A Meeting Planner’s Role in Connecting: How to Facilitate Relationship Building Among Attendees

When it comes to pulling off a successful event, planners know that the real payoff comes after the event is over. Sure, we all want to make sure that the presentations roll out on schedule, without any technical glitches, and that the food and drinks are plentiful and satisfying. But the thing that makes any event truly memorable is the relationships that are established between attendees – especially ones that continue past the event itself and develop into ongoing business partnerships, creative collaborations, strong teams and friendships.

So what is the meeting planner’s role in making this happen? Well, to start, there is the obvious role of playing host at the cocktail party. Making introductions and facilitating dialogue are basic duties of any event host. With a little forethought, it’s pretty easy to figure out which guests would benefit from meeting each other. Playing matchmaker like this can be a lot of fun, and it’s also a great way to pay it forward by setting good things in motion.

But there are also some less obvious ways that you can elevate the educational portion of your event to the relationship building level. To me, this is the most interesting part, as it’s really rooted in the content of your event.

Here are a few simple things you can do to help attendees network better.

Relationship Building and Continuing Education Credits

Take, for example, educational events that people attend in order to earn Continuing Education (CE) credits. For many, this can feel like a boring requirement for their job, not necessarily an opportunity to enliven their day with new forms of social engagement. If you, as a planner, make your educational sessions more interactive and engaging, then you succeed on a number of levels. First of all, you will improve people’s retention of the information they receive. But you can also improve the quality of relationships people create as they are learning. Plus, everyone will have more fun in the process.

One way to do this is through roundtable discussion. If you build roundtables into your educational component, you give attendees an opportunity to share their perspective, expertise and experience with one another. This is an excellent way of helping people gain useful information from the field, wisdom that may not necessarily be available through official educational materials. We all know that on-the-job training and real life experience are both invaluable. Exchanging hard-earned lessons with colleagues can not only be an incredible learning opportunity, but a chance to bond and commiserate.

To deepen this experience even further, you can structure the discussion so that everyone has a chance to talk. With a good moderator, you can blend talking points with questions that are designed to draw out people’s experience and unique perspective, in order to fully explore and develop your discussion and make sure everyone feels included.

Making Follow-up Easy

There are practical things you can do, such as pre-arranging tables with contact information for everyone at the table. Providing pre-printed information on a piece of paper that already includes space for writing notes will facilitate follow-up. How often do we attend events and collect business cards and contact information and then never do anything with it? Anything we as planners can do to facilitate the follow-up process is welcome assistance.

Another idea is to provide a checklist for all of your attendees with things they can do to get the most out of the event. This can include suggestions about following up with the people they have met. You can also offer some incentive in this regard by featuring them in a newsletter or email. Perhaps you (or a writer on your team) interview all the people at the table, and then create a story that is subsequently written up and distributed to everyone. This can help tie the group together by re-stimulating their interest in one another, extending the education that happened at that table and reinforcing the connections that were made at the event.

Different Approaches for Different Goals

There are multiple variations of this approach for different learning environments. Internal company events are usually more about team building, and will take on a particular shape, depending on the overall goal. Perhaps you are facilitating a project-based discussion, where people work together to solve a problem. This may take the form of a mini-hackathon that results in the creation of a best practices document. Depending on the group, you may solicit answers to questions beforehand, coordinating through department heads. The discussion can serve as the beginning of an interactive process that sets in motion follow-up calls, meetings or facilitated chats. The event becomes a way to start an ongoing conversation, where you are shooting for a certain level of engagement. Depending on the group, you may or may not be called upon to provide some measure of follow-up.

In a company with a strong, cohesive culture, organize an activity that offers rewards for enhanced participation, such as an assignment or a contest. This type of exercise can further strengthen the culture or even support the development of a specific campaign or other set of goals. A highly targeted activity like this requires close integration with the organization’s leadership and a motivated group of participants.

Industry events, on the other hand, are less about team building than they are about networking. Content may be more generic and open ended, with a focus on exploration and discovery as opposed to some specific goal. Again, your efforts will be in overall service to your client’s goals, which will largely define the level and quality of interaction between attendees you are called upon to facilitate.

Gamification

Gamification may be an element you choose to bring in. However, it’s important to remember that any game you organize must support the larger goals of your event, otherwise it could become a distraction. Two other important things to keep in mind here are whether or not the game serves to help build relationships, and whether you have full buy-in on the part of participants. People have to be interested and engaged in whatever activity you bring to the table, in order to get the most out of the interaction.

Now that we’ve looked at using the educational component of your event as a tool for networking and relationship building, we can revisit the ways that you can improve the quality of networking in a more social setting – that is, how to be a better matchmaker! But that’s a whole other topic… stay tuned!

Looking for help building networking into your meetings or events? Let us know how we can help.

 

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