Any entrepreneur can share countless travel stories of lonely hotel dining and tasteless room service dinners. Combine that with red-eye flights, missed connections and rental car lines, and business trips become more work than fun. That's how I, too, felt about work trips until I realized how to incorporate business networking dinners as part of my travels.
I'm a strong believer in the power of business dinners and enjoy organizing them in my own city. However, rather than limit them to my hometown, I realized I could extend them to every city I visited. With a little advance planning, I now organize dinners wherever my travels take me. These dinners are not only a wonderful way to reconnect with contacts, but also a fun opportunity for the local guests to meet each other. Here are my steps to creating the perfect networking dinner:
My contacts move all the time. It's impossible to know who is living where. To determine who lives in the destination city, I run a LinkedIn search by clicking "Advanced" next to the search bar, and filtering for "1st Connections" and "Location." This identifies all my contacts in that city. From there, I can easily grab their email addresses or send them an invite message directly through LinkedIn.
When visiting a smaller town where my network does not run as deep, I ask my friends to each invite a like-minded friend or someone else in the industry. This helps expand the dinner circle. I'll also reach out to fellow members in entrepreneurial networks, such as Dreamers and Doers. Finally, if there is someone relevant in the industry who I've been meaning to meet, I will email them directly and extend a dinner invitation.
Aim to send the invitation three weeks before the dinner date. Doing this any earlier means people might be unsure of their schedule, and if left too late, they may have already made commitments. Not all invitees will be able to attend. If you are aiming for a four person group, invite six people. If you are going for six people, invite nine or ten. If your goal is to maintain one group conversation, then plan for six guests: Six is the maximum number before one group will split into multiple side conversations.
Finding the right venue is critical to a successful dinner. First, the location should be central and convenient. Second, it should have a fun atmosphere, but be quiet enough that people can hear across the table. The menu should vary and feature food options for those with dietary restrictions. Try to pick a restaurant with $15-to-$25 entrees, so price points will not deter anyone from attending.
Finally, make a reservation. In the U.S., it's easiest to use a combination of OpenTable and Yelp to find a restaurant that fits the bill. In other countries, Google Places, Facebook Places, a hotel concierge or a local friend might be better resources. Search for OpenTable reservations in the desired neighborhoods and price range. Look at the photos, descriptions and menus of the top results, and then double check the user reviews on Yelp. OpenTable reviews tend to skew positive, so it's essential to do a second check on another source before booking.
After the date, time, and venue are confirmed, send a calendar invite. Many people live off their calendars. If the event is not on their schedule, it does not exist. Save everyone time by sending a properly formatted calendar invite with the restaurant address, your phone numbers, and any other pertinent information.
Two days before the dinner, send a confirmation email reminding the guests of the upcoming dinner. Reiterate the address and your contact information, and remind them to inform you if they are no longer able to attend. At this point, 10-20 percent of people will typically tell you that their plans have changed. Knowing this allows you to update your restaurant reservations accordingly.
As the host of the dinner, start off the dinner with introductions. Feel free to mix the personal with the professional and dig below the surface of common banalities. You can do this by inviting each guest to share one personal and one professional experience happening in their lives. This will help kick off the discussion and bring everyone closer together.
Nothing can compare to the deep and powerful connections made breaking bread together, and these connections can even happen even outside of your hometown. Now, whenever you have a business trip, consider hosting a networking dinner to bring together like-minded people.
Adelyn Zhou is the Co-Founder & Head of Marketing at TOPBOTS, a leading firm focused on the strategy, design and marketing of chatbots.