This past May, I found myself at a conference unlike any other I’d ever attended. What made it so different was the way people were interacting. One group sat in a circle of chairs suspended from the ceiling, a net beneath them in case anyone fell. Two others were in seats on the ground, positioned back to back with virtual reality goggles on, conversing with one another’s avatar. Two more were climbing up a ladder into a giant nest-like structure. Another pair chatted while pumping their legs on exercise bikes on an elevated catwalk. And, out back, strangers were taking Ferris wheel rides together.
According to Nadia Lakhdari, vice president of content and creation for the event, C2 Montreal, this is the future of conference networking. “A big reason we go to conferences is for the sense of community, to make personal connections and build relationships,” she explains. “We want to move people beyond sharing business cards at the coffee break, or, worse, just standing around staring at their phones.”
Unusual meeting venues were the most obvious prompts for those at the event to connect with new people in surprising ways. But there were many others — from the completely unstructured (communal tables for snack and lunch breaks and narrow corridors between presentation areas, which had everyone literally rubbing elbows) to the very structured (labs, masterclasses, workshops).
Technology also played a big role. C2 partnered with Montreal-based startwww.c2montreal.comp E-180 to offer an app through which attendees could share both what they were trying to learn at the event and what knowledge they could impart to others, then use the information to book “brain dates” with each other. “The idea was to match people not on their industry or the city they’re from but on something that can help them get more out of the conference,” Lakhdari says.
Of course, not all business event organizers work so hard to help attendees network. So what lessons can a conference-goer (or planner) take away from the creativity on display at an event like C2?
Kick off conversation with a fun topic. People meeting for the first time in C2’s “brain dating lounge” were encouraged to pick up a question card — example: “What was your favorite ice cream growing up?” — and talk about that before any business they might do together. At one afternoon snack table, conference-goers were offered two options: “tastes good” (brownies) or “good for you” (apple slices) as a way to get them talking about their own preferences and C2’s theme: Choices. We all know that first encounters are more memorable if there’s a personal element to them. So, when networking at a conference, don’t be afraid to talk about the food you’re eating, the city you’re visiting, your counterpart’s hometown or favorite sports teams and TV shows. People won’t remember the tenth conversation they’ve had about sales solutions. But they will remember discussions about terrible hotel coffee, the best restaurant in Prague, the ups and downs of the Red Sox, the latest Game of Thrones season and the sweet goodness that is Dairy Queen soft-serve.
Get out of the conference space. Shared experiences are another way to take networking to the next level. You might not be able to ride a Ferris wheel, climb into a nest or share virtual reality with a contact you just met, but you can suggest a trip to the café down the street or a walk around a nearby park. “If you meet someone at a business event, there’s a distance; when you do something together, that distance narrows,” Lakhdari explains. “It makes it easier to send an email or pick up the phone to follow up when you’re back home.”
Challenge yourself to try new things. I’ll admit it: I didn’t test any of the clever networking experiences at C2. I had my reasons, of course: I was there for less than 24 hours, busy covering the presentations, prepping for an interview, and remotely handling my day-to-day work, plus I only decided to write about this aspect of the conference after the fact. But I wish I’d jumped in. Those agenda add-ons that most conferences offer — morning fun runs, afternoon factory tours, evening cocktails — are great places to meet people, in part because different environments and activities help us to relax and to behave and think more openly. And, don’t worry, you won’t be the only who shows up. According to Lakhdari, “the business community’s willingness to be adventurous has exploded in the past five years.” Case in point: a recent C2 dinner in Milan where Parkour enthusiasts were the entertainment. “We had 60-year-old men in suits and ties telling us they wanted to jump on the tables too.”
Embrace your anonymity. A conference is the perfect opportunity for you to put forward your most out-of-the-box questions and ideas, planting seeds for the most fruitful kinds of relationships. You’re away from the office and your colleagues, so you can take more risks. Pretend that you’re “brainstorming in the dark,” as C2 had some attendees do in 2014. Participants were put in groups and told to put on eye shades and sit in a pool of plastic balls (the kind you might find at a children’s playspace). They were then given a weighty question, such as “How can we transform our youth from job seekers into job givers?,” to discuss for 20 minutes. The goal was to embolden everyone to speak up; after all, you can’t be intimidated by people you can’t see. And it worked. When those in the group that had the job givers question pulled off their masks, they discovered that Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize winner for his microfinance work, had been with them, listening carefully to all their suggestions.
Business conferences can be boring affairs, where few meaningful, lasting connections are made. But, if you approach your own networking with creativity and enthusiasm, it doesn’t have to be that way.
See it for yourself. Attend C2 Montréal 2016.