The Italian Job

It’s a very difficult job and the only way to get through it is we all work together as a team.
And that means you do everything I say.

Well, that was all rather jolly. By which I mean, nice, productive, useful, fun and really quite lovely, rather than ‘a jolly’ which implies all play and no work.

It may have been delayed by two years, but the NMBS Conference was worth waiting for. It was worth the 3am start and the schlep up to London to collect the passport the week before, just to see Chris Hayward step out onto that stage in the huge auditorium in Sorrento and welcome delegates. Floppy sun-hats off to Chris, Sam, Andy and the teams at NMBS and First Event. You did it guys, you got us there.

The first ‘abroad’ conference since 2019 proved what this industry does so well – network, build relationships, build on those relationships and work together for a common goal. Sure, we’ve had plenty of get-together events since that weird day in March 2020, but none of them have felt really, truly like we were back to normal. Nearly normal, but always in the past year there has been the sense of ‘is it going to happen’? ‘Are we going to get kyboshed by another variant again’, ‘Will I test positive and not be able to make it’.

Plus, everything we have done thus far has been here, in the UK. Which is brilliant and works fine and at least there’s no Sleazy-jet or Cryin’Air to have to negotiate. But there’s something special about being with a big bunch of your peers, colleagues, competitors, friends somewhere that’s new. I don’t know if it’s the sense that you are all essentially in it together, us against Johnny Foreigner, or more probably that it’s easier to focus on getting the best from the conference when you don’t have the option of just popping back to the office for a couple of hours, or turning up late because the task that you wanted to ‘just finish’ turned out to need a bit more time and effort.

How many business relationships have been born from a conversation round a table about the venue, the view, the lovely little restaurant that you found on the dine-around or the unexpected sumptuousness of one’s hotel room? The opposite, of course, is equally true: “Premier Inn crossed with Guantanamo Bay” – I’ll just leave that there.

It’s often said that the speaker sessions are not the main reason for attendance, that they are the warm-up act for the real business of being together and building those business relationships. To an extent that’s true, but there is always, always something to learn from the presentations. I loved Sophie Devonshire’s division of people into stupid/lazy, clever/lazy, stupid/hardworking and clever/hardworking. We all know people who fit into every one of those categories.  Professor Damian Hughes had me vowing to re-think where I keep my phone when I’m trying to get on with work and Matthew Syed and David Smith are always worth listening to.

Incidentally, my old boss, when confronted with the accusations back in the office that conferences abroad were basically holidays on the company, had a simple retort. He always said that it’s not a holiday unless you would be prepared to spend your own money (and not claim it back) to go away with these people.

I’ve always thought that was a pretty good measure. Until I look at the delegate list (and those of conferences gone by) and realise that yes, I would, and yes, I have. I’m not alone in that. And that, boys and girls, is why this industry rocks.


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“Hang on a minute, lads. I’ve got a great idea.”

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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