to.
The lappers, introverts who walk the room’s perimeter pretending to be searching for someone.
The collectors, flitting from person to person and scoring business cards like bees gathering nectar, with every intention that this batch won’t just end up sitting in a desk drawer.
While scenes like this play out at conferences around the world, organizations still have good reason for hosting events like these. Research, like the 2017 Decision to Attend Study, consistently shows that networking opportunities can be the deciding factor in whether people choose to register for a conference.
At the same time, some association meeting pros and industry experts acknowledge that hastily swapping business cards at cattle-call receptions isn’t the same as having genuine conversation and that the format puts some attendees at a disadvantage.
“People are starving for authenticity,” says Sarah Michel, CSP, vice president of professional connexity for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. “We can’t just leave networking up to chance anymore, with cocktail receptions where we hope and pray” that attendees will form new relationships, rather than having what she calls “empty interactions” or huddling with people they already know.
Because of this, networking events with structure baked in, from roundtables to speed networking, have become the answer to two of associations’ most pressing questions: How can we make it easier for all attendees to connect—not just those gifted at glad-handing—and how can we make those connections meaningful?
If your association hasn’t tried any of these structured approaches, it might be time to modernize. Here’s how several organizations tailored these and other formats to suit their members.
Think of roundtables as the anti-reception, where no one needs to scramble for conversation openers.
Tables that fit up to 10 people are spaced around a room, each moderated by a prepared volunteer who leads participants in an informal discussion of predetermined topics or themes. Topics usually center on a job function, common challenge, or other subject on which attendees are eager to get peer insights. Attendees can easily sense who they’d like to know better.
Discussions usually last about 30 minutes, after which the networkers typically rotate two more times to allow new introductions and learning.
The Grant Professionals Association puts its own spin on the format by holding five separate roundtable sessions over three days in one of two discussion dens. “It’s very laid back, no lecture format, no AV or slide presentations,” says Barb Boggs, GPA’s events and volunteer relations manager. “It’s more of a conversation in a relaxed atmosphere.”
The roundtable format can work in other spaces and during different parts of a conference as well. Michel suggests adapting it, minus the rotations, during the lunch window.
“I’m all for more white space,” she says, “but if you’re doing a two-hour lunch, you’d better do some facilitating or else people will isolate—do their email, go to their room.”
Designate a discussion topic for individual lunch tables, Michel says, or have a facilitator guide attendees as they eat and share thoughts on the morning sessions. Either way, “your afternoon sessions will be very engaged because of the connections they made at lunch. It makes the value proposition of your meeting quadruple.”
GPA takes this approach at its conference, with two formal lunches where attendees sit at tables organized by area of practice or by region of the country. At the regional tables, “we’ve formed a couple of chapters because of that!” says Boggs. Once home, members from the same area appreciate that now they can “just meet up for coffee, or work with some of the same funders, or have someone to bounce ideas off of.”
While roundtables are all about comfortable conversation, speed networking is the salsa dancing of conference networking—fast, highly choreographed, and best practiced before hitting the floor.
Akin to speed dating, speed networking shares the same premise: By rotating through timed, one-on-one information exchanges with fellow networkers over the course of about 90 minutes, attendees can walk away with business cards, leads, and ideas from a dozen or more of their peers.
The catch? People have just one to three minutes to convey who they are, what they do, and what they’re looking for before it’s the other person’s turn to do the same. (Hence, practice that elevator pitch.)
It’s up to individual networkers to pursue deeper conversations with promising contacts after the session—contacts that might not have been made without speed networking’s focus on discovering professional commonalities.
At the twice-yearly conferences of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, making promising contacts is the lifeblood of attendees, who are primarily state government officials and corporate members who provide services to the CIOs. So it’s no surprise that NASCIO’s version of speed networking is a clear attendee favorite.
“We were hearing that it was really hard for people to find who they wanted” during informal networking time, says Emily Lane, MPA, CAE, program and brand manager. And state members sometimes felt overwhelmed by so many people jockeying to talk to them.
After experimenting with different ways of executing speed networking, which included eliminating cumbersome timers on each table while still ensuring no individual member dominated the conversation, NASCIO found its sweet spot: In three rounds, state members get five minutes to explain what they need, and corporate members offer solutions—all in 60 to 90 seconds.
“We get more comments about speed networking than any other session. It’s really helpful for both sides of the business equation,” says Lane. “People can talk in a more controlled and formal way.” It also “changes the pressure” on attendees who previously had to hunt to find the right people. “Formal speed networking lets you know you’ll find who you need.”
Although Michel is not enamored with speed networking, she says professionals can make this experience—along with networking in any format—more valuable by asking others, “How can I be a resource for you?”—even if there’s only 90 seconds to do it.
Regardless of the structure they use, Michel tips her hat to associations that design their conferences with learning and smart networking on an equal footing. It’s imperative, she says, “if you want your meeting to grow and prosper. That’s how important networking is now.”