At any time of year, Tim Teh makes sure to get out to as many networking events as he can.
At this time of year, when holiday parties abound, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Victoria-based mobile and social gaming company Kano Applications Inc. finds himself inundated with invitations, but the busy tech entrepreneur can't possibly make it to them all.
"There are so many events, and people are so busy, that you don't have time to go to every single event," says Mr. Teh, adding he's already received about a dozen invites and has time to attend just half.
Aside from being part of the festive season, these networking opportunities offer something a little different from the events he attends during the rest of the year. The last two months of the year are a transition time in the tech industry, he says, when many companies are finishing off products under development and starting new ones for the coming year.
"It's definitely a good time to see what people are working on; synching up with people about possible partnerships," he says.
Whether entrepreneurs are on the hunt for new connections or to maintain existing relationships, holiday events offer a bounty of networking opportunities.
And with the mood of the season's events, whether company parties, charity fundraisers or business mixers, "people are easier to talk to, more approachable. Sometimes you might find you are more approachable," says Lynda Zugec, founder and managing director of Toronto human resources firm The Workforce Consultants.
But, with so many opportunities, and limited time and energy, entrepreneurs need to be smart about how they approach the season's events, experts and fellow entrepreneurs say.
Mr. Teh says his main priority is the company party he hosts for his 20 employees. "That isn't too much of a networking event, but it does give us an opportunity to meet the families of our employees and get to know people outside of work," he says.
After that, he focuses on events where he can connect and reconnect with others in Victoria's tech community to foster potential new partnerships and stay abreast of trends.
Mr. Teh also looks for events where he might be able to scout for new talent or connect with the city's business community more broadly.
Mark Palmer, president and chief executive officer of Collingwood, Ont.-based engineering firm Greenland International – Consulting Engineers Ltd., is also choosy about the events he attends.
December is extremely hectic, as projects wrap up and the company reaches its fiscal year end. "In the engineering world, this is probably the busiest time of year," he says.
Nonetheless, he does what he can to get out to as many events as he can, with the intention of strengthening existing connections. At the top of his list are parties hosted by clients he hasn't seen for a while as well as government functions, since the company does a lot of projects for all three levels of government.
If he can't go to a function, he often sends a senior employee to represent the company. That, he says, also provides an opportunity to foster leadership skills in the next generation.
Another way to help decide which events to attend is to ask to see guest lists, suggests strategic marketing consultant Noah Fleming, president of Kingsville, Ont.-based Fleming Consulting & Co.
"I always spend a little time learning exactly who's going to be at the event," he says.
If party invitations come in hard copy, this can sometimes be done by asking an organizer for a guest list. If you've received an electronic invite, you can probably view the guest list online, and often who are a yes, no or maybe to attend.
If Mr. Fleming identifies particular individuals he'd like to meet, he takes a bit of time to think about what he can potentially offer them, not just the value they might bring to his business.
"Especially over the holidays, you're not there to sell anything, you're not there for a business deal. You're there to start a relationship," he says.
That approach, he believes, is not only more appropriate for holiday festivities attendance , but can also take the pressure off entrepreneurs who may find networking intimidating.
Marketing consultant Mandie Crawford, the Exshaw, Alta.-based president of Roaring Women Inc., a national business support organization for women, agrees that holiday parties are not the time to make the hard sell, but to build relationships that may lead to opportunities down the road.
At one seasonal party last year, she met a contact who, three months later, offered her a $10,000 website development contract. "It's not going to happen next week, but just recognize you're making long-term connections," she says.
Ms. Crawford also suggests that business owners consider the philanthropic spirit of the season when they attend events. Many holiday events are oriented around charity fundraising or giving back to the community, in some sense.
"You can really combine your social responsibility with your business, and people really like that," she says.
Consider donating a door prize on behalf of your business or even sponsoring an event, she suggests. "People really do like to buy from people who are committed to supporting charities in the community around them," she says.
It can also be a good way to market your company without actually being in attendance. On different occasions, Ms. Crawford has donated to charity events when she's been unable to get there herself.
While many agree that people aren't responsive to hard sells at networking events, especially during the holidays, some believe you shouldn't talk about business at all.
Ms. Zugec advises business owners to consider that people attend holiday events with all sorts of intentions. "It's important to gauge whether or not they'd be open to discussing business," she says.
To that end, she suggests asking people about their careers, for instance, what line of work they're in or their current position. If the conversation falls flat, chances are good that they're there more to unwind than to connect, she says.
Entrepreneurs who'd like to have more control over the guest list and party mood might want to make sure to throw their own holiday event for their wider business circle, "and invite people you're interested in meeting and connecting with," Mr. Teh suggests.
While the party he throws is for his immediate company circle, he's seen other companies do it successfully. In addition to making the most of your networking time, it almost guarantees face time with key individuals you'd like to meet.
"Being the host, people will generally thank you for inviting them."
TIPS FOR STRATEGIC HOLIDAY PARTYING
Check the guest list
Knowing who will be in attendance can help you choose events strategically and zero in on the people you'd really like to meet. But don't be rigid about who you chat with: You never know who you'll find yourself sitting or standing next to.
Focus on giving, not taking
Offer value to those with whom you network, whether by connecting them with another person or offering an article that might be of interest. Be creative.
Consider the spirit of the season
Donating your company's products or services can help connect with the community and represent your company, even if you can't be there.
Send a delegate
If you just don't have the time to make it to every event you'd like to, send a senior employee in your place.
Have reasonable expectations
The festive spirit may make people more receptive to learning about you or your business, but don't expect to close any deals at a holiday party. Focus on building or creating relationships that will bear fruit at a later date.
Gauge whether business talk is acceptable
Not everyone wants to talk business; some might even frown on it. Pay attention to cues.
Throw your own party
If you can put some time into organizing a holiday event, you can invite individuals you've been hoping to connect, increase the chances of face time, with and make the most of the time you spend networking.