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Forever 128

Route 128 networking event a chance to press the flesh

The old-fashioned meet-and-greet business-card exchange is still going strong along Route 128 in the era of LinkedIn and other social media.

From Reading to Newton, local chambers of commerce from across the Route 128 beltway and beyond are joining forces on Aug. 6 to put on a monster business-networking event.

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The 17 chambers are hoping to persuade their members, who include accountants, insurance agents, marketing specialists, and techies, to devote a summer evening to pressing the flesh and doling out dozens of business cards.

Yet the event, to be held at the Atria Longmeadow Place senior-living complex in Burlington, is also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the region’s business-booster organizations are doing in the ever-more-crucial area of networking.

Many are sponsoring smaller, more targeted groups to help members make profitable connections as well.

Social media is great, but the value of meeting face to face with a potential business partner or customer cannot be beat, said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce.

“Being able to look a person in the eye, to be able to shake their hand, and to be able to interact with them in a human way really matters,” Reibman said.

‘I don’t think networking is ever going to die.’

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While they may seem a little anachronistic, the quarterly networking events have proven to be a big hit, routinely drawing upwards of 150 people or more, said Jim Murphy, president and chief executive of the Burlington Area Chamber of Commerce.

The various chambers take turns putting on the events, with the Waltham West Suburban Chamber of Commerce hosting one in April that drew nearly 200 people, said Barry Winston, director of development for the chamber.

The event kicked off with a pep talk by a networking expert offering tips on the best ways to connect in person.

“I don’t think networking is ever going to die,” Winston said.

On a good night, participants might be able to dole out 10 to 20 business cards, while pocketing a similar number, Burlington’s Murphy said.

Chamber staff and board members are involved in helping keep the events on track, playing matchmaker between various members they believe might benefit from an introduction, Murphy said.

He recalls how he introduced a sales consultant from Reading to a Burlington printer, who now does work for him.

The events also tend to include a number of chambers of commerce from along the 128 corridor, always a draw for local business people looking to tap into the area’s thriving economy.

The regional gatherings guarantee a wider base of potential business contacts than just a single-chamber event, Murphy noted.

The Aug. 6 session, for example, is slated to include members from chambers in Arlington, Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, Concord, Lexington, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Newton-Needham, Reading-North Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, Waltham, Wellesley, Wilmington, and Winchester.

“Because the 128 chambers collaborate on a multichamber event, it is a very nice draw,” said Burlington’s Murphy. “In particular, it gives a broader base for networking to the small and midsized businesses.”

Membership in a chamber of commerce is not required for attending next month’s regional event, and members are encouraged to bring a friend or business associate. Members pay $10, nonmembers, $20. For details, go to www.burlingtonchamberofcommerce.org.

The massive meet-and-greets are not seen as competing with or replacing social media as much as complementing the online connections, Reibman said.

Chambers like Newton-Needham use a variety of social media platforms to promote their events and to form online groups of members as well, he said.

“We are not your father’s chamber anymore,” he said.

Yet the big, multichamber networking events are not for everyone, with some, like John Marczak, director of client services at Mantra Computing in Newton, admitting to feeling lost in the crowd.

A member of the Newton-Needham chamber, Marczak has formed a “referral exchange group” that features more in-depth networking among a small group of business people based on a special service, skill, or product.

That means each group has just one representative of a particular line of business, avoiding competition with another lawyer or another marketing person.

The members typically meet every other week to exchange ideas, leads, and referrals.

The Newton-Needham chamber also hosts speed networking events, in which business people are paired off briefly before moving on to the next introduction, according to Reibman.

“You give your pitch to someone and go on to the next one,” Reibman said. “It is speed dating for business referrals.”

Meanwhile, the Waltham West Suburban Chamber of Commerce is gearing up for another huge networking event, the annual 128 Business Expo, to be held in September.

Still, whether it consists of small targeted events or mass business-card swaps, networking is increasingly becoming a major focus for local chambers.

“It helps you meet more people in meaningful situations, and helps foster that trust that inevitably turns into business,” Marczak said.

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@ hotmail.com.
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