How to Stay Connected While Remaining Apart

By Shelby Rowe Moyer

The biggest benefits for attending meetings and conventions for many are to learn and network.  

The educational components of events aren’t difficult to carry over to virtual, but the networking aspect is harder to replicate — even with chat rooms and small group sessions.

Alison Hutchinson, president of a trade association for professional meeting and event planners,  agrees.

“The hospitality industry is very people oriented,” she says. “You want to be with your customers. You want to be with your peers and friends and colleagues. It’s hard to do things virtually.”

In addition to the different educational seminars and events Hutchinson’s organization sponsored, it also held social events at community concerts across the state as a way to informally connect. But with COVID-19 single-handedly wiping out in-person assemblies, they’ve had to improvise.

Since April, they’ve made an effort to regularly gather its members on virtual platforms. Meeting Professionals International was releasing virtual academy sessions focused on the pandemic, Hutchinson says. Following those, Hutchinson’s chapter hosted “Chapter Chats,” for a group discussion about the information shared, which was an opportunity for members to share best practices that have worked for them. Some tune in because they’re interested in the topic and others just want to see familiar faces, Hutchinson says.

They’ve also been holding virtual networking they call “Whine and Cheese” on Friday afternoons. “You could vent your frustrations about the week, whether you’re unemployed or employed,” she says. “It was very well received.… There were a few people who said this is the one thing I look forward to every week. It gave them some time to be with their friends, or it was like going out for happy hour with your coworkers.”

Hutchinson says they’d suspended their Whine and Cheese networking group, but members loved it so much that it’s being resumed in mid-October and running through the end of the year.

The informal aspect of these meetings is key, she says, especially as zoom fatigue is setting in. Everyone has had their fair share of virtual educational conferences, so creating a more casual setting for people to chat with other industry professionals is a nice contrast.

For those looking to set up their own networking groups, Hutchinson recommends choosing a moderator to help move the conversation along or pick a topic the group can dive into. Having all attendees turn on their video is helpful also, she says, so you can see their faces and reactions and really bring everyone together. Pets often pop into these calls and kids are yelling — all of which is welcome.

“The vulnerability is real,” she says. “We’re all going through the same thing.”

If you’re looking to make new connections, Hutchinson says there are a lot of free webinars right now, which is a good way to circulate your name amongst other organizations. She likes to keep notes of people who ask a lot of great questions and circle back with them.

A couple organizations she enjoys and recommends other check out include the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International and Professional Convention Management Association.