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Episode 61 / September 6, 2022

Episode 61: Rethinking Event Networking To Drive Meaningful Attendee Connections

Kelly Hoey dismantles everything you thought you knew about event networking in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shownotes: Season 3, Episode 11: Kelly Hoey

In this episode, you’ll learn why you can’t return to pre-pandemic event networking. You’ll leave this podcast with eyes open to new and innovative approaches to improving attendee networking at your next gathering.  

Kelly Hoey is an investor, connector, networking expert, and the author of Build Your Dream Network: Forging Powerful Relationships in a Hyper-connected World.

This conversation was just one of many we held as part of Bizzabo’s Event Experience Summit, our flagship event where we brought together the world’s most innovative event professionals to share their secrets and strategies. 

Here’s just some of what you’ll hear about in this conversation:

  • How the hybrid networking format is the new event networking 
  • How to figure out who to connect with (and how they want to connect)
  • How to be a great event host — something that’s more critical than ever

Mentioned in This Episode


[00:00:00] Chaviva Gordon-Bennett: Welcome to Event Experience by Bizzabo, the podcast where we bring the best and brightest Event Experience Leaders together to share stories, tips, and lessons learned from creating some of the world’s biggest events. I’m Chaviva Gordon-Bennett, senior editorial content manager here at Bizzabo. This week, we’re excited to share Kelly Hoey’s powerful insight about rethinking attendee networking to make meaningful connections. Kelly Hoey is a networking expert and the author of the book Build Your Dream Network: Forging Powerful Relationships in a Hyperconnected World. In this episode, Kelly will explain what hybrid networking is, why it’s important to understand someone’s networking preferences, and how event organizers can help attendees build authentic relationships.

[00:00:48] This episode is based on a session from Bizzabo’s Event Experience Summit, our flagship event for event professionals. You can check the show notes for a link to watch on-demand sessions from our most recent summit. And now over to Kelly.

[00:01:10] Kelly Hoey: Let’s dive into rethinking networking. Here’s what we’re going to be doing in our time that we have together. I’m going to let you know why I think your work right now is more critical and crucial than ever before. I’m going to let you know what I tell the attendees, and you’re kind of wearing two hats today.

[00:01:30] You are becoming event experience leaders and you are an attendee at the moment. So I’m going to tell you the advice that I give people who are really wondering what they’re going to do when they attend an event. And then I’ve got some suggestions for you. So let’s start at the top. 

[00:01:59] In my mind, there’s only one type of event and it’s an event that builds connections, creates networks, and engages the audience. So yeah, attendees may say they attend for the content, but what have we seen? We can get content in a variety of places. Content may attract us, but community causes us to return.

[00:02:25] It makes us rabid fans of those events and those brands and those sponsors. So, this is why building community is the core of an event for me. Now, why do I say it’s more crucial than ever before? Two simple reasons: One, our networks have shrunk. Two, I’d like you to disrupt the notion that we were getting it right before. 

[00:02:55] On network shrinkage, think about your own network. Does it feel a little smaller after the last 24 months? Does it feel like it doesn’t have as much breadth and depth as it did before? Well, guess what? You’re not alone. According to a Yale study, on average our networks shrunk by 16%. That’s on average.

[00:03:26] Sorry, guys, your network shrunk by about 30%, and it wasn’t evenly distributed, not necessarily between the genders, but within the structure of our network. The network structure that shrunk was our acquaintance and casual connections. Who are those people? Well, in my mind, they’re likely the people we connect with at events. They’re your alumni. They’re your coworkers in another office or another department or another functional area. They’re the friends of friends. They’re the former colleagues. They’re people in your industry or adjacent industries. They’re your peers within the same industry. Those are our acquaintances and casual connections.

[00:04:21] And that is the portion of our network that has shrunk.

[00:04:30] Why are events more important than ever for bringing people together? According to PwC and a survey they conducted, 72% of employees want to work in a hybrid fashion. That means we’re not at the office on the same days and the same time, creating those collisions and collaboration points like the multitude of opportunities we had before. And 32% in that same survey want to work from home.

[00:05:00] So whether you’re planning an industry event or an offsite or a team meeting, think about all the people who were hired in a virtual world: They’ve never met their colleagues other than on a Slack channel or Zoom. Your events to bring them together are now critical for creating that collaboration. Why else is this critical?

[00:05:27] Well, can we cut the crap that we used to do networking well before 2020 hit us? Because we didn’t. There’s a really fun piece of research from 2014 where they primed participants to think about professional networking before they did like a networking kind of Wordle: Like, if you’re got a piece of paper in front of you, write down the letter S, write down the letter O, leave a blank space, put in a letter P.

[00:06:01] So when they primed the participants in this study to think about professional networking, guess what happened when they went in to do the fill-in-the-blank Wordle and product association? They subliminally craved cleaning products. We think networking is dirty. We think of it as this icky, smarmy thing when we have to go out and do professional networking, which we’re associating with, I don’t know, meeting strangers. In my own very unscientific network poll, I asked people, “How are you feeling about professional networking?” No. 1 answer at 38% was anxious and 16% said they felt inauthentic. You gotta keep that in mind as those may be the people stepping into your event that you’re designing for. So what do I tell them? Because if I had a dollar for every time I was asked the question, “Kelly, how do I network at conferences and events?”

[00:07:26] Well, I would be worth a lot more regardless of where the stock market is. But here is what I tell event attendees. First thing I say to them about networking at conferences and events: It starts before you register. This is an opportunity for you to talk to other people about that conference or event.

[00:07:51] This is a chance to check in with a mentor. This is a chance to ask colleagues. This is a chance to ask about your career, your life, your ambition, whatever it is, and get feedback and suggestions on whether or not this event, this community, this content is gonna take your career forward. So I said to them, it starts even before you hit “register.”

[00:08:16] So before you get in the room for the event, you’re networking or you have a chance to network. Then I tell them, once you’ve registered, how can you start talking to other people about the fact that you’re going? This may be through your Slack channel at work or what you’re posting on LinkedIn.

[00:08:37] How you engage with people before an event and what you learn about an event before you attend can affect your whole strategy of what you do once you’re in the room. My big takeaway for people when they’re in a room like a conference and event, and they are there to network — we worry so much about what we’re going to say.

[00:09:03] I’m like, how are you watching and listening and observing? You’re going to find the connections you need. You’re going to find people you want to talk to. You’re going to ask better questions. You’re not going to need to worry about a list of icebreakers or an elevator pitch if you’re present and you can create that authenticity for yourself if you’re watching, listening, and observing. And then I say to them: Your networking doesn’t end, just because of the closing keynote. Sorry, spoiler alert. It doesn’t end then. What are you doing after the event? How are you sharing this information? How are you following up with people?

[00:09:51] The networking event experience or any other summit or conference doesn’t end at the close. How can you follow up and follow through with people? How do you let them know that you were listening and you were interested in what they had to say?

[00:10:16] How can you say, “I didn’t have a chance to ask this question. Can I know this now?” Or can you say, “You were asking really great questions in that round table. I’d like to follow up and get to know you. It’d be great to have another peer in the industry who’s struggling with the same things I am.”

[00:10:32] So it doesn’t end there. When I was thinking about what I wanted to say to you today, I recalled a number of years ago, speaking at Women in Tech summit in Philadelphia. It’s a conference I’ve spoken at a number of times. This one year, a young woman came up to me and she says, “Kelly, what should I do? I came here, my company was reluctant and this has been so valuable and I really want…” I said, “Let’s breathe. Let’s calm down a little bit first. You want your company to see the value of your attendance and you want the company to see the value of sending more people next.”

[00:11:19] I said, “What are you doing after the event?” And she looked at me very blankly. I said, “Here’s some ideas. When you go back to your company, why don’t you have a lunch and learn with the other women and let them know what you learned? Why don’t you let the powers that be know what you gained at this particular event that you’re putting into work? Why don’t you circulate a memo to everyone who was a decision maker, outlining the value and your takeaways?”

[00:12:00] “Those are just some ideas; you think about it and do what you gotta do.” So imagine my delight and surprise where she actually followed up with me. I love it when people follow up. The No. 1 networking mistake is the failure to follow up. She follows up with me and she tells me, “Thank you. Here’s what I did.”

[00:12:17] And guess what? Next year, my company, isn’t reluctantly sending one employee to this event. They’re sending 25. So the follow up personally and professionally was good for her. And dare I say the conference was as well. So that’s the first thing I say to people who ask me about networking and how to network an event.

[00:12:37] It starts before, and it continues after. The next thing I say to them: Real life is digital. Be amphibious. How you behave online should be no different than who you are in person. These are not two separate things. There are a multitude of touch points and networking opportunities to meet people. This week, I had the joy of connecting with my friend, Dr. Sue Black. Maybe you’ve read the book or you’ve heard of Bletchley Park. It’s where the codebreakers were in World War II. Sue wrote the book Saving Bletchley Park because she used social media to save it. Anyway, Sue and I met because of Twitter and then connected because of a hackathon and thanks to social media.

[00:13:35] All these years later, I have a great friend who was here for meetings and I got to see her in person. So if we hadn’t been who we are online, would I say that I have this bestie all these years later? The majority of our conversation and connection is digital. So digital is in real life.

[00:13:57] Use digital tools in a human way. And on that, I have to add one. Biggest pet peeves. Would you introduce yourself for the first time with someone and say, “Here’s my LinkedIn URL”? No, you wouldn’t. So why do people do that in chats, on Zoom or anywhere else? It drives me crazy.

[00:14:23] Act like a human being in digital spaces. That’s my advice when I’m telling people who are thinking about how to network at conferences and events, that will have either fully digital, fully virtual, or a digital component — because who’s not tweeting and texting and doing all the rest of that when we’re at an event? I’ll be honest. I think this is good advice. It’s helped a lot of people, but I realized in preparing for today, my advice has a gap in it. I can give all the advice in the world to attendees, but if my events experience leaders aren’t also innovating, there’s only so much those anxious, uncertain, confused event attendees can do for themselves. So my suggestions for you: First off, tell me about your audience. And I don’t mean tell me about them, like, they’re engineers with five to seven years’ experience and they’re moving into management. No. What’s in their heads, right here right now, in terms of their concerns. Carnegie Hall, bless them, sent me an “audience outlook monitor.”

[00:16:02] I think that’s a fancy word for a survey, because it did get me to open the email and check it out. They sent out an audience outlook monitor where they asked me questions, like, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” They asked me if I’d ridden the subway, taken a bus, a cab.

[00:16:25] How had I moved around in the world? They asked me about health and safety protocol. But they also asked, “What was the last event you went to and when did you buy the tickets? Did you buy months in advance or was it hours in advance? How was I making decisions on when to be in an enclosed space?”

[00:16:51] They also had a question that inquired, “Is there any other reason that may cause you to hesitate to be here?” Maybe it’s the health and wellbeing of a loved one. Maybe it’s the cost? Who knows? But understand what’s going on in the head of your audience and design around it. So that was No. 1 in terms of my suggestions for you.

[00:17:17] The next thing I would say is — because I’ve already shared that people feel very dirty, anxious, and inauthentic when they think about networking — so how can you make them relax? How can you make them feel that they’re in the right place? And in coming up with these suggestions, I remembered a road trip I took from Dollywood to Graceland.

[00:17:44] It was a bit unforgettable. It’s hard to shake it out of my mind. I went with three Australians. So yeah, I’m looking for the punchline: Three Cana, three Australians, and the Canadian go on a road trip. So there’s gotta be a joke in there somewhere. And you know, I’m gonna wait for you to come up for it.

[00:17:59] So let’s start with Graceland. You know, if we were all in the same room, I’d ask you a show of hands: Who’s been to Graceland? All the employees at Graceland wear lanyards with their employee ID and their picture. I was fortunate enough to have someone whose lanyard was flipped the wrong way.

[00:18:21] So I could see the backside of it, and there were clear instructions on when to smile, when to make eye contact, and when to say, “Welcome to Graceland.” It may seem really simple, but think about someone, when they land onsite — whether onsite for you is digital, virtual, or in real life. When are you making eye contact?

[00:18:51] When are you smiling? When are you letting them know that you’re glad they’re there and that they’re in the right place? The anxiety of, “Am I in the right line? Am I moving toward the right conference room? Is this the right breakout? Where should I be?” That idea of the eye contact, the smile? It lets you know you’re in the right place.

[00:19:11] Amazing. Let’s go back to Eastern Tennessee and Dollywood. If you are an employee at Dollywood representing, dare I say, a national treasure.

[00:19:30] What do you do? Well, you act like an ambassador. I think every employee in Dollywood probably asks themselves, “What would Dolly do?” Everyone is an ambassador and a concierge. Everyone has a suggestion. Everyone is curious about who you are, where you’ve come from. Have you seen, have you tried, have you ridden every single rollercoaster in Dollywood?

[00:20:00] Yes, I have. It’s amazing to experience. It’s simple to install that kind of focus on every piece and touchpoint your audience has with your event, because what you want to do is reduce those anxieties. You want them to feel at ease, so they feel authentic, so that they are present, so that they will connect with other people as opposed to worrying about whether they are in the right.

[00:20:37] So Dollywood and Graceland…bet you didn’t expect that in a networking keynote, but there you go. What else do I tell them? I tell them to get their digital footprint in line. And I think you should think about ensuring that your digital footprint is in line as well, so that what is online and how everyone is behaving with respect to your event is also there and available to connect before people arrive at your event.

[00:21:13] That’s really critical. My other suggestion: Think about how people move within your space. How are you directed? How are you guided between sessions, wherever the venue is? Are you creating places and points for people to have collisions and collaborations? Are there breakout rooms?

[00:21:44] Are there smaller sessions? Where’s the concession stand? Where do you have your trade show? Your vendors? Are there places where you can enable people to have that happenstance and serendipity when they can talk to each other. Create that for them; find places to make it happen. I think of airports…

[00:22:09] You know, the way they make us walk and walk and walk to get to the luggage carousel. They’ve got to give the guys getting it off the plane a little more time to haul it out there. So you gotta walk by things. And so maybe you decide you’re gonna go to the bathroom and get another magazine and pick up a water.

[00:22:28] Think about the meandering and natural places where people can gather and talk. And no, we do not gather and talk at charging stations for our phones. Create mentoring tables. As I said, concession stands, your vendors, your sponsors…create places where people can gather and talk and build these connections.

[00:22:51] It’s really important. And if they’re all just standing around, find an activity to do that can engage people with each other, and with you. Now, I know I said back at the beginning, that content is important in terms of building your network at events.

[00:23:20] Here’s why some early research is showing that we need to expand. The selection of ideas. When we need to expand innovation ideation, when we need more creativity, we need to meet in person. We network with more than our mouths. We use all of our senses. We need to read body language. We need to see who’s thinking different ways.

[00:23:49] We need to bring different people to the table. Early research is showing, as a result of the pandemic, that that type of content needs to be delivered in person. If you’re focusing on one idea, if you’re focusing on one choice after you’ve had a brainstorming session, maybe you’ve had a team offsite and you’ve done the brainstorming.

[00:24:14] You’ve come up with one solution. That can be done online and works very well virtually. Your content and how you deliver it plays into the ability for your attendees to build networks. Continue the conversation. What you’re doing is really critical, and I can’t stress it enough: The events you plan may be the major way that we rebuild our networks and increase our ability to collaborate. 

[00:24:53] Chaviva Gordon-Bennett: Thank you so much, Kelly, for being a part of Event Experience. And thank you for listening to the show. If you enjoyed this episode, please connect with us on social media. Share the show with your colleagues and friends and subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you listen to your podcasts on behalf of the team. Thank you. We’ll be back next time with a new episode of Event Experience, and I can’t wait for you to join us.

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