5 Ways to Optimize a Summit for Organic Networking

by Tara Vega

by Tara Vega

Head of Experiential, Happily

A return to gathering with more networking and less stuffy seated dinners.

Being an event producer in the midst of a global pandemic was a surreal experience, to say the least. After 10-plus years of working on in-person global events, it was jarring when the world shut down. We were able to adapt to the new reality, pivoting to digital experiences that satisfied our cravings for connection and community, but as months turned into years, the mood started to shift.

People were longing for a return to in-person gathering - they wanted to spend time in the same room with their peers and reconnect after a long time apart. We had a few false starts - events getting spun up only to be canceled as different waves of COVID variants passed through - but 2023 was finally the year to get back to in-person meetings and events.

What better place to start than the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where I spent the first week of January, unsure what the experience would look like. It was clear that people were eager to return to live events, but what would that mean? Would they want the same types of experiences they were into before COVID-19 changed everything?

Consumer Electronics Show Las Vegas 2023

Image: Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas

This year’s CES truly felt like a return to the basics. Where C-Level gatherings used to be about formal plated dinners with assigned seating, we found that people really just wanted to be with their peers in an informal way. They wanted to meet and reconnect with as many people as possible in a style that didn’t feel fussy or over-produced. Family style menus with guests selecting their own seating, even getting up in the middle of the meal to speak to someone at another table - we saw a set of behaviors we never witnessed before. The rooms were electric with laughter, conversation, and bonding.

As we go into our spring season, with many conferences and summits on the horizon, I’ve noticed that energy is still there. Our clients and attendees want that in-person experience and they want the chance to rediscover their networks in a fun and casual setting. From five-minute lightning talks that allow for more speakers and ideas to flow to smaller more intimate sessions where teams can collaborate and offer up solutions of industry-wide programs, we have seen that attendees don’t want to be spoken to, they want to be engaged and included in the conversation. 2023 is a year to lean into the basics of why we gather - to connect, exchange ideas, and build our communities.

happily events left lane summit 2022

Image: Left Lane's Fast Growth Summit, London, 2022. Discover the case study here.

5 Ways to Optimize a Summit for Organic Networking

1. Resist the urge to overprogram.

We hear from the vast majority of attendees that networking is the most valuable part of an in-person event. So much of that networking takes place during downtime or small moments in between sessions. If the agenda is packed full of content, there is less time for those organic moments of connection. There’s a limit to how much content people can absorb while still remaining engaged. It’s important to let your program breathe a bit, and to allow folks to discover connections over lunch, a snack break, or an activity. Ensure that people have time to get between sessions and that mealtimes don’t feel rushed. It’s often during the times when programming is not happening that people make the strongest connections.

2. Make your content dynamic.

Too often conferences become more about people talking at you instead of being a conversation. While keynotes and plenary sessions are important to set the tone for the conference, it makes the programming more engaging when there are a variety of session formats. Five minute lightning talks are a great way to spark conversation and keep people’s attention. Hosting smaller collaborative working sessions allows guests to feel involved in the content, while also connecting with other attendees. Another breakout format that works well is having a speaker give a short talk about a problem of their industry and then getting your attendees together in groups to discuss the issue and look for solutions they can then report back to the group. This allows attendees to feel like they are contributing meaningfully to the conversation, as co-creators instead of observers.

3. Ditch the plated dinners.

As more and more attendees are looking for that community feeling at events, having a family style dinner is more informal and engaging. This format allows guests to naturally engage with each other as they pass dishes back and forth, instead of feeling locked into conversation with only the person next to you. It also gives folks with dietary restrictions or preferences the opportunity to choose the dishes they prefer, instead of being handed a full meal that might not be to their liking.


Image: Amwell's Mid-Year in Miami, 2022, produced by Happily.

4. Add a hands-on volunteer component to your programming.

While cocktail receptions and after parties are great ways to get your guests to mingle, they often center around drinking and may be tough for the introverts at your event. Adding in a volunteer component - like serving food at a shelter or doing a garden cleanup at a community center - allows folks to connect over a shared desire to do good in the world. Getting out of the conference environment and working with your hands can make networking easier and also allows guests to connect with the community where the event is being hosted. Too often, we sweep into a new state or city for 3 days and we don’t really learn or engage with the people who live in that city. Adding volunteerism to your event allows it to feel more local and impactful.

5. Find ways to get people moving during meals.

The downside to a seated dinner is it really doesn’t allow guests to engage with multiple people. You’re assigned to a table and a seat and that limits the opportunity for engagement. One way to combat this is to find a way to get guests up and circulating during the meal. We’ve found that by taking dessert and coffee from the table and moving it to another part of the venue, you give people the opportunity to connect with folks who were seated at other tables. It also gives the opportunity for a unique dessert display that can be revealed as a surprise and delight moment, leaving the guests with a sweet last impression of your event.