6 Tips to Plan a Great Networking Event
Whether it’s for your business, school, non-profit organization or another group, a well-executed networking event can be a great way to jumpstart new partnerships and reinvigorate old ones. While some bristle at the idea of networking, it’s an opportunity to forge connections that can last a lifetime — and even lead to new business ventures. But if you think all it takes is setting out good food and letting the guests do the hard work, you may want to think again.
A successful networking event takes patience, planning, and a little creativity — not to mention a great venue. Wondering how to plan one that’s sure to be a hit? Read on.
Embrace the Open
The first rule of making a networking event that gets people mixing and mingling with ease is to snag a spot that has plenty of expansive open space. Small rooms stifle natural flow and movement and cause people to congregate in groups or form informal cliques with people they already know. Instead, opt for event locales with big ballrooms, open seating arrangements, and plenty of free-flowing common space that prevents bottlenecks. While you can't stop people from clustering together, you can make it harder for them to break off into private groups.
Maximize Meal Time
Nothing is more frustrating for event attendees than standing in line for food. When buffet lines snake around a room, it’s stressful for those near the end of the queue who worry choices will be limited or it’ll take too long to get their dish. Even if tables are dismissed to get food in intervals, all attention is on when their turn will come. Buffets can be uncomfortable for people with food allergies, as well; the thought of utensils being used improperly and subsequent food contamination is reason enough to avoid the meal rush.
Instead of making the wait the central part of an event meal, consider heavy passed apps or boxed lunch selections that diners can grab and take quickly back to their seats. These dining options can be as elegant as you choose, and their portable nature gives speakers and organizers who don't have time to sit a chance to nosh on the go. You'll also find that cutting back on time spent waiting for food frees up attendees to chat. Studies show that meals are the perfect way to build organic relationships, and fuss-free dining maximizes the natural opportunities to connect.
Speed Date – With Caution
The idea behind “speed dating” has really caught on in the business world. Regardless of its success rate in a romantic context, turns out, it’s been a great way for writers to meet editors, job recruiters to find new talent, and even startups to find that perfect angel investor. No matter your industry, networking events can benefit from this forced, short-lived face-time that gives each participant just a few minutes to break the ice. It also gives attendees an excuse to talk to everyone, meaning no one gets left out.
If not approached carefully, however, speed networking can be a big waste of time. What do you want each attendee to get out of the event? What easy questions can they ask to get a more personal glimpse into their peers? Consider preparing a few questions ahead of time (or having guests bring their own) along with rules for what's OK to ask – and what's not. While the Q&A doesn't have to be utterly trivial in nature, fun questions cause less pressure and give more insight than we realize!
Remember the Roundtable
Want to combine the natural ease of lunchtime chatter with the semi-forced interaction of speed-dating? Consider roundtable-style networking. Assigning attendees to certain tables can help facilitate new connections while ensuring that there will be some core passions in common. You can group by business goals, shared hobbies, or even favorite foods.
Whatever the connection, the time should be spent finding ways to extend those likenesses into the practical world. Have one group member lead the conversation, group activity, or problem to be solved. After the activity is over, have a way for each member to reconnect with the group again, so things don’t get too siloed.
Schedule in Unscheduled Breaks
It can be stressful for guests to go from panel to activity to a presentation with just a few minutes between sessions. For longer events, use gaps in programming and let everyone regroup, take a bathroom break, refill their coffee or just take a breather outside. (This is a great time to put out some snacks, as well.)
Not everyone is extroverted, and it can actually be tiring for many people to be “on,” chatting and meeting new people, for an extended time period. By having scheduled breaks throughout the day, you're helping everyone to be the best they can be.
Lead by Example
Finally, make sure you have plenty of staff or management on hand to answer questions, check in with attendees, and demonstrate what it looks like to enjoy the day! Gather a team of peer mentors to encourage and support the attendees, paying particular attention to new guests or those who may be having a hard time mingling and mixing.
No one should be left to cling to the wall or sit awkwardly alone. With a mission of inclusion, your next networking event can redefine old stereotypes for the next generation of attendees.