For some people, travel time is me-time, an opportunity to work or read away from phones, meetings, and the myriad interruptions throughout a busy day. If that describes your travel habits, you may be missing out on an excellent networking opportunity. After all, that kid next to you in the t-shirt and jeans might own his own e-commerce site and be looking for just the kind of expertise you can offer.
The subject of in-flight networking sparked a lively debate recently in the forums of FlyerTalk.com, an online community of frequent travelers. Discretion and courtesy were the main concerns, yet those who were open to conversing with seatmates found the experience rewarding. ”My usual opening gambit is to ask whether the seatmate is ’coming or going,’” KURTVH wrote. ”You can usually tell by non-verbals whether [they’re] interested in chatting. I have hired three people I met on planes in the last 2 years. I’ve also met a couple of people who became vendors for my company.”
Even if you’re not that social by nature, it’s not difficult to make introductions and build business relationships. Here are some tips to making connections with people while on the ground or in the air:
- Be courteous. If there’s a Rule # 1 of in-flight networking, it is: Thou Shalt Not Annoy. Networking with strangers, whether in an airport lounge, waiting to board, or in flight, is not the same as networking at, say, an industry convention. “There’s a protocol for [networking] when you’re sitting next to someone on a plane—there are signals and cues that express whether your fellow passenger wants to chat,” says Terri Sjodin, principle of Newport Beach, California-based Sjodin Communications and author of Small Message, Big Impact: The Elevator Speech Effect. “If someone sitting next to you puts on their headphones, that’s typically a signal that means they don’t want to talk, and you should respect that.”
- Speak up. Short of such a signal, Sjodin says she tries to greet her fellow passenger with a light welcome. “I might say something like, ‘Hi, I’m your seat mate,’ and then I’m quiet. But I’ve indicated that I’m open to interacting,” she says. Another easy opening gambit? Your common destination.
- Size up. Margo Geller, an Atlanta-based consultant and coach who authored The Love Club: A New Approach to Business Networking, suggests a more studied strategy when you find yourself among a group of strangers—say, in the airport lounge or gate area. “The first thing to do when networking is to define your ideal client, ideal referral source, and ideal referral partner,” she says. So if you see someone who looks like she could fit that description, sit down next to her. “It’s still a shot in the dark—like catching a fish in the ocean versus in a stocked fishing pond,” she concedes. Once you’ve engaged, decide if you’re actually enjoying the interaction. If not, politely move on.
- Keep it brief. “If you do have a chance to appropriately share who you are and what you do, you want to get to the point quickly,” says Sjodin. She suggests having a well thought out “elevator speech, a brief, authentic, classy presentation” that leaves a listener intrigued. “If they ask a follow-up question, the real conversation can begin,” she notes.
- Keep it up, even when you’re on the road. You needn’t limit networking to those nearby, however. “I suggest to clients that when they travel, they keep nurturing their most important current and potential contacts,” says Geller. “It’s a perfect time to write a note, to think about that person specifically, and research articles to send to them. You’re probably not going to have time to do this at work or home.”
Okay, so your seatmate is a college student trekking her way across Europe. Now what? “The person next to you doesn’t always have to be a target, prospect, or a person who will advance your career,” Sjodin says. “Sometimes it’s nice just to listen and learn about other people. Lots of great meetings can happen. I’ve sat next to literary agents, potential clients, organic gardeners, film directors, entrepreneurs with new projects, philanthropists, and even a rock star. The magical thing about flying is that it puts human contact back into social networking. You just never know.”