How to Host an Incredible Networking Dinner 'Speed networking' at cattle call gatherings can never compete with the deep and powerful connections you can make by breaking bread with like-minded people.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
A classic way for entrepreneurs to become connectors is through convening people over food. (After all, Keith Ferrazzi's classic networking book was called Never Eat Alone.) As I describe in my new e-book Stand Out Networking, dinner gatherings have also become the cornerstone of Canadian entrepreneur Scott Oldford's personal relationship-building strategy.
I learned about Oldford when a mutual friend emailed me, asking if I'd like to have dinner with Oldford in New York City. Intrigued, I said yes, and found out more about marketing and technology company and his approach to meeting people. From spring 2014 to that fall, Oldford went on a networking binge, conducting an estimated 40 lunches and dinners with a mix of friends and strangers. (originally inspired by fellow Canadian entrepreneur Jayson Gaignard, who released a book in early 2015 called Mastermind Dinners)
Related: How This Entrepreneur Went From Dead Broke to Mega Influencer in One Year
The gatherings typically involve eight to 16 people, and he's held them in Newfoundland, Halifax, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Nashville and Miami. The networking value has been enormous. "I've had about 440 to 450 people I've come into contact with at these dinners," he estimates. But his goal isn't simply to roll up new contacts into his database. "Essentially my vision for this is just connecting with people, and helping people with challenges by having other brilliant people in the room."
I'm also a strong believer in the power of networking dinners. In an era of the quick-hit coffee, having the opportunity to linger with contacts for two or three hours is a powerful way to get to know them and build meaningful relationships. Since moving to New York City, I've organized at least two networking dinners per month at a popular Mexican restaurant. I made a point of hosting them at the same location each time -- and introducing myself to the manager -- so that they'd be more likely to give us quiet tables and accommodate us with any special requests, since they know we'll be coming back. I think it's working because on my most recent visit, the chef actually sent over free desserts for the table! I also make sure to request separate checks, to avoid the awkward process of calculating how much each person owes (or, even worse, splitting the bill evenly and forcing teetotalers to pay for someone else's Dom Perignon).
For one of those monthly dinners, I bring together a group of fellow business authors, so we can talk shop about the writing and book marketing process, as well as ancillary lines of business we're involved in, such as speaking, teaching and consulting. The second dinner is more of a mix -- longtime friends I've been meaning to catch up with and folks I've met at conferences or events and would like to get to know better. Each dinner is capped at 10 people -- I find Oldford's max of sixteen to be a bit unwieldy -- so that each person can emerge feeling as though they've gotten to know everyone present.
One secret of the dinners, learned directly from Ferrazzi himself, is mixing the personal with the professional and digging below the surface. At a conference in Boston where I was seated at his table, Ferrazzi led a lively discussion, requesting that each attendee talk about one personal and one professional thing happening in their lives. With participants mentioning everything from the recent death of a relative to the challenge of how to be a good manager, the intense conversation led to deeper-than-usual connections.
In an increasingly frenetic world, it might seem like a luxury to share a meal with a small group of people for several hours. But 'speed networking' at cattle call gatherings can never compete with the deep and powerful connections you can make by breaking bread with like-minded people.
Related: Host a Delightful Dinner Party for Clients and Colleagues