In today’s hybrid world, guests who choose to attend an event in person are likely seeking meaningful face-to-face connections that can be harder to find behind a computer screen. But remember: Your attendees may also be feeling a bit rusty with their networking skills after two years of virtual events. Rather than expecting guests to make their own connections during a straightforward happy hour or networking event, planners can help guide the conversations with creative, conversation-starting prompts that can get guests talking, bonding, and having fun. Here are some smart ideas.
- Get creative with networking by helping guests find common interests.
An increasingly popular way to get guests talking is to ask them to answer questions beforethey even arrive on-site. New companies like JabberYak, for example, prompt registrants to select seven personal interests from an extensive list on an event-specific template. Those interests are then printed on name tags, T-shirts, or badges and worn to the gathering, leading to an instant conversation-starter as guests learn a bit about each other. Selina Mullenax, an Orlando-based district account executive for CORT, experienced something similar at a recent networking event, where at registration she was asked, “What’s a fun fact about you that you haven’t shared with anyone?” “We had assigned seating at the event and [there were] random ‘fun facts’ printed about people on table tents,” Mullenax says. “As an activity, we would get to know each other and try to guess who at the table the fun facts belonged to.” Shawn Shapiro, an event planner for Redstone Agencyin Toronto, recalls something similar at an industry event. “Everyone was asked a few questions on their registration form, and at the event they mixed the answers up on name badges. In the opening session, we played a ‘match game’ to break the ice,” he says. “So much fun, and so simple!”
- Be strategic with questions and conversation prompts.
Of course, not just any question will get guests engaging in a meaningful way. “One thing some planners forget is that you have to be purposeful about facilitating connections—prompts like ‘find someone wearing red’ won’t spark a conversation,” explains Sara Roberts, a Houston-based event project manager for Amazon Web Services. “One of the best ice breakers I always go for is ‘Two Truths and a Lie.’ It’s the perfect way to get to know someone and automatically allows the conversation to become personal.” She adds, “Remember, you’re building connections with people—not just collecting business cards.”
- Turn everyday items into opportunities for conversation.
In addition to including someone’s interests or specialties on their name tag, other common items—like coffee cups—can also be a great way to get guests talking. Rachel Russell, a New York-based event marketer for financial services app ONE, recalls a recent photo that went viral on social media, where event attendees could choose from a coffee cup that listed a topic they’d like to discuss. While the post prompted plenty lot of jokes from social media users, Russell has found a lot of success implementing similar ideas. “These coffee cups have been one of my favorite conversation starters! Everyone drinks tea or coffee at events, so why not incorporate an activity?” she says. “Attendees have several options of topics that interest them the most. … It’s a great way to connect with peers in attendance that can share their knowledge on a particular topic.”
- Encourage conversation-sparking signage.
Active, question-based signage can also be used to initiate conversations. Tyler Wood, the Amsterdam-based marketing and brand manager for NetworkTables.com, recommends planners encourage on-site exhibitors or vendors to lean into the idea. “If the event is a bunch of exhibition booths, we promoted each stand to create a sign that said ‘ask me about X’ that immediately gave people walking up something to start talking about,” he notes.
- Lean into tech-driven matchmaking services.
Particularly with the advancements in technology over the last few years, artificial intelligence-based networking services—which are easier to find and implement than ever—can be a super effective way to facilitate connections on site. Check out companies like Gripand Swapcard, among others, which offer advanced AI matchmaking tools that can easily be integrated into in-person, hybrid, or virtual events. It’s a method Wood has also leaned on in the past. “When running a one-on-one meeting or event, people can matchmake beforehand online to decide whom they wanted to meet with,” he explains. “Instead of just having boring lists of names, every 'host' was a topic. People selected the topics they were interested in, and got matched with people that way.”
- Offer surprise and delight moments.
As event planners know, few things make more of an impact than some unexpected elements. Adding an element of surprise to an event not only engages guests and encourages social sharing—it also makes events more memorable, and can get guests bonding over a shared “did that just happen?” moment.