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  • Charlie McVeigh

It's Come to This: I Am Missing the Psychodrama of Conferences & Awards Ceremonies

Updated: May 7

The young, thrusting entrepreneur in ‘The Sector’ opening his or her third site starts to come to the attention of the trade press. If, as well as apparently being successful, there is also something new about the concept and the ambition is unfeasibly large, a star can quickly be born.


Suddenly, in addition to the daily grind of fending off creditors, dealing with complaints or sacking a barman for nicking from the till, this nascent superstar is The Future with a name appearing daily in the newsletters. Before long, our ingenue is being asked to speak at conferences and might even be invited onto panels with themes like ‘The Future of Casual Dining’ or ‘Is the Pub Dead?’.


Most people who believe they are well-placed to create a hospitality business have ego issues to start with (too much, not too little, just to be clear. I speak as someone who knows).

After all, given that it is received wisdom in the general population that opening a restaurant is as dangerous as trading bitcoin, only without the upside, no first-time operator can be unaware of the risk. So, monumental self-belief is required. I hope no reader will take offence if I describe it as a borderline personality disorder.


And then we put such a person on stage, in front of hundreds of experienced operators, suppliers and journalists, and ask them to explain why they are so special or, even better, give them an award?


For the disciplined, it is a wonderful opportunity to spread the word, reaching out to the great and the good to build relationships that will benefit all concerned. But we have all seen what can happen when it goes to the head, when the callow youth on stage starts to believe that he is God’s gift to the future of the second oldest profession.


This is not to mention that we’re all in hospitality, so the probability is that we like a drink and a late night into the bargain. Make no mistake, it’s easier to talk about being successful while enjoying the adulation, free beer and snacks then it is to do it.


But even if it isn’t an ego-driven crash and burn, the effects of the publicity parade can be insidious. Because unless you are in the select band who have the creativity and the discipline to build a high-profile, scalable brand, the moment in the sun will be brief. The challenge can become how to keep those existing sites going rather than opening more. The stage appearances and press mentions dry up and our not-so-young operator now finds his or herself sitting in the audience at events, if they are lucky enough to be invited, watching the next generation come through. There is even the possibility that a PR company might be hired to generate some hype around the brand such that panel-worthiness or awards might be re-achieved, rather than improved sales and profits.


Of course, for the audience, this can make for entertainment on the scale of latter-day gladiatorial combat. Under the cover of absorbing the latest trends and technology, the psychodrama playing out live is hugely compelling, even if one sometimes does have to look away.


Having been through the above cycle myself several times, and come out mostly unscathed, before Covid I had cooled on attending industry events. Often they would sit in my diary and then be blotted out by other appointments and, over time, disappear. Increasingly, I regarded them as a waste of time.


But now, can there be anyone out there who doesn’t crave the fabulous fun and serendipity of a room full of your peers trading war stories, inappropriate gossip and even the odd useful business tip? We are fundamentally a social industry. For most of us, the reason we got into this is we like being on both sides of the bar, working and playing hard, meeting new people and catching up with old friends. One of the terrifying elements of working-from-home (God I hate that phrase) is the total control and predictability. You know who you are going to meet, hour after hour, call after call. The door to the echo-chamber is locked and we are on the wrong side of it, many of us fighting for survival.


So, I for one cannot wait for the first event. And I don’t think I will ever take them for granted again. Calling organisers and sponsors! I am up for anything, as quick as you can, please. Right now, I would attend the opening of an envelope.