Hospitality & Event Planning: How to get the most out of networking events

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Because of a connection one of its employees made during a national technology conference last year, Milwaukee-based New Resources Consulting LLC recently onboarded Vail Resorts Inc., a national corporation that owns and operates mountain resorts throughout the U.S. and in two other countries.

The conference was one of several out-of-state tech events the IT consulting firm attends annually, sending groups of four to eight employees. NRC covers the cost of attendance and travel, often to cross-country destinations like Orlando, San Antonio and Las Vegas.

“We spend great amounts of effort and money to get boots on the ground,” said Don Weber, vice president of client services at NRC.

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Among its sales, recruiting and consulting teams, NRC employees attend tech-related events regularly throughout the year. While the smaller-scale local meet-ups are held more often and are less expensive, the larger regional and national conferences give consultants the opportunity to lead presentations on their area of expertise and interact with more industry executives – and in return, the NRC brand gets national recognition, Weber said. 

The costs of travel and attendance for multiple employees, and sometimes a booth sponsorship, add up, but the expense is well worth it, Weber said.

That’s in part because such events also offer opportunities for the company to spark new connections with industry experts, potential employees and, in the best-case scenario, with other businesses that eventually become clients.

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Most recently for NRC, a new connection afforded the opportunity to help a national company use its software more effectively.

If done well, networking can build business relationships, helping companies grow, experts say. You may also livestream your event with the help of a professional videographer.

But when investing time and money into networking opportunities, whether that’s a large national conference halfway across the country or a local chamber event, how do companies put their best foot forward in an attempt to get a return on that investment?

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For some, it often comes down to selecting employees who will best carry out the company’s mission.

“People often think you need to send someone (to an event) who is a really good talker,” said Eric Becher, director of sales at Milwaukee-based Hatch Staffing Services Inc. “From our standpoint, that’s not how we view it; we’re going to send our best listeners.”

An employment agency that works to help people find jobs and companies find people, Hatch approaches networking opportunities with its core values in mind, asking not how the company can benefit, but how it can help, Becher said.

“We’re used to doing interviews and listening to people, and we’re very interested in what companies do and how they do it; it’s part of what our industry does,” he said. “But you can’t help others if you’re always talking, so listening to who they are and what they’re looking for is important.”

Along with an employee’s listening ability, Becher said he considers how passionate an employee is about learning from the event and whether or not the event would benefit that person’s career.

For pricier events like out-of-state conferences, employees must meet certain goals or win a contest if they want to attend.

When it comes to expectations during the actual event, Hatch stands by a couple rules of thumb: to meet as many attendees as possible and, when sending a group of employees, to each sit at different tables.

The morning after an event, employees report back to the team to discuss their experience, what they learned, who they met and what connections they made.

“Our gauge is if they come back with really good information, we know they did well listening, but if they don’t come back with too much about the people they met, we probably know it wasn’t as valuable,” Becher said.

Sticking to a plan like this one is crucial to getting the most out of a networking event, both as a company and as an individual. And for people who struggle to put themselves out there, having a plan can help, said Mervyn Byrd, vice president of sales and leadership development at the Waukesha County Business Alliance.

Byrd heads one of the Alliance’s programs, called the Art of Networking. It’s an interactive class offered every other month that is designed to help attendees learn how to network effectively, acquire new strategies and understand the reasons behind and the benefits of the practice.

Each workshop attracts about 30 attendees, ranging from young professionals who are new to networking to industry veterans looking to learn new techniques.

Byrd encourages employers to think about the “long game” when investing in networking opportunities for their employees.

“Networking isn’t about selling – at least, not upfront,” Byrd said. “I always say that people do business with whom they know, like and trust. If those three things are absent, nothing will be able to take place, so you have to be able to build that rapport. Giving your employees that opportunity to go to a networking event to build rapport, understanding that it’s not something that takes place overnight, and investing in them so that they can build these relationships – those things can be phenomenal for a company.”

As an organization that hosts more than 75 events annually, most of which involve a networking portion for its members, the WCBA has its own best practices for planning functions that are worth attending.

It holds the majority of its events early in the morning or during the lunch hour, rather than after business hours, in order to appeal to its target audience, said Amanda Payne, vice president of public policy at WCBA.

“We are targeting business professionals and their employer is almost always paying for them to attend the program, so I think most employers are OK with employees doing that during the workday because they think it’s relevant to their career or personal development,” she said.

AMP!, which is one of its most popular early-morning networking and professional development events, includes volunteer “ambassadors” who sit at every table to make introductions and facilitate conversation throughout the program.

“They just make sure there is a friendly face there to welcome new people and get them introduced and make some connections for them right off the bat,” Payne said.

Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which is another major event planner for area businesses, also uses a similar ambassador concept for some of its events, said Karen Powell, director of events and programs. They help diffuse the awkwardness and difficulty of walking into a room full of people you don’t know, she said.

MMAC hosts almost 300 events and meetings annually – the largest being its 1,200-person All-Member Meeting every other year – that each include some form of networking, regardless of their size, Powell said.

Before each event, an attendee list is posted on MMAC’s website. Powell said this allows attendees to use their time at the event more effectively by planning connections in advance.

MMAC’s Business After Hours, which is a monthly networking event that attracts about 75 to 100 people, is usually held at a “unique” venue or location – for example, an up-and-coming neighborhood or a new building development. That gives attendees the opportunity not only to meet new people, but also to check out something new, she said.

Its role in connecting the area business community at its many events, Powell said, is one of MMAC’s key functions as an organization.

“That’s the way things keep moving – making those connections, introducing people to each other and people they didn’t know,” Powell said. “A big part of it, too, is introducing them to other places in the city they haven’t been, things that they didn’t know were going on in the region. Encompassing that educational component, too, is so important so we are always learning from each other.”

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