Helping Conference First Timers And Solo Attendees Get Plugged In

2014.02.04_DiscussionImagine that you’re a first-time attendee at a conference that draws thousands.

To make matters even more challenging, you’re flying solo. No safety net of colleagues to meet-up with every now and then.

The Solo Attendee

By day, you move from session to session, trying to make eye contact with strangers. You even manage to strike up a few good conversations, but more often, it’s nothing more than a “nice to meet you” handshake.

Despite your reluctance, you push yourself to attend the networking reception that evening. After all, your company spent good money to get you to this conference. It would be nice if you came away with a few new contacts to call on in the future.

At the doorway to the reception, volunteers are all smiles, saying “Welcome.” Then they open the door and you’re on your own. You snag a beverage and start scoping out the room. You saddle up to join a few conversations, but it’s tough to advance beyond “hello.” Soon, you’re planning your exit strategy.

Such is the case for a growing segment of conference attendees.

According to Exhibit Surveys, 38% of those attending conferences and trade shows are first-timers. While it’s tough to gauge the percentage of solo attendees, with travel budgets getting more scrutiny, there’s no doubt this segment is growing. If you were to combine the first timers and solo attendees, I’d hazard a guess that better than half of your attendees are light on connections at your conference.

Connecting Solo/First-Timers To Others

Technology advances have made it easier for attendees to find like-minded people, but we need to prime the pump and tap technology in smarter ways to help them. Here are a few tips to help warm up the conference networking experience:

1. Reach Out to Solo/First-Timers Before Your Conference

A couple of weeks before the conference, review your registration list and identify the solo and first-time attendees. Batch these folks by industry, location, etc. and assign volunteers and staff as Experience Stewards. Each Experience Steward might be responsible for 4-6 solo/newbies. In the weeks leading up to the conference, they should send a brief email introducing themselves. In this email, they should suggest a few options to meet up during the conference and include their cell phone number. That one email can do wonders to quell anxiety and stir up excitement and anticipation.

2. Power Up Your Mobile App as a Connection Accelerator

Encourage attendees to update their profile in the mobile app. Include a field where they can post problems they’re looking to solve and even better, make this data searchable so problem owners and solution providers can find each other faster. Send out a quick message with instructions — especially on the day when most people will be traveling, as that’s often the time when attendees start planning their conference experience. Make sure your speakers talk this up during their sessions, too.

3. Embed Networking Conversations Within Education Sessions

There’s growing awareness about the need to make learning sessions more interactive. Still, this falls more under the “wish list” set for many conference organizers. It’s time to step up our interactivity requirements for speakers. For every 60 minute session, there should be at least 2-3 “turn to your neighbor and discuss…” moments. Even better, encourage these people to swap business cards and reconnect at a later point during the conference or on a call afterwards.

4. Extend the General Session Experience with Follow-Up Chats

You invested in a great Opening General Session speaker who addressed problems that are top-of-mind for your audience. Why not schedule a few onsite chats where attendees can gather in lounges and talk more about how they’ll apply this new insight? On the mobile app, post a schedule of chat topics and make sure your speakers mention something about this at the end of the session. Have them stop by and join these conversations. Hold back a few surprise topics and push out alerts on the mobile app.

5. Speed Networking with a Purpose

More conference organizers are setting up speed networking sessions where attendees move from table to table to meet others. Still, these encounters tend to be rather random. Somebody rings a bell, you move to the next table and it’s luck of the draw that you’ll meet someone who can actually help you. What if you corralled speed networking around a particular topic (or problem set)? What if at every speed networking table you had facilitators tossing out good icebreaker questions?

Hat Tips to Courtney Bosch at Marketing Profs, as it was her post, Introverts Unite! Four Tips That Can Make Events Less Scary that inspired me to write this one.

What steps are you taking to help first timers and solo attendees meet others at your conference? How else can we tap staff, volunteers and leadership to help first timers/solos move beyond hello?

Adapted from Donna’s Meeting Innovation post on Cvent’s Event Planning blog. ©2014.

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