Back in 2014, I read Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time cover-to-cover several times, along with Jayson Gaignard’s book, Mastermind Dinners: Build Lifelong Relationships by Connecting Experts, Influencers, and Linchpins.
More importantly, I started acting on what I’d learned. Everywhere I traveled, I invited 5-6 strangers and 1-2 friends to dinner to catch up. As a formerly-timid guy, this didn’t exactly come naturally to me. Before I started doing speaking engagements around the world, the thought of being in a room full of hundreds of people made me feel totally overwhelmed. I’d just shut down, which meant conferences and networking events weren’t really an opportunity for me at the time.
I’ve always been best one-on-one (or one-on-a-few-people), so small dinners made sense. Over the last two years, I connected with more than 500 people by throwing 40+ dinners, spending close to $50,000 in the process. Even today, I still spend almost $2,000 a month hosting dinners, and I’m happy to report that doing so has had a huge impact on both my professional network and my comfort level talking to new people.
(As a funny side note, the people I’ve gotten to know through these events might think I’m totally into fine dining, but my favorite restaurant – if you can call it that – is actually Taco Bell. I’m a very picky eater, so the fancy dinners I throw are more for my friends and network than they are for me.)
Here’s how you can grow your network the same way.
Step 1. Make a list of all the people you want to meet
Sit down right now and think about everyone in the world you want to connect with. Don’t limit yourself by thinking, “Oh, that person would never want to meet with me.” Put the big fish on your list, along with anyone else you’re hoping to work with in the future.
Think broadly. Don’t just think about influencers in your industry. Are there sports stars that inspire you? Authority figures in other niches you love following? The bigger your list, the more opportunities you’ll find to connect with influencers wherever you travel.
Step 2. Map your list to your travel plans
A few days before you go on your next trip, go back through your list and make a note of any influencers who live or work in the city you’ll be traveling to. Then, make a separate list of people you know in the city (ideally, people you can confidently say will meet up with you if asked).
As you’re planning your guest list, don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Generally, I like to keep my dinners to 6-8 people, though I’ve done events with as many as 10-15. Remember that the more people you have, the harder it’ll be to talk to everyone. The last thing you want is for people to leave feeling like they never really had the chance to connect with you.
Step 3. Message your friends and target influencers
With your list in hand, email the people you know first and let them know that you’re throwing a dinner in their city. In my case, I pitch it as a dinner for marketers and entrepreneurs; that tends to get people excited so that I know I’ll have at least a few people committed.
Then, email the people you don’t know that you want to meet. Introduce yourself and invite them to come to dinner on you. Make it clear that there isn’t an agenda to the meeting. You’re just in town and looking to connect with like-minded people who might enjoy each other’s company.
If you aren’t sure how to reach certain influencers, a warm introduction is your best friend. Ask existing members of your network if they can help, the way Chris Brogan invited marketer Dorie Clark to attend a dinner being hosted by Canadian entrepreneur Scott Oldford. In a Forbes article written by Clark, Oldford shared the thought process behind his invitation approach. “Whenever I’m going somewhere, I’ll reach out to random people and people I know in the area,” he says. He makes sure they are not trying to push an agenda. “I want to make sure they’re not trying to pitch people.”
Step 4. Make a dinner reservation
I’m partial to Italian restaurants for these types of dinners because they usually have big tables and private rooms available. However, any well-reviewed restaurant with enough space for your small group to have a semi-private experience will work.
Step 5. Be a good host
I like to invite a few people I know to arrive early so that we can catch up before the dinner kicks off. Even if you choose not to do so, arrive early. Don’t make your guests sit around waiting for you and wondering if the dinner really will be worth their time.
As your guests arrive, introduce them to each other and share personal stories that give guests something to start a conversation with. If you have two entrepreneurs, for example, and you know one just closed a funding round, share that with the other to give them a natural jumping-off point.
I also like to make it clear throughout the dinner that the people I’ve invited can reach out to me for help any time. Nobody has ever taken advantage of that offer, and – like Hiten Shah, who argues that helpfulness is one of the best assets brands have – I’ve found it’s an easy way to get great relationships started.
Finally, this should go without saying, but stick to your “no pitch” word, and make sure your attendees do the same. Launching into a sales pitch when you’ve sworn not to is a serious breach of etiquette that’ll trash the relationships you’re working so hard to build.
Step 6. Share your contact info
At the start of each dinner, I like to give guests my phone number so that we can stay in touch after the event (and so they know I’m serious about it being a non-salesy, relationship-building thing).
Afterwards, I send out an email to everyone who attended and invite them to join my Slack group to stay in touch. Not only does that help my guests, it’s been a great resource for me as well. Now, if there’s anyone I want to get in touch with in the world, it’s virtually guaranteed that someone in my group can make the introduction.
Step 7. Arrange one-on-one meetings after the event
Sometimes, I meet people at my dinners that I want to get to know more. Maybe they’re entrepreneurs with great ideas, or maybe they’re marketers who have unique insight into strategies I haven’t heard about before.
Regardless, I’ll shoot an email to those people to arrange to follow up with coffee sometime later in my trip. It’s a great way to build deeper connections than can be achieved in a single dinner alone.
Step 8. Lather, rinse, repeat
I do this every time I travel, and you should too. Think about it: you’re already going to be there. Why not spend a little extra time getting together with interesting people who could help you down the road?
Now, though, I want to hear from you. Do you make an effort to meet new people when you travel? Would you ever consider doing a formal dinner series like this? Leave me a note with your thoughts in the comments below: