Event Networking – in the post-COVID-19 era

“An outstanding networking experience is the result of a carefully structured and strategic event plan & design that facilitates interaction amongst attendees.”

I have always subscribed to the belief that it is the event producer who creates the environment for carefree and successful networking. It definitely does not happen by chance.

Any event organizer who thinks setting up a bar, providing music and snacks, and putting people in a room together is what constitutes an effective event networking experience is sadly mistaken.

An Optimized Environment

An outstanding networking experience is the result of a carefully structured and strategic event plan & design that facilitates interaction amongst attendees. The strategy starts long before the event attendees arrive with an objective of providing an optimized environment that is primed for meeting people.

This includes thinking about things like:

  • Carefully designed room layouts, seating plans, and traffic flows
  • Creating pre-event chat groups (i.e. on LinkedIn)
  • Clever and functional nametag/accreditation badges (see more on how to rock a name badge here)
  • Choosing the right time and an appropriate length of time for networking activities
  • Coaching new/first-time attendees on what to expect and how to find a tribe
  • Adding games, icebreakers, and interactive activities to the program (see more on gamification here)

And more!

Throwing people in a room and expecting networking to automatically happen will result in disappointment.

Pre-Pandemic Behaviours

In the new post-COVID-19 era, we cannot expect event attendees to simply fall back into their pre-pandemic behaviours. Throughout the pandemic, we have been conditioned to keep other people at a distance. We’ve become proficient at talking to others through a camera or a mask. We have grown to be a bit rusty with holding face-to-face conversations and displaying non-verbal communication (body language and facial expressions).

Many of us haven’t even had the need to dress up to leave the house let alone go through the typical pre-event networking rituals like filling our pockets with business cards and breath mints. Do we even remember how to circulate a room while juggling a canapé or hot dog in one hand and a glass of wine or beer in the other?

Muscle Memory

When in-person events resume, all of those networking skills may not easily bounce back. Scientists say that muscle memory, a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, in humans can last as long as 15 years or as little as 3-6 months.

It is very possible that our event networking muscle memory has lapsed. This is NOT a prediction; it’s a spoiler alert.

So Awkward

To overcome this, event organizers will need to be conscious of how behaviours and skillsets have changed by curating new ways for people to connect at events. Although networking has never been something that just happened on its own, it is potentially going to become way more uncomfortable than it ever was.

Organizers must strive to meet people where they are right now – in their current reality – which may mean re-thinking how to host social events, B2B meetings, receptions, excursions, and mixers with a group of event attendees who are suddenly awkward in environments that used to be extremely comfortable and familiar.

Even boarding a bus or shuttle will be fraught with anxiety …. Do you just plunk down beside someone hoping to make a new friend or does the new etiquette include asking permission to sit down while simultaneously flashing proof of vaccination?

Feeling Welcome

Making people feel welcome at in-person events is expected to become a critical part of the event marketing messages moving forward. Becoming more intentional with event marketing and communications (with an emphasis on making people feel comfortable in social situations again) will be key.

Have you heard about social bands? These colour-coded bracelets allow wearers to silently communicate their physical distancing preferences at meetings to avoid having an uncomfortable interaction. Red indicates no contact, yellow means elbows only, and green invites high-fives and handshakes.

This tongue in cheek video from EXTRA gum envisages a completely different reality. Featuring Celine Dion’s popular hit ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’, EXTRA Gum predicts no lapse in muscle memory and an enthusiastic fresh start.

I personally can’t decide if it’s cringey or cute. Either way, I am pretty certain our first big social interaction at a networking event is going to be way less subdued than we may be imagining right now.