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Still Ignoring Your Seatmates? Big Mistake

To some, it's a nightmare scenario: a cramped space & no way to escape. But it's still one of the best networking spots you'll find.

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Sitting in the middle of row five on a flight out of Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, I was exhausted.  I had just spent several days walking around the equivalent of 35 football fields of exhibits at the Consumer Electronics Show. Feet sore and mind spent, my plan was to sleep.

But that was before I spotted my neighbor’s CES backpack under the seat next to me. So I did what a lot of people never dream of doing on planes—I started a conversation. It turns out my seatmate was a publicity expert and he became a great source for a story I later wrote on the subject.

Of course, talking to seatmates can be dangerous. What if the person starts talking and won’t stop? What if you have work to get done and you need to use your flight time to do it?

Is it worth the risk? I checked in with Beth Blair, a flight attendant and travel writer who has seen it all 30,000 feet in the air. Here’s what she said:

What kinds of good business connections have you seen happen in flight?
I've seen authors sell books, strangers brainstorm on cocktail napkins, and business cards exchanged for continuing the conversation post-flight.

But with in-flight Internet, it's so easy to get work done. Why bother chatting up a seatmate?
Even if your seatmate isn't in your industry you never know who they know, or are married to! Last week two strangers were sharing a row and enjoying a pleasant conversation. By the end the two men were logging on to a computer so they could be connected in the virtual world. It's fun watching two people board as strangers then deplane as if they've been friends for years.

What's the best way to pull out of a conversation tactfully?
Most people are receptive to a simple, "Excuse me, I need to work or sleep." However, earbuds, sleep masks, and pillows are props that work wonders.

If words and props don’t work, a trip to the lavatory can stop the conversation. By the time you return the seatmate is likely involved in something else. Another helpful idea is to keep an eye out for an empty row somewhere in the cabin and ask the flight attendant if you can move (to ensure the row is vacant). You can tell your seatmate that it was nice chatting with them but you're going to give them some space and move to another row so you can spread out and get some work done. Make it sound like a win-win situation.

Which is better for making good connections: coach or business class? 
Most passengers in first and business class are professionals and rely on flight time to work, prepare for meetings or sleep, which can make them not at social as casual fliers.

That's not to say that frequent fliers don't sit in the economy section. Because there are limited seats in first and business class, "important" people don't always make the upgrade list. Economy class is usually more lively than the upgrades sections and it's always been where I've seen business connections and transactions take place.

What other advice do you have for business travelers?
At the very least, always introduce yourself to your neighbor. You just never know who you may be sitting next to.

Also, many people don’t realize that often the people working on the aircraft have second careers. I work with flight attendants who are real estate agents, business owners, fitness specialists, and actors to name a few. Last December I was deadheading (flying as a passenger for work) and my seatmate was in the aviation industry. He offered me some great story ideas about his business for my freelance writing work.

Here are some of the networking success stories I've heard:

  • Arnold Kamler, CEO of KENT Bicycle, put in an order with Medical ID Marketplace for promotional water bottles after he met the company’s CEO, Shelly Fisher, on a flight from LA to New York. They started chatting after a flight attendant spilled soda on the seat between them. They’ve been in touch ever since.
  • Alessandro Zampedri, partner and CEO of The Bowery House hotel in New York City, met the CEO of coffee retailer Recife on a Lufthansa flight from Munich to New York City a few years ago, before The Bowery House existed. They wound up talking about racing (Zampedri is a former professional race car driver on the Formula One circuit) and business. When Zampedri got back to his office, his new contact sent a package of with their best types of coffee and a set of their branded cups. Today the two are working together on an upcoming project for the hotel property.
  • Kendra Kroll, founder of Undercover Solutions, recently benefitted from a friend of a friend's in-flight networking. He gave Kroll his seatmate’s contact information and she used it to call the woman, who hooked her up with the buyer of a large store in Boulder, Colorado, resulting in an order from her PortaPocket line.

What about you? What’s the best business connection you’ve made while flying?

Last updated: Jan 30, 2012

CHRISTINA DESMARAIS is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech startup community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com.
@salubriousdish




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