My issues with networking events – even sexy ones

8 Jan

IMG_9674I have had, shall we say, “issues” with the popular Downtown brand Sexy Networking. But last year I started to feel a little more comfortable with it, especially after a fantastic event at Revoluçion de Cuba.

Judging the success of an event is quite simple. Did enough people come along? And did they have a good time?

Beyond that, the nuances and measurements can be quite complex. Anyone in any business will tell you that the capacity to surprise and be different is what gives any kind of business an edge. And so it is with Downtown events.

I’ll admit that I have found the name and brand behind ‘sexy networking’ tricky. Without even explaining to my wife and kids that I’m going to an event where you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s full of people randomly getting off with each other. Obviously that isn’t what it is all about. Far from it.

So I say without fear or favour that the last sexy networking event was superb. I had the opportunity to meet a good proportion of the 200 or so who had pre-registered. There was an array of new faces and really interesting businesses who I had not had the chance to meet before. The buzz in the room was incredible. My colleagues Frank McKenna and Lucy Cort were introducing people to one another, asking who they were interested in meeting and brokering a handshake.

When we met with a delegation of Australian MPs from the parliament of Victoria last summer, the ‘sexy networking’ brand caught their attention and was duly noted in their report. It’s also the brand that many other people in business can’t get past.

IMG_9680But if Downtown was only about this then we’d have a problem. In the last few months we’ve met with ministers, Lords, chief executives of local authorities and heads of major public sector organisations who seek to engage with the private sector. We have built up a major campaign with a member company on the subject of poor behavior by the banks. Our conferences and events have had a high level of debate and engagement. We’re only able to do this because we listen to all levels of business. We are getting an understanding of what all kinds of businesses want, need and how they think about the world.

So many events are a bit of this and a bit of that. But precisely because we have so much else besides, rather proves the point that there isn’t a one-size fits all approach for business events. But this is why I believe so much in constant innovation. Always thinking carefully about what works, not what has always been the way of doing things. At a ‘sexy networking’ event last year I was confronted by a middle-aged bank manager who arrived, looked around, asked me where all the millionaires were and left. He shouldn’t have been there. Part of what we do as an organisation is to put people together, who we know will be able to do business together. We’re getting a good idea about what works, what doesn’t, who to invite to what, what people want, and how people want to interact.

But sexy is also the antithesis of all those other things you’d associate with business events – stuffy, boring, staid and predictable.

My actual main problem is with the word ‘networking’. I think it has been overused to the point of it now becoming meaningless. I hardly ever use it to describe what we do, because it just conjurs up such negative imagery. It has such a coldness about it. The problem is, I just can’t immediately think of a better one.



Interviewing a big hitter – Lloyd Dorfman of Travelex

8 Jan


I love interviewing people in a live setting, as I’ve said before. My biggest challenge of 2013 was Lloyd Dorfman who was in town as part of his work withe the Prince’s Trust. He is chairman of Travelex, the people you probably change your money with when you go on holiday.

I had the honour of interviewing him at an event held at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School for the Princes Trust. He’s a class act, a proper gent and he has an incredible grasp of detail. I wanted to get from him some inspirational stories, some anecdotes about his life, why he is such a generous supporter of the arts and of charities like the Princes Trust and what has driven him through his life.

He started his business in the toughest of economic times. In 1976 the odds were stacked against him when he founded the company as Bureau de Change from a single shop in London and now trades more than 80 currencies in more than 50 countries.

As he built the business up, he had to fight to get into locations like Heathrow Airport. He battled the vested interests of banks and dominant players. When the opportunity came along to bid for Thomas Cook’s financial services arm, Travelex was prevented from even entering the ring. He bet the whole business on sealing that £400m plus deal, but it proved transformational and projected the business to a global stage. When he eventually took cash out of the business, selling to Apax, he stayed involved, keeping a 30 per cent stake and retaining his role as chairman. Not executive chairman, not non-executive chairman, just chairman.

I didn’t pick up on this until later but so many of his stories weren’t just about the obstacles that he’d overcome, but how a relationship with a real person turned it – the official at BAA, the Thomas Cook shareholder who ushered him into the auction which led to him buying it. His relationship with his CEO Peter Jackson.

I thought to myself, even a man who operates at the very top of life thrives on such basic raw connections. It starts to emphasise something we can all too often forget: people sell people and people don’t buy from you if they don’t like you.

More than ever this is a connected economy. We are frequently reminded of this, but I firmly believe this firm human contact is more important now than it ever was. The foundation of businesses like LinkedIn warehouse your network and treat your contacts like a commodity, but you always run the risk that you miss out on what is important to any individual. Yes, he’s made a ton of money, he admitted too that he missed large swathes of his children’s upbringing, but those reflections told a great deal about what he truly values.

So, there you go. Spending time with one of the most successful businessmen of his generation teaches you the most important lesson in life. Don’t be horrible.

Above: the Prince’s Trust team with Lloyd Dorfman third from the right.

A Northern Revolution – 4/7/2013

28 Aug


Downtown pulled together some impressive senior voices from Yorkshire and the North West at the Northern Revolution conference in July. It served as a rallying call to Northern business leaders, academics and entrepreneurs to discuss the change needed to accelerate economic growth in the northern regions.

Shortly afterwards, Susan Williams (pictured) was appointed to the House of Lords, a great opportunity for one of the region’s leading Conservative politicians. Also on stage were chief executive of Leeds City Council, Tom Riordan, Liverpool Vision chief executive, Max Steinberg, and Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council.

The point of it all was summed up pretty well by Frank McKenna, our chief executive of Downtown in Business, who said: “What we need is a genuine decentralisation of the management of government power and funding so that we can take greater responsibility for our own destiny.

“Downtown is calling for a Northern Revolution that demands a transfer of decision making powers around the big strategic issues of education, skills and training, transport, planning and economic development to elected city regional mayors, supported by city region authorities.”

High on the day’s agenda was HS2 and the fundamental issue of capacity over speed in order for it to meet business travel needs in the North of England. It was suggested that while travelling is no longer downtime, this will certainly not be the case if passengers are packed onto a train and forced to stand.

The conference also heard from three entrepreneurs who agreed there is a requirement for Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool to pull together, helped by the HS2 network, to ensure economic growth in the North of England. They said that opportunities for investment, in the right schemes with a sound proposition, are out there, as long as people with the integrity to deliver can be found.

Young Enterprise

28 Aug

Young Enterprise  north-west awards 2013I got a great deal of satisfaction from working at the Young Enterprise North West Final again. I got to have dinner with Malcolm Walker, someone I’d always wanted to meet but never did. But more than that, as host, I got to see the energy and incredible business zeal of schoolkids in the final of this great competition. Encouraging enterprise amongst kids is a real passion of mine, I will do anything to advance it and hope to tell you about more events like it very soon.

Practice managers conference for the ICAEW

28 Aug

BN2ZQkECAAEZjbFPromoting an event often requires the careful curation of content leading up to it. In the case of the ICAEW’s practice manager’s conference this involved writing a thoughtful essay on creating organisational cultures. You can read it on the Economia website, but in truth, I was also chuffed to bits to have a cover byline on the award winning Economia magazine.

Wired 2013 for Daisy Group

28 Aug

I was involved in the planning, programming and thinking behind Daisy Group’s Wired event at Heythrop Park in Oxfordshire. Hosting on the day was a real buzz, the audience of Daisy customers were really appreciative of a useful technology event that didn’t overtly push products and services. There was plenty of opportunity for Daisy’s team to meet customers, but the main purpose was to better understand how technology is changing how business is done. I like being involved in an event from the beginning and shaping the narrative. Not only does it mean you can work with a team and share their objective, it also helps to really hone the message and get the tone right on the day. By working closely with Daisy’s head of communications Katharine McNamara, one of the best comms professionals I’ve worked with, we were able to get the tone of the event just right. in particular, taking time to brief the keynote speaker, ex-MP Steve Norris, who was excellent.

Downtown welcomes you to TechHub

27 May

One of my priorities foBLCrCWACUAA7IPkr Downtown Manchester in Business is to introduce groups of people to one another so they can make the city a better place to do business.

This was my motivation behind an event at TechHub, the incubator and shared workspace in Carver’s Warehouse in the Northern Quarter. It was a great success, Doug Ward from TechHub, Gareth Burton from Burton Beavan who provides me and techHub with financial advice, and Josh from Melbourne Hosting all gave their own perspective on how this ecosystem can connect in Manchester.

I’ll mention the context a little more – the event was informal, laid back and we served pizza and bottled beer. It also took place at 4pm on a Friday before the spring bank holiday at the end of May, a complete no-no in every events handbook I’ve ever read (or written). But it worked. All to do with the spirit of thinking differently.