I will be frank – I am an undecided voter. I wanted to make an informed decision so I did the sane thing – I bought a media pass and packed my bags for the International Conference Centre (ICC) in Birmingham. The Conference was enlightening… it certainly changed my perspective of the Conservative Party.
You can broadly split us up into three main categories: Conservatives, press and exhibitors. Each type had a different colour on their badge to indicate their separate status – mine had a beautiful yellow streak. There is mixing between all three groups, but press members are definitely considered separate to the others.
At the ICC, all you need to do is make eye contact and talk to someone. There are so many people and so many sessions that you can connect with people over anything. It’s the LinkedIn Premium User’s wet dream. You don’t need to be equals in age or status – you get the opportunity to rub shoulders with CEOs, ministers and some of the highest in society. There is so much interaction that it makes you want to crash with exhaustion at the end of each day.
The conference doesn’t end at 5pm. Oh, no. Don’t look at what the formal agenda says. Events on the fringes of the conference last until 10pm on some nights. You may meet some people at these events, and you may get on with them very well. They may invite you for a drink. The night spreads out beyond the conference centre – every pub and restaurant in the near vicinity is taken over for drinks. But this is definitely less so the case if you’re ‘press’. Or maybe I just didn’t know the right people?
How do you find someone with your same interests? And, most importantly, how can you be dancing with young Tories on the dancefloor? The answers lie in the Fringe events.
The Fringe is where you go to get the juicy gossip and fiery speeches. What you see on television is a lie – the power of the conference is in the Fringe, not the ministerial speeches with pre-planned material. The Fringe gives you a chance to interact with MPs, industry experts and CEOs on a one-to-one basis. The Fringe also provides the best seminars. You can ask questions on anything and they will answer you directly. You also get access to those populist politicians, those without a cabinet position but hold a lot of sway in the party. In the fringe Jacob Rees-Mogg is a sell-out name. The queue for the Brexitcentral rally which he starred in spans four floors of the building fifteen minutes before the start. The Fringe is where Boris Johnson delivered his leadership pitch to both press and members on the hall floor.
But here’s the interesting thing – most fringe events are sponsored, to raise specific topics rather than for organic conversation. Event sponsors include the Huffington Post, Atos, Nationwide, the Royal College of Midwives – the list goes on. Some of these sponsors also have exhibits as well, so you can’t escape from them.
Exhibitors are different to sponsors. In the centre of the ICC, there are a collection of exhibition stands. Each of them has goodies to entice you in. Think of Freshers’ Fair on steroids. Let’s take a step back and consider the names of some exhibitors this year: AECOM (currently expanding Waterloo station), Airbus (CEO complained that government doesn’t know how to run Brexit), Drax (taking over ScottishPower, had image problems from a Channel 4 documentary), Google (tax avoidance issues), the list goes on. It is obvious that these exhibitors have concerns with the government’s policies. Meanwhile, conference space is expensive. To get access to these stands, you needed at least £5000. That was just for the small exhibits; larger stalls required £12,000 upwards.
So why go to all this effort? Lobbying. You chat with important people and you hope to keep your company and your desire in the conversation. All the exhibitors want to sway the common perception.
For example, consider Blackpool – a seaside resort in the north-west of England which has built a questionable reputation for itself over the past few years due to degeneration. Blackpool last held the Conservative Conference in 2009. After this, the town was barred from holding the conference as there were no suitable venues to host a conference of that size. This was a massive blow for tourism in the town. So, Blackpool changed. Nine years later, and Blackpool has completely revamped its image. It has a new town hall, will be building a new IMAX cinema by 2020 and has just completed it work on its £25 million conference centre at Winter Gardens. After making these changes, people in the council bought an exhibition stand at the 2018 conference so they could show their regeneration to the country. And did it work? According to one of the exhibitors, onlookers wanted to return to Blackpool with many signing a petition to return the conference to Blackpool next year. So, place your bets now.
That was just some of what I learnt during my time there. I learned way too much to cram into this piece. All I know is that this Conference will be one that stays with me for the rest of my life. And if it is held in Blackpool next year, I will go and visit – after all, Blackpool has a fantastic Wetherspoons on the Promenade.