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Forget cocktail tables, it’s time to get serious about networking

The future of international association meetings could boil down to this single question: how will organisations measure return on investment when paying for their staff to attend conferences?

What, in other words, is the value of meeting in-person, as opposed to virtually.

This question is not just crucial for associations and their revenue models, but the wider meetings industry. On it hangs the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people – venue staff, destination marketers, PCOs, ground transfer operators, tour guides, caterers, AV suppliers…

Before Covid-19 played havoc with our assumptions, a common line of thinking was that education – and by extension certification – was the best way for conferences to prove their worth.

After 10 years of austerity and the looming threat of climate change, conferences, the theory went, would have to evolve along more serious lines to justify their place in the calendar.

Associations would have to build leaner, more ‘business critical’ programmes to help delegates justify their attendance to their employers.

But there were problems with this line of thinking even before coronavirus came along.

The internet, social networks, and the rise of open-source publishing already meant much of the educational content offered by conferences could be found online with the click of a mouse.

It also presented a reductive idea of the conference experience – as a sort of extension of the classroom, where delegates could go back to the office and say, ‘this is what I have learnt!’.

It left out, or diminished, the ability of conferences to facilitate the exchange of knowledge in more subtle, perhaps more productive ways – not just during scheduled networking breaks, but those chance encounters and introductions, the late-night conversations spun out of shared interests.

After 18 months of consuming educational content in online formats, it is fascinating to hear how the pendulum is swinging back towards ‘networking’ as the unique ingredient of in-person meetings, not just the nice-to-have bolt on, but the one thing that can actually justify the travel and expense.

Tech evangelists insist that networking can be done equally well online, but the general consensus suggests this is one aspect of in-person meetings that has not made the digital leap look easy.

This, then, could be a golden opportunity for organisers to rethink what constitutes ‘good networking’ and to think of conferences, first and foremost, as facilitators of meaningful conversation. Structured networking is not a new concept, but it might be that its time has finally come.

This is not about providing 300 cocktail tables and a free bar (although that might have its place) but creating scenarios that will help people meet and talk, both in and outside session. It could involve gamification or something as simple as clustering chairs in a different way. It might mean less time sitting and listening and more time sitting and talking. But, as the great reopening inches closer, it’s clear this is one aspect of the in-person experience organisers are going to have to get right.

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