When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, the business community made an extraordinarily quick—and previously unimaginable—pivot to virtual environments. While getting together with teammates and customers suddenly meant jumping on virtual video calls, companies that host business conferences and networking events had a bigger challenge to figure out. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “nearly nine in 10 events were canceled, postponed or held virtually last year.”
But has the “virtual shift” become permanent? As a firm whose purpose is to connect companies with tier-one talent, Focus Search Partners wanted to find out if in-person networking events were poised to make a comeback. We wondered if people would be willing to meet face-to-face with others for an entire day and spend the time and money to travel for an in-person event given the world’s pivot to virtual alternatives. So, we conducted a test.
A Test Run
Partnering with Vaco, our parent company, and MorganFranklin Consulting, also part of the Vaco family of brands, we invited a small group of executives and venture capitalists, representing clients and contacts of all three companies, to join us in California for an all-day meeting ending with a waterside dinner. Through this invitation, we hoped to gauge the appetite for in-person networking among this microcosm of our clientele. As an incentive for the invitees to travel out-of-city or out-of-state, we promised they would learn something new and meet new people to connect within a mutually beneficial way following the event.
The vast majority accepted our invitation, including two who agreed to speak during the morning session of the event: one to present a fresh perspective on leadership and the other to address the current supply chain issues that are affecting all businesses, whether from the supply or demand side. That talk, in particular, sparked a very productive discussion about the emerging idea of using satellites to track shipped goods across the globe. From all visible angles, the in-person conversations were truly meaningful and a welcome alternative to their virtual counterparts.
Our test event wasn’t all business X’s and O’s. We arranged for our guests to spend time during an outdoor afternoon session with a group of former U.S. Navy Seals, U.S. Army Rangers and Green Berets to learn about their combat experiences and their various areas of tactical expertise, which provided an interesting perspective for leadership development. Interspersing this activity between the morning session and evening dinner was a big hit. As one attendee said on behalf of himself and a colleague, “We both have a new level of appreciation for folks on the front line.”
Having achieved success with our goal of learning something new from our speakers and the special forces veterans, next came the real test of whether the event was beneficial in generating new contacts that would lead to additional business opportunities for the 20 professionals in attendance. In that endeavor, the event was an unequivocal success. While everyone made at least one new business connection, several attendees walked away with introductions that have the potential to be especially valuable. Here are some examples:
- One executive, who is currently employed but seeking a new opportunity, met several venture capitalists with firms in their portfolios who need his particular experience and expertise.
- A discussion between two previously unacquainted CEOs led one to suggest to the other an entirely new industry target that could benefit from his company’s products, including the offer to introduce him to a Fortune 500 company within that sector.
- A manufacturing executive met several venture capitalists in need of a future operating partner to help streamline and optimize the manufacturing processes in their portfolios, which are comprised primarily of industrial companies.
While new connections can be made at virtual conferences, we feel strongly that these three occurred because of the one-on-one networking opportunities available at the in-person event.
The Network Effect
Virtual meetings became invaluable to businesses during the pandemic and that will continue, in particular for intracompany working sessions and customer check-ins, but the attendance at our test event indicates that many professionals are ready to come out of their virtual cocoons and meet face-to-face again. It also reinforced that there’s really no substitute for what naturally transpires during an in-person networking event where people can mix and mingle over the course of an entire day or longer.
The aftermath of COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, but we believe in-person networking is indeed poised for a resounding comeback despite the pandemic’s lingering shadow. And as we seek to build teams that grow companies, we will continue to look for ways to establish meaningful connections for our clients, whether that be virtual or in-person events.
Ready to expand your business network? Contact Focus Search Partners today to start making the connections that can make a real difference in your organization or career.