For the best part of 20 years, a huge part of my working life has pivoted around live events. As a business journalist the annual editorial calendar would be oriented towards trade shows and conferences. It's given me a good life, all told. I wouldn't have got to travel the world and learn as much without them. In my second act, from 2000, I found myself hosting business breakfasts, lunches and dinners pretty much every week. From 2012 I tried to build a client base as an events host and producer and to create a brand around live debates. Even at the University, building a regional network - and internal communications - has often involved the old fashioned tricks of filling a room full of the right people and engaging in meaningful conversations.
About a year ago, I really enjoyed interviewing Andy Burnham on stage at a business event for my old client the ICAEW in Manchester in front of a live audience (pictured, above). The occasion was great, and it was the bits around it, the people, the conversations and the laughs over drinks that made it an evening to remember.
COVID has clearly changed everything. I dare not even imagine the horrors of trying to earn a living doing all of these things in a time when events aren't allowed. The last live event I went to was TEDx Manchester at the Bridgewater Hall at the end of February. One by one, March's dates got cancelled including those run by good friends of mine.
Over time the attempts to do something different have been a real credit to the creativity of the events professionals I've got to know over time. I still get asked to chair sessions, introduce speakers and even speak at events and it's been a genuine lifeline since March. During lockdown, I've also been to lots of events on Zoom, and I was at one today about cities that was organised by the outrageously good new media outlet, Tortoise. New techniques, rhythms and disciplines have been established in that relatively short space of time. Technology can't make a boring speaker better, and sadly it can't light up a Zoom call in the way a great speaker can electrify a live audience.
It's also required events themselves to be better structured and sharper. Given most of us get drained by the performative demands of Zoom calls and Teams meetings, the stage management of an event demands that something has to be better paced, scripted and prepped.
I'm in that process at the moment, thinking through some internal projects, but also how we project externally and being part of the constant conversation. I've been grateful to Quest Media, Bird Consultancy, Downtown, the Growth Company, Labour Economics Society and Manchester Digital for opportunities to take a virtual stage over this time. Tomorrow I'm involved in two sessions at the iNetwork annual conference for public sector leaders. Next week, I'm hosting some freestyle pitches at the People's Powerhouse event. We should have been in Blackpool. Maybe next year.
Soon hopefully, we're hatching plans for a hybrid event schedule which I'm starting to get excited about. It will be a way to get back together in some form, when this cursed lockdown and social distancing is over.