Ten years ago, just about to the day, I was checking in to the Great John Street Hotel in Manchester. I was all ready for the Labour Party Conference; Gordon Brown was the Prime Minister and this was a big event. And not only was I arriving at Great John Street – so were platoons of my then-agency’s clients. We had block-booked the whole of one of the city’s very best boutique hotels, we were taking over the rooftop bar for our party, and we were charging clients around £1500 for a four-day bed-and-breakfast package.
It was a bit of an odd atmosphere in Manchester that year. Northern Rock had gone to the wall a year before; Lehman Brothers had collapsed only a few days before we all arrived at the hotel. What had seemed like it would be an enjoyable extravagance when we booked Great John Street in the Spring now felt like a reckless moment of over-indulgence. We enjoyed the luxury for a few days but with a sense that this was the fin de siecle, that we would never see the like again.
That is, of course, what has happened. After the Great Recession and years of austerity memories of the excesses of the Mid-Noughties are fading away. Where once frontline teams had budgets to spend as they wished, and often had money to spare, now the roost is ruled by procurement departments, challenging every bill (even ones that are far more justifiable than four days at a boutique hotel). The idea of splashing the cash is now anathema, and probably rightly so.
This trend towards frugality has been followed by the choice of conference hotel. After 2008 we stayed for years in a Hilton DoubleTree in Manchester and Birmingham, and we gave up on trying to sell four night packages: clients would come in for a couple of days, staying for one night, and get away quickly to return to the day job. In recent years even a DoubleTree has felt a bit much, and Travelodges, Best Westerns and Airbnb have hoved into view. For Tory conference this year I’m in a Premier Inn a good walk from the ICC, and I’ve questioned whether even £120 a night for two nights is worth it.
In part all of this is part of a tale about political party conferences. Are they worth attending even if you spend as little as you can? I would argue yes, but you have to decide which event you are going to: is it to do politicking in the hall, the bar and the donors’ parties; to try actually to lobby people at fringe events or in one-to-ones; or to go to the main public affairs trade show, showing your face and promoting your new firm? If you’re clear about what you’re there for – and what you’re not – then yes, they can be valuable events.
But even if party conferences continue to be worthwhile will we ever return to the happy days of boutique hotels? Probably not, and that’s not a bad thing – other than in one respect. No one wants to go back to the irresponsibility and carelessness of pre-2008, but one thing block-booking Great John Street represented was a sense of optimism. The economy was growing and changing, and it felt like we were all growing and changing with it. By contrast, the last ten years have felt stagnant, and people have pretty much forgotten what it feels like to have the wind at their backs. When I’m traipsing through Birmingham to my Premier Inn next week I’ll be thinking that the real shame of the last decade is the demise of self-confidence.