At its worst, networking can be an absolute waste of time. You go home, change into a clean new power suit, drop half a box of business cards into your pocket and head out to meet a new set of potential clients – but return with only a handful of contacts, none of which are particularly promising.
"You can often end up with a room full of people who are socially inept," Sharon Garrett, who is Head of Space Marketing and PR for Virgin Galactic and an old pro at the business card swap, says of some of the UAE's networking events. "But at its best, you meet people who genuinely exercise the contact – and sign new business."
Amit Arora, President of the Dubai chapter of the tourism club Skål agrees. He says: "By participating in networking events, people are able to talk with industry colleagues from around the world to share and develop ideas and opportunities."
It is this chance to find new sales avenues that is seeing relationship building techniques such as networking find favour again, particularly in these difficult times when budgets have been slashed and meeting targets is harder than ever.
In the UK, for instance, independent financial advisers are networking online on sites such as Linked In and Xing to find new business.
"When business is down, relationships are key. Good networking is all about building relationships and the economy is perfect for the networking industry now," says Dr Ivan Misner, founder of Business Networking International (BNI), a professional business referral organisation with over 5,000 chapters globally, each consisting of only one person from any trade or profession.
"With billboards, you can't measure the results, but with structured networking, there is a certain level of business you can expect," says Bijay Shah, BNI's National Director for the UAE.
Business is Booming
So when other industries are downsizing, and traditional marketing vehicles such as advertising and public relations are seeing revenue disappear, networking is booming.
After three years of steady growth in recent years, BNI now expects to more than double its membership base to over 350 this year, with an additional 10 chapters in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The group has recruited five new directors to manage this growth, and Misner says talks are also in place to discuss the launch of BNI in Oman and Qatar later this year.
Globally, it passed 5.6 million referrals that generated $2.3 billion (Dh 8.4bn) in business for its members last year, says Misner, who started the business 24 years ago with $10,000 when he was looking for referrals for his own consulting business. Hot Hoteliers, a UAE-based network for hospitality professionals, expects to increase its base of 1445 members to 2500 by the end of 2009, says Erin O'Neill, who founded the group with colleagues to help hospitality professionals realise their full potential through the power of relationships. "We're about to launch a chapter of Hot Hoteliers in Doha in March," she adds.
The internet in particular has contributed tremendously to industry growth. European business networking site Xing, which runs offline activities to complement its online site, saw membership rise 50 per cent month on month in November, and reported that page views were up 35 per cent in the last six months of 2008. "Online business networking has proven a crucial tool in helping business professionals to negotiate their way through economically unstable times," Nelly Liebrecht, Xing AG Market Development Manager, Mena, tells Emirates Business.
The consistently high level of activity – with 92 per cent of premium members using Xing every month – coupled with strong member growth has already resulted in more than 120 million direct connections between individual members. The site is free to join and has eight million members worldwide.
Already, the UAE is the second most active country in the world in terms of online networking, according to a Synovate survey. Some 46 per cent of residents actively nurture their business connections online.
But whether the contacts are made over the internet or offline, the organisations seeing the most growth are those that offer more than just the chance to swap cards.
Both Shah and Misner are at pains to differentiate structured or "hard contact" networking from the sort that leaves you thinking you're wasting your time. Organisations such as BNI differ from casual contact networks like the British Business Group or C-Net Dubai, as well as from service networks such as Rotary or Lions, formed to serve the community but which are often seen as old boys' business clubs.
Hard contact groups, on the other hand, not only have a structure and focus but are able to track performance so members can measure their return on time invested networking, says Shah.
BNI members, who must face an interview before being asked to join, pay an annual subscription of Dh3,500 and commit to weekly meetings. An absence policy determines their commitment: Missing four meetings in six months could mean being shown the door. Each meeting has a set agenda of 90 minutes that includes short and long presentations, referrals that are tracked and recorded and, of course, networking time.
And it pays off. Misner says some BNI members claim as much as 50 per cent of their business comes from the network's referrals.
Most groups are also adapting by offering added value, by way of training sessions, educational lectures and events designed to help professionals get the most from their careers and businesses.
"While business people in the region have plenty of choices when it comes to networking, most of these have offered little or no value," says BNI's Misner, when asked about the many groups that have dropped off the radar in the UAE. "The few networks that do continue to survive find that they are able to do so because they offer good value and structure.
"Business people want opportunities where you don't only get to network with others but can also learn about getting ahead," he says.
Last Sunday, BNI organised International Networking Week for the second time in the UAE, with 220 of its members coming together to look at ways to improve business. Sessions included presentations by motivational author Ron Kaufman, the man behind the Up Your Service! bestselling series. It was held simultaneously with hundreds of other cities and towns in over 40 countries.
And even soft contact groups are getting in on the act. On Tuesday, the Young Real Estate Professionals Dubai (YREP Dubai) teams with Bayt.com to host an event at The Address Hotel in Downtown Burj Dubai, says co-founder Irfaan Lalwani. The idea is to offer professionals in the crisis-hit real estate sector an opportunity to meet industry recruiters.
"Now more than ever, young real estate professionals need to really leverage the people capital available to them whether to network, maintain contact in a changing market, or source job opportunities," he says.
Clearly, it hasn't been a meltdown for everyone.
Top 10 tips
Bijay Shah, BNI National Director for the UAE, shares his advice on successful networking with Emirates Business.
- Have the tools to network with you at all times
- Set a goal for the number of people you want to meet
- Act like a host, not like a guest
- Listen carefully and ask questions
- Don't try to close a deal right there
- Give referrals whenever possible
- Always exchange business cards
- Manage your time efficiently
- Write notes on the backs of business cards you collect (with permission)
- Follow up contacts