Conference networking is a central part of planning a big meeting. And when thinking about how to make a conference better, conference networking is often at the top of the list. Planners want to know how to encourage networking at events. As part of a creative workshop I led for conference organizers called Reinvent or Refresh Your Conference! in Washington, DC, we looked at how to come up with creative conference ideas and improve conference networking. Separately, we also looked at ways to generate quality content and improve breakout sessions.
We started by listing out some general conference ideas for organizing a conference so they’re better. We did these activities as small groups of conference organizers and event planners. I’ll confess that I actually chose the two brainstorming topics by design because I know they’re habitual complaints of attendees and organizers:
- improving conference networking activities
- making content better at the event
I also think it’s important to see the overlap between how good conference networking filters into the content of the event … and how content is influenced by networking. I don’t see them as discrete parts of a conference where content only happens in a breakout room and then connection only happens at a networking event.
What you see below is an unfiltered list, although in a list rather than the original Brain Writing tables. I gave the groups less than 5 minutes to come up with conference ideas and they came up with dozens and dozens of ideas around conference networking and quality content. Within these lists, there are a number of conference ideas that are duplicative. There are also a number of conference networking activities listed that don’t have enough detail to make them actionable. But there are a lot of conference networking ideas that are really valuable on their own and a lot that are also really valuable as “fire starters” to think about other ideas in a similar vein.
You’ll see a number of patterns emerge within the group looking at conference networking. On one hand, you see people thinking about fun networking activities or events that will somewhat passively give attendees a way to connect and bump into each other. Here we’d see things like karaoke or a craft table. In those cases, there’s no specific activity or networking facilitation to get people to meet. Instead you just imagine that someone doing a craft project at a table next to someone else will have a logical reason to strike up a conversation. In this case, the activity itself might function as a networking icebreaker. The other side of the conference networking suggestions tend towards designing interactions between people that are more obvious and purposeful. In this case, we see things like name tags, networking icebreaker questions, speed networking ideas, or assignments to meet people.
One thing to note when reading this list: This type of brainstorming is additive, meaning that participants are encouraged to build on ideas that came before them. As a result, you’ll often see an idea shift or morph into something richer or different.
Conference networking activities and ideas
dancing contest – I won’t argue that dancing may be something that acts as a bridge to connect people. But I will say that if you don’t already feel like you know people and are comfortable within a group of conference attendees, it can be hard to get out on a dance floor and start dancing. People don’t like to dance by themselves. Also we know from our days in junior high, that we form these little defensive circles that tend to be exclusive rather than inclusive of strangers. And, in addition places where there is dancing or music tend to be pretty loud. And loud places tend to make it difficult to talk. And when it’s difficult to talk it’s hard to feel like you’re really connecting with someone else.
have an MC to host the dance party
booth sign up sheet with a prize
relatable arts and crafts project – There are a lot of things that you can do that just give attendees an interesting, passive way to be doing something next to someone else with the opportunity to have a conversation. Whether arts and crafts is going to be a fit for all conferences is a question but this is a good fire starter idea.
allow people to take their plants home
competition with teams – The idea of having teams in a conference networking contest is pretty interesting. I would probably suggest though that your teams be diverse to start with as opposed to thinking that one team is everyone from the Denver office and another team is the people from the Chicago office and they need to compete against each other. Instead, I would want to make sure that a team has a mixture of people from different offices or job functions or levels of seniority or years attending the conference or something to make sure that we’re really connecting different people and sparking different ideas and not getting attendees stuck in a rut or creating a clique.
role-playing – I’m not sure what form this would take in networking but it’s something that I can imagine happening in a breakout session. And when we have two people from the audience come up and role-play a salesperson and a customer, for example, we get those two people to connect and form a bond in that session. Then they’re quite likely to have formed a friendship outside of that session.
Taboo game – One assumes this might be using hot topics or ideas from the conference content as part of the game. There are a number of ideas to utilize games and gaming to bring people together in this list of conference networking activities.
board games with prizes – This could be active – in terms of you having a specific time when people can gather and play board games – or it could just be that you put board games out at tables or distribute them during meals to encourage attendees to interact in an unstructured way.
sponsor networking – This could spark all manner of other ideas. For me, I think about when a sponsor appears as a speaker or on a panel. For them – in fact, for many speakers – part of the value of being in front of a crowd is it induces people to come up and talk. That might be people just telling you that they enjoyed what you had to say and that feels good. But it also may be people coming up to tell you about another project or line of research that you should have on your radar. It may be people coming up to connect you to colleagues. It might be someone who offers you a job. And, in the case of sponsors, it may be someone who wants to ask about your product or service and who may become a client. Those are very valuable interactions; that’s part of what drives a sponsor to pay for sponsorship. So those moments at the ends of talks where a sponsor is speaking are really valuable. If you focus on filling your hour-long session to the brim with a presentation and then allow only five minutes at the end for people to meet the speakers – when they still need to be at the next session a few minutes later – you will inevitably find that good connections and possibly good clients walk out the door because there wasn’t a way to connect them to the speakers. A repeated theme here – and not just to help sponsors boost their sales – is to think about slimming down how much time you devote to typical person-talking-to-a-room formats and how much time you give attendees and speakers or experts to interact on a smaller, more personal scale.
discussion questions at lunch tables – Meals are a really rich environment in which to foster conference networking, although they often miss the mark very widely and become a case where the people who already know each other find comfort in sitting with each other and not engaging with new people. I’m in favor of the idea of seeding a table with question prompts. I have a number of cautions here but I will say that many lunch tables at conference centers are big tables that seat 6, 8, or 10 people. They’re so big that it’s very difficult to effectively have a conversation among those people because the distance between people is so great and often the rooms get quite loud. If I could wave a magic wand, I would love to put people at small tables of four instead of big tables of 8 or 10.
have different discussion questions at each table – Whether the discussion questions are the same or different at each table or not, it gives people a crutch to lean on when meeting other people at the conference. It reminds me of the One Book projects where, in theory, you could walk into any bar or supermarket and ask anyone in your town a question about this book and be able to spark a conversation. There’s a lot of value in having a common set of unifying discussion questions throughout an event.
put people on panels in networking sessions – I will say this over and over again if I get the chance: I’d like for people to not think about there being a session where only content happens and a block of time where only networking happens. Ideally conference attendees are meeting one another and connecting in breakout sessions. And in what we might otherwise think of as networking sessions, my hope is that they are learning and sharing about the content that brought them to the event in the first place. But to this specific point, I don’t think it’s out of line for conference organizers to insist that experts and VIPs mingle with the little people. It becomes less onerous of an argument on your part if the conference networking is fun and easy rather than tedious and boring.
activity or game that encourages people to interact – Sure, I can see value in this. I would just ask if there’s a game or a conference networking activity that ties into the content or the overall message of the event rather than just being a fun game? For example, if I’m running a conference about housing policy or economic development, I might think about some sort of simulation or activity that builds on a session or a theme of the conference rather than having attendees play battleship or twister.
game or activity results posted on a screen for open discussion
specialized areas where people can organically meet such as a candy bar or desserts – I’m a fan of giving people the structure to know that there is an area where they can meet people and that’s encouraged, but also that there are special areas that might be for certain hot topics or the like. I think there’s a lot of potential in this idea. I would just say that putting out drinks or a cheese plate or hors d’oeuvres or candy sounds like a fun, good idea and people will definitely wander over and eat things. However I’d encourage you to add a bit more structure to an event like that. In the end, people are not especially good at striking up a conversation with a stranger just because there’s a cheese plate between them.
business cards in a bucket to force people to draw one – This seems like the start to a good idea. The question of course is what happens after you take a business card. I might think about everyone in the room putting a business card into a hat and then having one attendee draw a card and then pairing up with whoever is drawn and maybe there’s a reward for them finding something in common. one thing about business cards that I’m not wild about though is they tend to be somewhat hierarchical and you see that someone you’re talking to clearly has a junior position and that may slant how you interact with them versus someone who has a card that seems more senior. So names may suffice rather than business cards with titles and all the information on them there.
a fun theme such as costumes games music or decor – I’m ok with themes. I also think that if you have a theme and it gives people a reason to dress up or take a funny hat that you have floating around, it may be the thing that sparks a conversation with someone who remarks on that hat or whatever. That said, there are a lot of conferences that have really awesome themes and great decor which may lead to people taking pictures but it probably doesn’t lead to them striking up a conversation with someone. Themes seem to mostly just appear on the marketing, conference booklet, and influence the decor at a reception, yet they theme doesn’t really provide any guidance or value to the event. To really make a theme a touchstone of connecting people could be great.
give incentives to help people meet and collaborate – Yes, there’s a lot of potential in this idea here. Think about something where you assign two people to find each other in a crowd — maybe someone who’s been coming to the conference for 20 years who you’re assigning to connect with a first-time attendee — and when they connect, they come to a prize station and you give them a drink ticket so that they can get a glass of wine or a beer together.
food and beverage that reflects the town’s unique traits – Being intentional about food and beverage is good. But, in the context of conference networking, I would encourage people to think not so much about whether we have crab cakes in Maryland or steak in Texas but what we can do with the food and beverage to encourage people to meet and engage with one another. So, for example I might think about bringing out of plate of sliders and giving the entire plate to an attendee to then give to his or her friends rather than restricting it to a waiter making the rounds giving out individual hors d’oeuvres. I’ve also done events where I somewhat randomly use someone’s name as part of the description of a food or beverage. For example, I may have an attendee who’s from the same town where the winery is that’s providing our wine and I may just make a note next to the wine saying that Jane Smith is from this town and if you see her ask her about the town. It’s a small tweak that gets people to engage in different ways and also adds to the fun and buzz of the event.
bring in a wider mix of interesting people – I suppose there are a lot of different ways that this could go but there is nothing that stops you from inviting in a few comedians or an improv troupe to spice up your conference networking events. I’ve seen a number with roving performers or people whose job it is to engage with attendees and connect them. There’s a lot of value in that. But, also, your attendees are probably really interesting (especially to other people who are in the same field); it’s just that they don’t necessarily get a chance to shine. I’m not suggesting that you have an open mic night – although I’m not not suggesting that – but think about how you can draw people out of their shells so that they feel like they’re interesting and people want to talk with them. Create a good atmosphere and it’s amazing how even shy introverts can seem interesting.
hosting outdoor party or reception – I like the idea of trying something that’s outdoors instead of in yet another conference room. And mixing up the environment where a conference holds events is beneficial. My challenge to people though is: Think what happens once people are outside that gets them to network? Are there croquet teams?
provide networking conversation starters ahead of the conference – You could do this in a variety of ways but one that I’ve seen that is really simple and works pretty well is to have people choose what they want to talk about and have it printed on their name tag. TED conferences do an ok job listing conversation starters on name tags; their tags do seem to often be more beautiful than they are functional though.
have interactive activities such as a craft table
create different spaces for different preferences
building time and agenda for networking – This is a huge point. Often we try and cram a conference full of content, back to back to back, and then we reserve these tiny 5-minute or 10-minute blocks where people are running through the halls and we call that networking time. Or we have one evening event with wine and cheese that we call a networking event. If we think that a huge driver of what brings people to conferences is to connect with other people in a meaningful way, maybe our conferences should be 90% networking and 10% content?
abolish the agenda! – This is not uncommon and we see it in unconferences. It’s a big jump to make but those events tend to be very engaging and very productive.
switch rooms or location – Beyond just the idea of being in a different place, think about the time when you walk from one place to another. It’s pretty easy to ask a group of people to have a brief conversation as they walk between two points. Check out NetWalking for some inspiration.
progressive party or dinner – I buy into the idea that people can meet and engage with strangers at a conference in a context that’s very similar to how they would engage with their friends back at home. I love dinner parties and find there’s a real magic to more intimate gatherings around food. Logistically this might be really hard if you have a big conference but it might lead you to say that smaller events are better or maybe you do it with a subset of attendees or maybe it’s something optional for people to opt into for a limited number of seats. This is a good idea though.
facilitated networking – As something that I do, there’s an awful lot of value in facilitated networking. Which is to say that when you just leave people to their own devices in a room and tell them to go network, usually very little networking happens. Just as someone hosting a party has a special power to bring people together and to ask them to do stuff and interact in a different way, someone facilitating a networking session is imbued with a special power to get people to mix and mingle in a way that wouldn’t seem right if they were trying to do it on their own.
facilitated networking with puppies – As the people in the workshop know I often use the example of puppies in this exercise to show how layering onto an idea can really change it and make it different. Of course, the reality is puppies will, in fact, make almost anything better. I was at a conference in Washington, DC a few years ago and one of the exhibitors had a puppy; it made sense because they were a provider of therapy dogs or something as I recall. You can guess how popular that vendor was! If I hold the conference networking event and I bring in a bunch of puppies, it’s going to get a bunch of people to congregate and interact with them, but it’s also going to get them to interact with each other. Or maybe we stand in a circle and if a puppy runs over to someone, that person shares something with the group. Or maybe someone walks with a puppy and people actually talk to the handler and not the dog. It may be unconventional, but puppies is not a crazy idea.
dedicated time for networking the whole conference is dedicated for networking – Again, if a reason to bring people together is to have them connect and share and learn from one another, maybe having them sit in our long PowerPoint sessions all day isn’t the way to do that. I’m definitely not opposed to the idea of a conference that leans very heavily on networking as opposed to what we typically think of as content.
open bar – I’m not opposed to the idea of an open bar or serving alcohol as being something that can be an element in networking. I would just challenge people to think about what else can be done rather than relying on a social lubricant to loosen people up? I think there are tons of other ideas that I’ve seen and used that can be complementary, as well as tons of the ideas that we came up with in this short exercise.
dedicated space for networking throughout – This is a solid idea but it probably begs for a little bit of structure. In other words, I don’t see a lot of success where you parcel off part of a ballroom and just let people wander in and meet each other. I say this a lot: people are generally bad at meeting strangers on their own. You could have someone as a host who’s facilitating networking and connecting different people who come into the area. There could be any manner of ways to have people connect with the right person in this dedicated space.
make all spaces conducive to networking – I totally agree with this although it’s a little vague to know what form that takes. A few things that I think of here would be: venues often get really loud, especially if you’re playing music in them and that makes talking with people really difficult. Also, whenever there’s an expectation that you’re going to sit theater style, it seems to encourage people to not engage and just stare forward.
target zones and rooms to discuss certain topic areas
balance structured and unstructured networking – In a perfect world, a lot of the conference networking activities that happen are covert and under the radar. You might even need to label your conference networking activities. It goes back to that idea that 99% of design is invisible. For the people who attended my workshop, there were lots of little things that I was doing to encourage networking, but I wasn’t standing on a chair and saying, “Now is the time we do fun icebreakers for meetings! Now is the time that we network!” Rather than thinking about structured or unstructured conference networking, I would strive to get to a point where networking is just part of the DNA of the event. Then, we don’t have to call out that networking icebreakers are happening.
spend more time on networking than on content – This is a totally valid overarching idea for many, many conferences. If you look at a typical conference agenda, there’s usually a very clear demarcation between conference content blocks and conference networking sessions. Even if the goal of the conference is to connect attendees, specific networking is often only 10-20% of the time. And that well-intentioned time on the agenda is usually the first thing on the chopping bock when content sessions run long.
have bigger first names on the name tag labels – For a central as they are to most conferences and for a slick as they often look, the actual human-centered design of name tags is often really disappointing. Name tags are some of the most valuable real estate at a conference when it comes to building valuable connections between people. That name tags are often hard to read and contain no information or information that isn’t particularly important is such a quick easy fix that I would often encourage people to start there. I’d also ask if it’s valuable to have someone’s title or their hometown on a name tag when there’s so many other valuable things that you could put there instead.
dedicated space and time for people to gather around similar interests
ways for people to identify others they want to connect with – There are so many different ways to do this, from name tags to an app to parts of a room to a variety of facilitated activities that I’ve run. A great frustration of mine is when I go to an event and there are a hundred or a thousand people in a room and I know that there are tons of pairs of people who should meet because they’re looking for the other person and it’s a perfect match — and yet they never meet because there’s not a good way to connect people based on what they’re looking for or what they have to offer.
allow people to feel like equals when meeting – I totally agree with this and it’s one of the reasons why I’m cold on putting titles on name tags. I’m also not a huge fan of all The ribbons that get attached to name tags that really just serve to reinforce rank and hierarchy. I’m not 100% against ribbons that denote speakers or board members or the like but it deserves some serious thought as to why you’re doing that and what value comes out of it.
group dinners – Especially if we have a way to group people around a topic they’d find valuable, I like this. But, even if it’s just random people and there’s a way to bring them together, sure, do it.
conversation starters ahead of the conference
each speaker defines a challenging discussion question – I like this idea but I also like the idea of having regular attendees contribute questions to the larger conference and be recognized for that as a way for someone to shine at the event and be someone that others want to talk to, even if that person isn’t a speaker or a VIP.
attendees go out to events on the town – I like this idea along with a variety of the others that take people out of the conference center and the conference environment and put them in a place where we might ordinarily just be more sociable. Still, I’d say that just because you’re organizing a nighttime tour of the monuments in DC doesn’t mean that networking is necessarily going to happen among that group.
free happy hours – A free happy hour gives people an incentive to be in the room … but then my question to an organizer is what happens after they’re in the room to get them to engage in a meaningful and valuable way with other people? Also, open bars events are expensive and they’re also prone to people feeling like they need to take full advantage of free booze, which can hurt an event. I’d want to evolve to a point, perhaps from one year to the next or from the first day of an event to the final day, where that money might be spent on someone facilitating a networking event that’s effective versus bribing attendees to be in a room and hope they’ll just bump into people and magic will happen.
time and activities for wellness as a group such as mindfulness walks, etc. – Wellness on its own is probably a valuable thing to have at a conference and something that may help put people at ease and make them feel better and more comfortable and, overall, that leads to better interactions. But, in the context of conference networking, I would ask the question of how can we do something a little different with a walk or a yoga class to get people to find value among their peers at this event? Is it a paired walk that matches up people? Are we walking to see something compelling? How can exercise be collaborative?
food, drinks, games and the exhibit hall – I generally like this idea but I’ve been doing a number of conferences that very intentionally put out food and drinks in the exhibit hall and it serves to get groups of people who already know each other to come and eat or drink together but not necessarily to meet new people or engage with the exhibitors. Having been an exhibitor, it’s especially frustrating when you’re there trying to do business and people see the exhibits as a distraction from them just having a good time eating and drinking with their friends.
ways to connect people at the beginning of the conference that they touch base with throughout – I really like this idea. A friend of mine was telling me how he always tries to get on a panel or do a session at the beginning of a conference so that other people recognize him and have a reason to engage with him early on, and that leads to a better overall experience across the next two or three days. And he says when he isn’t able to make friends in the first day, it leads to a much less energizing and valuable conference experience for him. I was talking to the organizer of the AMI innovation conference and I think they do a really nice job of encouraging older more experienced members to partner up with younger, first time attendees at the very beginning of the event. What’s especially valuable is that, as a first time attendee, you’re not just connected to one person, but that person often has a mature network of other friends and colleagues at the conference to whom you can be introduced.
have a buddy system between attendees – Fun idea. There’s more value in it if there’s a reason to pair up two people. But even a random pairing of people can be pretty valuable. Consider all the instances where random pairings of roommates have turned into lifelong friendships.
a wellness lounge
extended break times – Nothing seems to take the wind out of the sails of conference networking more than when the limited amount of networking time or break time gets shaved down because sessions have started late or speakers have run long. It sends a message that the connection piece isn’t important at this event.
speed networking – There are all manner of ways that you can do networking quickly. As a general rule, at least starting people out with the idea that they only have to spend a minute or two minutes or three minutes talking to someone and then moving on to someone else is a very low risk way for people to engage.
name tags that include main interests – I could talk all day about the value of a good name tag versus what usually happens with name tags. This is a very valuable piece of networking that’s very easy to change. This is such a simple, effective change to make.
name tags that also include specific questions to ask of that attendee
communities of learning round table
one to one conversations with expert speakers – I like this idea. There are a number of good ways to make this happen. One of the earliest conferences that I was intimately involved with was for authors and writers and a lot of our speakers were best-selling authors or literary agents or editors at big publishing houses. A huge draw of the conference was to give average attendees an appointment of only a few minutes with those VIP speakers. It can be a bit weary some for the speakers but it’s pretty easy to have a two or three minute conversation with someone and then they go on their way as opposed to feeling like you might be trapped talking with someone for 20 or 30 minutes. And I would broaden the definition of who these VIPs are with whom you could have a bite size interaction. It might be your keynote speaker, but it might also be a technical expert from your sponsor, it might be the people who serve on your board, etc. You might be surprised by who turns out to be popular if you offer 5 minutes with them at your event.
write ups of discussions to bring back with attendees
reception – As with any meal or party that you make part of your conference, it may induce networking on its own because of the format. But I’d ask what else can happen at a reception, cookout, or a casino night to connect people beyond them just being there and thinking that it’s a fun, cool-looking event?
cookout – Can you put people on teams to flip burgers or slice tomatoes together? What’s happening at the cookout to get people to connect?
more interactive conference app – I’ve seen conference apps that work really well in terms of networking and I’ve seen many that don’t do a particularly good job. I still think that people find it hard to make the first step and engage, be it in a room of people or over an app, especially in an event that’s programmed without a lot of free time in which to easily meet.
have a conference app game
bring in local musicians or artists – As with a number of the other suggestions about creating a fun atmosphere, I’m on board with this idea. However, there’s hopefully a second level beyond people sitting in a room listening to someone playing guitar that gets them to engage and find the partner or collaborator that they were meant to connect with at this meeting.
fun name tags – I’m not opposed to fun name tags, but they should be productive and effective rather than just being funny. For example I know a lot of conferences use goofy ribbons that say things like “big cheese” or “diva” or something. Those seem counterproductive compared to what could be done with those name tags. Personally, I can’t recall a single productive contact I’ve made that was sparked by a silly ribbon.
colorful name tags based on attendee type – Yes, there are lots of ways to use color and color-coding to help people meet and connect. Think about events where there’s clear value to connect people of different types and there’s only a limited number of attendee types. For example, let’s say you’re trying to connect entrepreneurs building startups and investors looking to fund startups. There’s a lot of value for both groups to be able to recognize people in the other group and foster a relationship with them. I’d think hard about giving out first time attendee tags or something that creates a hierarchy if the rest of your conference isn’t taking steps to break down that hierarchy and effectively connect people across levels of seniority.
comfortable seating – Whether or not we feel comfortable at a conference is a really important thing. I don’t dispute the value of comfortable seating but, within the context of conference networking I would think more about how we position those seats, regardless of how comfortable they are.
name tags include purpose or goal – Yes, this is a good idea. There’s a lot of value in openly telling people what you’re looking for at this event and what would make it successful if you found that thing or that person. If you go to a conference with a hundred people or a thousand people, the chances are pretty good that there’s somebody in that audience who has what you’re looking for, has done what you’re doing, or can solve the problem that you’re facing.
themed cocktails – I’ve done events with themed cocktails but they’re meant to be conversation starters. So they might include a fact about a speaker or something about a hot topic along with a prompt to discuss it.
no row seating; small groups or circles – This is a good example of something that’s passive and falls into the 99% invisible category of networking. If you arrange chairs in a way that prompt people to interact with each other, it’s going to lead to more connections and more networking. The beauty, of course, is that you don’t have to make an announcement that people need to network now and go meet each other; it just happens naturally.
local food and coffee – Things like this will probably make a conference better but there’s another level to apply to them to improve how people connect and network.
make networking a game – I’m not opposed to this but my caution would be that people go for quantity over quality. In other words, there may not be a lot of value in running a contest where the person who finishes the event holding the most business cards wins a prize. In that case, we know that the interactions are just surface-level and aren’t the meaningful interactions that are really going to make the event valuable for attendees. I often use Human Bingo as a rather obvious networking tool in crowds of people. It is a competition, But, for most people, they sink into conversations with the people they’re meeting rather than driving to win a prize by completing their game board.
maybe have prizes for a networking game
have an iPad as a prize
everyone leaves with a prize which is that everyone’s a winner because they’ve been networking
have more receptions
include jazz band with receptions
and include a dance floor with the reception in jazz band
and a DJ at the dance party
allow networking online before the conference – There’s a continuum of what this looks like from perhaps perusing a list of attendees and their interests to really inducing conversations or calls or chats before people show up to the event. I can’t recall a home run online networking product that’s been used before an event with great success but I’d be curious to learn about that.
have pre-introductions between attendees before arriving – Coming back to another idea from earlier on in the list, even potentially matching up random people as buddies and having them introduce each other so that they have someone to meet and connect with and who they know is probably a pretty effective way to create a lot more connections in the crowd — and at the very start of the event.
allow attendees to connect on social media before the conference
as part of registration everyone should put their social media handles – I’ve seen attempts to do this. This certainly goes hand-in-hand with things that can connect users before they arrive on day #1. It’s a fun conference icebreaker tactic that can break the ice before people even arrive on-site.
have Q&A sessions – These are easy to run, but be careful not to put 50 people in the room where someone asks a question that’s relevant to one person and then 49 people listen while an expert answers it, then someone else asks a question and 49 people listen. Think about how to get attendees to talk with each other, rotate through stations with experts, set up a room like a “world café” or “knowledge café” or something that’s still Q&A at its heart but, well, better.
book group discussions or short reads – Generally, I’m a fan of activities that break down a large group into a smaller, more nimble, more intimate groups, especially if it’s around something that they all care about or have all done. Having been in book groups, I know it’s hard to get people to actually read a book. Whether enough of your attendees will read the book before the conference and show up ready to discuss it is a question. If it works, it sounds great.
poll everyone during breaks using software – The big question, of course, is what do we ask them? And does polling participants improve conference networking?
have more than one person proposing themes that spark discussion
coffee meetups – This could be as simple as just setting aside a half hour or an hour block to allow people who’ve met to meet and talk without having to skip sessions and feel bad about it. Or it might be something more facilitated where there’s someone who’s running a coffee meetup and connecting like-minded people. And, like the book club idea, a Knowledge Café or World Café style might work well too.
photo booth with new faces – I’d recently heard of a networking concept where attendees had to find other attendees after being handed a photo of their “buddy.” I could see building that into a photo booth station.
beer garden – One thing that strikes me about beer gardens is that they often have communal seating which forces people to sit down and drink next to strangers. Inevitably, drinking next to a stranger means you’re probably not strangers by the end of the night.
make all beer free of charge – Any sort of free alcohol event seems to mostly be about incentivizing people to come to the event. That’s half the battle. Then what other, small thing can we do to get those people to connect in a valuable way? Eventually, I’d hope that the culture of the event – especially over years – is that the gathering of great people and the amazing connections being made is the incentive and the drinks aren’t the main attraction.
allow free wine
concerts with a live DJ
have props with the selfie station
or fun backgrounds for the selfie station
hire a bartending agency
sponsored networking break with food – I realize this is a bit self-serving, but I often think there’s more value in hiring someone to facilitate a networking session to make it successful as opposed to putting a bunch of money into food and beverage costs. People rarely remember the free Heineken they got or the second plate of hummus. But if they meet someone who changes the trajectory of their career at a networking event, they’re definitely going to remember that.
waiters floating around with appetizers
prolong breaks so that they are 30 minutes or more – As a final thought on conference networking, if your steering committee is going to say that connecting people is important, then you need to stand behind it and dedicate time to making it happen. That said, a 30-minute break may be a lot if you don’t have a way to connect people and have them meet new people in that span.