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Thursday
Oct062016

Forest's top ten conference events

Our reception at the Conservative conference on Monday night attracted more guests (500) than any previous Forest event.

But was it the best?

Travelling home yesterday I compiled a list, beginning with our least successful party conference event.

10. Labour, Birmingham, 2008
Former MSP Brian Monteith and I found ourselves addressing just twelve people in a small nondescript meeting room where we explained why the Labour government's smoking ban had been so disastrous for pubs and clubs. It didn't help that Forest's fringe listing mysteriously failed to appear in the conference brochure and we were also stopped from handing out flyers promoting the event. 1/10

9. Labour, Bournemouth, 2007
Attempting to recreate the success of our 'Politics and Prohibition' reception at the Conservative conference in Bournemouth the previous year, we booked the same group of actors to enact a similar song and dance routine in a smaller room and without the mock police raid. Inevitably perhaps it fell a little flat. The event wasn't helped by the fact that the recently introduced smoking ban ensured that at least half our guests quickly gravitated to the garden where they could light up. 4/10

8. Conservative, Blackpool, 2007
The smoking ban also had a negative affect on our event in Blackpool where we struggled to find a venue with a decent smoking area. The location we eventually chose could accommodate our 300 guests but smokers were restricted to a narrow balcony adjacent to a busy road. Needless to say it was packed. Speakers that night included Tory MP Roger Helmer, who later joined Ukip, and Hamish Howitt, a local publican who fell foul of the local council after allowing people to smoke in his pub in breach of the new law. 5/10

7. Conservative, Birmingham, 2014
After the success of Stand Up For Liberty! at The Comedy Store in Manchester in 2011 and 2013 (see below) we attempted a similar event in Birmingham in 2014. Stand Up For Freedom featured journalist James Delingpole and comedian Alistair Barrie. A Comedy Store veteran, Barrie was the star of the show and got a great response from a packed room. Not for the first time at a Forest event people had be turned away on the grounds of health and safety! 7/10

6. Conservative, Manchester, 2011 and 2013
Stand Up For Liberty! was launched in 2011 as an antidote to the countess panel discussions and drinks receptions that dominate each and every party conference. We wanted to do something different so we hired The Comedy Store and they booked three comedians from the professional comedy circuit.

Guests were invited for drinks in the main bar followed by 60 minutes of stand up comedy in the 300-seat auditorium. In 2011 Paul Scully, now an MP, tweeted, "Forest fringe at the Comedy Store is possibly the best ever in my 14 years at conference", which was quite an endorsement. (We reciprocated by inviting him to speak at this year's event in Birmingham!)

Anyway we reprised the event two years later with a bill that included the brilliant Australian comedian Steve Hughes but dropped plans for a third show in favour of (yes, you guessed) another drinks reception. 7/10

5. Conservative, Birmingham, 2016
It's probably too early to say where this week's event in Birmingham ranks. The feedback has been very positive but as the organiser you're always conscious of little things that could have been done better. We were thrilled to set a new record for the number of people attending a Forest event (500) but that alone created problems that had to be managed. For example, extra staff had to be hired at short notice. We also had to abandon plans to serve cocktails because it was impossible to prepare so many in advance without losing their fizz. Thankfully we were in good hands and the staff at Nuvo were very helpful. 7/10

4. Conservative, Manchester, 2015
On aesthetic grounds the superb rooftop lounge we used for our reception in Manchester last year beats every conference venue we have ever used. Post smoking ban it's also the most smoker-friendly location you can imagine. Even if it rained I doubt you would get wet, unless there was a real storm. There were heaters, plenty of comfortable chairs and sofas – and a barbecue. The downside was its size. We could only accommodate 120 guests and had to turn away quite a lot of people. Based on feedback from those who were there, however, both the event and the location got top marks so we might return there next year. 7/10

3. Labour, Liverpool, 2011
After the farce of 2008 (see above) we thought long and hard before returning to the Labour conference. This time however we joined forces with the Working Men's Club and Institute Union (CIU) and booked the Cavern Club for an evening of music and speeches. The highlight was a 60-minute set by a highly entertaining Beatles tribute band. Over 200 people attended and BBC Five Live's Nicky Campbell also turned up to record interviews with members of the audience. Later, as he was leaving, Labour MP Michael Dugher, then parliamentary private secretary to party leader Ed Miliband, was heard saying, "That was the best event at the Labour conference." High praise or low bar? Well, I enjoyed it and it's definitely worthy of a place in the top three Forest conference events. 8/10

2. Labour, Brighton, 2005
As a conference event this was one of our smaller ones. In terms of media coverage however Forest's appearance at the 2005 Labour conference was far and away our most successful.

We booked a very small but well appointed room on the ground floor of the Metropole Hotel and invited some stellar panellists including Joe Jackson, Claire Fox and David Hockney to come and discuss Labour's proposed smoking ban.

Hockney's presence – which was confirmed less than 24 hours before the event – provoked a media storm that catapulted Forest into the following day's newspapers. Hockney also appeared on TV and radio and was the star of a bizarre photo opp I shall never forget.

The event took second place to the media frenzy but it was still great fun. In hindsight we could have filled the room several times over but it taught us that a small room, with every chair occupied and a queue of people trying to squeeze in, generates a far better atmosphere than a larger venue with more people but rows of empty seats.

It may not have been the highlight of that extraordinary day but it was everything a fringe event should be – wonderful guests, serious message, but full of laughter and joie de vrie. 9/10

1. Conservative, Bournemouth, 2006
This is the event that people who were there still remember. MPs had voted to ban smoking in the workplace seven months earlier but the policy had not yet been implemented and we wanted to mark the last occasion people could smoke indoors at a party conference by organising the largest smoker-friendly event we could.

We booked the ballroom at the Royal Bath Hotel (capacity 400), hired a jazz band, and with the help of a local events company dressed the huge room to suggest a Prohibition-style Speakeasy. We also recruited a small group of local actors and spent the afternoon rehearsing a mock police raid.

The idea was this. Our third and final speaker (Boisdale MD Ranald Macdonald) was to be rudely interrupted 30 seconds into his 'speech' by wailing sirens and blue flashing lights. Our troupe of actors, dressed as policemen and armed with truncheons, would descend the large staircase at the far end of the ballroom, force their way through the crowd, climb on stage and 'arrest' the speaker who would be charged with "inciting the audience to enjoy themselves".

At that point the 'policemen' would break into a short song and dance routine that would conclude with Ranald being led off stage and out of the room in handcuffs while the audience were encouraged to sing 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'.

Amazingly, everything went to plan and occasionally, in the middle of the night, I can still hear the sound of 400 people singing Monty Python's greatest hit as Ranald is led away smoking a cigar with an enormous grin on his face. 10/10

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Those are the best (and worst) Forest events at party conference. There are several more that have rather faded from memory.

I did however like the smoke machine we employed in Manchester a few years ago. (Credit to a former TMA CEO for that idea!)

We revived the idea in Birmingham this week (there just happened to be one lying around and it seemed silly not to use it) but the 'smoke' fizzled out rather quickly.

Either that or someone switched it off. I have my suspicions.

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