If you can get 300 people in a room, all you have is 300 people in a room.
This may sound obvious, but events without proper planning and direction may produce the exact same consequences. They won’t be spaces conducive to conversation, networking, and relationship-building.
Many companies and their team members are both relearning and redefining the principles of networking. With more in-person events planned for 2023, there is plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the inherent strengths of facing one another, shaking hands, and bonding over shared presence. The question is: do some events work better for this than others?
Attendee engagement is one of the most important ways to measure return on investment. There is a difference between physical presence and actually being engaged. It can be a challenge to craft something that appeals to and makes comfortable the preferences of introverts and extroverts, insiders familiar with what’s going on at an event, and outsiders who might be new and need more of an introduction.
Have a goal in mind
Particularly for things like conferences, many attendees will be going with their own individual goals in tow. Maybe they want to meet a particular person or group of people to discuss a product idea or even brainstorm the next step in their career. You want this to be possible for them by mixing a formal structure for the day with plenty of free time. It may seem like a simplistic comparison, but think about why recess is such an important time during the school day. The relationships kids build on the playground or the athletic fields are the ones they carry with them in the classroom where the work happens.
As the event organizer, you’ll also want to have at least one macro goal that creates or reinforces a sense of purpose for the gathering. It isn’t just why attendees are there – which should be a fairly easy question to answer – but what do you want each person to walk away feeling, thinking, or doing?
Reimagine the ice-breakers
Let’s be honest: the circling-the-room, “tell me two things about yourself” model of getting to know each other is an outdated introductory exercise. Introverts might feel it puts them on the spot and creates discomfort. Everyone, regardless of how outgoing, could think the exercise feels forced and inorganic, or perhaps even irrelevant.
There are different ways to get people together and cultivate organic and genuine interactions. But no matter what, the point is genuine conversation. Even making it a practice that the first 15 minutes of a summertime event are spent outside on the patio can contribute to this goal. In other words, be willing to think outside the box. For example: Create a simple game where everyone has to walk up to just one new person and strike up a chat, and then get volunteers to share what they’ve learned with the larger group.
Treat it like a party — and don’t invite everyone
One common, and valid, complaint about meetings involving the whole company is that many participants don’t feel like the discussion pertains to them and that they’d have to force their way in to make their points known. We can apply a similar outlook to events. Set clear expectations about who would find the event relevant based on industry, job, or specialty. Someone trying to break into the industry could fall under that umbrella, but general get-togethers tend to end up with unclear conclusions no matter what their titles or stated objectives are.
Ask people what they want
Data and feedback are particularly critical tools for holding successful events, because if you have precedent, you will be able to ascertain what worked and what can be improved. Get an understanding of what attendees, or even potential attendees, would be attracted to. Do they want a cocktail evening without much structure or a scheduled conference with a minimum of several hours, multiple presenters, and guest booths? The key here is purpose. Just like having a good guest list and clear event expectations, if participants get what they want they’re likely to be engaged, connect meaningfully, and even decide to return in following years.
To return to the original scenario, the point isn’t just to fill a room with people. Instead, it’s getting them together, giving them the tools, and then letting attendees take the lead on what happens next.
This column was written by Dusky Norsworthy and originally appeared in the June 2023 edition of ConventionSouth Magazine.