Help Your Attendees Make Friends—Not Contacts

It’s no longer enough for meetings to feature networking events that lead to superficial introductions and the simple swapping of business cards. A far better goal: Help attendees build friendships.

My first boss was a bit of a networking addict. Not only was she giddy in the lead-up to an event, but the day after, she’d tell everyone in the office who she met and proudly show us the stack of business cards she had collected—which she would then promptly place in her meticulously organized Rolodex.

There was a method to her networking madness. If you looked closely at the business cards she collected, you’d find notes on them about where she had met the person, their areas of expertise, and even some things the two of them shared in common. After the event, she made it a habit to follow up via phone or email with the three people she most connected with. And if they continued to hit it off, she might arrange for coffee or cocktails.

Her dedication was impressive, and it paid off for her. She always said she made close friends and business contacts this way.

So, she was obviously the first person I thought of when I came across an article with this headline on “If You Want to Be Successful, Don’t Network—Do This Instead.”

In it, Suzy Welch, a bestselling management author and CNBC contributor, says that people need to focus their energy on forging authentic business relationships, rather than simply swapping business cards at the end of industry conferences or networking receptions. According to Welch, that’s because humans help friends and not contacts.

“Giving a card or getting a card—that’s just not how anything of substance gets done,” she says. “Don’t bother. Don’t network. Make friends instead.”

It sounds like my former boss was on to something. While she did swap business cards, she also worked hard to make friends with some of the people she had collected them from.

A group of people who should consider Welch’s advice? Association meeting planners.

As study after study concludes, one of the top reasons that attendees register for in-person events is to network. So how do you deliver an experience that goes beyond swapping business cards and helps them build authentic business relationships and friendships?

One way could be to put your attendees in the spotlight, rather than a keynote speaker. That’s what the National Tour Association did at its 2018 Travel Exchange. Knowing that attendees highly value conversations with their peers, NTA launched BIZnet to take the place of its typical opening general session.

“It’s networking with a mission,” NTA Executive Vice President Catherine Prather told Meeting Professionals International. “Our goal was to set up a session where our members could get to know each other in a deeper way and find connecting points.”

Ahead of the meeting, NTA identified four key topics that were most meaningful to attendees. Then, as attendees walked into the room, they were handed cards with a number on one side and a letter on the other to form discussion groups that split people up from their friends and created a mix of buyers and sellers. After two rounds of discussions, they changed tables.

Thom Singer, who facilitated BIZnet, said the program helped attendees to meet new people and have meaningful solution-based conversations on the first day of the conference. Many continued to talk to their new connections throughout the rest of the four-day event.

Another way that your association can encourage deeper connections is to make it fun and easy for attendees to accomplish. Take the Grant Professionals Association, which offers a Human Library at its conference. Attendees seeking information on a topic can ask a “librarian” to “check out” one of the leading authorities on grant writing for 15 minutes. There’s also this example from the Adventure Travel Trade Association: At AdventureELEVATE 2018, it launched AdventureExchange as a way for attendees to meet during prescheduled, one-on-one meetings that lasted 12 minutes.

What have you done at your conferences and networking events to encourage your attendees to form business relationships and friendships instead of superficial connections? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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