One of the best parts of corporate events is the time spent networking, meeting and reconnecting with people you don’t see every day at work. According to a survey conducted by CrowdCompass, 75% of respondents report that in-person networking opportunities have a positive impact on their experience at the event. Yet, among those surveyed, not knowing anyone, networking, and trying to fit in, were some of the most stressful aspects of the event.
So the question is, how do you provide attendees with the networking opportunities and interactive elements they crave, without it being stressful? Here are four tips to help you plan a corporate event that encourages interaction and minimizes stress for attendees.
1. Opt Out of Theater-Style Seating
When attendees walk into a room with rows upon rows of chairs, they know what’s in store for them. We’ve all been there: you find an empty row, or try not to feel awkward when asking if a seat is taken; you may talk to the people immediately to your left and right but you can’t really make eye contact or position yourself in a way that feels natural and facilitates easy conversation.
The easiest way to overcome this and surprise attendees with something refreshing is to present them with an unexpected room setup. From the moment they walk in, the setup can put them in a different headspace and inspire them to speculate with fellow attendees about what’s planned for them.
In Event Manager Blog’s recent guide to event room layouts, event planners are left with these encouraging words:
"Selecting the right event layout can really enhance and change the event experience. Often we go for traditional room layouts as this can be the easiest and most efficient option in terms of space, ease of setup and cost savings but if attendee numbers and the venue allow flexibility it can be worthwhile and memorable to explore alternative seating options. Discuss with your venue your vision as they may be able to suggest a suitable solution which will make an impact on your participants and enhance networking, learning and engagement."
2. Build Time Into Your Event Agenda for Socializing
Every event planner plans the agenda down to the second, and it can be hard to fit everything you need into the allotted time, but don’t discount the value of allocating time for your attendees to socialize. This time allows your attendees to familiarize themselves with the venue, catch up with people they know, and to meet new people. There’s no pressure to talk shop; it’s just people chatting and building relationships.
If you are worried that genuine conversations won’t come easily to your audience, plan networking games or activities that people can choose to participate in or not, as their comfort-levels allow. This provides a possible jumping-off point for conversations and makes it less intimidating for introverted or nervous attendees to approach strangers.
In addition, if your goal is to get people interacting on social media, planning time for networking gives them time to do this as well. Whether it’s time to take photos in a themed photo booth, or to participate in a social media challenge, this allows time for attendees to participate.
While it might be nerve-wracking to not have every moment planned, the best interaction happens organically and cannot be scheduled. By giving attendees time to have conversations in person or online, you’re actually encouraging an interactive event.
3. Give People a Framework
Not everyone is a master conversationalist, and in fact, the thought of making small talk can be a source of anxiety for some attendees. The good news is, you can encourage event networking by planning an experience that gives attendees something to talk about.
Take, for example, an Eagle’s Flight experiential event. After an exciting and fast-paced metaphorical journey through the desert, attendees are given a brief break and are then involved in a discussion led by the event facilitator. During this time, the facilitator encourages the teams to talk amongst themselves about certain topics and how they relate to what they just experienced. It’s not so open-ended that they don’t know where to begin with the conversation, but it’s specific enough that it gives each group something to talk about from their shared experience.
4. Plan Breakout Sessions
According to the CrowdCompass survey mentioned above, one of the top three most stressful things about past events was the crowd. At any event, there will be a spectrum of people from the most extroverted to the most introverted, perhaps with a little social anxiety sprinkled in. Incorporating smaller breakout sessions can make a huge difference to some attendees’ overall experiences.
Whether you break out from the larger group based on job function, department, or something else, being in a smaller group allows everyone a chance to share their thoughts on the event or a specific topic, particularly if you are hosting a corporate event for hundreds of people. Breakout sessions ensure everyone feels included and heard if they want to add to the conversation, and they provide a less intimidating environment in which to interact.
While one of the biggest benefits of corporate events may be the opportunity to network, it doesn’t always happen on its own. By providing networking activities or other deliberate times and spaces for networking, you can make the difference between an stressful event for participants, and a natural, energizing opportunity to connect with colleagues.