Delegates are being short-changed by events that fail to tackle pressing issues, says TERRY MURDEN
Conferences are big business and contribute substantially to city economies. But how many actually live up to expectations? Among the gatherings that took place over the past week were two with a long list of pressing issues for speakers and delegates to get their teeth into and spark some lively debate, but there were opportunities lost at both events.
At the Scottish Tourism Alliance autumn conference, there was no mention from the main platform of the short-term letting controversy, the visitor levy or business rates, hot topics that continue to dominate the news headlines and were surely in the minds of those who attended.
Richard Lochhead, the tourism minister, was the guest speaker, but as a journalist from another media outlet said to me “I’ll be surprised if he mentions short term lets”. He was correct. The minister said nothing about the issues that some of the 400 delegates really wanted to hear.
Instead, we got ten minutes of waffle and somewhat patronising praise for “all their hard work” in a speech clearly written for him by those who were keen to ensure he said nothing interesting. He still got a round of applause when there should have been a few calls from the floor for some clarification on government policy.
Over to the Everyman Cinema for the MyCity Edinburgh event which was based on a substantial piece of research billed as being about the city’s future. The first hour was spent being told about its past, the creation of the Scottish parliament, the bioquarter and St James Quarter, and a pointless lesson on how cities were created.
It only got interesting when David Peck, managing director of Buccleuch Property, let rip on the “challenging environment” which was stalling investment and development. There was some interesting data on the office market and more complaints about Tenants Minister Patrick Harvie’s “irrational” rent freeze, but there was no discussion of the shape of retail, the pressures and opportunities of tourism, tackling traffic congestion, or solving the housing crisis.
Conferences and seminars work best when they are focused around a specific problem or problems. Cut down on the “sustainability, collaboration, diversity and strategic vision” stuff which is now taken as read and is included to make sure everyone knows that we’re all doing our bit to make the world a better place.
They need to be more practical, addressing real concerns, and it’s important to get the audience involved. Invite questions earlier instead of squeezing them into ten minutes at the end of a three hour session of over-long speeches. After all, they may have paid a few hundred pounds to attend and have made the effort because they want answers to issues that are bothering them. They don’t want Powerpoint graphics and pie charts that flicker on screen so briefly that no one understands them, speakers stating the bl***ing obvious, or telling them what they already know.
We live in a world of data that ought to make us prepared for what it is telling us to expect. More often than not the data proves to be wrong. It gets binned, and we produce more data. And so it goes on.
This time last year most people expected a recession by now. Instead the US economy has been going gangbusters and even the UK is clinging to thin rates of growth.
Resilience is the word, even in the face of an onslaught of inflation and higher interest rates.
We’re now in a stand-off between the hawkish central bankers determined to slay the inflation dragon and politicians who worry that they will tip the economy over the edge.
The good news is that UK inflation is due to fall sharply before the year is out. The bad news is that interest rates will remain “higher for longer”, at least until this time next year. Unless, of course, the data proves to be wrong and the forecast is changed.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business