Back to Business Networking? Our Thoughts on Attending In-Person Events
After 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, an increasing number of people are attending in-person business events. From media events and brand activations to industry conferences and local networking opportunities, we're seeing a gradual return to the public sphere.
But many questions remain. In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre share their thoughts on attending in-person events. How do we make decisions about which events to attend? What health and safety protocols are hosts and venues putting in place, and how are they being communicated? Has the nature of small talk changed? Are business cards still relevant now that we've pretty much embraced all things virtual?
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Business Networking is Still Relevant."
If you enjoyed this episode, check out the PRGN Presents podcast, hosted by Abbie Fink, featuring conversations about PR, marketing, and communications with members of the Public Relations Global Network, "the world’s local public relations agency.”
- "How to Smoothly Transition Back to 'Normal'" by Marissa Baker
- "Communicating Your Reopening" by Justin Liggin
- "Are You Vaccinated? and Other Business Protocols" by Abbie Fink
- "Are Business Cards Still Relevant?" by Marissa Baker
- "How to Maximize Industry Luncheons" by Scott Hanson
- "Great Conversation Starters" by Scott Hanson
Need to hire a PR firm?
We demystify the process and give you some helpful advice in Episode 19: "How to Hire a Public Relations Agency in Arizona: Insider Tips for Executives and Marketing Directors"
Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.
The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.
Business is about relationships. Relationships are about people. How we meet and interact and greet one another out in the world has been for so long taken for granted in the world of business. The past-18 plus months of the Covid-19 pandemic have fundamentally changed the way we network, the way we interact and the way we keep in touch with the people that matter for our businesses and our lives and maybe that’s changing or maybe it’s not. Here to talk with me about networking in today’s business climate is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Hi, Abbie.Abbie Fink:
How are you doing?Adrian McIntyre:
I’m doing well. What’s on your mind as the world starts opening up again?Abbie Fink:
I think since we last spoke here on the podcast, I’ve probably been to in person about a half a dozen different business events, and it struck me that although they still happen, they have definitely changed over the last 18 months. We spent all of the last half of ‘20 and the early parts of ‘21 still networking and connecting and attending. We were just doing it with a screen between us. And now as we’ve got a little bit more freedom again and people are feeling a little more comfortable because of vaccinations and other protocols in place, we find ourselves with network events and program conferences and things popping back up on our calendar. And now all of a sudden we’re back in person and it feels a little different than what we might’ve been used to. And so I thought we could spend a little bit of time just kind of chatting about what it looks like and at least some experiences that I’ve had and kind of thinking about as I’m preparing for a couple business travel opportunities coming up where I’m actually going to physically get on an airplane and go to an event over three days in a couple of different conferences and such. And so I’m kind of thinking a lot about what that looks like now in terms of how I’m going to approach people and talk to people. And so I thought we could chat a little bit about kind of what we’re seeing out there because I think it’s a real interesting dynamic now that we’re back actually in that physical space with people.Adrian McIntyre:
You know, it really is something that I think bears some thoughtful conversation because there are no clear cut answers and it is not black and white. In fact, it’s probably more difficult to try to think through the risks and rewards, by the way, something humans are not generally all that good at thinking about anyway. We don’t know how to calculate risk, especially because there are unknown unknowns, but we see a lot of things that are opening up. We also see some things that start and then pull back. I just read this morning that Microsoft has announced that, “Oh, all we’re not reopening our headquarters or we’re not requiring people rather to come back to work at our headquarters. We’re pushing it up into 2022. And you know what? We’re not going to say when. People can still come in if they want to, but we’re not requiring people to come back to work.” In the world of networking events, conferences, product launches. Big things like just happened with the gaming in Arizona. There’s competing desires. We all want what we miss about those in person interactions. And at least some of us are still concerned about variants, about exposure, about people who are vaccinated still able to get sick. Maybe not hospitalized, maybe not death, but it’s still on our mind. It’s become harder in some ways. How are you approaching this?Abbie Fink:
Well, it’s added a new level of small talk quite honestly. I was actually in an event last night and, and chatting with some of the folks. And after we had now what is a little bit more of a customary greeting? Normally you’d walk into an event and hi, stick your hand out, shake their hand, introduce yourself. Now it’s, “Hi, is it okay if I shake your hand or should we fist bump or should we just wave?” But we were all kind of commenting on the fact that even small talk has changed. There were some standard things you’d go to. What do you do for a living? How long have you lived in Arizona? Where do you live? Sort of customized or standardized things like that. Well, now the conversations are a bit more customized in and, and reading the temperature of the room, not the physical temperature, but the makeup of the individuals of the day or do we talk about Covid? Do we talk about the impact that it had on our business? Do we ask the question about vaccination or not or philosophies about mask wearing or not? And what do we do if the answer is on the other side of what we think? Do we dive into that discussion or do we leave it alone? If you go back just a few years, topics like politics, money, religion, those were kind of off the table. You sort of stayed away from them. You couldn’t really have those discussions unless you knew for a fact you were in a like-minded group. Well, now those are for everybody to talk about and this is an added level of that. And so I find myself asking the question is it okay if and then if I shake your hand. If it’s somebody that I happened to know and have had a previous relationship with, it’s not uncommon for me to give them a hug if I haven’t seen them for a while, but there’s a bit of hesitation there before I do that. And even in sort of proper protocol in terms of invitations to these events that it’s not just an RSVP, it is a checklist that you agree to in order to attend that event. You agree that you have been vaccinated or have a negative test and haven’t been around anybody and you will agree to wear a mask if that was the request of the host of that event. As the person planning to attend, you step back for a minute and say, “Am I willing to do this in order to get to this particular event or conference or whatnot?” And I’m finding that as we’re talking with our clients especially in the nonprofit sector that are all trying to think about what will fundraising events look like? Do we plan one? If we plan one, do we plan for it to be in person? Do we plan for it to be hybrid? Do we plan for it to be completely virtual? If there’s any point in the, in the planning that means somebody is going to be in person, how much of these protocols can we require in order for somebody to attend? And my answer is you require what you need to make you feel comfortable about doing it. Don’t worry about the guest, worry about what is in the best interest of your organization and set those guidelines. That individual make the decision themselves whether they go. We’re watching how that’s evolving, but it’s been real interesting. Again, I would say it’s probably been maybe two months that I have started to feel comfortable to go. That the places that I am being invited to attend and recognizing what those hosts have been doing in order to protect the guests that are coming to theirs. And then in my mind, what am I going to talk about when I get there? What are going to be some of the things? Because I don’t always want to talk about certainly not all the negative impacts of Covid. I mean, I’d like to think some of us are experiencing some positives in our businesses now that things are getting opened back up again in that travel might be back on people’s agendas. So I think there’s some nuances there about what we can and can’t talk about. But it was even as far as do we hand out business cards anymore? Because, well, they had become a bit antiquated even before this. So many people are working from home. They may not have as much of an office environment anymore to store the business cards. I refer to that as the Rolodex. Some of you may or may not remember the Rolodex, but where you put the business cards inside.Adrian McIntyre:
I call it the gallon Ziploc bag.Abbie Fink:
Okay. It could be a gallon Ziploc bag. It could be a drawer somewhere, but that’s a custom or a common occurrence. You walk in again when you’re networking, “Hey, do you have a business card or can I give you my card? I’d like to follow up.” Well, now there’s a bit of a hesitancy there because do you want to hand something to someone? Do they have a place to put it? Do they want to keep it? So there’s this all new conversations that are happening in that networking space in the event planning space that were not part of our worry 18 months, two years ago.Adrian McIntyre:
Absolutely. And I’ve seen some interesting innovations as people try to figure this out and try to find support and structure and so on for it. There are new vendors with apps that require people to validate various things whether it’s their vaccine status or their testing status, or what have you. It’s certainly there for travel, but it’s also showing up around venues and events. If you want to attend an in person event at a large venue, you may find yourself having to download the app that the organizers have decided to use to manage all of these things. Another event that I saw being promoted said that they were going to help people communicate their comfort level by giving everyone a choice of badge colors to wear at the event; green, yellow, red. And they spelled out in detail what each of those things meant. And it was actually, “Yeah, I don’t know if that’s going to work, but it was really quite thoughtful.” Green meant you can do you can hug me, you can shake my hand. I’m comfortable being ... This of it also required people to say that, “Yes, they were vaccinated,” but you could be vaccinated and uncomfortable. So yellow was, “I’m happy to be here. I’m taking care of myself. I will talk to you at a safe distance.” And red was, “I’m happy to be here. I’d like to get to know you, but please don’t talk to me, leave me alone.” So they had that kind of at least trying to give people nonverbal ways of communicating their comfort level. One thing that I think is potentially making a much bigger splash now than it did 10 years ago is QR codes. We used to have and several well-known speakers and authors had the running joke that QR codes are terrible, they kill kittens and so on. But actually now that everybody’s phone camera natively reads QR codes, I think making yourself a little badge that has a QR code on it, and that links directly to your LinkedIn profile. Of course, LinkedIn has this built in their app. You could do that, but just having someone could point their camera at you and that would bring up a web page or a social media profile that you’d like them to connect with you on. Maybe that business card although I still have them, I kind of like mine. But maybe that’s becoming less relevant and certainly we don’t need to hand each other physical things when we could just at a distance point our camera and away we go. So lots of interesting innovations.Abbie Fink:
And the idea that the host of the business networking event or the conference or the fundraiser has these different things at their disposal to be able to offer to their guests is brilliant. Think about if you plan a luncheon, a fundraising luncheon and you asked for your RSVPs and you ask them who else will be seated at your table? Do you want the beef or the fish or vegetarian? And we’ve evolved that because now we offer vegetarian or the vegan option or other various things to accommodate the dietary needs of our guests. And so there very well may be this opportunity to pre-upload your contact information. And here’s the QR code to download all of today’s attendees. I love red, yellow, green, that’s a clever way to do it and it doesn’t then ask anyone to just have to say it, it’s just is very visible that this is what’s in place. So I think from the event planning perspective, there really are some amazing new options out there. And I see them being applied, not just in the business environment either. They’re definitely more in social and entertainment. I’m fortunate enough to have season tickets to the Broadway series here at ASU Gammage. And for the last couple of weeks there have been a whole laundry list of things that they are doing to protect the health and safety of their patrons. And what as guests, as ticket holders we agree to abide by in order for us to be in the theater. Concerts are coming back online in the same kind of thing is happening. Some are going as far as asking you to show your vaccination card and that you agree to follow the guidelines. I will be curious to see is how they manage the person who does not have all of the requirements met whether intentionally or I forgot the card at home, what are they going to do about that? Maybe we can touch on that again about what’s changed in that environment as more and more things are happening. But football games and theater and concerts and, and such that are really looking at ways to continue to be open and accessible yet safe. And those big venues are going to give us some tools that the smaller maybe 15, 20 individuals at a networking event might be able to accommodate as well. And I think at least personally I’m willing to abide by many, probably all of those requirements to attend because I want to start attending again. I’m thrilled to be able to go back to the theater. And if going back to the theater means I need to do these things, then I will do those things because it is really my choice. If I don’t want to go or I don’t want to follow the rules, then I don’t have to go, but I want to. And so I say fine, if this is the way it is that’s what we’ll do.Adrian McIntyre:
It reminds me that we got to keep the main thing the main thing. And certainly you and I both know people on all sides of the political spectrum who have sort of turned complaining about what’s going on from whichever perspective or point of view into their thing. And so there are going to be people out there who are going to continue to be upset by what those other people are doing or saying. That’s fine. And for those of us who love the theater or love networking or love sporting events or whatever the thing is, it’s time to just accept that, “Look, there are people who take this seriously and that’s okay. They get to make their choice and you get to make yours.” Venues can say who comes in and who doesn’t come in. They’ve had restrictions on you can’t bring this so you got to have a bag. It’s got to be a backpack. You’re going to have to get searched, no water bottle, whatever. Every venue has always had rules. So this is an evolution that takes into account the realities, which are dynamic and changing rapidly in many ways, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. We’re going to have to keep a cool head and adjust and keep focused on what really matters here rather than just the emotion and the agitation we may or may not have about what those other people are doing.Abbie Fink:
Right. We’re commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And you think about what business travel, travel in general was on September 10th and back in terms of what you could bring on the airplane with you, what you could do, how you could do it. And then within 24-48 hours of that incident, all rules for flying changed. And if you wanted to fly, then part of that contract with the airline is you agree to the things that they were going to put in place; take your shoes off, take your computer out, four ounces or less of liquid, whatever it all is. And it was troublesome because it was different. And I will say there are still individuals that are flying that don’t know the rules because they’re not frequent flyers and they have to be reminded and things. I haven’t gone anywhere in two years so I got to go back and look and check my TSA and all the other things, but we agreed to do that. And we agreed on a lot of other safety issues out there. And so to me this kind of falls in that same thing, and yes, it is a much more complicated discussion. We have opportunities for these experiences, again, whether they’re social, entertainment, business, but we have opportunities to attend these things and make choices by what we want to do and don’t do as do the hosts of these particular events and programs. I say it’s a contract, it’s not a signed document, but it’s a contract between the host and the guest that you will abide by what we’ve set out. I mean, really the same thing if you come into my house, there’s certain rules. I don’t want you to smoke in my house. I don’t care if you’re a smoker, but if you’re going to you need to go outside. It’s my house, it’s my rules. And that’s kind of where this to me sort of falls into. And I guess the consensus in the last couple of weeks at these events that I’ve been able to attend and they’ve been varying in terms of what the protocol was. I’ve been at very large events that was honor system. And if you felt more comfortable, wear a mask, but no requirement, no mandate. But they made it very clear that they would respect how you wanted to be their hand sanitizer and other things, but there was no guidelines. And then another that smaller that said, “If you’re attending, please ensure that you haven’t been exposed or haven’t traveled” and that’s all fine. And I think that as the goer to any of these, I determine whether or not the requirements are something that I can abide by in order to reap what I hope is the benefit of being at something like this. So I am a big believer in re-engaging in the human connection as we’ve been connecting over the last couple 18 months or so with a screen between us and it’s worked and we’ve all adjusted and accommodated. And we’ve talked about that before about the way to network in a virtual environment and how to still have that human interaction. And I’m not sure that this goes away anytime soon. I think we’ll still have the ability to virtually attend a lot of things and still experience, building relationships in business and in personal through a virtual environment, but as we get more and more opportunities to be in person and respectful of the wishes of the folks that we’re interacting with, as well as the hosts of these particular events and programs, it’s just part of our contract at with being there and our obligation to attend and be respectful of what those guidelines are. I for one am happy to do it, because again, I am eager to be back out there and interacting again and doing those networking things and attending professional development conferences and seeing my colleagues from around the country and really getting back to those things that I enjoy doing. And that’s a small step for me to do in order to be able to capitalize on those things that I enjoy doing.Adrian McIntyre:
As we wrap up this conversation, let’s talk a little bit about some of those soft skills, some of those communication and interpersonal dynamic issues. You mentioned some earlier in the conversation. As you’ve been getting back out into this world, have you noticed anything that has changed? Are there any new norms that are emerging or is it still that the best practices for connecting with people and having good conversations haven’t changed all that much? And that’s still what people need to be reminded of and focus on. What are your thoughts on the way you engage with people at these events?Abbie Fink:
Well, I think the bottom line is still the same is that connection, that ability to have one-on-one conversations with individuals will always be a skillset we should all hone in on. And some are better at it than others, but being prepared to walk into a room, have a handful of conversation starters available to you that it’s not necessarily focused on the pandemic and such, but other things that are happening. Have your own elevator speech. What do you want people to know about you as they leave that event? What are the top couple things that would be intriguing about? And I try to find the things that aren’t the normal, what do you do for a living, but last book that you read. What are you watching on Netflix is another good one these days. But really what are the kind of the things that get the conversation started. Move around the room a little bit. Focus on getting to know a couple of individuals at a networking event. And, and then really what the follow-up’s going to be. When we take our team to networking events for whatever reason if we find that there’s two or three of us that want to attend something, we don’t sit with each other at the table either because I can network with my team any day, but I can’t network with the other nine people that might be at my table. And so we really make sure that we spread out, we divide and conquer and get to know a lot of people. But we also want to make sure that there’s some follow-up that happens afterwards. So what’s your plan when you get back home? Whether you’ve downloaded a QR code, or you’ve actually grasped a business card or two, how are you going to follow up with those individuals? Are you going to reach out and invite them for coffee, for a virtual conversation, for some opportunity to continue the engagement? And be expecting that you will be asked in return by those folks that sought you out to network with that you might have some folks reaching out to you as well. And be open to the idea of creating those interchanges in those relationships. And I’ve been doing this work here for quite a long time and I’m always fascinated when I can make that six degrees of separation connection. I was just at something earlier this week. “And you know you look real familiar and how do we know each other?” And it only took three steps to get to how we had been connected and it was a joint project that we both worked on coming from two different organizations that neither one of us work for now. But about 30 years ago, we both worked on a project together. I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” And then you just go, “What have you been doing for 30 years” kind of conversation. But you never know who you’re going to meet and you never know what relationships are going to develop. And the impact that your conversations will have on others as well as them on you. And if you keep that in mind, then whether you are doing it in person or you are still more comfortable in the virtual space, you can still network and still create good lasting relationships that are beneficial for both.Adrian McIntyre:
One of the things that I like to teach in my workshops on high-performance communication is how to be a great conversationalist by not having answers, but having good questions. And the things that I think we all would want to share with others include things like who I am, who I serve, what problems I solve, why I started, what I stand for. Kind of all of these little packages of things. So rather than launching into a conversation with my own elevator speech, I like to use these as conversation starters to get the other people talking about those. “So tell me about what you do. Who’s that for? How do you help them? That sounds interesting. Tell me how did you get into that. Tell me the backstory.” The longer I keep someone else talking about these things that I know matter to them whether they’re a good conversationalist or not, they’re more likely to leave the conversation thinking we had a great time together. And the truth is we did, but not because I dominated the conversation with my speech and my pitch and what I’m looking for. But because I lead with these kinds of questions, curiosity. Going back to something we talked about on the show. Using curiosity as a way to pull out the brilliance of someone else. Because once you get them talking about who they serve and why they care about what they do and why they started this and how’s it going, you’ve gotten them doing the thing they came to that event to do. And rather than put the burden on them, you actually can help their genius come out with these simple questions. It’s not, what do you do? That’s not the first one. It’s tell me about your work and why’d you get into that? And when you ask those “why” questions you’ll really find out not just what people do like a title, but you’ll find out what they’re made of like character.Abbie Fink:
What they’re passionate about and compassionate about. And those are much more fun conversations to have. As you said, you don’t have to be the answers. You don’t have to be the one dominating the conversation, but those are much more enjoyable conversations to be a part of and lead to a more fulfilling second opportunity because you’ve learned something in that conversation that gives you that what you need to follow-up. “You know, I heard you say such and such and I’m intrigued. Can we talk a little bit more about that or I also think X, Y, and Z.” And I think about some of the things that I’ve learned that have really nothing to do with the business world, but more about what the individual is like in terms of recommendations for restaurants or books that they’ve read or that they’ve seen, or just an interesting article. And good networking is capturing all of that information and then finding a place for it. And I think about how I have more books in my shelf than I probably need to have and most of them have been on a recommendation from somebody that’s based on something we talked about said, “I think you would enjoy such and such.” And so we go into those conversations with things to offer and ideally the other individuals we’re communicating with, come in with things that they can offer and that’s how we come out of it with a really worthwhile conversation. We feel like our time there was spent wisely and productively in a healthy manner in today’s society. And that is networking at its finest is when both parties in those conversations walk away with that was really a great conversation and where it goes from there is up to both of them to make that decision. And whether we’re, again, doing that in person or we’re doing that virtually, that outcome is the same. And in my view, one of the best benefits of doing business networking.