Association conferences can be cliquey.
I know, people claim their meeting is different. Ice breakers, first-time receptions, and other efforts are made to help people connect.... but human nature being what it is, we end up with cliques.
It is like high school. There was always a "cool kids table", and those who sat there may have had no idea they were exclusive. This happens at annual gatherings too, as people build friendships over the years and they are so happy to get together that their whole purpose for attending is a mini-reunion with their clique. This is not bad, as these peer-to-peer friendships help drive attendance, but it can also leave others feeling as if they are on the outside looking inward.
Now, there is also the problem that not everyone will hit it off and be friends. You cannot force relationships to grow, and sometimes there are just people who are misfits to a group. But everyone should be able to find their own peeps at an association conference, and those who are long-time members can benefit from seeking out new people to add to their circles.
So what can be done to make the attendees at your event become more inclusive? Talk about the elephant in the room. Make connecting it part of your opening ceremonies.
I belong to an organization that makes a point each year to stress how welcoming their members are to those they do not know. They praise the big tent / family atmosphere... but is it real? At the convention two years ago I stood alone for two hours at a reception waiting to see how many people would come talk to me. Aside from a few friends (who were not aware of my intentional experiment) not one person said hello (and I was trying to look around, make eye contact, and not look creepy). Then the president stood up and raved about how there are no cliques in this organization. Ummm, wrong... this group is no different from other associations.
Pretending your members are all seeking and inviting strangers into conversations does not make it real.
It is better to create a networking culture at a conference, but this does not happen by accident. You must create an atmosphere that gives people permission to engage. They want to do it, but it does not happen organically. Most people cite "networking opportunities" as a main reason for coming to a conference, but their time is spent with co-workers, old friends, and on their phones.
Your speakers are key to getting people to engage. This does not necessarily mean they must use ice breakers (most ice breakers are lame anyway), but instead they have to be conversational and interactive style that encourages attendees to share with each other. It is often the "Hallway Conversations" (those serendipitous chats between people) that bring the greatest ROI to the "Conference Attendee Experience". And yet in the planning stages of an event we often fail to allow for those moments to occur (as in the planning we are focused on content and food!! - both important, by the way).
If you think your event has issues with cliques or simply not enough engagement, there are many things you can do to put a new spark in how people interact. People are hoping your meeting will be a "happening", as nobody comes seeking "blah". However, amazing human engagement will not happen by accident.
If you make networking a second tier priority you will have second tier results.
Have A Great Day
Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections. http://www.conferencecatalyst.com