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The Secrets Of Power Networking

Want to get ahead at that conference? Try losing the name tags and leaving the business cards at home

Back in the day, when power resided (even more so than now) with old white men, with old white names and old white tastes in drinks, spring meant the arrival of an invitation to attend an elite get-together at Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, 70 miles north of San Francisco. There, the luminaries of politics and business gathered every July to frolic, sometimes naked, in the woods, slugging rum and maybe even relieving themselves on a tree alongside Mr Henry Kissinger.

Today’s power elite are a more high-minded bunch and networking has become a sharp-elbowed global competition. The fees to attend the best conferences run into thousands of dollars, and that doesn’t cover bar tabs and travel. The titles of these events may reference “forums” and “festivals”, but be in no doubt: they are all about professional networking.

The schedule runs year round. Kick-off is in January with the great beast of them all, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But if you prefer warmth and poetry to ski slopes and investment bankers, there is the excellent ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival in India. February brings TED in Vancouver, and in March there’s South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, then Manchester’s groovy FutureEverything takes you into April, with Vivid Sydney following in May. Aspen Ideas Festival happens over 10 days between June and July, high in the Rockies, and then as autumn turns to winter there is Chicago Ideas Week and PopTech in Camden, Maine.

And that doesn’t even include the many events that aren’t called ideas festivals but which wield an outsized influence on contemporary living. Burning Man springs to life in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada in late August and early September and seethes with West Coast technology executives trolling for inspiration (among other things). The Summit Series for high-octane entrepreneurs takes place at Summit’s very own ski resort in Utah. Summit selects its participants for those who will hurl themselves unselfconsciously into “dynamic shared experiences” to “accelerate relationships”. If you’re wondering how exactly this sort of “acceleration” might take place, fear not – scroll down for MR PORTER’s fool-proof guide on making these events work for you.

BRING YOUR BIKE – OR YOGA MAT

Given the choice, today’s conferencegoer will start the day at 5.00am athwart a Pinarello Dogma releasing energy before a full day at an ideas festival. If you don’t yet know your Campagnolo from your Shimano, it’s time to learn; cycling is the new golf. If cycling isn’t for you, then at least be sure to get to the dawn yoga class. You can measure the viciousness of modern CEOs by the extent to which they talk about the importance of mindfulness in management. More mindful, more ruthless.

DON’T JUST GO TO ONE CONFERENCE

Ms Marissa Mayer, the chief executive officer of Yahoo!, tells the story of how she acquired the Zagat guides business when she was working at Google. Mr Tim Zagat appeared at two conferences where Ms Mayer was speaking, sitting in the front row at each. After the first talk, he approached her and said, “Welcome to local.” And after the second, he invited her to join his wine club. Ms Mayer thought Mr Zagat was “conference-stalking” her, but took the bait and not long after Google acquired the Zagat business for $151m.

PRE-SECURE ACCESS TO THE INNER CIRCLE

If you have ever attended one of these conferences or festivals and felt that there was a party going on to which you were not invited, you were almost certainly right. At the best of them, there are velvet ropes behind velvet ropes; silver, gold and platinum circles; and rooms where Mr Bill Clinton and his circle can relax unobserved. This is bad enough at Davos, where the jostling begins for space on private jets leaving New York and San Francisco and only gets worse once you reach the Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvédère. But it is even worse at festivals that take place in cities. At the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, the nominal venue, the Beverly Hilton is where the stooges scrum. The real action, meanwhile, is around the corner at the much swisher Peninsula Hotel, or in private mansions up in the hills. If you’re not on the right guest lists, at least figure out the right bars, grab a spot early and wait for the action to explode into life around you.

BE VERY DIRECT

Conferences are full of time-wasters. Don’t be one of them. No one worthwhile is there to make friends. If there’s someone you want to talk to, bear in mind that even the most eminent panellists are usually hoping to meet someone who can help them. Avoid the immediate post-panel crowd, track down who you want to meet, and then, borrowing the advice of Wall Street, tell them something they don’t know. “I enjoyed your talk on private equity investing in Nigeria, but I have an interest in the Ethiopian logistics sector…” Pique their interest.

SEEK OUT THE QUIET SLOTS AT THE TOP SPOTS

There’s very little point being one of the 2,000 people at the video-streamed lunchtime panel of presidents and Fortune 50 CEOs. Try something a little less obvious, like the sparsely attended session on the power grab for mineral rights beneath the melting Arctic ice. You could easily find yourself one-on-one with the Norwegian finance minister discussing multi-billion dollar oil deals and the challenges of dealing with President Putin’s Kremlin.

ONLY ROOKIES HAND OUT BUSINESS CARDS

In the world of the more cerebral conferences, things such as business cards, rehearsed one-sentence introductions, chit-chat with your neighbours and follow-up emails can all look a little desperate. Save those for the salesman of the year conference. Only hand out your business card if you’re asked for it. There is always a hot book at these events and it’s well worth having it visibly to hand. Last year it was Misbehaving, Mr Richard H Thaler’s history of behavioural economics, and Mr Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules! about managing Google’s people. An early contender this year is Mr Adam Grant’s Originals, which has been hyped by such notables as Mr JJ Abrams and Ms Arianna Huffington.

THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A STUPID QUESTION

Perhaps the worst advice ever given for attending ideas festivals is “don’t be afraid to ask the dumb question”. The logic goes that everyone is likely to be thinking the dumb question and will be grateful to you for asking it. Often, though, a dumb question is just a dumb question and you will have forked out thousands of dollars only to look an ass in front of your peers. 

GOOD THINGS HAPPEN WHEN YOU SKIP A PANEL

After the early conference rush to attend panels, the hallways and coffee shops start to fill up during the day. You may stand a better chance of meeting someone interesting when you don’t go to a panel than when you do. There is also no shame in staying home and watching the talks online for free, then spending the $8,500 admission fee on books. If a speaker really grabs you, and you have something to offer, send a flattering email and see how it lands. 

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