How to Cultivate Connection at Events

A networking expert and a meeting organizer share their ideas about networking at events, and how to make everyone comfortable while doing it.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

attendees at networking event

The American Headache Society has seen encouraging results from its Plenary Pals program — not only does the initiative help first-time attendees feel more welcome at its annual event, they also feel more connected to the association as a whole.

The default for cultivating connection at events seems to be the networking reception, but it’s not something every attendee feels comfortable with. Some find the experience to be awkward and directionless. For others, it can even feel downright “morally and physically dirty,” according to research conducted by professors at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, whose studies found that the “ick” feeling expressed by participants after a long day of professional mixers stems from more than just impatience or exhaustion and can last long after the conference concludes. That’s because they see schmoozing as a selfish task, and “their moral self-image suffers,” researchers found. At the same time, these professionals recognized that networking is a beneficial exercise and important to their career development.

Robbie Samuels Headshot

Robbie Samuels

Perhaps there’s a better way to do it. “Most people, and I’m even saying pre-pandemic, are not great at networking in an unstructured space,” said Robbie Samuels, a speaker, author, and expert in event design and networking — even as making connections is something attendees place a high value on. Samuels works with companies and organizations like Marriott, Feeding America, and Harvard University to design more purposeful events, and he said that one of the top three things planners hear from attendees after every event is, “We want more networking.” Research from the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) backs that up as well — according to its second Decision to Attend Study survey report, networking ranks as the third-most important driver to attend an event, based on the input of close to 9,000 participants from a range of industries and professions.

But from his experience working with organizations and even one-on-one coaching, Samuels thinks there is a disconnect between what attendees want and what they will realistically do to achieve it. “Even though meeting planners are adding more networking time, these people are missing the opportunity to actually use that time effectively,” he said. His work aims to “close that gap” and “democratize what belonging can look like.”

His solution? Scrap the token networking cocktail hour and build in more intentional opportunities for people to engage with each other throughout the event program. For example, Samuels is a big proponent of capitalizing on in- between moments — like right before or after a breakout session. The most outgoing among us may use that time to mingle and strike up a conversation, but many will default to finding a lone seat to catch up on emails or scroll social media. Samuels sees that window as an opportunity to nudge like-minded attendees into each other’s orbits. His suggestion: Have a staff member greet attendees at the door and direct them to a table based on a commonality, like the geographic region they’re from or an interest, like Peloton or board games.

“Belonging is about meeting ‘your people,’” Samuels said. “And being a Peloton or outdoor enthusiast or a board game lover might be enough to feel that little bit of extra connection.”

Pair up

Another way Samuels likes to spark connection is through a buddy system. He thinks this can be especially effective for retaining members in their second year of attending a conference, as that’s when historically associations find their attendance drops off. “Year two, they have no cohort, they have no special ribbon, they have no special reception — they’re just sort of thrown in and it’s much more emotionally demoralizing,” he said.

The antidote is to pair them up with a buddy at the end of year one and encourage them to stay in touch throughout the next year, either virtually or through in-person events. “When they come to year two, they already feel grounded,” Samuels said. “If you can get them to year three, then I think people are more likely to stick around.”

Darryl Diamond Headshot

Darryl Diamond

Darryl Diamond, CMP, senior meeting manager at the American Headache Society, recently implemented a similar concept at his own event — Plenary Pals. Diamond’s team plays matchmaker, setting up first-time registrants with established attendees to help them feel more comfortable in a new setting.

“If nothing else, even if they’re just a face, when you walk into that meeting and you see that other person, you’re like, ‘I know that person,’” Diamond said. “And that’s just at least one conversation that you can have that breaks the ice, and all of a sudden the rest of the conversations throughout the meeting aren’t as scary.”

Diamond’s team asks attendees to indicate if they’re interested in participating in Plenary Pals at registration simply by asking them to check a box. They also ask veteran attendees who volunteer to kick things off with a phone call or Zoom, offering new attendees some pointers prior to the event, as well as arranging a time to meet on site. For attendees who participate virtually, the society coordinates matchups as well.

“There’s no cocktails at eight o’clock in the morning,” Diamond said. “When you walk into this ballroom and you know nobody and you’re looking around for a seat, it would be great if you knew somebody just to sit down with that first day.”

Besides easing jitters, pairing up new and old attendees also serves as a great networking tool for those new to the field or entering their career. “By pairing them up with somebody who may be a little bit more established,” Diamond said, someone who has “a senior level of experience within the industry — that’s a professional contact that [goes] beyond this meeting.” He’s found that it also can serve to lay a foundation for increasing engagement with the association itself. Since launching Plenary Pals in November 2021, the society has successfully grown the program, offering it at both of its annual meetings. Overall, about one out of 10 attendees opts to participate in Plenary Pals.

“It’s a cyclical nature,” said Diamond. “When they are engaged, they’re likely to come back. Now, all of a sudden, those [former] first-timers are going to be guides and they’re able to share their experience with first-timers. I think that builds loyalty.”

attendees at networking event

Attendees mix and mingle during the American Headache Society’s 64th Annual Scientific Meeting, held June 9-12, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. To ease new members into the experience, the society’s Plenary Pals program pairs up newcomers with veteran attendees.

Opt for Technique Over Technology

One of the touchstones of Samuels’ strategy for better in-person engagement may come as a surprise: He suggests steering clear of technology, like third-party apps. Although he is a tech enthusiast, Samuels said that he tries “to shy away from technology because it requires us to use our phones — when [we give] people permission to touch their phones, it’s very hard to then take that away.” Instead, he likes to incorporate interactive elements or tools during sessions that promote old-fashioned, face-to-face discussion.

He shared an example that can serve as an icebreaker: Place index cards in four different colors at each seat at the tables. On the screen, display a quiz or a few trivia questions in which the four possible answers correspond with the colors of the index cards. Ask attendees to hold up the card color that matches their answer. Opting for this method over an app means the game is no longer anonymous. “You will then find other people in your group who have a common answer — or maybe a very different answer,” Samuels said. “You’ll see how other people are responding, and that’s part of belonging — finding your people.” Below, four more techniques from Samuels that create opportunities for connection:

You’re one of my five. At the start of a meeting, ask attendees to watch for anything that someone says that catches their attention — whether it’s a speaker or an audience member who asks a question — and write that person’s name down. They should make it a goal to write down five names and strike up a conversation when they run into them later. “Imagine you’ve got these chaotic, vibrant hallways where people are going up to each other saying, ‘Hey, you’re one of my five!’” Samuels said. “That is a way to jump into meaningful conversation.”

Get in front of awkward, in-between moments. The perfect example of this is at the end of a session when people are typically hustling to get out the door. Build in a few extra minutes and ask attendees to introduce themselves to their neighbor before they leave, pointing out that “it’s always easier to go out into the hallway in groups of two or three rather than by yourself,” Samuels said. By verbalizing it, “you are really just bringing to the forefront the truth of it.”

Capitalize on post-session Q&A time. As people queue up to talk to speakers, they will naturally form a line and most will look at their phones. “This is a real miss,” Samuels said, because “they’re most likely to have something in common with the other people in line” than the people who they stand next to at a Starbucks. He recommends asking them to instead form a semi-circle so that as one person asks a question, others can easily listen in and engage as well. Most likely, they’ll find common ground with the other participants and end up walking out together.

Start the ripple effect. Ask longtime members to keep an eye on new attendees. For example, if they notice a wallflower, they can say hello and introduce them to other members. “It’s going to change their point of view and they’re going pay that forward,” Samuels said. “They’re going to be much more likely, for the rest of that day, to be welcoming to other people because their guard is down.” To encourage buy-in from veteran attendees, emphasize that the strength of your association relies on retaining a vibrant membership base. With every person who comes and then doesn’t come back, he said, “we are losing that brain trust.”

Jennifer N. Dienst is senior editor of Convene.

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