You know that guy—the one who gets interrupted 12 times by interlopers trying to shake his hand or say hello—while you’re talking to him?
Lee Brian Schrager is that guy. As the vice president of corporate communications and national events at Southern Wine & Spirits, Schrager has spent the past 13 years connecting people while serving as the festival director of renowned hospitality events like the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and New York City Wine and Food Festival. But becoming a nationally recognized name isn’t something that just happens overnight. It requires talent, social aptitude and a whole lot of ambition. Want to be “that guy?” Schrager shares his top five networking secrets.
Put Yourself Out There
While social media can expand reach, in-person networking is still key in the hospitality industry. Attending and participating in local events can expose your brand to consumers and potential sponsorship opportunities. “I attend events because it’s good to see the people that I work with, to see sponsors and see what consumers are interested in,” he says. “Every once in a while, I’ll attend an event and see a chef or experience something that really stands out and keep track of that.” Pro tip: always have business cards handy.
Don’t Be Too Aggressive
There’s a difference between a good follow-up and becoming a stalker. Learn to take a hint, which often comes in the form of polite responses and radio silence. “There’s seldom a week that goes by where I don’t get information on a new chef, whether it’s from the chef, his wife, someone from his hometown, his Home Ec teacher,” he says. “I acknowledge it and say that I’ll keep it in mind for future events. But every once in a while, you’ll get someone who will go after you every week. I always try to say very politely that I’ll keep it on our radar.”
Talent Still Counts
All the great social media and PR in the world are nothing if your food and service are off. “For a chef or restaurateur or sommelier looking to get known, I think the first thing is doing something worth getting known for,” he says. “Reading a resume or looking at a video is one thing, but meeting someone in person, trying their food and seeing how they interact really makes a difference.” Stay on top of trends and see where you can stand out. Consider hosting an event with anonymous feedback cards to troubleshoot areas for improvement and garner fresh ideas from your customers.
Go The Extra Mile
Crashing onto the national scene can be hard, particularly for chefs who aren’t in the big city circuits. Sometimes taking that extra step to reach out with an earnest message can help spread the word about what you’re doing. “I was in Montana tweeting, and this guy kept inviting me to visit his burger restaurant and that he wanted to get involved with the Burger Bash,” he says. “I never made it to the restaurant. A few weeks later, he sent me a quite compelling email telling me how hard he’s worked and what it would mean to him, so I made room for him even though we had no slots left. I figured that this was someone who was really passionate, did some homework and people had great things to say about him.”
You’re Still Not On Social Media?
Social media brings the ease of networking to a whole new level. Event gurus like Schrager will often use social media to get their messaging out—and to tap followers for intel on up-and-coming talent. “We become aware of a lot of talent through word of mouth, social media and traveling,” Schrager says. “Just the other day, I used social media to find out about pastry chefs in New York City. I was just in Nashville this summer and was tweeting that I wanted to try great fried chicken and people sent me to four different places.”