Early every Monday morning, Ancy Cumberland leaves her home in Bur Dubai and drives to Ocean View Hotel in Jumeirah Beach Residence. She is there for the weekly 7am meeting of the Dubai Falcons chapter of Business Network International (BNI).
As the head of Earnest Insurance Brokers’ employee benefits insurance division in Dubai, she finds professional networking an invaluable tool in her career.
“It’s not easy to develop the insurance business by simply advertising; you have to be heard, and the best way is to attend a networking event,” explains Ms Cumberland, from India.
Formed 30 years ago BNI now spans more than 60 countries with more than 180,000 members. The first UAE group was launched in Dubai in 2005; there are now more than 500 members with 12 chapters in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi.
“Each member is expected to refer business to other members – referrals are based on the law of reciprocity, which means members do not expect anything in return for giving referrals, other than referring back,” explains Anuradhha Shah, who along with husband Bijay Shah, runs the Middle East’s BNI franchise.
Despite the pressures of juggling weekly BNI sessions (mandatory attendance is required to maintain membership, although colleagues or associates can stand in for a member) along with job and family obligations, Ms Cumberland says she is prepared to make the strong commitment to the organisation as it provides “new referrals every week”.
For those who can’t commit to BNI’s 12-month minimum membership, the GCC Business Council is a popular option. Formed in 2013 by the American Alex Bleiberg, the group is modelled on UK and US-style chambers of commerce and has in excess of 6,000 members. It hosts several monthly events in Dubai and Abu Dhabi including informal evening events, speed networking and professional development seminars.
When it comes to growing a business Mr Bleiberg says networking is the most important thing any organisation can do. “I’ve been running my own businesses for over 15 years and only once did I spend traditional marketing dollars; the rest was in networking.
“I recommend sales people and business owners attend as many networking groups they can afford – not in a financial sense but time-wise. Don’t do like some people and walk in, pass around business cards and expect business. You need to make connections with the groups that matter most to you.”
Matt Trenchard, a Dubai-based Briton, owns the coaching and training firm North Point Leadership and joined the group in February.
“Having been to a number of events I saw the value,” he says. “As a small business owner, having external support is a must. I attend meet-ups at least once a month; usually these take the form of evening meetings at a hotel venue; they’re not formal business meetings but business/social times for building relationships.”
For ladies who prefer to network among their own gender, the International Business Women’s Group (IBWG) was formed in Dubai more than 30 years ago by “businesswomen who saw the need for a support group in Dubai for western and Emirati women who were suffocating below a very thick glass ceiling”, says Sue-Sharyn Ward an IBWG committee member.
Members are all top tier decision-makers and attend at least two monthly networking sessions, from speaker-driven lunches to discussion forum breakfasts.
“We believe that every businesswoman deserves to be supported in her efforts to be recognised as a professional career woman as well as a companion, wife and mother, and this is best done by face-to-face networking,” says Ms Ward.
The saying ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is particularly apt when it comes to networking. A recent report by BNI’s Mr Shah highlights the potential of referral marketing, ie promoting products or services to new customers through referrals, the basis upon which BNI operates.
“According to The New York Times, 65 per cent of all new business comes from referrals,” says Mr Shah. “That means on average two-thirds of consumers make purchases because someone they know recommended a particular product or service.”
But given most people’s busy schedules along with the explosion of online networking, is there still an important role for business meetup groups?
Very much so, says Mr Bleiberg. “You can use LinkedIn to find leads, but what do you do next? The UAE, whether you’re a westerner or an Arab, is all about relationships. You can’t get that online.”
Ms Shah from BNI agrees: “People still need to meet, interact, shake hands and spend time together to build long- lasting, trusted relationships. There are no shortcuts to this. Just like you can’t give a haircut over the telephone, you can’t build a relationship to do business purely online.”
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