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Networking – which group is right for me?

2 years ago I swore I would not go to another networking event, having put aside a morning to attend a business breakfast network only to be trapped for two painful hours between several retirees “I come along for the company” and a spiritual healer “I love the energy in this room”, listening to a talk on bronze sculpting.

However I have noticed how much the wedding businesses we work with benefit from opportunities to network with each other, whether at wedding fairs, industry awards nights or our conference. Before arranging a bespoke wedding industry networking event (planned for October .. watch this space!) I was keen to see what else was out there and how each type of group could benefit businesses working within the wedding industry, so I set myself the challenge of attending 4 groups over the course of a week, each with a different focus, to see what the options are.
Entrepreneurs’ Group
I started with an invitation-only entrepreneurs group. As the group introduced themselves I felt so far out of my depth I wasn’t just looking for the exit, I was looking for a life-vest. The aim of the group is to use the network to solve business challenges or issues that members of the group are currently needing to address. The model works well, and I quickly realised that I could contribute; I had the skills and experience to solve the dilemmas others were facing and others in the group had totally different skill-sets and experience to see ways around challenges that I didn’t know how to approach. It wasn’t about selling to other members of the group, indeed any type of pitch is against the group’s ethos; instead it was about making your business a more marketable proposition to take to others outside the group.
Group size: The group is limited to ensure there are 8-12 present each month. 
Commitment: Monthly meeting. 100% commitment preferred but the group accepts that isn’t possible with the type of businesses represented.
Cost: Zero cost currently to members. Run using a small government grant in a room donated by Grant Thornton.
The verdict: For a wedding company looking to take a different, perhaps high tech, high cost, high risk approach, this would be a useful group, but as most wedding businesses follow a tried and tested business model, taking the same format and applying it to the wedding industry, with a group of similar non competing businesses mentoring each other, would be a very powerful solution to a lot of the challenges that wedding businesses face.
Next came the well known American import, the giant of networking groups, the BNI. Members are encouraged to bring a guest but anyone wanting to join needs to be pre-approved and cannot compete with other members of that chapter. The operation is smooth and slick, following a tight agenda with name badges, place settings, referral cards and sheets to complete, a hallowed box of the members’ business cards being passed around, all carefully indexed. There were rules for everything including how many referrals warrant a round of applause and how many warrant a standing ovation and a bell was sounded for any 60 second introduction speech that edged above 50 seconds. The huge commitment – around £1000 per year and a 5.30am alarm call every week – is rewarded in business referrals. Between the 45 members present, over £35,000 in business had passed between them in the past week, and that happens week after week. It was easy to see how; within days of the event I had placed an order worth £1500 with one member and am likely to place nearly £10000 of work with two other members. 
Group size: The Oxford Spires Chapter has 45 members, larger chapters are up to 75 members.
Commitment: Weekly meeting. 100% commitment expected, and you are asked to arrange for a “sub” if you can’t be present.
Cost: Approx £600 per year plus £56 per month, including an excellent breakfast.
The verdict: Members offering a commonly used service, such as plumbers, builders and accountants, gain a significant amount of business. Weddings are a niche businesses and there will be a limit to the number of referrals you can get, however if you have a wider offering – such as a wedding photographer offering commercial photography or a wedding venue with conference facilities – you may get enough business to justify the cost and commitment.
Professional Speakers Association
Despite the early start for BNI, later the same day I headed to a PSA meeting. The Professional Speakers Association was founded to help professional speakers speak more and speak better, however the networking opportunities are abundant with an hour networking break between the workshop element of the meeting and the keynote speaker. A wide range of professionals attend, many of them business consultants. The varied program of workshops and the relaxed approach to membership – you can attend as a non-member as often as you like – ensures there are always new participants to network with. Many members are consultants and have been involved with the group for a long time. Their network of contacts is huge and the chances are that if you speak to the right person her they will know who to introduce you to.
Group size: 30 – 60 participants is fairly typical for the Thames Valley group but it varies depending on the topic that month.
Commitment: Monthly meetings, with no requirement to attend regularly.
Cost: Approx £35 per meeting for non members, £25 for members, including buffet supper. Annual membership approx £150 per year depending on membership level.
The verdict: A lot of excellent consultants are members of the PSA, from internet psychologists to specialist business accountants, so you may make some useful contacts. The greatest benefit to a wedding business attending may be learning how to communicate more confidently; a skill that is essential in a customer-facing industry.
Women in Rural Enterprise
Finally I attended a women’s networking group; WIRE. I have never quite understood why women need to attend a different networking group from men; surely it limits the variety of businesses present? The meeting started 30 minutes later than advertised, and without an agenda. With a wide selection of herbal teabags and chocolate tiffin to fuel the small gathering, I quickly learned that the reason this particular collection of women have their own group is because they don’t enjoy the cut and thrust of groups such as BNI. I shook things up a little by standing up to do my 60 second elevator speech; apparently they prefer a more relaxed approach.  All those present ran their own businesses and the focus was on supporting each other rather than generating business for each other.
Group size: 6 members were at the meeting I attended but they are trying to increase the group size.
Commitment: Monthly meetings, with no requirement to attend regularly.
Cost: £12 per meeting. 
The verdict: If you have a small niche business and work alone this would be a friendly supportive group of like-minded women. 

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