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Help Attendees Make Lasting Connections

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Yes, attendees come to conferences to learn. But just as important to them is building connections with peers. A look at how associations can foster those connections before, during, and after meetings.

For its first meeting coming out of the pandemic in November 2021, the American Headache Society wanted to make sure attendees felt connected at the event.

“We’re a subset of neurology, and many attendees have known each other for years, sometimes even before medical school,” said Darryl Diamond, associate director of meetings at AHS. “So, it can be difficult for first-time attendees, especially for those coming in after 2020.”

To help first timers, AHS created and launched its Plenary Pals program, which matches newbies with seasoned attendees. Prior to the conference, experienced attendees receive their pal’s contact information and are encouraged to reach out to them to answer questions.

Programs like AHS’ help alleviate first-time attendee anxiety and allow them to arrive onsite knowing one person, helping them get a head-start on building industry connections.

“Many large-scale association meetings are designed around content rather than connection,” said Lee Gimpel, founder and principal of Better Meetings. “A networking coffee break or first-time reception isn’t always enough.”

Knowing that attendees are looking to get to know their colleagues and develop relationships with them onsite, associations must design a program that prioritizes connection and keeps them coming back year after year.

Make It Comfortable

Developing new relationships at annual meetings isn’t always easy and doesn’t come without effort.

“When you boil it down, adults in their 40s and 50s are very much like kids in first grade: It’s hard to walk into a room and make new friends, it doesn’t happen magically,” Gimpel said.

According to Diamond, AHS’ buddy program has been a great way for members to get to know one another before a conference so they feel more confident walking into a meeting where they don’t know anyone.

“You can see that comfort right away,” he said. “People are more likely to talk to exhibitors, participate in sessions, and ask questions in the app throughout the meeting.”

The key is to create intentional moments of connection between members.

Prioritize Community Building

Facilitating connections between attendees is also crucial to creating a positive meeting experience for everyone. Gimpel recommends building opportunities in your event where people can talk and collaborate. For example, moving networking events to the beginning of a conference gives attendees a chance to make early connections so they have people to go out with on the first night, say hello to in the hallways, and debrief with after sessions.

“You can also create opportunities for small group discussions based on a topic discussed earlier that day, such as the keynote’s address,” he said. “Instead of labeling it a networking event, invite attendees to share their opinions on the topics as experts in the field.”

The key is to create intentional moments of connection between members. For example, if you’re holding a new member reception, invite board members, award winners, and other influential members to meet new attendees.

“Giving new members access to thought leaders at their first meeting is an important way to grow your association’s community and help members foster connections with one another,” Diamond said.

Encourage Them to Return

Facilitating connections is important from a business standpoint as well, as members who build professional relationships at meetings are more likely to return next year. Since launching its plenary pals program, Diamond said that several first-time attendees have chosen to volunteer as buddies in successive years.

“For us, that’s the best part,” he said. “It’s not a one and done. The program creates a constant, cyclical community of seasoned members helping new members, who then go out to help new members.”

To build up a larger community around the meeting, Gimpel also recommends hosting an event several months after the conference for people to check in with one another and discuss how they applied what they learned. Another idea is for event organizers to host a series where they get to hear from attendees about their experience to help them plan for the next annual event.

“You want to think about how your association can help foster relationships between attendees even after the meeting’s over,” he said.

Hannah Carvalho

Hannah Carvalho is Senior Editor at Associations Now.

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