Network B2B: Embracing Virtual Reality
In the latest in our series of blogs on accelerating UK recovery, we speak with Alex Gordon of Networking B2B about the dramatic transition his company underwent last year from hosting fully in-person networking events to virtual ones.
He discusses how being pushed into embracing a virtual future has transformed the company’s fortunes dramatically at a time when things looked bleak, and opened up new paths to opportunity.
When your entire business has been built on the concept of people meeting in person, shaking hands and establishing relationships while talking at a distance of less than a metre apart, then the Covid-19 pandemic appears to be nothing short of Armageddon.
Alex Gordon, founder of Network B2B, admits that there was “panic, absolute panic” last spring in his organisation when it became clear that the UK was going into a hard lockdown.
Bases in the north-east, Network B2B hosts breakfast and lunch networking meetings across the country, with members paying a fee to join groups and help grow their businesses through expanding their contacts and receiving referrals.
Before March 2020, these meetings were entirely conducted in the flesh, but the looming threat of Covid meant that a drastic shift was required if the business were not just to survive the pandemic, but to thrive after it.
““I had never heard of Zoom, and had rarely used Microsoft Teams before all this,” Alex explains.
“We were holding our face-to-face meetings right up until a week or so before the lockdown last spring, and we knew that we had to do something – and fast. So, we bit the bullet and organised all of our networking groups to switch over to a Zoom format.
“We didn’t have a clue how it was going to be received. Many of the members feel very strongly about the importance of networking in a face-to-face environment, and we were worried they wouldn’t like a virtual set-up, or adapt to it very well.”
Despite the difficulties, and with few other options available, all meetings shifted to virtual at the end of March 2020, and a new era has begun for Network B2B.
“Even though we faced uncertainty, we put a lot of work into the shift and a lot of marketing information was sent out to every member and chair of the groups, so they knew how we were going to be operating,” Alex says.
“However, by about the third week, you’d have thought we had been doing it this way for years. There was simply no option but to learn it quickly and adapt, and in doing so, the obvious benefits of this system became clear.”
Of course, it wasn’t all pleasant surprises and plain sailing for the company in those early weeks of the ‘new normal’, as the sudden lurch to a new format proved too much for some.
“A few of our networking groups told us that certain members really didn’t want to take part in the virtual format, and in the very early stages we lost about 150 members, which was a crushing blow,” he says.
“But at the same time, by the third or fourth week, we noticed we were getting three times as many visitors to the groups themselves. That was quite a surprise, as we were still in the ‘survive’ mindset, and ‘thriving’ wasn’t something we had initially believed would be on our minds for a while.
“But we thought about it, and obviously it’s much easier to attend a virtual meeting than a face-to-face one. With virtual, you get up, brush your teeth, go downstairs and switch your computer on.
“So, we noticed more and more people were actually joining the groups, and a lot of the new members told us that they just wouldn’t have considered the fully face-to-face format from before, given that in some cases it could mean getting up hours earlier than usual to travel a distance and make a meeting.”
As the virtual format began to show results for all involved, more and more people wanted to take advantage of what Network B2B had to offer, and franchisees recruited ever more members to groups across the country.
“When we went into lockdown, we had about 40 groups, and by the end of the year we had about 100 around the UK,” Alex explains.
Worries over the initial loss of 150 members who weren’t keen to network in a virtual environment are now a distant memory, as Networking B2B finished the year with over 700 members.
“A few years ago, I had looked into virtual meetings and ran it past people, but at the time it just wasn’t thought of as the thing to do,” he adds.
“I knew virtual meetings were coming down the road regardless, but the pandemic has perhaps pushed its introduction for us about three to five years early.
“Now it’s here, it’s enabled us to look towards opening in new markets including the US, Canada and Australia. Virtual means you can operate anywhere in the world. It’s here to stay.”
Yet, there is always a place for meeting face to face, and Alex acknowledges there are those who network best while, he says, “seeing the whites of peoples’ eyes”.
“We call our meetings ‘hybrid’ because, once things settle down, we’re going to look to have one face-to-face meeting every month for every three virtual ones.
“People are coming to terms with the fact that if they don’t incorporate virtual into their business, they are going to be left behind. It’s been a disruptive change – that cannot be denied – but it’s been a change for the better.”