Helping The Conference Hallway Track

8th June 2024

An overhead shot of a crowd of people mingling at a conference

During the pandemic, any conferences that were able to moved online. This meant they were still able to go ahead, but something was missing. One of the things that people seem to enjoy the most at conferences is the so-called hallway track, something you can’t really do virtually.

The hallway track describes those impromptu conversations between attendees in the corridors and meeting areas of a conference, outside the organised talks. Often they will be amongst groups of people that already know each-other from previous conferences or the community, but it’s a great opportunity to meet new people with a shared interest. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency for the attendees of technical conferences to be introverted people, who struggle to strike up a conversation with someone they don’t know (myself included). Speaking for myself, I would love to meet more people in the communities I’m part of at these conferences, and while I struggle going up and talking to people I don’t know, I’d be happy for more people to come and strike up a conversation with me.

At the risk of over-generalising, if this is a sentiment shared by others at conferences - what can we do to help? Is there anything we can do to make it more likely that these conversations will happen?

Coloured Lanyards or Stickers

Every conference attendee has a lanyard and a name badge and it’s something they have with them the whole time, so it seems like an obvious place to start. What if we provided different coloured lanyards, or stickers that people could affix to their name badges that could denote different things? Maybe a green sticker means “I’d love to chat” and a blue sticker means “I’m looking for work”.

Remembering what each colour stands for could cause issues, but you could print a guide on the back of the badge. It could also be that someone who’s open to chat on the first day feels exhausted on the second day and would prefer it if people didn't keep coming up to them.

Bus Stops

The bus stop is a magical place. A place where it’s socially acceptable to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. Whether it’s asking when the next bus is due, where it stops, or a conversation about the weather (if you’re British this is a legal requirement), the shared situation breaks just enough ice to bring down the social barriers.

In a similar way, we could create congregation areas at the conference for people interested in discussing certain topics. A sign on a table with suggestions like “I’m interested in talking about databases”, “I’m interested in talking about AI/ML” or “I’m interested in talking about better representation of women and minorities in tech” is all it would take. Hanging around near one of these tables would be an open invitation to striking up a conversation.

One advantage of this is that if someone gets tired of talking about a particular subject, or they don’t feel like talking at all, they can just move away to a different part of the conference hall. We need to make sure that we leave plenty of spaces that aren’t covered by these tables, for people that don’t want to chat, or don’t want to talk about any of these subjects, they’re just there as an aid for people looking to break the ice.

Social Events

They may not really be part of the hallway track, but they are an obvious opportunity to meet new people. Most conferences have social events that take place in the evenings of the conference and they offer a great opportunity to facilitate new connections.

Rather than simply meeting at a bar, where it becomes too easy to sit with the people you already know and not mingle, try to choose activities that require people to form groups that change as the evening progresses. Events like bowling, with groups of around eight people are ideal. Encourage people to team up with someone they don’t know and to invite people they see who are on their own to join their group. When one game ends and another begins consider mixing the groups again to encourage new connections. Once the initial discomfort is out of the way then the activity provides a topic of conversation to help break the ice further.

Conclusion

A community is only as strong as the connections between its members. Conferences are a great place to meet new people with shared interests, but it feels like we can do more to help build and increase these connections. Have you found any methods that work well? Let me know!