While I was attending GWU, I was also the alumni relations director for the student association of my graduate program. This was an “elected volunteer” position. My chief accomplishment in this position was having organized and ran a “structured networking event” near the end of the school year that brought in alumni of our program whom our grad students could network with. Planning it was a months-long process.
Structured networking is basically speed dating but for networking. We had multiple tables with two alumni at each table, and every 15 minutes students would rotate tables, getting the chance to talk career and exchange business cards with a variety of professionals. I had attended an event like this in my first semester at GW and wanted to mimic it. I worked with the head of the official alumni association to get the alumni needed.
I had never planned an event before in my entire life, and this was not an easy first event to have to plan. I made sure to give myself a generous timeline to start putting the pieces together, knowing that we would encounter problems and delays along the way. The first task was to nail down the date, time, and venue. The date and time I decided in conjunction with the other four officers in my org. We basically checked the academic calendar to make sure there were no conflicts and checked that none of the officers were planning anything else at that time. Picking a day of the week was difficult because my grad program is exclusively night classes and has class every day of the week except Fridays, when most people in DC are out socializing (read: drinking at a bar) and often won’t go to something like a networking event. I believe we landed on Thursday because it had the fewest classes. We had to pick a time that was not so late that people would have already left campus, yet late enough to give people off-campus time to get there from work. I think it ended up being a 6:30 PM start time.
After that was the venue. This was actually the hardest part, because the Events office at the school was very bureaucratic and not user-friendly. I went back and forth with them in a long chain of emails and even called a couple times to iron out details. At one point I got really upset because the directions on how to get an alcohol permit were not clear enough and jeopardized my timeline once I realized the full extent of what was required. In the end, they worked with me. You may be wondering why alcohol was so important. Actually, you can’t have a networking event or reception in DC without alcohol. In fact, DC has the highest per capita alcohol consumption of any state, which should tell you something about our government. Not that I wanted to contribute to that problem, but I don’t think anybody had more than two drinks (I think we only gave each person two drink tickets).
But back to the venue. Hoping for a showing of about 60 people, I reserved a ballroom I had been to for other events on campus. I didn’t want to try to navigate reserving an off-campus location since this was my first time ever planning an event and I felt off-campus would be more complicated. I had to specify the exact furniture arrangement down to number of tables and chairs, as well as the audio equipment required, and tables where the catering and beverages would be set up. I had to reserve it well in advance, and even then the calendar was so booked that I had to push out the event later than I originally wanted. It just goes to show, start early!
Next were the alumni themselves. The head of the alumni association mostly handled this. I asked him to cough up 15-20 people who would volunteer to come and mingle with the students. They had a variety of professional backgrounds, some from big name employers, some from smaller ones. Some had worked on the Hill or had been federal employees. I asked for their names, current employer, and what branch of our grad program they had completed. The night before, I made name tags for all the alumni (and the students who had registered).
Then I had to market the event. I got our comms director to design a graphic that I could send out in email blasts, since email marketing fares better when it’s all in one big image. I navigated the association email account and learned how much Gmail hates it when you send bulk emails, and how you have to be very careful or you’ll get blacklisted. Thankfully that didn’t happen to me, but I had issues where the emails would not get delivered for some people and would return delivery error emails, one by one for each address in the list, at a slow trickle, and at one point I had to count how many people had not gotten the email the next day before deciding whether or not to do another blast. I searched Google’s forums for help but didn’t find anything, so I just winged it.
I also posted a few times on our official Facebook page and maybe Twitter and Insta, can’t remember. I also made an announcement in class with the approval of my professor.
I tracked registrations through a Google Form. The back end shows you a spreadsheet with a row for each person who signs up, including duplicates. In the end, we had about 23-25 students sign up. About 15 actually showed up, plus a few who were not on the list. The day of the event, you don’t really care if they’re on the list or not, you’re just happy people are coming to your event.
Because alcohol was going to be present, and this event was on campus, we were required to have a GWPD security presence. So, I called the GWPD station and asked what to do. They directed me to an online form to fill out. I also had to take a module online about the responsibilities of having alcohol on campus. Basically, if we messed up, our entire student org could be dissolved. We had to pay for two GWPD officers to basically stand around for three hours. In theory they were there to make sure no one got disorderly (or tried to take alcohol outside of the venue, I guess).
The catering was, thankfully, easy. We went with GW Restaurant Associates, the standard vendor who does the lion’s share of GW campus events, and they made the process very easy. Deciding what to order was tough, and I had to brainstorm with the president of my association on how many people could eat how much of which dishes. We paid for the catering out of our budget, but thankfully the alumni association paid for the alcohol, which was great because the alcohol was more expensive than the food. Alcohol is very expensive in DC (and in Maryland).
I got there an hour early the day of, and everything was already set up, including a table outside where I could mark people off and give them their name tags. My association president manned the table with me. I felt a sense of pride as people started showing up, including the alumni and the alumni association president.
At the official start time, I went inside and my colleague stayed outside a little longer to hand out name tags. I went up to the lectern, introduced myself and explained the purpose of the event and how it would work, and then had the alumni association president come up and say a few words. He echoed me in terms of what we wanted to accomplish—to give the students a chance to meet some of our alumni. Then the event began. The official structured networking was six 15 minute blocks, followed a half hour of “unstructured” (a.k.a. regular) networking.
The only real challenge I had was that a lot of times people wouldn’t change tables when I told them to because they were so locked in conversation. (I felt a little silly urging grown adults to move in the first place.) I was glad people were having such good conversations, but it’s only fair to let the other students who are waiting to circulate have the advantage of talking to specific alumni also. I didn’t figure out any great way to get people to comply, but only a few times did people have to wait around.
We didn’t have to break down tables when it was over because the school staff would handle it. The caterer came and got everything. We had a lot of food and booze left over (and soft drinks, because you want to have a non-alcoholic option as well). In the end, the event was a success, and during the unstructured networking I joined in. I learned that the president of the alumni association, who I knew had worked on the Hill, had worked under Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who had just been in the news over his remarks about immigration and “someone else’s babies,” which set of a firestorm on the Left (just like everything does). As soon as he mentioned Rep. King’s name, I had a good laugh. Apparently he hails from one of the most conservative districts in the entire country.
So there you have it, how I ran a high-profile structured networking mixer as my first ever planned event, with a fun little vignette at the end. If you find yourself planning an event and aren’t sure where to start, feel free to come back and consult the details here.