At this point, the default actions are a) turn to someone else and repeat the exercise, b) take out your phone to check your messages (or send out a distress signal), or c) pretend to see someone you do know and move. None of these are great, or effective networking.
Often when we're first introduced to someone, the standard questions seem like the important pieces of information we'll need to know or remember (even if we probably won't). They seem informative and safe, likely because they are the questions we're prepared to answer ourselves. They are the verbal equivalent of exchanging LinkedIn profiles, and don't tell us much more than the statistics of our new contact. They are also (likely) not very memorable, and so a few hours or weeks later when we meet the same person, we may struggle with remembering those mundane details.
Behold a solution. This great little primer on networking and starting a meaningful conversation with a new contact. These outside-the-box suggestions for questions work because they are NOT mundane. You can start with the softball ordinary ones but adding a few of these to your roster will help when the normal pleasantries don't succeed in breaking the ice, or when you need to occupy some additional time.
I especially like, "What are you looking forward to?" This open-ended, forward-looking question can be interpreted as being about the conference event you're at, individual work goals, or life in general, so can open up a lot of areas of dialogue and give you some insight into someone's focus and priorities. Similarly, “What excites you right now?” can fulfill a similar purpose.
While I’m supportive of this approach to unusual questions, I would be wary about getting too personal too quickly. “What do you do for fun?” can sound a bit like a pick-up line rather than a work-appropriate conversation, and “Who’s your favourite superhero?” might be seen as flippant or juvenile, depending on the venue and audience (whom you don’t yet know well or at all). Maybe save these ones for a follow-up meeting.
As always, you should be prepared to answer the same question back, so think about how you will answer these if asked. You don’t have to have a speech memorized but do give some thought to what you might say. Remember that conversations always have two sides, so you should expect to participate beyond asking interesting questions.
Because you won't always be able to start with, "I love your hat!"