As we draw into nearly a year of virtual networking for businesses Burton Small Business looks at the changes and advantages that have come with the new ways of working.
From opening the door to new groups and opportunities to providing a lifeline of support for independent firms Cheryl Morris of Burton Small Business talks to the network groups in the town helping businesses to stay connected.
When the national lockdown hit in March last year, I don’t think anybody could have predicted nearly a year on businesses would still be facing a virtual existence.
With the many changes and challenges it has brought for all sectors many businesses have found making connections vital in keeping their business brand and pipeline open during the pandemic.
So, as cooked breakfasts and speaker lunches are swapped for remote zoom calls and virtual network tables has the move to virtual networking been all that bad for the town?
Although keen to get back to face to face meetings Mark Santi of Business Focus Burton, which usually meets weekly on a Thursday morning at the Riverside Hotel, says zoom meetings have actually helped the group to grow.
“We did find some members actually joined as the virtual morning meet ups made it easier to try the network sessions,” said committee member Mark, a Master Locksmith who runs Pick Me Locksmith in the town.
Swapping weekly breakfasts for remote zoom calls the group even created Room and Zoom opportunities in between lockdowns to allow members to access the group in whichever way they felt most comfortable.
Miss the buzz and interaction of face-to-face meet ups
“It has been a learning curve,” says committee member Mark who misses the buzz and interaction the group get from meeting face to face. “As a group we are passionate about supporting local businesses any way we can. I would definitely say face to face networking is preferable but we are lucky to have an active group and we have learnt a lot throughout the last year. It has made people really think about how they stand out in their 60 seconds and reiterated the importance of not just relying on that one meet-up.”
Providing new opportunities for growth
The Federation of Small Business (FSB) has also seen virtual networking meetings surge in popularity. They hold free, monthly #FSBConnect online meetings across the UK. The local event for Burton and district businesses used to be held at the Dovecliff Hall Hotel, in Rolleston-on-Dove.
“Since we moved online we have seen business owners and self-employed people join in who would have struggled to make the time to travel to meet us in person,” said Elaine Pritchard, who is an area lead for the FSB for Staffordshire and the West Midlands.
“Our meetings, on the third Wednesday of each month at 9.30am, are open to all – whether they are FSB members or not. The wide geographic area from which we now attract people opens up opportunities for valuable new connections for Burton businesses. Those people who can deliver services online, or products by post, find that it’s a great opportunity to build relationships and trust with potential collaborators.
“We’re looking forward to being able to meet in person again, but I suspect that we may keep some virtual events too, if the demand continues.”
Local FSB Chair Mike Cherry instrumental in lobbying for small business support
As a national member-led support organisation, focused on lobbying for all small business, the FSB has been instrumental in gathering feedback from members and feeding it back to national and regional government with calls for action during the ongoing crisis. A Coronavirus hub on its national website is regularly updated and can be accessed by non-members.
Recently, FSB’s team in Lincolnshire played a part in the development of the first support scheme in the country, by Lincolnshire County Council, for business owners so far excluded from Government support.
National Chair of the FSB, Mike Cherry – who also owns a family business in Burton – said: “It’s great to see Lincolnshire County Council leading the way by offering this additional direct grant scheme, in particular to those that have not yet received any financial help.
“With the support of central government, we would like to see other local authorities following suit and creating their own schemes to ensure these left out groups elsewhere in the country are given the support that is so desperately needed.”
It is not just a matter of converting local groups to online formats either the demand for networking opportunities has also seen one local group expand its reach across the country.
Launching new meetings during the pandemic to provide support
Local ladies only business group LoveBiz Networking, which was first set up in Burton by Ashby Marketing expert Sue Crooks in 2012, has gone from strength to strength during the pandemic with 5 new groups actually launching during lockdown across the UK.
Sue believes the groups ethos of strong community spirit has helped the group thrive with the positive reaction to virtual networks meaning it is something they will actually look to continue alongside face-to-face meetings once the group can meet up again.
Talking about their success, Sue – who is looking to launch nine new areas this year, said: “During the pandemic, the UK lockdown put a stop to our meetings, so we knew we had to adapt -and quickly.
“Our members needed each other more than ever, as their businesses and lives were suddenly turned upside down.
“Instead of our usual face-to-face meetings, everything moved online. Far from our community falling apart, our friendly virtual networking meetings have brought many of our members closer together. From our own homes, members have visited other regional groups, extended their circles, and come together in unexpected ways through our one-to-one breakout rooms.
“Through the most challenging times, members have surprised us time and again with their boundless creativity, resourcefulness, and kindness towards each other.”
The support networking with peers brings is vital to business growth
The support networking brings has been a common theme for Burton groups with the Burton and District Chamber of Commerce seeing advice as being vital in helping local firms to navigate the challenges the pandemic has brought.
The group, which has swapped its usual mix of speed networking, lunch dates and specialist support for zoom networking, found that the response to moving its calendar online was ‘immense’.
With the ongoing magazine and chamber newsletter helping to keep members connected it has also found more people taking to the online events, including their coveted awards, as many events sell out. Adapting the format of virtual meet ups to allow break out rooms for speed networking and opportunities for specialist speakers to support on everything from industry specific support to Brexit and funding has also proved a big hit.
Chris Plant, Director of Burton & District Chamber said: “When lockdown hit our Chamber was swift to move all business events, including networking events to virtual platforms.
“Networking is critical to businesses at this time. From our research we know that the pandemic has made businesses evaluate their current operation and many are looking to diversify into new areas, expand into different markets or look for new supply chains.
“With our host of vital business support services, partnership working with local stakeholders and ability to connect our members, we are enabling our local businesses to survive and recover.”
Looking for local support?
So, whatever your networking style during lockdown it seems Burton network groups have been quick to adapt to the current climate and offer ongoing support to help businesses pull together and adapt to the current market.
If you are looking to expand your networking opportunities you can find out more about local groups at: