Conferences Aren't Serious About Networking Unless ...
Pump up the font on the namebadge so names are readable from a distance and also include one piece of information to get people talking. Adding an "Ask me about _____" space on the badge turns it from a name recognition device into a conversation starter. For more on better badges, see this post from Adrian Segar. One of my favorite small conferences had us make our own name badges upon arrival, immediately personalizing an impersonal object and interacting with other attendees while doing so.
Consider organizing registration lines around something other than the alphabet. I have nothing in common with other people whose last name begins with C. If registration lines were organized by geographic region, however, while standing in line I might connect with someone form my general vicinity, someone with whom I might network in person after the event or perhaps even already know.
Have at least one meal be buffet or served family style. Plated meal service minimizes casual interaction among participants. You talk to people while standing in line or when passing them a serving dish. It's a little thing, but it gets conversations started.
Include space on name badges for Twitter handles and in participant listings for other social media connections (LinkedIn, Facebook, et al) that individuals may wish to share.
For smaller conferences, have an area with games, puzzles, books and resources similar to what you find in the lobby of an old-fashioned resort. These public spaces hold particular appeal for introverts, and I've seen many a relationship develop while informally working on a puzzle with other participants or playing a hand of cards during a break.
Heaven forbid that we might ask people at the first general session to actually stand up and introduce themselves to a few of the people they are seated near. Better yet, make this the norm for each block of sessions and perhaps have a different question people answer for each block, simple things like "best book I read recently, one person to definitely follow on Twitter, a resource I couldn't do without, et al).
Allow on-site volunteering, letting individuals sign up to be a part of many small groups doing task work to help with the conference ... session monitors, registration, greeting people at general sessions. We connect with others while contributing to the conference ... that's a two-fer.
Give people something to look at and talk about during big receptions. Not everyone is comfortable talking to complete strangers, but it is easier to break the ice when you can reference an awards display or piece of art you are both standing in front of while enjoying food and beverage.
Have at least one workshop block or meal function where people can opt to sit with like-minded participants and discuss a common professional or personal interest. From professional table topics to informal breakfast conversations about books or shared interests/hobbies, it's a low-risk way to let people self-organize should they be so inclined.
Better yet, let people indicate these interests during registration and help them form small groups around them similar to the International Leadership Association's Conference Colleagues option, offering a few designated times for people to meet with their colleagues group during the conference.
Have seasoned professionals host tables for first-time attendees at your first meal function so they get connected to someone who really knows the ins and outs of your profession.
Turn your participant directory from an address book into a true networking tool by adding two fields on the registration form and then publishing them in the directory: (1) topics I want to learn more about, and (2) topics I could be a resource on for others.
So many events still aren't doing the basics, yet the suggestion above really are yesterday's news. In the future, we'll know a conference isn't serious about networking unless it intentionally acknowledges that a healthy percentage of participants now come with their own powerful networks already cultivated (via social media) and conference components leverage those relationships and include more time for collaboration and co-creation.
What are other easy-to-implement ideas that you have seen conference designers use to increase connectivity among participants at their events?