Tauranga business providers are exploring new ways of networking due to the lockdown restrictions.
Virtual events for business people to meet, share ideas and problem-solve online could become the "new norm" for networking in the future.
Business experts say networking is "crucial" for small businesses to be able to connect and build up a contact base.
But isolation in Covid-19 lockdowns meant reaching out to people had become "extremely important" for people's wellbeing.
The Tauranga Chamber of Commerce launched its first virtual networking event for Small Business Tauranga as one of its ways of adapting to the "new norm".
The Chamber's events co-ordinator, Anne Pankhurst, said the lockdown and the related isolation had been particularly challenging for small businesses.
But, she said, it was also a perfect opportunity to connect small business operators who needed to feel less isolated.
"We also had to recognise that networking in the 'old' model has changed and it may be some time before we can return to gatherings, so how do we do it differently?"
Pankhurst said the virtual event showed networking did not need to be face-to-face "but just being connected is what is important" while under level 3 restrictions.
"It is by nature of being a small business quite a lonely exercise, often working from home, with maybe only one or two other people who know or understand your business intimately, so networking becomes crucial to understanding that the challenges you face are shared.
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"Now in isolation, when that is reduced again, reaching out to people in similar situations has become extremely important for wellbeing.
"For the future of the region connecting those small businesses will be very important, it will be those small entrepreneurial businesses where the region will flourish."
Depending on its success, Pankhurst said there was potential for the Chamber to change how it managed some of its events and training in the future.
"The need for people to operate face-to-face will not change and if anything has shown how important it is, but there will definitely be a place for virtual networking.
"This is also likely to become far-reaching as our webinars have shown, that we could have attendees from Invercargill to Whangarei. Being virtual has no physical barriers."
Natalie Brant, a consultant at Tauranga recruitment company The Staffroom, said the virtual event allowed her to meet like-minded people and understand their struggles.
"For me, being in recruitment we are a business that is predominantly face-to-face and about building relationships. But in the lockdown, we are not able to do that.
"There is still some uncertainty about how life is going to look when we get back to normal. It is important to keep connected with the outside world because people might not yet feel comfortable attending larger group events with 10 or 20 people.
"Especially for small businesses, connection is so important."
Brant said virtual networking also opened up an opportunity for people with young families who may not normally be able to attend networking events after work.
"It could open up a new avenue for them as well. It could be a really positive thing moving forward."
Mainstreet Downtown Tauranga and Venture Centre have also launched an online platform for businesses to be able to solve problems together.
Thrive Tauranga is a weekly opportunity for businesses to explore possibilities, digital solutions and new ideas for business models.
Mainstreet Downtown Tauranga spokeswoman Sally Cooke said the initiative complemented what the Chamber and other providers were offering.
"Thrive Tauranga is different in that we are bringing sectors together and creating a safe platform for them to break down silos to ideas share and problem-solve like never before.
"Our role is to facilitate that discussion and, where necessary, match up solution providers or additional connections that will help them evolve, rebuild and reframe their business models to meet the changing marketplace that we are all trying to operate in."
Cooke said networking was important because it builds up a business' contact base and its weekly meet-ups were designed to be outcome-driven.
"It's one thing to network, but to have a meaningful conversation with like-minded businesses that allows you to share ideas, problems and opportunities with a high level of trust is another."
Cooke said virtual networking was already assisting small businesses in a level 3 world.
"Suddenly everyone's talking Zoom! Whilst nothing can replace a face-to-face, in-person meeting, at least our digital tools of today allow us to still connect for meaningful, productive discussions.
"Our business community needs every opportunity to access the support they need to reframe and rebuild their businesses."
Co-founder and director of the Venture Centre, Pascale Hyboud-Peron, said Thrive Tauranga was an opportunity to offer connections and idea-sharing to the wider small business community in Tauranga.
"Venture Centre has been supporting the digital capability of small businesses with the PoweringON initiative and refined processes to support participants' set goals and have resources to reach them.
"Our team is really excited to contribute our expertise to Thrive as we know bringing people together to problem-solve together lead to positive outcomes."