Beloved Business: Amid pandemic turmoil, networking club sees growth

Charlotte Ledger – August 14/2020:
The Hood Hargett Breakfast Club hosts eight breakfasts a year, in addition to other events. The group has gone all virtual since the start of the pandemic but continues to feature big-name speakers at meetings, and its membership has increased.

When the coronavirus hit North Carolina, many businesses watched their memberships decline. But the opposite has happened at the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club.

The club functions as a networking group for North Carolina-based businesses and nonprofits, with members including businesses like Atrium Health and the Carolina Panthers. Membership costs $12,000 a year per company, with lower rates negotiated for nonprofits.

It works like this: Members attend eight catered breakfasts at Quail Hollow Club per year, and each member is allowed to bring five clients, employees or guests to each breakfast. The organization also hosts private receptions and 12 to 15 lunches a year.

The club currently has about 50 businesses as members — a number that has increased by 25% since the pandemic began, club leaders say — and roughly 200-250 participants attend its breakfasts.

In the past two years, the breakfast club had seen a dip in membership but shortly before the pandemic began, executive director Jenn Snyder Gibson returned from a sabbatical and immediately started planning events to boost membership.

The club, which started nearly 18 years ago by the Hood Hargett insurance company, has a reputation for attracting prominent speakers like former NFL pro Emmitt Smith and former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Gibson uses speakers bureaus and her network to lure in big names “no one else in the city has had access to.”

One week after North Carolina’s stay-at-home order took effect, Hood Hargett started creating virtual gatherings for both national audiences and breakfast club members.

Prominent leaders like former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan and former Ford CEO Alan Mulally tuned in live to discuss current events with members.

One upside to the pandemic was that in some cases it allowed Hood Hargett to work out deals with speakers’ agents for discounts or, in some cases, no cost.

“They’re [the agents are] offering up these webinars just to make sure their contracted speakers are being exposed during this time when they’re not doing live speaking occasions,” said Chuck Hood, owner and founder of Hood Hargett.

Hood Hargett has sought to make its members feel connected by sending out breakfast boxes before events, containing a full breakfast alongside several pandemic-related trinkets, like hand sanitizer and mouse pads. When a luncheon that was going to be catered by The Palm was cancelled because of safety concerns, Hood Hargett arranged to have The Palm box the food to-go and held the event virtually instead.

Things haven’t always gone as planned. Media personality Soledad O’Brien was scheduled to speak remotely for one breakfast meeting, but the event was canceled 10 minutes before it began because O’Brien unexpectedly lost power. Hood Hargett rescheduled O’Brien for a later date which wound up being shortly after the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died in police custody. O’Brien’s appearance sparked a thoughtful discussion that wouldn’t have occurred if she had spoken when originally planned, Gibson said.

The club plans to resume live events in September, the first of which will be headlined by “60 Minutes” journalist Scott Pelley. —DG