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Breaking bread with contacts crucial for making connections

By Margaret Canning

Lunch has long been a feature of business life. It's an opportunity to get out of the office and build up a personal rapport with someone you want to do business with.

And, just as importantly, it's an opportunity to sample some delicious food - and maybe even some wine.

But as businesspeople will often tell you, the days of the long, languid, liquid lunch are over.

The economic downturn of 2008 transformed how we do lunch. Companies no longer want to spend large amounts of cash on alcohol to accompany lunch - and indeed, top restaurants have tried to deliver quality lunches for businesspeople on a budget.

Many of us recall the surprise which greeted Michael Deane's decision to introduce lunch for £6.50 at Deanes Restaurant at Howard Street as the credit crunch started to bite.

But everyone has to move with the times, and restaurants around Belfast still compete to offer value for money at lunchtime.

Nigel Smyth (left), who will soon step down from his role as regional director of the CBI in Northern Ireland after 25 years, believes lunch is still an important part of doing business.

"While business lunches have changed over the years, they still remain an essential aspect of business life, providing valuable networking opportunities and a degree of informality which can often be a stimulus for conversations," he said.

"The main change is a more time constrained and business-like approach - effectively lunches no longer drag on into the afternoon."

Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of lobby group Manufacturing NI, said lunch and other ways of meeting face-to-face, are crucial to getting his job done.

"Our work is about engagement and deep understanding of issues," he said.

"It's about relationships and exchanging ideas.

"Meeting casually over some food makes those actually more open and as a result productive and valuable."

And he agrees that liquid lunches are a thing of the past.

"The days of a boozy, three-hour or all-afternoon lunch are long gone," Mr Kelly said.

"I have to jump back into the car and off to the next appointment anyway, as there still needs to be follow-up or other demands on people's time."

He said lunch means crucial personal connections are not lost.

"With technology we've never been more connected, easier reached and always available, but with that we've lost the important personal connection," he added.

"The business lunch remains important as, regardless of email, Twitter or any other platform, nothing can ever beat meeting people face to face."

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