Networking groups have been around for years, but do they really help in bringing in more business or boosting your career? Plus, a list of groups to find one right for your goals.
With trust at a premium in business world, networking is all-important
It's 8pm and Francisco Morales is deep in conversation with a group of people he has never met before at a restaurant in the Dubai International Financial Centre.
The Chilean, who works as a project manager for an interior fit-out company, has given up his evening to attend a new networking group called the Dei Lucrii Club.
Named after Roman mythology's early gods of wealth, profit, commerce and trade, the club was set up by Richard Taylor, a British chartered financial planner, after he struggled to find a group suited to his needs following a move to the UAE last summer.
"I couldn't find a dedicated young professionals business networking group, something I used to belong to back home in the UK, so I decided to set it up myself," Mr Taylor says. "At the first event in November, we had about 25 people; it was very relaxed and while people started out in little cliques, we finished the night around a big table at 1am.
"That was what I had in mind when I set it up - young, ambitious people coming together, having a good time and building relationships in the process. I'm just trying to connect people at the moment and I'm living proof that it works. I've ended up with three new clients and other people have told me they walked away with three or four useful introductions."
Mr Taylor's aim is to attract the "young elite" - professionals under the age of 40 - who will help to shape the future of the city. And while his club is only in its infancy, holding its second event in January, the concept has never been more relevant considering the current economic climate.
Effective business networking is key if you want to build contacts for a current job, find another position or grow a business. And, with more deals than ever before taking place outside the office, the necessity of attending events has never been higher.
"It is about who you know and how you're connected and that's not in a one-upmanship way; it's just about knowing people who can help," says Claire Fenner, the chief executive of Heels & Deals, a global network for women entrepreneurs.
"When times are good in the economy, it's very easy for people to get into the habit of signing deals and not being bothered about who they're doing business with. One of the upsides to the recession was that people went back to wanting to do business on a more relationship-based basis and less transactionally."
For Angela Heys, the director of Be Unique, a social media, PR and marketing consultancy based in Dubai, the value of investing time in networking is easy to measure. Ms Heys says her entire business is built on networking, with 80 per cent of her work coming from referrals.
The entrepreneur, who moved to Dubai in 2009, attended dozens of networking events when she first arrived, including Heels & Deals, the International Business Women's Group, Business Networking International and the British Business Group (BBG), in a bid to promote and market her fledgling company.
"I didn't know anybody here, so all of my business has either come through direct networking or through referrals from my existing clients," she says. "It's been really effective for me, but I do go to events with an agenda. I have an idea of how many people I want to meet and what kind of business I'm looking for. If you do it right and you're there with an open mind, it will work."
It takes more than just logging onto Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to build a successful and sustainable network. Professionals and entrepreneurs looking for new opportunities should ensure they have as many face-to-face meetings as possible.
"Social media is not enough," Ms Fenner says. "It's the same with sending an e-mail, you never get the same feeling you would do as having a conversation; the communication is a lot more flat. While we are true advocates of using social media in a networking strategy, you can only take the personal connection to a certain level. At the end of the day, people want to do business with other people that they know, like and trust and these online relationships need to become a physical relationship where you both meet at some point."
Although Ms Hey's company centres around social media, she agrees that face-to-face networking is particularly important in the Emirates because the business culture is less trusting.
"The fundamental thing here is building trust, spending time on those relationships and helping them before you try to help yourself. If you can build relationships based on trust, then that one person who trusts you will refer you to five more people.
"Initially, I was networking night and day, whereas now, I'll go every three months because - as a business - we are at full capacity. We don't want to take on more clients and then not be able to give a service."
While attending a networking event can lead to more business, it is also important to find the right event to suit your needs.
"Different types of people go to the different events," Ms Heys says. "At Heels & Deals, you get a lot of one-man bands - ladies who are here with their husbands and want to do something such as jewellery making or life coaching.
"Other groups have been here a long time and have people from bigger companies, but they are harder to build relationships with because it's quite cliquey, so you've got to understand the audience and know who is there. I've got business from both, but the approach is different - it's taken longer to get contacts and referrals from some of the older groups than some of the newer, smaller groups."
For Sean Costello, the chief representative officer for Jersey Finance, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes the financial interests of Jersey around the region, the secret to successful networking is to attend as many events as possible.
"I go to at least 10 events a month where I am actively networking," says Mr Costello, who is also the membership secretary of the BBG's Abu Dhabi branch. "Some may be designated networking events and then I get invited to office openings and that ends up becoming a networking event because there are 100 people there.
"Sometimes, you do these things unconsciously because there are overlapping circles. I can network at anything from one-on-one meetings to roundtables with 10 or 12 people and conferences with several hundred people, where there's networking going on outside the event. There's different groups that you interact with and I think you have to do all of them."
But Mr Costello's networking has a dual purpose. Not only is he there to promote the interests of Jersey Finance, but also to meet chief executives, chief financial officers and members of the board who he can then invite to his organisation's own networking events.
"It's about making contact with people, getting their business cards, putting them on our database and then using that to send out mail shots for our own events in the future."
Jersey Finance hosts four-quarterly free networking events and sponsors other events, giving the company an opportunity to widen its network and attendees space to widen their own.
"We've got a really good story to tell and the more people that turn up the better, but allowing people to circulate at these events is really important," Mr Costello says.
"If someone turns up at a corporate presentation and it's all sell, sell, sell, that turns them off pretty quickly. As long as they know they'll get space and the freedom, people will do business together. And when you are the one facilitating those connections, then they think, 'Well I benefited from those connections, now what have you got to say?'"
While ensuring an event helps people to make viable connections, it is also important to ensure that those attending feel comfortable. After all, many are put off from attending in the first place because they haven't got the confidence to walk into a room full of strangers.
"Going to a networking event is a bit like a blank canvas. There are so many opportunities in that room and you just never know until you actually get in there and start talking to people who you are going to meet," Ms Fenner says. "A lot of people are put off because they are more introverted, but there are ways to help themselves, from making sure they have a notepad and pen with them, plenty of business cards and a 30-second elevator pitch prepared about what they do.
"Other ways to feel more comfortable is to go along with a friend or someone who is in the same business or career as them, so that they always have someone to speak to if they are ultra nervous."
Mr Costello says it is important to read the body language of those in the room and be aware of networking etiquette. "When I go into a room, I think who looks open to be approached and who's huddled together in a group. Breaking into that group could be rude or inappropriate, so circulate appropriately, watch people's body language and you can get a lot out of it."
No matter how prepared you are, however, novice networkers should head to an environment that makes them feel the most comfortable.
For Mr Morales, who has only attended three events in his five years in the UAE, joining the Dei Lucrii Club was a natural step because of its more relaxed approach.
"There was more of an incentive to go because it was less formal and a younger environment. Other events I've been to had more senior professionals and while I've gone to those to represent the company I worked for at the time, this time I was just representing myself. I was able to socialise more and that will lead to engaging on a business level at another point."
The Dei Lucrii Club
For: Dubai professionals, aged under 40
Price: free to join, but Dh150 per event
International Business Women’s Group
For: business owners and senior managers
Price: Dh300 a year
British Business Group
For: British businesspeople across the UAE
Price: from Dh1,200 a year to Dh2,000
For: jobseekers and recruiters
Price: Dh100 per event
Business Network International
Price: Dh625 one-off registration; Dh3,800 one year; Dh6,500 two years
Heels & Deals
For: female entrepreneurs
Price: Dh500 membership; non-members can attend events for Dh170