Forty Firsts #2 and #3: Networking It

I mentioned a while back that I recently began working as a travel agent. That’s where a lot of my energy is focused right now so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that some of my firsts are going to be geared toward helping that venture be more successful. One of the things I’m looking into is joining a professional organization so recently I attended a BNI (Business Networking International) and a Chamber of Commerce meeting. Originally I was going to count these two as one but they turned out to be such different experiences (like apples and oranges) that I decided they are actually two completely separate firsts.

BNI was the first of these two meetings I attended as well as being the first meeting of ANY professional organization I’d ever attended for the private sector. (I belonged to a teacher’s association when I worked in public schools but that’s not even apples and oranges. More like apples and koalas.) I won’t bore you with the details of how BNI works but it’s basically a business referral group. You meet with people from industries different from your own so you can refer people to them in exchange for them referring you.

A family friend invited me to attend because she has seen growth in her business through this organization and thought I might benefit from it as well. I had the opportunity to introduce myself and my business to a roomful of people whom I’d have probably never met otherwise. I was able to learn a bit about networking and the process BNI recommends for making business referrals. I felt welcome and left feeling excited about the prospects, if not about the cost and a few of the rules. It’s a steep financial and time commitment. About $600 up front plus monthly dues and required attendance at weekly meetings. Early, early morning meetings. And I wasn’t really sure what that $600 was for. I mean I know that I was supposed to be getting referrals for my membership but none of the people in our meetings are being paid, it’s run by volunteers. And our monthly dues pay for the room we use for meetings. There’s a website but it’s pretty basic and not something that people outside of BNI are likely to use. So, is all that money going to administrative fees outside of my community?

About a week after the BNI meeting I went to my first Chamber of Commerce meeting. Again, Chamber groups can be found all over the country with small, local chapters. However, unlike BNI, each is considered an independent and separate entity that establishes it’s own rules, procedures, practices, etc. that fits best with the local community. I was lucky enough to attend a “Chamber 101” meeting and learn about a lot of the ins and outs of the organization. The much lower joining fee (around $200) gets our names included in a directory that is available at our local Chamber office, a customizable web page on the Chamber site, a customizable app inclusion, weekly newsletters that I can also add my own event info to, networking coffee and lunch events, and more. There’s a small staff that keeps things running smoothly, participates in business events, puts on these seminars, etc. I like that I can see where my $200 is being spent.

Both of these events were great experiences where I met new people, learned about some positive marketing opportunities, and ultimately discovered how to look deeper than the surface to figure out what is right for me and my business. I can’t afford to join both of these organizations right now but even if I could I probably wouldn’t because one stood out as a better fit for me. But beyond the business opportunities presented my most important lesson was more personal. Up to this point I’ve been apprehensive about simply saying, “I’m a travel agent.” It doesn’t feel real because I haven’t had enough experience, enough bookings, enough commissions, enough, enough, enough, But I AM a professional and it’s not presumptuous of me to think so, it’s necessary. And it’s necessary for me to be okay with accepting an invitation that I decide not to follow through with. It’s not personal and in order to be successful I have to let go of my (sometimes real, sometimes false) sense of letting people down, disappointing them, or feeling judged by them. Another necessity.

These types of firsts are great because they push me to grow and become more myself, more ready to take on the next chapter. But there will be fun challenges as well. Up next- a new restaurant and a kitschy museum.


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