Like many large companies we used to hold annual conferences for our staff and we always used to hire interesting/celebrity guests to either occupy a guest speaker spot or moderate the main sessions. The results were sometimes fascinating, sometimes disappointing but never boring. It was not at all easy for them because our workforce was young, fun loving and also pretty merciless to those that they felt were either patronising or disinterested in them.
We always tended to book people like newscasters, TV presenters, explorers, travel industry leaders or suchlike and their performances were as diverse as their occupations. Here are just a few of the people we used and what we thought of them.
The most interesting speaker we ever had was Sir Ranulf Fines. His ability to casually explain how he cut his own frostbitten fingers/toes off was pure theatre and the knowledge he imparted on some of the coldest most hostile parts of the world kept the audience rapt. Unfortunately he was also the most boorish bad mannered guest I ever met. He arrived and refused to speak to anyone. He said he was being paid for one purpose and that was not small -talk to our directors or VIPs. He literally went from snarling egotist to fascinating hero and back to egotist at the blink of an eye. A thoroughly unpleasant person in my view but I would re-book him tomorrow for his spellbinding speech.
Other explorers we used were Benedict Allen who demonstrated how to eat Witchety grubs and Quinten Kountze who took off his false leg to show us where a lion had bitten it off! Both good value but best not just before lunch!
Newscasters and TV hosts were another good source, particularly as moderators. The best I remember was Fiona Bruce who I admittedly drooled over especially when she charmingly ‘slapped down’ my over attentive boss. The very worst was Adrian Chiles who rivalled Sir Ranulph’s ego and lack of interest but sadly not his genius. He stomped in still wearing his cycle clips clearly un-researched and overtly showed he could not wait to leave..
The very best at his job was Peter Sissons. We booked him to moderate in the style of his show ‘Question Time’. Boy did he make me and the rest of the executive team squirm as he close questioned us on our salaries, strategy and staff benefits! Some still bear the scars but sadly not those who had the hides of rhinos but the guiltiest consciences.
The great thing about Peter was the way he really tried to join in which was almost his undoing. So much so that I could possibly still blackmail him if I had the desire to do so! We wanted to get all 1200 staff to the conference so we decided to run three back to back day sessions along with three evening dinner parties. It was like a huge endurance challenge and my part of the project included running the evenings and paying the bar bills. The latter were costing at least £11,000 a night which adds up to quite a few pints of beer and made my expenses claim interesting to say the least.
Peter stuck with us from start to finish. He was extremely self aware because of his public profile and very careful not to compromise himself in the slightest way. He wore exactly the suit and tie he uses on TV (he has a wardrobe full of the same suits) and behaved soberly and impeccably almost to the end. By the third night we were all pretty exhausted. Peter had worked hard all day and his guard began to slip slightly especially as he had been targeted by three of our naughtier girls from our London office who’s table he was sitting at. By the end of the evening I spotted him half asleep, jacket off, tie undone and the girls undoing his shirt buttons. I stopped them immediately after I took my all too damning photograph.
For a while after I still heard from Peter who always casually mentioned that photograph and wondering if he could have the original negatives. He never got them but I never used them as he was a good presenter and a great guy who behaved impeccably throughout.
Our conferences are legend and I will reveal all of what went on when I feel brave enough. In the meantime here are some verdicts on other ‘guests’:
Dara O’Brien the comic. Like most comics a miserable man when not performing. Spoke to nobody before/after although his act was great.
Steve Davis and Jason Leonard. Great sportsmen and good speakers. Both went out of the way to talk to our VIPs.
Bill Giles the weatherman. Awful.
Tiff Needell the car presenter. Bombed badly.
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