Networking. It's a bit like marmite. But love it or hate it, if you want to stay on the industry radar, remain current and - at the most basic level - continue interacting with real people (if, like me, you work from the solitary confines of your home office) then, it's a must-do.
At a recent - and very enjoyable - networking event I attended, I found myself wondering why networking is often considered a necessary evil. Is it because we feel we have to sell ourselves and are inherently bad at self-promotion? Is it because we worry about walking into a room of mostly strangers or more precisely, worry about what we should be saying to these strangers? Is it because we're experiencing a kind of FOMO anxiety - we can't possibly talk to everyone in this room can we ? Or is it because we have to put ourselves out there - out of our comfort zone? And yet, the life coaches will tell you that this is where the magic happens, when we push ourselves out of the everyday.
So as all good PR and marketing experts would do, I decided it was time to conduct some market research. At my next networking event, I duly dropped in a few networking related questions to my unsuspecting subjects: "Do you come to these kind of events often?"; "What do you feel you get out of them?"; "What is your aim in attending these kinds of events?". The responses ranged from "I chose this particular event because it was being hosted at a brewery" (fair enough, I'm with you there!) to "I'd had enough of being cooped up in the office and needed to take a break" (yep, that too!) to "keeping yourself on the radar and building relationships with potential clients who don't need us all the time but might simply want to ask a question from time to time" (smart, one to adopt!). So, I think it's fair to say that we all have slightly different agendas and motivations when we select our networking platforms.
One of the conclusions I did reach is that it's a common misconception that networking is about the hard-sell. It's NOT. No-one wants to be sold to. Not surprisingly, no-one actually said that they were there to make a sale. OK, so we all swapped business cards and I even connected an accountant with a business owner who was looking for an accountant, so that was a prime example of the benefits of networking, right? But hands up, if you enjoy discovering new things or solving problems or what about the old saying "a problem shared, is a problem halved"? For me, this is the essence of networking. It's about being truthful about our business journeys, building new professional relationships through common ground. It's about letting people know who you are and building trust. It's about comparing notes and sharing your business headaches and maybe even finding a solution. Personally, I enjoy learning a bit more about the companies around me, sharing a moment and finding out what people's biggest business challenges are.
So with that in mind, here are my top takeaways to ease the pain of working a room full of strangers:
'Mindful drinker' or maybe you prefer 'sober-curious'? These are terms that have been conjured to talk about the mindful drinking movement. A third of under 25s are not drinking alcohol and we're all being encouraged to turn a self-critical eye on our alcohol intake. Personally, I've cut out the weekday glass of wine and rarely drink more than a couple of drinks in one session. Apparently, it's no long de rigueur! Gone are the hedonistic, cider, lager, whatever-was-going pint-swilling student days of the mid-90s. OK I'll admit that once you have children - or shall we say hit a certain age - the appeal of sinking a half a dozen or so drinks in one go suddenly loses its shine when you find that you can't just lie on the sofa and watch TV the next day!
So our drinking habits evolve, so we see the effervescent rise of craft brewers devoted to non-alcoholic beers, think Big Drop Brew (my favourite is their Stout) or Infinite Session. Interesting, sophisticated soft drinks and other appealing 'adult' drinks are also becoming abundant so that if you're 'Des' for the night or you simply choose not to imbibe alcohol you can still have an 'interesting' drinking experience. There's even an organisation to encourage you: Club Soda champions mindful drinking and the venues who are stocking no and low alcohol heroes. Basically, you no longer have to fill up on a pint of sugar laden coke or lemonade and then switch to tap water for the rest of the evening because you can't face any more fizz.
So what does this mean for pubs and bars? Well, one obvious answer is to make sure your no and low-alcohol repertoire includes more than fizzy pop so maybe some non-alcoholic beers or spirits and some colourful, not overly sweet mocktails.
Another way of approaching it though might be to upgrade and premiumise your hot drink offer and capitalise on the coffee opportunity. This is about taking advantage of all those other opportunities to go to the pub aside from the big night out. They might be business meetings, light lunches, freelance gig economy, even the after-school snack brigade - all represent valuable business opportunities.
Just like low and no-alcohol brands, coffee and tea have come a long way in the last decade. What's going to make people come to your pub for their coffee opportunity? I think it's about serving really exceptional coffee. As consumer tastes have become atuned to the explosion of exotic food and drink flavours at our disposal, as we travel more, we have become much more knowledgeable about what we are drinking and eating. We're also much more discerning in our tastes. Flavour plays a big role in the decision of how and where to spend that hard-earned cash. For example, are you going to walk another five minutes up the road to go to a venue that serves the best coffee? I'll wager yes!
My personal coffee drinking journey has been shaped by acquiring more knowledge about the drink itself through my work for brands like MONIN, who, as global flavour experts, track coffee and flavour trends and provide market responsive solutions. It's also been about getting to know - by trial and error - the kind of tastes I get excited about. Living for the best part of a decade in Paris, I went from being a tea-only drinker to becoming a regular coffee consumer. While on my Parisian adventure, I also met an Aussie girl from Melbourne (which is home to some very good coffee) who had a coffee machine the likes of which you've never seen in a domestic kitchen. It was a professional one but she was so evangelical about her coffee that only this would do. I went from thinking that this was a little - shall we say showy - because I didn't understand the difference between her coffee and my coffee. I soon became a convert when I started drinking the delicious dark liquid she brewed.
Now, thanks to a coffee shop, Lost Sheep Coffee in my hometown of Ashford, I'm discovering the delights of their single origin speciality coffee (very high grade coffee beans). This coffee dances on your tongue trailing smoky melodies and has a lightness of flavour, which doesn't leave that bitter aftertaste coating your mouth (aka coffee breath!). It's so good that, for the first time ever, I'm drinking coffee without my usual half-a-teaspoon of sugar to balance the bitterness. Lost Sheep has its own roastery in Whitstable and the company appear to be making great strides in taking their A-grade coffee to the masses. As I type, they have just announced the launch of compostable pods that go in your Nespresso machine. Sustainable AND delicious! Needless to say, I have immediately ordered some. Now, that's what you call a caffeine high!