North Dorset Businesspeople Go ‘Speed Dating’ In Shaftesbury

On a warm Tuesday evening in July, Alfred’s Keri Jones joined a dozen businesspeople for a Tuesday night meal in the Grosvenor Arms’ private dining room. Everyone was there for a form of speed dating, but they weren’t seeking a partner or looking for love!

They were there to try a fun way to source new contacts and find new business. Speed Networking is a North Dorset Business Group initiative. They meet monthly at different venues across the district.

“We go as far down as Sturminster, up to Gillingham and we often meet at East Knoyle because they have a pub there with a separate room. We also have the Wiltshire Business Group come over here to join some of our meetings because their group has folded,” explained Fran Hill.

Fran is a busy woman and well connected in business. She owns the virtual PA service Vale Secretarial and also publishes that handy, glossy A5 Gillingham and Shaftesbury guide that you will have seen. She has many skills and tonight, she was our speed networking host.

Fran Hill explains speed networking

“Speed dating is where you have five minutes to learn about the person, to see whether you want to take them on another date or not,” explained Fran. Her explanation was met with laughter, some of it nervous. “In this case we are speed networking. It’s business. So it’s five minutes to find out how they can help you and more importantly how you can help them outside tonight,” Fran continued.

During the speed networking, we only had five minutes to talk to the person sitting opposite. Then Fran shouted ‘time’s up’ and half the group got up and moved to the next table.

Fran stressed the importance of ‘getting to the point,’ but being so succinct is a challenge. So before we launched into meeting, greeting and chatting against the clock, Fran gave us a task in honing our introductory patter.

Over dinner we were asked to prepare an ‘elevator pitch.’ It’s an American idea, as the name suggests. Imagine that you are in a lift with someone that you want to sell your business services to. The concept is that you only have a short time, such as the journey between floors in the lift, in which you have to make an impression on your fellow lift passenger.

We refined our introductory speeches into a few short sentences and set to work, trying to impress other members of the group. At first, it felt a bit awkward. I imagine that Americans do well at this, but there’s something very un-British about selling your benefits and abilities so blatantly. It got easier though and once underway, the evening went remarkably quickly. And I found people whom I would contact if I needed their expertise. So, it worked!

If I ever need gardening or landscaping services, I now know a horticulturist whom I could call. Alison Naylor owns Garden Solutions of Blackmore Vale and she enjoyed the speed networking night. “I think it’s a really good idea because you get to know the person a lot more and understand what their business is about.”

Richard Mack is Managing Director of RT Promotions. His company can put your business logo on one of 90,000 promotional products. Richard drove up to Shaftesbury from Wimborne for the session. He invested his time in the meeting because he’s convinced that the networking group benefits his business.

Richard told me that you shouldn’t go along and expect immediate sales. “If you go searching for butterflies you’ll never find one. But if you stop running around with a net, all of a sudden a butterfly will land on you,” Richard said. “I think this is the same with networking. If I came in the room today and said ‘does anybody want to buy a pen, key ring or polo shirt?’ I’m just going to annoy people. Eventually it comes around, though. By knowing a little bit more about people from today, I can introduce them to my contacts. Ultimately ‘givers’ gain’ means it just comes around eventually.”

Genette Gale is a solicitor at Rutters in Shaftesbury and she’s a fan of the North Dorset Business Group. “It has definitely helped me build relationships with local businesses. I moved from working in Blandford to Shaftesbury and it’s helped me understand what’s going on locally. I know the people who are well connected, such as Fran, and she’s helped me build contacts with people. It has led to work coming in, which is great,” said Genette.

Genette often attends meetings, lunches and talks arranged by the different business organisations that operate across the area. I asked her how the North Dorset Business Group differs from the others.

“Some of them can be quite hard sell, whereas the North Dorset Business Group is relaxed and more about making friendships and relationships rather than hard selling. Hopefully it will lead to more business in the future.”

And Alison shared that view. “It makes you feel more confident and you get work out of it as well. It is also very social. It is not stuck up, if you know what I mean. It’s relaxed and a fun thing to go to,” Alison explained.

North Dorset Business Group attendees having dinner

Which type of business would benefit the most from the North Dorset Business Group events?

“We have businesses of all sizes but I think it would help people who are sole practitioners and sole traders, who are not interacting with other business people on a day-to-day basis. It gives them a chance to come and see how other businesses are operating, make new connections and try to gain new customers,” Genette said.

The North Dorset Business Group offers a varied programme. The monthly meeting venues change and there’s a different topic or experience offered each time. Sometimes they host a behind-the-scenes tour of a local business.

“People tend to come to different meetings, depending where we are based. We sometimes have visits to local businesses and they are popular. We tend to see people who only come to three meetings a year at those visits,” said Genette.

The group’s next meeting won’t require you to change seats every five minutes! Instead there will be expert advice on how to harness the power of social media for your business. The session takes place at the Kings Arms in East Stour on Tuesday, 11th September at 6.15pm. It’s free but there’s an option to come for a meal. You’ll need to pay for your food.

If you’d like more information you can email Fran Hill on

Thanks to Fran I have fine-tuned my pitch and I can explain what the website and podcast does in ten seconds. My next challenge is more difficult – finding an ‘elevator’ in Shaftesbury.