This post is based on a discussion and brainstorming from FooCamp 2012.
I attend a lot of conferences, either as a speaker or attendee, and back when I was at Google, I even organized a few conferences. I love conferences because they give me a chance to learn a huge number of new topics at once and to meet developers like me - but I don't love everything about them. I'm increasingly disappointed with the decision by most conferences to host their after-parties at bars, and for the only activity to be drinking and networking. Before I go into why, first let's answer this question...
Why are most after-parties at bars?
Conference organizers want their attendees to meet eachother, and an open space like a bar provides the potential for every one to meet eachother. Most attendees are strangers, however, so they add in the alcohol to loosen people up so they have the balls to approach eachother - aka, "social lubrication."
Well, what's wrong with that?
Well, first of all, there's an over-reliance on alcohol to provide the social lubrication. There are many people that don't drink - pregnant women, recovering alcoholics, or just people like me that don't think it's the healthiest of activities. So, for those people that don't drink, they're left with no means of social lubrication but they're still in the awfully intimidating situation of being in a sea of strangers. When I enter a bar and don't immediately recognize anyone, I hide in the bathroom and come out every so often to see if I suddenly see someone I know... or eventually give up and leave. Yes, I'm probably more shy than others, but I'm sure that others feel some degree of intimidation in these situations.
Secondly, there's a danger on relying on alcohol as a social lubricant, because as I think many of us know from college parties, alcohol doesn't just make it easier to talk to eachother - it also makes it easier for us to do things that we shouldn't, and to cross physical boundaries that we often don't want crossed, particularly at a conference. When I'm a conference after-party and there's an open bar, I make doubly sure that I stay sober and aware, so that I can try and figure out if any of the attendees have shot past the limit of knowing the boundaries.
Alcohol besides, there are also logistical problems with bars: there's often loud music that makes it hard to hear eachother, the space is usually structured in a way that makes it hard to move freely (so you can get stuck in one conversation forever).
So, what are the alternatives?
Well, we should address a few needs in suggestions alternatives to the bar: 1) we want a way for people to get to know eachother, and 2) we want to provide a space for people who don't feel comfortable around alcohol or people drinking.
One basic alternative to the bar is the "un-bar" - an alcohol-free bar that would serve tea, juices, and the like, and would be an option for folks who don't want to be in the same space as drinking. However, the "un-bar" doesn't provide a solution to the social lubrication question (besides giving people the obvious conversation starter of "so, why are you in this bar?"), so there's more work to do.
Most people want to meet new people, but don't know the best way to start a conversation with a particular person. Sure, you can go up to someone and say "so, how do you like the conference?" but it always gives me more confidence if I have something more personal to say them, some reason why I'm talking to them and not someone else. Here are a few ideas:
- People Bingo: Create bingo-like cards where every square is an attribute of a person like "Lived in Europe" or "Has 3 kids" or "Loves Python" (the attributes can be tailored to the conference or crowd). Then, give every attendee a different card, and tell them that they'll get some piece of inexpensive schwag at the end of the night if they get bingo. Attendees then can go up to eachother and say "Sooo...ever lived in Europe?" and that can launch them instantly into conversation. We did this once at a networking event in Australia, and it was a lot of fun. We also did something similar to people bingo at Webstock a few years ago, led by reality games expert Jane McGonigal. It was a people-oriented scavenger hunt where she gave us a mission ("find someone with a purple accessory!") and we had to find that person, bring them back, and have them introduce themselves. Lots of fun.
- Conversation Cards: A less game-y version of People Bingo would be to simply provide "conversation cards" for attendees to pick up at the door. To avoid them coming across as super-lame, the questions could be fun what-if style questions - or stick with lame and watch attendees bond over the lame-ness of it.
- Badged Name Badges: Most conference attendees wear name badges, so it's a great place to stick conversation starters. Conferences can encourage attendees to write tags on their badges for their main interests or give them a variety of topical stickers to decorate their badges. The NotConf in Texas let us pick from stickers like Android/iOS/JS/Python/beer/wine/etc, giving us some basic prompts (ie. "You like Android?? Psh!"). If you do this, try to make the badges and decorations as visible as possible, so that people can approach with topics from afar.
- Tribe Tables: This is more for conference mealtimes than for after-parties, but you can do it wherever you have people sitting around tables. Figure out topics that interest your conference attendees (like based on the tracks or talks) and then put a big sign at each table declaring its topic. People will sit at the table who are interested in what's on the sign, and they'll have a more specific thing to talk about with eachother. The tricky part of this is getting the distribution of topics right so that most people end up at tables matching their interests, but in case it fails, they can always talk about how they're *not* into that. Many conferences already do this, like OSCON and Google I/O.
- Ice Breakers: When there is a small enough number of people, you can actually kickstart an event with a round-the-room ice breaker. At FooCamp, we managed to do an ice breaker with 300 people, and we each said 3 things we're interested in (no verbs, just nouns), and then our name. That way, you could keep your ears perked for topics you were interested in, and remember the name of whoever said it. You can also do the kind of ice breakers we did as kids, like saying your name and a fruit that starts with the first letter. Once again, attendees could bond over the lame-ness. :)
Sometimes after a long day at a conference, I'm tired of conversing but I still want to spend time with the other attendees. That's why I love when conferences provide actual activities in addition to a networking space - like games, crafts, or recreation. Here are some ideas, but you can really just think of any activities you loved doing in recess, summer camp, afterschool, etc. You know, when you were a kid and couldn't resort to alcohol for fun.
Fun & Games
- Trivia Night: This takes a bit of effort, but can be well worth it. Create trivia questions that are topical to the conference, organize people into random teams, and have them compete to win some pile of schwag. To make it so more teams can win stuff, offer bonus questions throughout the night.
- Poker/Casino Games: These can be fun, as long as you don't spend the whole night losing (like I often do...) Don't involve real money, though - just start everyone off with a certain amount and make it tradeable for schwag at the end.
- Dominos/Jenga: At JSConf, they setup a game of Jenga inside the crowded bar. Not only did you have to be careful when extracting pieces, you had to worry about the random people walking by that had no idea there was Jenga behind them. :)
- Board Games: You can do strategic games like Settlers of Cattan, but they can take quite a while. I prefer more of the "party games" like Pictionary, Charades, and Balderdash.
- Parlour Games: My favorite of these is WereWolf/Mafia. I've spent many nights of my life playing WereWolf until 3am at conferences. You've never bonded with someone until you've looked them in the eye and accused them of being a blood-thirsty werewolf. Another fun one we played at FooCamp was Psychiatrist. This game only really works if you find a person that's never played it before, but if you do find that, it can be pretty hilarious.
- The Sentence Game: A cross between pictionary and telephone, and only requires pencil, paper, and imagination.
Arts & Crafts
- Drawing: Instead of tablecloths on your tables, do what many restaurants do and cover them in butcher paper with crayons nearby. People can doodle as they chat, and chat about their doodles. You can refresh the butcher paper throughout the night when it gets covered, and stick the creations on the walls for passerbys to chat about.
- Crafts: At the Japanese-themed Heroku Waza conference, they had tables in the open area where you could do origami or linoleum cutting along with pros. It was a fun way to spend 30 minutes and bond over what we were making.. it was actually so fun that I didn't attend many talks. So, don't offer it at the same time as talks if you want to maximize audience size. Other fun crafts: boondoggle, friendship bracelets, sand art, finger painting, etc.
- Maker bots: At FooCamp, there was an area with maker bots where you could actually get your face scanned in 3d and wait for a print-out of the face. People love seeing the technology and talking about how it works - the only problem is that it can't handle a lot of people at once. Definitely a fun side booth for a technical conference, though.
After a day of sitting in rooms, sometimes I'm itching to move around. Just keep in mind the risk inherent in each activity and your liability if someone gets hurt, and for activities where people's bodies are mingling, remember that not everyone will be comfortable with that and it is more likely for boundaries to be crossed.. those activities may not be appropriate for all conference crowds. Also, sadly, not all conference venues have the space necessary to do physical activities.
- Twister: At a retreat I ran in college, we used to set up giant games of Twister using paper plates colored with markers, so quite a few people could play at once. Ridiculous but fun.
- Adult Hippity-Hop: Bring back the simple childhood joy of hopping around on a giant ball.
- Floaty Ball: At FooCamp, there was this huge inflated ball-thing with LEDs that we played keep-away with in the lawn. It was stupidly simple fun and quite beautiful against the night sky.
- Frisbee: Somehow, throwing a disc around is pretty amusing, and it's an easy game for people to jump in on.
- Mechanical Bull Riding: One of the JSConf after-parties in Arizona was at a bar with a bull, and everyone had a go at trying to stay on. It was quite entertaining, but it did get a bit awkward at times seeing people's bodies flail wildly (and the bull DJs at the bar kept jiggling the girls at opportune times... would have been nice if they refrained from that.)
This is not a comprehensive list, but it should hopefully get you thinking about alternative ways for encouraging social interaction at conference events. It's not that I expect every conference to remove drink-ups from their schedules, but I do hope that organizers spend a bit of time thinking whether they can mix it up a bit. And, hey, doesn't a lot of this sound like a lot of fun?
Let me know in the comments about your experiences with conference after-parties, and if there's more I should add to the list.