Down but not out

And the government by the people, for the people, of the people shall not perish from this earth

In a time where Wolseley have shed thousands of jobs and hundreds of branches, where even Travis Perkins and Grafton are cutting back on acquisition activity and the latter’s sales are 14% down after 10 months, and where half the heavyside manufacturers have closed or mothballed plants, it’s hardly surprising that something had to give.

That it was the Conference 2009 that had to give is a real shame. And I say that not only because, as one of the organisers, I have a great deal emotionally invested in it, but because I firmly believe the industry next year will be the poorer for doing without it.

Where else can you see that many customers and suppliers in one place over a three-day period? Where else are those customers and suppliers going to be sufficiently relaxed that business conversations are remembered more as friendly chats between buddies – and are therefore twice as valuable? Where else can you forge business relationships at formal networking sessions which you cement over the next few hours and days over a couple of beers and maybe a fancy cocktail with an umbrella in it? At what other event can you do all this without the temptation to pop back to the office for a couple of hours, ‘just in case’?

There are relatively few other events in the industry that stick in the mind quite as much as the various major conferences – for all sorts of reasons, good and bad, professional and personal – and they’ve all become talking points. I’ve probably sourced better news stories and feature ideas and made more valuable contacts – plus a couple of very important friendships – from attending conferences than any other way.

And that’s important because this industry is all about talk. About relationships, about people, about contacts. Yes, times are very, very tough indeed. Listening to the worries and feedback from suppliers and manufacturers, THE Conference organisers had no choice but to cancel our option in Spain and to reluctantly stop looking at other, shorter, nearer, lower cost alternatives. Events like these need commitment, lots of it, if they are to work properly and if the market conditions are such that that commitment is hard to come by, then so be it.

Yes, there are other events which are superbly successful in bringing together merchants and suppliers: Cemco Connect; NBG’s Christmas Conference, BMF North West Conference, NMBS Exhibition and Dinner, Unimer’s Trade Day, the Awards later this week… and we are going to need such events more than ever in the next 12 months.

We’re also going to need the conference again, maybe in a different format because it’ll be a different industry that emerges the other side of the recession. But hopefully not so different, because what has kept so many of us in it for so long is the people.

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About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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