Stock Business meeting setup
The face-to-face networking sessions were immediately replaced with virtual ways once COVID-19 hit. For Dubai's business and other networking groups, it meant more than just a switch of format. Image Credit: Shuttertstock

Dubai: Dubai’s networking groups and their members felt all of the COVID-19 blast. The sudden and alarming drop in revenues at their companies or businesses, and the cold reality of job losses and the career displacements that came with that.

Longstanding members suddenly dropped off the radar, and all networking sessions scaled down to interactions through screens. All through this, the uncertainty that was breeding along the lines of ‘Will there ever be an end to this?’

A year and a few weeks later, Dubai’s networking groups – or platforms, in this Zoom-dominated world - seem to be holding their own. Based on Gulf News’ interactions with some of the groups and their members, we get an insight into networking after COVID-19. And their – successful – transition from thinking beyond handshakes…

“For 35 years, we believed that the best way to build trust and credibility was to meet and network - face-to-face,” said Bijay Shah, National Director of BNI (Business Network International), “Our weekly meetings were structured for this in-person interaction. When COVID hit, we were successfully able to pivot to virtual meetings – there was no loss in momentum.

“Initially, we were not sure what the outcome would be. The members found value not only in being able to generate referrals, but, more importantly, as a support system for each other. Some businesses came to a virtual standstill and some members needed moral support – by continuing to meet online we were able to provide the support needed.”

Bijay Shah, CE0 of BNI
Bijay Rajnikantt Shah, National Director at BNI, "Some businesses came to a virtual standstill and some members needed moral support – by continuing to meet online we were able to provide the support members needed." Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Some habits stay on

It seemed to have worked more than what BNI members initially expected. Even when it was decided to switch back to in-person meetings, “We found many now prefer to continue online – it actually saves time and money. So, we are now able to offer in-person networking for members who still prefer the face-to-face and online for those who are savvy on technology.”

BNI’s primary membership base features entrepreneurs and business development heads at small businesses. It is “Ideally suited for a business which has been up and running for at least two-three years - so not start-ups - and still in its growth stage,” said Shah. “The members invest time to build credible relationships with each other so they can refer their trusted contacts to each other.”

Bijay Rajnikantt Shah of BNI talks about networking and disruptions. Clint Egbert and Irish Eden R. Belleza/Gulf News

According to Shah, the volume of business generated through such member referrals/interactions actually improved over these 12 months, despite all the distractions brought on by the pandemic. “Comparing 12-month periods, our members generated 31,736 referrals resulting in Dh188 million in business from March 1, 2019 to February 29, 2020 and 32,615 referrals resulting in Dh247 million from March 2020 to February 28.

“We saw some members choosing not to renew their membership in this time; [but] overall, we actually grew. We started 2020 with 550 members and closed with over 600.”

There are other entrepreneur-focussed groupings in the UAE, and during the COVID-19 year, the group-think was as much about ensuring that their member businesses remained intact as it was about making connections.

Stock - Vegan Clubs in Dubai
Networking over a diet choice? Or should that be a lifestyle statement. Ananda Shakespeare (left) is the founder of Dubai Vegan Days, which hosted monthly events before the pandemic broke. And Carly Dubrey set up Vegan Entrepreneurs UAE and e-retail site Not Just For Vegans in December 2020. Such formal/informal groupings based on shared or special interests have taken seed in Dubai during these months. Image Credit: Supplied

Online fatigue

For some, all of that always-on online interactions were getting to be one too many. It meant juggling between all they had to do at their own work on Zoom or Teams, and then putting on their best networking face at these sessions. Chirantan Joshi, UAE National Director at Corporate Connections, which is a network of business owners and C-Level executives, knows that feeling only too well.

Chirantan Joshi, Corporate Connections
Chirantan Joshi of Corporate Connections: "We saw that members were getting zoom fatigued but then we started becoming more creative..." Image Credit: Supplied

“We started having two meetings a month on Zoom and members also started having one-to-one meetings online,” said Joshi. “Three months later, we saw members were getting Zoom-fatigued - but we brought back the energy again. We continued online for over 12 months before we moved to face-to-face again in February 2021. Now, we have hybrid interactions – that’s the new normal.

“The pandemic has made the organization even more global because the members can “attend” meetings all over the world. Asking for connections across the world became easy, that is the biggest advantage of moving online. This is fantastic and brought on the biggest change in the networking space.”

Chirantan Joshi of Corporate Connections talks online fatigue and more as business networking shifted to virtual ways. Irish Eden R. Belleza/Gulf News

Constant concern

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A shared higher purpose... For Toastmasters' Nelson Menezes, Deepa Surendran and Divya Raj, these 12 months have been about upskilling where possible and helping others cope with changes in others' life circumstances. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Then again, with COVID-19, it was never only about loss of business or threats to careers. The constant dread of an infection risk was always lurking in the backdrop at these networking sessions. Often, these fears would get voiced, and this is where the networking groups create a sense of community. And help members cope…

The Toastmasters clubs are, for the uninitiated, seen as places where members are more intent on putting their point across forcefully and in using turns of phrase to do that. It’s seen as less of a platform for business networking – but in the year of the COVID-19, there were changes.

“I agree that a considerable proportion of the Toastmasters fraternity are people who are professionals as well as homemakers, and entrepreneurs who seek to better themselves as speakers,” said Divya Raj, Business Development Manager at the UAE office of the Indian multinational L&T Hydorcarbon Engineering. “But since this is a diverse mix of members, business networking is a natural given. A lot have benefitted from it. However, I don’t see Toastmasters becoming a business networking platform - the organization has a clear focus on personal growth to maximize potential and cascade it to all aspects of your life… including the workplace.”

Dealing with job loss

Through these 12 months, new realities have intervened. “Even though new clubs have formed and new members joined, overall, we witnessed a decline in membership,” said Nelson Menezes, Director of Toastmasters District 105, which covers the UAE, Oman, Jordan and Lebanon. “The economic situation being what it is, job losses and relocation have been major reasons.

“Cultural beliefs have also resulted in some members not wanting to attend online meetings. Public speaking being the focus of Toastmasters, there are some who believe that the efficacy of the online platform is not the same as a physical stage.”

Last year, Menezes, on the professional front, switched from the airline industry to a tech business. ‘Upskilling’ was a phrase that’s been much used in these months.

“Toastmasters runs ‘Pathways’ that’s been designed to build more than 300 competencies,” he said. “This programme, which was introduced recently, provides opportunities for developing new-age skills like blogging, podcasting, presentation, etc. This and the fact that most clubs have reduced their fee to the bare minimum, are enticing new members to join.”

Not just about polishing off those debating skills... Toastmasters' sessions served as a safety net at a time of stress and extreme distress. Virendra Saklani and Irish Eden R. Belleza/Gulf News

Share the burden

But where these networking groups may have had their most noticeable success is through offering a safety net for members to take on the many crises of this pandemic-infested phase.

“Yes, we have many instances of job-losses among our members,” said Deepa Surendran, Head of PR & Communications at Toastmasters District 105. “There was a lot of distress, the pressure of working from home, supporting children’s online classes – all these are realities which led too an unsettled and challenging environment.

“But is that the end of the world? We are always encouraged to come out of our comfort zone and when the situation challenges us, we face it head on.”

And these networks would have done their part...

Yes, the handshake has been replaced by the fist bump these days... but it will always remain a classic. And classics tend to be timeless

- Divya Raj at L&T Hydrocarbon Engineering and member of Toastmasters