The chamber has always been a hub; a meeting place for business owners to communicate and network. As a chamber, you want to help your members connect so they can find synergy and grow their business. The mixer event is bread and butter for a chamber of commerce. I can’t think of a single chamber I’ve spoken with that doesn’t do some kind of networking event during lunch, after hours, or on the weekend (if you don’t do any networking events, we’d love to know why). Networking can hit its limit, however, when only the same members keep going to the same events. In order to grow your business, you need to meet new people and develop new relationships. It’s not just about passing out business cards, it’s about making real connections with your peers.
One way to refresh your networking agenda is to partner with other chambers to help your members make new connections in nearby communities. An organization in Southern California has taken that a step further to try and connect as many chambers and businesses as possible.
The Largest Mixer started in Los Angeles, CA as a one-off event called “LA’s Largest Mixer” to bring all of the local chambers together. Dave Linden, the creator of the Largest Mixer, began his chamber career as a board member of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, but had moved on to a position as the public relations manager for a museum in LA. He wanted to have an event with the eight to ten chambers of which the museum was a member. But during the event he discovered something curious.
“I was really surprised to see that a lot of the chamber staff that were at that meeting, they didn’t even know each other,” says Linden. “And we’re talking like cities in LA that are literally right next to each other. But at the time, there wasn’t necessarily any kind of coordinated effort to bring all the chambers together in Los Angeles for a big networking event.”
LA’s Largest Mixer was such a success they continued it annually, and eventually, five years later, they created Orange County’s Largest Mixer; a year later, Las Vegas’ Largest Mixer; and then a couple years after that, Inland Empire’s Largest Mixer. With three of the four events happening in SoCal, they see a lot of benefits. “Those three events kind of work well together,” says Linden. “There’s a lot of overlap as far as people that attend and exhibitors that are part of the event. And then certainly Las Vegas, which is its own market, but we do also see a lot of businesses in Vegas that also have offices in Southern California and likewise.”
The events themselves are actually very simple. When they say the largest mixer, that’s exactly what it is. “We don’t have any workshops. There’s no speakers,” says Linden. “It’s literally four hours of just wall-to-wall networking. The goal was never to build this into anything more than a high-energy opportunity to bring a lot of business people together.”
For those that thrive in this type of environment, the event is a huge success. “People that love to network, you put them all in one room and that’s where the energy of the event comes from. Because people that love to network, they’re just on fire.”
Just how big are these events? “Well, for our Orange County and LA events,” says Linden, “ … we see up to about 2,500 attendees in four hours, which is great. For Inland Empire and Las Vegas, it’s a little closer to 1,500. And that’s just due to the size of the towns that we’re in.”
These events work because, according to Linden’s philosophy, for a business, the more chambers you’re a member of, the better. “My mindset has always been, ‘Hey, if my membership in one chamber works for me, then I have a feeling, if I’m a member of another chamber, it’s going to work just as well.’”
This theory goes both ways.
“The idea behind the largest mixer, which it has been from the beginning,” says Linden, “is to give chambers an opportunity to not only visit with each other and see each other, the once a year for a multi-chamber kind of event, but really to give them an opportunity to meet other business people that might be interested in joining their chamber or going to their events.”
Businesses looking to spread their reach can join other chambers, and chambers looking to increase their membership can find them, but there are many other opportunities available at these events, too. In addition to the chamber booths, there are also business exhibitors marketing themselves to try and make connections. “It could be anyone from financial services to restaurants and radio stations to technology,” says Linden.
Each event typically has around 25-30 chambers in attendance. They’re able to get so many chambers to attend because they take care of everything. “All we ask the chambers to do is reach out to their membership to invite them to the event,” says Linden. “I think one of the reasons why the event works is that it’s an outside event planner, which is us, that throws the event for the chambers. So they don’t really have to do much other than promote the event, and show up for the four hours to then promote their chamber of commerce.”
In addition to chamber attendees, there are other business referral groups and industry-specific associations in attendance that Linden says, “makes it a nice well-rounded event as far as the attendee learning about different networking opportunities.”
In a time when most of our interactions seems to be digital, there’s nothing that quite replaces the power and impact of meeting someone face-to-face and having a real conversation; making a real connection. Having that said, the lack of attendance at events like this is a common concern we hear from chamber executives.
Why aren’t people attending these events?
I think we often blame social media for replacing a lot of our traditional behavior, but Linden doesn’t think that’s the case. “I think I blame [poor chamber event attendance] more on everybody is overworked and underpaid, so when it comes to just time management, sometimes the last thing you want to do is go out to a networking event.”
But when it comes to social media, in Linden’s experience, it’s actually a more useful tool as an icebreaker at networking events rather than a replacement. “I don’t think it’s because social media has replaced [traditional networking]. If anything, what I think is fun, is when you are connected with someone, let’s say on Facebook, and then you go to a mixer and you’re like, “Hey! We’re friends on Facebook! I recognize you!” … And then you can continue the relationship after the event. I think it’s a great way to maintain relationships.”
In fact, he goes further to say that you can’t really replace the impact of in-person networking with anything that’s as effective. “In what other world are you just walking up to a complete stranger and saying, ‘Hi, how are you? What do you do for a living?’ That’s just not in the normal world, except for in the chamber mixer world, which I think is kind of unique where people are actually hoping that you’re going to walk up to them and say, ‘Hi, what do you do for a living?’”
What he has noticed, however, are people attending the event who don’t have the best networking strategies or etiquette. Linden sees that as an opportunity for the chamber to step in and help.
“I think one of the things that chambers should really look at is throwing a networking etiquette workshop … because, unfortunately, there’s a lot of, let’s call them “newer” people to the networking world that don’t understand that networking is building relationships.
“It’s not marketing your business. … People will not come back to a networking event if they show up and all they’re doing is being bombarded with postcards and flyers from people at a mixer passing out materials. … Those that just show up to a mixer to market their business, not necessarily build relationships, they turn off those people that are there for the right reasons.
He continues, “I’ve never really seen a workshop based on how to properly network at events and kind of the do’s and don’t’s. And I think if a chamber member shows up to a mixer with the idea that you’re just planting seeds; you’re not necessarily there to see some return on investment and go home and get the big score. You plant the seeds, and throughout that year, there’s no reason why you’re not going to see some benefit and then maintain your membership, which is obviously what the chamber wants you to do in the first place.”
That’s what the Largest Mixer is all about: showing people the power of networking and getting them excited to attend other chamber events. “My idea has always been to come to the once-a-year, big blow-out event, where you get really excited and inspired to network more, and be inspired to then go to their chamber events throughout the year,” says Linden.
If you’re not in Southern California or Las Vegas, what can you do to plan a similar event? Linden lists a few things that chambers can do to really help make their event successful.
1. Hire an outside event planner. For many multi-chamber events, the onus is on a single chamber to handle most of the organization. That is a lot of responsibility to place on just one portion of the group, and every chamber will receive the same ROI if they have the same level of responsibility.
“I think when you have an outside person, not even so much be the mediator, but just kind of be the glue to put it all together, and for all the tasks, evenly, I think that that’s where these types of events will see the most success,” says Linden.
Additionally, it’s too much to ask a board member or board committee to handle such a large task. “You can’t make an expo committee and then expect them to throw the event,” says Linden. “Because they all have 40-plus hour a week jobs in the first place. … I’ve seen so many board members that got talked into being the chairperson of the event, and then after that event is over, the only thing they want to do is run as far away as possible, because they never want to do that again.
“If you’re going to have a committee, make those committee people maybe be in charge of selling x-amount of booths, or distributing x-amount of tickets or something more on the marketing end, and then leave it to an event planner to be the one to handle the logistics with the venue and the health department, fire department—all their permits and the rentals and everything,” says Linden.
2. Add a budget line for the event. “I think chambers, at this point, are so understaffed, and have so many programs, that if you wanted to add an extra one, just include in the budget to hire an outside event planner to produce the event,” says Linden. This will also help you take the pressure off your staff and board members to handle the entire event.
3. Encourage your board to welcome new chamber members. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been to some chamber lunch where there might be fifteen, twenty tables, and all the board members are sitting at the same table,” says Linden. “And it’s like, ‘Why not have a board member go and sit at one of the other tables?’ So at least there’s someone representing the chamber at each table that can be welcoming to the new people. Because I really think that for the chamber world to maintain itself, it’s about bringing in new businesses and getting new people involved and excited. And I think that when there’s not a nice greeting staff at one of the events, that people might leave going, ‘Oh, well, it was too cliquey.’ Which often happens.”
4. Make sure you have enough signage. “Oftentimes chambers will throw business expos in unique places, let’s say unused retail space in a strip shopping center or something … But then there’s not enough signage and you’re driving around trying to find it. So definitely find some kind of either local printer to do some kind of membership parade and get some good signage, some good banners, that are just generic, you can use throughout the year, or just invest in it. Because there’s nothing more frustrating when there’s the one easel with the poster board that says, ‘Chamber mixer here tonight,’ but it took you so long to find it, that by the time you get there, you’re a little frustrated.”
The networking mixer is still one of the best services provided by a chamber of commerce. Hopefully this gave you some ideas on how you can maximize that effort.
If you have any experience organizing such an event with multiple chambers, we’d love to hear from you and find out how it went. If you’re in the Southern California or Las Vegas areas, or just want to know more about the Largest Mixer, visit their website at www.largestmixer.com. Their next two events are the 13th Annual Las Vegas’ Largest Mixer, September 19 at the Texas Station Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV from 5-9pm PDT and the 11th Annual Inland Empire’s Largest Mixer, happening on Tuesday, October 24 at the Ontario Convention Center in Ontario, CA from 4-8pm PDT. Tickets for the mixer are $20.