All of us who are part of event planning and creation need to help cultivate a “Relationship Driven Conference” – Every Time!  A Networking Speaker sets the tone to get people engaged.

Relationship Driven Conference - Thom Singer is "The Conference Catalyst"

People attend live events for two reasons: Education and Networking. So do not forget to make your event a relationship driven conference. The five-star venue is pretty and a chocolate fountain at the reception is nice… but the two drivers for committing to attend are content and connections. We can get information online, but a like, link, share, or follow is not a strong connection without the face-to-face component. Live events are where the two come together. Learning with conversation in the hallways are the key.

However, it is easier to tell you boss you are going for the learning, than the industry connections, Thus, many planners and participants focus on the data that will be delivered and not the life changing opportunities to meet people who could change your life and career.

A relationship driven conference (and before you think I am forgetting content, I am not) is the best way to get people to come back year after years.  As professionals who work in the meetings industry it is our main goal to bring people together. From the venue staff, meeting committee, speakers, etc… everyone needs to be focused on how to get people engaged.

The speakers, both general session keynote speakers and breakout presenters, have to be engaged in getting people to talk to each other. For the past decade there has been a lot of lip service around “interactive presentations”, but people have all kinds of ideas of what this means. Many speakers just have people turn to their neighbor every five minutes, and that gets old fast.  I recently saw a speaker tell the audience they would not do forced interactive activities during their keynote and the crowd gave her a standing ovation at the beginning of her talk.

What does interaction mean and why do we do it?  If you speaker and meeting organizers are not 100% sure about this then it will never work to get people engaged. To me, interaction adds to the conversation.  Thus getting people to talk at their table or to their neighbor must be followed up with sharing to the whole audience.  Having large groups look to the person next to them and say “you are awesome” is not just pandering, it is useless. A real relationship driven conference is all about the people.  It is not about celebrity speakers or pandering to industry VIPs.

Also, humor is interaction.  I have seen speakers who get people to laugh and lean in with no “exercises” be more engaging that those with canned engagement every seven minutes. There is a reason that stand up comedy is so popular on Netflix. People like to laugh and shared laughter is one of the best ways to get people engaged. I am not suggesting stand up in place of an education session, but a speaker with humor (for most topics) will be better than a data heavy talk every time.

Human engagement should be the priority for every event. But creating a relationship driven conference is not easy. The early days of SXSW Interactive were all about the community they were creating. But the conference got so large that it could no longer be relationship driven. Fortunately most live events are not 40,000 people strong. If you are planning an event with 100 to 1000 participants you should be a relationships driven conference or you have failed to deliver what the attendees need.

I have some suggestions below that will easily help spark that community feeling, but the first step is to declare (publicly and to your planning committee) that all decisions are being made with being a relationship driven conference as the goal. This kills special interest ideas and cliques from taking over. It also will save you money. Most wasted money at conferences would be saved if the concept was run through the filter of “does this add to our relationship driven conference format?”

Five Tips For Creating A Relationship Driven Conference

  1. Make attendee networking and connections the priority when selecting the venue. Is there enough space, but not too much space, to ensure people will have the chance to cross paths while onsite.
  2. Allow time for hallways conversations when planning breaks.  Fifteen minutes is not enough between session. A minimum of thirty minutes between breakout sessions is key to allow people to talk with others after each session.
  3. Select speakers who will do more than deliver a talk and leave. You need speakers who are willing to customize their message, be interactive, and stay around for part of the day after their talk to engage with people.
  4. Educate your audience before, during, and after the event about what it means to be a relationship driven conference. This is more than at the start telling people to silence their phones and meet the person next to them. You need to bring in some fun (maybe simple gameification) to the whole conference. Make meeting people a priority, while being respectful to those in the crowd who are more introverted and may not love the push toward people.
  5. Hire a professional master of ceremonies who knows how to “content weave” and encourage the people to have conversations about what they are learning.
  6. Bonus Tip – Do not push people too hard, but show them the reasons that they win when they meet a few more people than they might have without the connection culture you are creating.

In Any Economy – Be Relationship Driven

A live event that is committed to being a Relationship Driven Conference will thrive in any economic situation. The topic of “networking” in business is counter cyclical. In boom times few people seem to care, but in recessions the idea of making industry contacts becomes valuable.

Doesn’t everyone know how to network?  Nope. I might even suggest it is less understood today because of the 15 years push toward online and digital networking tools. Some younger professionals only experienced the up tick of the economy over the last decade and have not been educated on the “back to basics” skills on networking.

A relationship driven conference will help attendees maximize their onsite experience. But when done right.


Thom Singer is a keynote speaker and professional master of ceremonies.  He is known as “The Conference Catalyst” for the way he assists meeting organizers in creating a Relationship Driven Conference. He is the author of 12 books and the host of two business podcasts.