Good conversation is an important factor in a positive attendee experience. However, it's also one that many planners assume is out of their control. After all, you can't force that shy attendee to step out of his or her shell, and you can't make the IT guy and the human resources director find some common ground, right?
Wrong. While it's true that most planners don't have the ability to forge fast friendships among others (if you do, what a gift!), there are a few tricks you can implement at your catered functions that should encourage friendly conversations and discussion. Try one, or all, of them at your next dinner or reception, and watch as your attendees no longer pass through your events with their lips sealed and their eyes on the clock.
• Offer welcoming cocktails. Let's face it, nothing loosens up your guests' inhibitions, and mouths, like a few drinks. About half an hour to an hour before you reception, consider having waiters pass out welcome drinks to early arrivers. Or, if you have an open bar, make sure it's set up and ready to go before guests need to be in their seats for dinner.
• Set places with questions, not names. Here's a unique idea from Meetings & Conventions' Hot Idea of the Day: instead of labeling placecards with attendees' names, print a question on them. Companies such as Posh Placecards will print conversation-starting questions such as "What was the most memorable event you ever went to?" on your placecards, giving guests some neutral topics to start a discussion.
• Use a unique centerpiece or decor. I blogged about some unique event centerpiece ideas a little while ago, such as a cupcake tower or stand of colorful hors d'oeuvres, that are bound to get attendees talking to fellow tablemates. Or, consider incorporating convo-starting topics in the event decor. Photos from last year's event, images submitted by company employees, or even a timeline of corporate logos could all be displayed in photos and/or video presentations.