When I started my career in public relations 20 years ago, ‘networking’ was a euphemism for long lunches and hazy evenings in hostelries around the City…with some passing similarities to the TV series Mad Men. How things have changed. This week I found myself cycling laps of the Olympic Velodrome with 14 business executives, entrepreneurs and assorted advisers as part of BDO Velo – an innovative group which ‘brings bikes and business together’. As Chris Grove, the Chairman says, “BDOVELO is a networking group for professional people who ride bikes. We ride, we talk, we connect”.
So what is networking; what impact has digitisation had and how are we likely to network in the future?
A few years’ back some commentators warned that airlines would struggle as business travel fell due to the emergence of Skype and other digital communications platforms. But last year the Global Business Travel Association predicted a modest 3% growth in US corporate spending on employee travel for both 2016 and 2017. However, Michael McCormick, executive director of the GTBA says: “The money companies spend is much more purpose-driven, with an investment in mind.” So it appears that we’re becoming much more selective in how we invest for new business.
Having worked in a digital environment, I recognise the value of digital marketing and communication tools, however, there’s no substitute to a face-to-face meeting.
As we go through a period of unprecedented business uncertainty over the next few years, it’s even more important that we look for opportunities to widen our own networks; which will in turn benefit our employers and ultimately the wider economy. Despite Liam Fox MP, the International Trade Secretary describing many of the UK’s exporters as “fat and lazy”, more interested in “playing golf on a Friday afternoon” than striking deals, it looks like UK plc is doing something right.
Indeed, the UK economy was the fastest growing of the G7 leading industrial countries last year, and figures published in February came in stronger than City economists expected. Alongside news of the increase for construction and manufacturing output, the Office for National Statistics also published data showing the UK’s trade gap narrowed in December as exports grew faster than imports.
That was confirmed by one of my fellow Velominati who has seen his firm’s exports increase considerably over recent months.
Clearly successful business is about more than networking but as we look extend our relationships outside the European Union, we all need to think about whether own networks are appropriate for a post-Brexit world.
Effective networking is, as ever, about striking a balance between having a deeper pool of contacts, building relationships before you need them, following-up, understanding your contact, and seeking common ground.
For many people this common ground is might be cultural events, unique events and sports such as, yes, cycling. Indeed, there’s growing evidence that cycling really is the new golf with club membership in England down 20 per cent between 2004 and 2013, from 882,184 to 707,424, according to England Golf. It was reported that the $130bn Verizon-Vodafone deal in 2013 was trashed out by CEOs Lowell McAdam and Vittorio Colao while riding exercise bikes in a hotel gym.
If the time I’ve had at BDO Velo events is anything to go by, I can see the benefit of ‘active networking’. But before CAMRA members start complaining, I can confirm that that after dozens of laps around the Velodrome we retreated to The Cow for some more traditional networking!