This column was conceived a month ago, on a rain-swept railway
platform. I’d been dumped at Birmingham International by a disgracefully
underperforming Virgin engine, en route from Euston to the annual Radio
Festival conference in the city centre.
Discarded passengers were told to catch a local train. A few minutes
later I realised that Bob Geldof, booked to make the keynote speech of
the morning conference session we were both rushing to attend, was also
held up, and looking miserable. He was travelling to Birmingham from
London in order to talk to people usually employed in or near the
capital, who were congregating in a place not of our choosing.
Geldof discreetly practised his warm-up jokes while angry Midlands
commuters eavesdropped, happy for any diversion: we were all praying for
a local shoppers’ ’hopper’ to come to our rescue. We eventually arrived
safe, but late, at Birmingham New Street. Geldof went on to give a good
speech to the annual festival about the special quality of radio,
pirates and how he hoped to profit from radio’s commercial expansion.
But the experience of wasted time, rotten travel arrangements and of
being in a remote city, made me look at my diary afresh. Especially when
I found that many of BBC Radio’s brightest executives were also delayed
for hours on the M40, M42 and M6.
I’ve attended eight conferences in the last year which required an
overnight stay, but found only one of them unmissable: Rupert Murdoch
haranguing the BBC at the European Audiovisual conference last April.
I’ve turned down at least that number because they were in remote
places; Banff in Canada, Berlin, the Greek Islands.
It’s odd how many times the organisers have said: ’ah, we’re switching
to somewhere with more life next year’. Barcelona instead of Berlin.
Once upon a time a conference ticket was a device to escape the office
and reward favourites. But in today’s stressed climate, that is
impossible. It’s why the only sort of conferences people rush to attend
are day-long and tied to very specific subjects.
Those who work in the networking professions, whether journalism, PR or
lobbying, have a common grounding: it has been drummed into us that it
is valuable - essential even - to network and to be seen in the right
places. I have always assumed this to be an iron discipline: that you’re
finished, for example as a media journalist, if you find the Edinburgh
International TV Festival, coming up later this month, too boring. Now I
say, rubbish. We have e-mail, faxes, and cheap newsletters.
Conferences have to adapt to the times. I favour the short, sharp
focused day-long event rather than the long drawn-out weekend. Give me
Brighton over Barcelona or Cannes any day.