• Face-to-face meetings remain popular and relevant, despite the growing number of ways we can meet virtually. Make the most of what makes in-person meetings unique.
• Create online communities well before the meeting. This can facilitate face-to-face interaction once the event begins.
• Build "casual" interactions into your agenda by allowing time to linger and chat before and after sessions.
The most important track at your conference might not be listed on your program. Attendees go to conferences to network, exchange ideas, pick up tidbits of gossip and grow relationships. And that magic generally happens in the hallway. Following are some best practices to ensure a flourishing hallway track.
Create a community. If you wait until attendees arrive in person, you've missed a crucial time for them to connect. With a private online community for your event that opens in advance, attendees can connect, talk about scheduled sessions, plan meet-ups and more. New attendees can make friends before they arrive, avoiding the awkward feeling that "everyone knows each other but me."
Connect early. Using the online community, encourage attendees to make a list of three to five people they want to meet. Then, use the preconference online community to connect them. The beauty of this arrangement is that it allows connections to be made and discussions to take place without the large crowds or the need for access to every networking event.
Gamify. Here's one game-like challenge, used by Alex Wagner, director of event marketing for SunTrust Bank, at an incentive event: Executives were given pins to distribute to attendees. To get one, attendees had to have a face-to-face conversation on a particular topic with a particular executive. Wagner leveraged the online community to prep the attendees on the executives' backgrounds. Many attendees, from tellers to investment bankers, then posted in the community about how amazing the conversations were, creating a cycle of engagement.
Allow early access to rooms. Sometimes the hallway track occurs in places other than the hallway. Allow people to get into session rooms early. Not only does this ensure they will get a seat, it allows them to connect with each another prior to sessions starting. There's usually a great exchange that occurs at the tables, particularly in the back of the room.
Have some downtime. If you schedule every minute of the event, you'll have some very tired attendees. Allow some downtime to encourage natural connections. Make sure your attendees know that leaving sessions, or sampling sessions until they find one that fits their educational goals, is encouraged. While this might unnerve a few traditional speakers, it will boost conversation and connections in the hallway.
Set up snack time. Placing snacks, coffee and such in the hallway instead of in another room will encourage mingling between sessions. If possible, keep goodies available at all times (even if only minimally, such as coffee service). Not only does this entice people to congregate, food gives them a natural conversation opener.
Let them linger. Schedule open-ended, after-hours events like book signings (or establish a bookstore area for gatherings), photo ops, etc. At the American Society for Association Executives' 2013 annual meeting, a photographer and a makeup artist provided professional head shots. While this approach might not fit every conference, if definitely had people talking and lingering. Consider what casual offerings fit your audience; you'll be surprised how many stay around to partake.
Jordan Schwartz is the CEO of Pathable (pathable.com), a digital experience platform and social networking service for conferences and events. He also leads a team of 60,000 bees in producing organic honey.