The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce is launching a new high-tech networking program that puts people together with common objectives for a series of controlled get-togethers.
The program, called Business Crews, is being done in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, which has been running the program since 2017.
Using specialized algorithms, the program will put together the same group of 15 to 20 people who have similar business concerns, challenges and objectives for four, two-hour sessions that are hosted by professional facilitators.
Chamber president Loren Remillard said the early response has been enthusiastic.
"We have always heard from our members, even before the pandemic, that there is a need to develop meaningful relationships with other business people," he said. "We have lost that. You can connect with people over Zoom but it is really difficult to replace meaningful relationships."
With the first session scheduled to start March 15, they will initially be conducted virtually but it will revert to in-person meetings when that is allowed.
The meetings are designed to forge new relationships by conversations over shared business interests.
"Winnipeg is a word-of-mouth town," Remillard said. "Relationships matter. This will set participants up for success in their business relationships."
He stressed that the Business Crews is not a "leads club" but having said that the Montreal experience — about 1,000 people have participated in the program over the past three years — has reported that three out of four participants were able to find new business often with connections from the other participants’ own networks.
The secret to the success is the matchmaking functionality of the algorithm designed to engender lasting relationships forged in a safe environment.
Remillard hopes there will be enough applicants so that everyone will be matched with the right cohort but it will be able to go ahead even if there is only enough for one group.
There is a cost to the program — $224 for chamber members, $305 for others — perhaps adding a little more incentive to actually be present. Participants are required to attend all four two-hour sessions.
Remillard said the fees will cover costs and are not designed as a revenue generator for the chamber.
Among other things, Remillard is excited about launching a program that suggests some kind of normal functioning business environment.
"We are still very focused on working with our members to advance the cause of reopening safely and working with government on financial supports," he said.
But Business Crews is also a reminder that things are going to get back to normal at some time.
"Business people have a great need to connect and rebuild networks that have been lost or diminished because of the year we’ve had, not being able to engage in a meaningful way."
Remillard said the chamber has done some focus groups and he said there is definitely a demand.
"It is fundamental to what a chamber does — create platforms for business people to connect and build relationships," he said.
The track record shows that Business Crews works just as well for the expert networker who can work any room, to the introvert who might find a large room full of unfamiliar faces intimidating.
And while it has proven popular and successful in Montreal, Remillard does not believe there will be any danger of it cannibalizing participants from other chamber events. In fact, when things open up again, the chamber may try to host even more events than usual because of the pent-up demand.
"Someone joked to me recently that if we held an event to open a letter it would be well attended as long as there was other business people there," he said.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.