Having attended and organized many, many professional events, I can say with confidence that the vast majority of those billed as networking opportunities are useless. You can easily convince yourself to block off every night of the week hoping you make even just one meaningful connection, but looking back you'll often just regret all the red wine.

In a time when everyone seems to always be planning their next move, we tend to RSVP to whatever piques our interest - a panel on AgriTech's impact on the Southwest's fast casual food industry? Why not, I love food! - without considering the return on our time (or impact on the organizer when we just don't show up at the last minute.) A passion for learning must balance with your actual goals, and how you attain them.

Aside from truly great keynotes or discussions, you're unlikely to garner significant value from any event where you're one in a sea of attendees sitting quietly while listening to someone speak in front of you. Standing in line for a rushed introduction afterwards has a low probability of success, and it's tough to do the needed pre-work to identify who you should chat with at the reception. The format, unfortunately, lends itself to networking failure. The purpose is information sharing, not connection.

Worthwhile events are organized specifically to encourage meaningful relationship building amongst attendees, and they generally fall in two broad categories:

Invitation Only

Curated events, be they small group dinners, alumni gatherings or conferences where attendees must request an invitation, are expressly focused on ensuring a high quality experience for those involved. Ask others in your field which invite only events they've been to, and what kind of people the host or organizer is looking to include. If you're a fit, ask for an introduction so you can get on their radar. Service providers often sponsor or host even more small events than big ones, so let your lawyer, benefits platform provider, or anyone else you work with know that you're eager to attend any for which your experience is relevant.

Activity Based

If team building exercises like rope climbing and cooking classes can encourage bonding amongst colleagues, they can do the same for strangers. One of the best networking events I attended last year involved an all day kayaking trip in the middle of nowhere; I'm more regularly in touch with the investors and entrepreneurs I paddled with than many other acquaintances I see around town. We shared a unique experience and got to know each other as people first, professionals second. 

Anything activity based, from workshops to small group discussions, are an ideal opportunity to share your personality and make an impression. Raise your hand, speak up, and people will take notice.