One of the mainstays of networking events from New York to Los Angeles is the Business After Hours event. Whether they call them “mixers”, “socials”, “After 5s” or any other creative name, the basic concept and format is the same.
Usually running weekday evenings from around 5:30 to around 7:30, the event is hosted at a local business who provides alcohol and food. Attendees mix, mingle, and network. There’s usually announcements and remarks from the host around the middle of the event, sometimes with a raffle. That’s the framework.
Most such events are run by chambers of commerce, business associations, young professional groups, and the like. Here in Connecticut, Rotary is developing a Business After Hours series called Rotary Builds Business, which I am chairing in New London County.
There are some variations between events that can work just as well. Some start a little earlier or run a little longer. Some have food spreads to rival a royal wedding, while others offer Bud Light and chips. Venues can range from accounting offices to ballrooms with a skyline view.
What makes a good Business After Hours?
Ultimately, as long as the event draws people, gives them a drink so they feel comfortable, and provides and environment in which they can talk, the event will be successful.
The goal of an individual going to a networking event is making quality connections. Thus, a good networking event is one where many people made good quality connections.
I have seen events with a couple dozen people that were great for everyone who was there, and I have seen events with almost 200 people that were a total waste of time.
The first thing you need for a good event is good people. This is highly subjective. Your perfect connection may not be of value to someone else. What is universal is that the people be friendly, outgoing, and open to networking. The wine helps with that.
An organizer can do a little to help things along. Many Chambers of Commerce have “ambassadors.” An ambassador’s job is to mingle at the event connect people. They talk to people and ask them whom they are looking to meet and try to connect them to the person in the room who is perfect for them.
Especially at larger events, it is entirely possible to be in the room with your perfect contact but never get to speak to them. This is where ambassadors are fantastic.
How to screw up a Business After Hours event
As simple as a Business After Hours event is, there are quite a few ways you can screw it up.
Americans like to have a drink when socializing. It’s not so much for intoxication as comfort. It is a signal that we are relaxing. No drink? Now it’s work. Who wants to work after 5?
You’ve probably never seen an Business After Hours without alcohol. That doesn’t mean that people don’t try to host them. It’s just that no one shows up. I was part of an organization that ran morning networking events and tried to run an after hours event with no booze, just like the morning event.
Besides the hosts and the organizers, one person showed up. One.
Whatever your opinion of alcohol, the fact is that people expect it at an evening event. It doesn’t have to be a full bar. I’ve seen fine events where there was self serve table with some bottles of Barefoot wine and some cans of Coors. But there has to be something.
The whole point of a networking event is to network. Networking requires talking. If you can’t hear people, you can’t talk, and you can’t network. I don’t care how beautiful and hip the venue is. I care if I can make a connection.
Sometimes the venue is fine, but the hosts decide to add their own noise with a band or a DJ. For the host, this event is an exhibition of their business, and they want to put on a great show. This may lead them to think like a wedding planner: looking for splashy fun ways to set themselves apart, and a band sure is unique.
A band can also makes it impossible to talk. While some appropriate background music can create class and ambiance, too much volume is a disaster. I attended an event with a live band under a big tent outdoors. Fortunately it was outdoors because you could tell exactly where the speakers projected sound by where people were not standing. They were there to network, not to listen to music.
The result was an awkward event where no one stayed inside the tent with the food, only dashing in a nosh and dashing back out to talk.
Networking events should be fun, but it’s not a party. It has a purpose, and if the fun interferes with the purpose, you have a bad event.
Too much interruption
Fundamentally, the payoff of a networking event is the one to one interaction. That is the value that attendees are attending to receive.
The hosts and the organizers want to make the most of the opportunity of having all these influential business people in one place, and that’s why they have announcements in the first place. However, they’ve only got 5 minutes, 10 minutes max, to let people get back to what they came for.
The host can certainly speak for 3-4 minutes about their business, especially if they are sharing information that is interesting or that the audience doesn’t know. Hosting in a 200 year old mansion, you might hold their attention a few more minutes. Got a car dealership and telling me about great deals on new models? 60 seconds and I’m on my way to the bar.
Hosts are generally pretty good about keeping it quick, mostly because the organizer is MCing and keeps them on track. The more common offender when it comes to verbosity? The organizers. Some feel the need to tell you about every upcoming event, every new program, a few old programs, etc.
If they are rattling off a rapid fire list of events and dates and times, I’m not going to remember them, and neither are you. They’re on the web site. I can go find them (or in New London County get them from the Guy Who Knows a Guy mailing list).
There are some topics which do justify a little more length. Announcing new members is good because everyone likes to hear their name announced. Giving a few people a chance to share brief announcements of upcoming events is a great way to engage people.
Also, an interruption may be in order if there is some kind of activity which facilitates better networking. For example, one young professionals event I attended did a brief round of “speed networking. You got to talk to 10 people in 15 minutes, then afterwards you could seek out those that you wanted to connect with more. Very efficient way to find the right people. Well worth the time.
Other types of events
Of course, a Business After Hours event is just one kind of networking event. Ultimately, anything that gives people the chance to meet and mingle can provide a networking value. There are formatted referral based meetings such as BNI. There are speed networking events and other structured events. Networking breakfasts and lunches, often involving a speaker or presentation are popular. Some groups organize volunteering opportunities and other forms of outreach as a way for their members to connect while working in the community.
There is no wrong way to create a networking event as long as it gives good people the opportunity to connect and build relationships in a positive environment.
Is your organization looking to run a networking workshop or creative networking event like speed networking? Michael Whitehouse can advise you or even run it for you. Click here to contact him and discuss your ideas.