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October 19, 2008

MAKING CONTACT:The rise of networking events

Ian Whiteling looks at an increasingly important face-to-face activity that’s incredibly effective from a business and social viewpoint, while offering the possibility of being conducted on its own or as a key element of an event.

Plenty has been written on this web channel about the increasing role of events in the internal and external marketing mix, due to the increasing fragmentation of media and a populace that has become so weary of being bombarded by marketing messages that they can expertly filter out what isn’t of interest. This has mean’t there is no longer a single way to reach your audience, and that companies have to work that much harder to make the messages they send out more relevant and engaging. Increasingly it has been found that effectively organised events can be a great way of doing this.

The same goes for internal events, where rising global competition has made companies aware of the need to keep their staff up to speed on everything from visions and values, so they can deliver them in the marketplace as effectively as possible, to training to increase skill levels and reward and recognition to motivate and retain employees.

It’s no surprise therefore that MEETINGS:review has quickly established a monthly tally of 20,000 unique global visitors, dedicated as it is to corporate meetings, conference and events. But among the variety of events that are increasingly being held and participated in by companies is a face-to-face activity that is growing in popularity – the networking event.

Lasting relationships

“This is a massive trend in exhibitions and conferences,” says Duncan Reid, event director at the Confex Group. “Networking is a vital part of a business’ outward communication and an excellent way to build lasting relationships with the people, companies and stakeholders that add value to a business.

“At Confex we ensure plenty of networking events are involved in our programme. Not only because they keep exhibitors and visitors in the same room for a longer period of time, but also because so much business is done in these post-show environments.”

Zanine Adams, UK sales and event solutions manager at London’s marketing body Visit London, also reports a huge increase in networking events over the last few months. “People buy people and networking is by far the best platform in which people can meet new clients or suppliers and focus on building valuable relationships," she says.

Meanwhile, Mandy Torrens, president of Meetings Professionals International’s UK Chapter, believes the current demanding economic environment is helping to drive this activity.

“Another reason we may be seeing a growth in networking is because of its use in terms of stabilising relationships, understanding business climates, overcoming challenges or exchanging off-the-record information in an informal environment,” she says. “In the prevalent business conditions, this can prove invaluable.”

The driving force
In many cases, the promise of networking is a key force that attracts delegates.

“Networking is a great way to do business and a lot of events and conferences are attended primarily for the networking opportunities they afford,” continues Torrens. “This type of face-to-face interaction is especially good for business leaders, who use the opportunity to brainstorm ideas, gauge relationships and test concepts, as well as develop more personal relationships with clients and suppliers.

“Networking also provides the environment to put names to faces, meet new business contacts through introductions, and spend quality time with people important to the business.”

Reid is keen to point out the importance of networking events to new companies and those establishing themselves in new markets.

“They provide a great opportunity to establish stakeholder relationships that will benefit the business, as well as giving new employee’s the chance to meet and greet people that can help take their careers forward,” he says.

Associations like Visit London use networking as a key way of delivering value to its partners.

“Through networking we are able to showcase interesting products, fun environments and build business contacts,” explains Adams. “At Visit London we have a strict 2:1 client to supplier ratio, which we always insist happens. Networking gives people a chance to meet others in a relaxed and informal way with no forced agenda. It also means you're probably getting more 'quality time' with that person, as they're not in an office environment or behind a desk.”

Many variations
The form of a networking activity can vary wildly. With the right audience mix, a networking element can be built into almost any kind of event.

“Networking events can take many forms, for example, as part of a larger conference or exhibition – basically after the business of the day has been done,” says Torrens. “They can also be parties or monthly gatherings as part of an association or organisation – again with a main educational or speaker format, with plenty of time to network before or after.

“Networking can also be facilitated through corporate hospitality, which can be an excellent way of creating a completely non-business environment, while still illustrating a relationships value to a business.”

In fact, corporate hospitality provides companies themselves with a route into creating their own networking events, which can then be extended further through many of the techniques used by associations and event organisers.

Doing it yourself

The key is to identify the audience you want to attract, and make sure there are at least two key elements that can benefit from networking with each other. You then need a common theme to attract delegates, which could be a seminar programme, awards ceremony, or even, returning to the hospitality theme, a company party or special events like a football match, day at the races, golf tournament, etc.

Jonathan Byrne, commercial director of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, lays down some key criteria for anyone considering holding a networking event. “Create an interesting topic that will attract your audience,” he advises, “and choose a central and easily accessible location to hold the event. Then research the audience and communicate the purpose and networking opportunities.”

And, of course, whatever the theme, it’s also key to provide an element with the ingredients that can help people relax and get talking. But, one word of warning, a networking activity should never look like a formal business event – any whiff of sales talk will send delegates running.

Next week, Ian Whiteling looks at how you can make the most of a networking event.

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