Designing an alternative to stressful and alcohol-based networking events

Counteracting the pitfalls of traditional networking events with features more suitable for a mental-health-conscious crowd

Participants in Skilled Not Ill's public workshop series in Philadelphia repeatedly expressed a desire to meet new people organically through a new kind of casual networking event, so we took up the challenge to throw one for them. We called it "Networking With Nice People."

The primary reasons they gave us for not liking the networking event options out there included:

  1. Locations are usually bars. Specifically, their issue with bars was that alcohol seemed to be the default requirement around which networking events were built. After all, bars are casual, social places that offer beverages that lower inhibitions, or "loosen people up." They are a sensible location choice for events designed to introduce strangers to each other. For many local Skilled Not Ill community members we spoke to, bars are they last place they want to meet people. Drinking is not an option for some because of sobriety or because the medications they take for mental health reasons have dangerous side effects when mixed with alcohol. We also learned that some women felt uneasy about networking events being hosted in bars because being surrounded by inebriated businessmen was a trigger for them.
  2. Networking relationships feel inauthentic. Skilled Not Ill community members told us stories of being asked pointed questions by abrasive networkers looking to find out two things: where do you work, and how can my knowing you advance me in some way?
  3. Results are disappointing. Business cards were either feverishly or unemotionally passed on to all those who would take one, but our community members said that few to none of these interactions resulted in a new friendship or even a connection that one could call an "acquaintance." Worse, our community members told us that the events resulted in increased anxiety for them as well as increased feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and inadequacy.

Top: Rainbow swirl cupcakes by Sam Lardi of Sam's Secret Sweets Service, a word-of-mouth baking business in Philadelphia; mini succulents brought by Skilled Not Ill community member and peer leader Ryan Clarke.

Directly above: Company owner Kat Jost talking about World Kindness Day, the event's theme. "I knew this was going to be a good time as soon as I heard about it. Everybody needs this." - attendee Bryan U.


Skilled Not Ill designed a new format for a networking event that replaced these discouraging characteristics with ones more suitable to our customers and friends in our community:

  1. Non-alcohol drinks ("mocktails") as the primary drink specials
  2. Freely available pieces of paper and pens to exchange contact details if a connection was created organically
  3. A theme: celebrating World Kindness Day
  4. Brightly-lit and spacious room instead of a dimly lit bar
  5. A variety of homemade food choices, inclusive of those with dietary restrictions
  6. Rainbow-colored desserts to welcome LGBTQ+ attendees and ensure that they know they are in a safe space
  7. A non-intimidating check-in station
  8. Mental health information stations and free giveaways of Skilled Not Ill's signature mental health skill-building guides

Local vendors also participated by providing baked goods, custom-made "Be Kind" apparel, and miniature succulent plants for sale.

What Really Made the Difference

Instead of a bar, we hosted the event in a spacious, brightly lit room inside a massive 4-floor coworking space, MakeOffices on 17th and Market Street in the heart of Center City, Philadelphia. Four different beers were available on tap but were not advertised on event flyers nor prominently displayed inside. Instead, guests who arrived were informed of freshly crafted "mocktails" that were available at a make-shift bar we set up to the right of the beer taps. We let guests realize the beer taps were available on their own and make the choice whether or not to try out the non-alcoholic concoctions.

To add further appeal, the mocktail station was set up with tall beverage glasses stacked high and fresh ingredients prominently and neatly displayed on the surface, including berries and mint leaves. Two bartenders were staffed behind the table, matching in their professional look of all-black button-down shirts, black pants, and black shoes. (The bartenders were Joey and Aki, two enthusiastic and generous members of our broad-reaching community.)

All of the details that we put into the mocktail experience resulted in an inviting and unexpectedly elegant alternative to go-to alcoholic beverages, eliciting curiosity and interest from the arriving guests. Those who dared to try a mocktail were pleasantly surprised to enjoy the refreshing citrus flavors in our Lemon-lime Mockarita (a booze-free margarita made with fresh fruit), the earthy mint texture in our Nojito (a take on traditional mojitos), and our other creatively crafted drink options.


Positive effects of the night reached people from different walks of life. Sober guests were appreciative of the mocktails, as were people who typically would drink at a networking event. Vegan and gluten-free attendees were delighted to see food options that were not cold vegetables on plastic trays. LGBTQ+ guests felt safer than at other networking events, they said. The most significant and impactful result from Skilled Not Ill's Networking with Nice People Event was that new and meaningful friendships and business connections were made in organic, non-intimidating ways.


Due to popularity, Networking with Nice People was repeated the following year in 2019 with new vendors and sponsors, including Fusion Academy in Malvern, PA and Cavanaugh's Restaurant at 39th and Sansom in University City, Philadelphia. Skilled Not Ill plans to repeat Network with Nice People in 2020 and beyond as an annual event.

Top: Crushed cranberry mint mocktail, alcohol-free.

Directly above: Custom-made "Be Kind" Thinking Caps by globe-trotting knitting machine Greta Shanly, on theme for World Kindness Day.

To have Skilled Not Ill design a custom experience like this one for your business or organization, contact us with your idea, budget, and timeline.