Many of us have attended conference sessions where we are asked to complete a group task with people at our table. Often we are grouped together randomly and don’t know each other, so we have little context for determining who can contribute and at what level. Also, we are forced to offer opinions among people with whom we’ve not established trust. (“Will they accept my ideas?” “Do they have the experience/knowledge to understand where I’m coming from?”). This is especially true if this is your first time at a conference and so are not familiar with the attendees or the overall culture of the conference.

These group exercises can seem awkward and artificial, and they don’t always produce meaningful content. Yet this type of format is becoming more common in meetings. The intent is good: break up the lecture with opportunities to absorb the content through group discussions and share information with the rest of the attendees. But how can we improve the experience so that it generates enthusiastic participation and contributes to high event satisfaction for attendees?

If the attendees have met each other earlier in the conference, group tasks become much more enjoyable. Not only do you collaborate in an environment that’s more comfortable, you are now reinforcing the new connections you’ve made.

There are a number of ways that meeting professionals can ensure more and better connections between attendees before they start the sessions:

Design the meeting with ample opportunities to network. Schedule a networking reception before the sessions that require collaboration. The environment for this reception should be conducive for people to approach and talk to each other comfortably, so provide plenty of room to gather and chat, make sure the room is well lit, and avoid loud music or other distractions. Remember, the goal is a relaxed networking environment. If your attendees like to party, schedule an all-out bash later in the conference.

Encourage networking with ice-breaker topics, trivia games, and “top networker” contests. Enlist your executive team and key members/influencers in your company to actively engage in networking and make introductions among attendees. Pay special attention to first-time attendees; networking research shows that this group finds it more difficult to make connections and will feel isolated unless you take action to integrate them into the event community. An easy way to encourage interactions between these “newbies” and the more established group members is to provide different-colored labels for each group and encourage the established members to introduce themselves to the newbies.

By providing the right environment for making new connections and reinforcing existing connections, you not only increase the likelihood of high event satisfaction scores and make the conference more valuable to attendees, you also set the stage for productive and memorable collaboration.