All aboard the think tanker

Contrary to appearances, 400 human resources executives worked hard during their free three-day cruise. They even had to pay for their own drinks
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The Independent Online
ALMOST 400 senior human resources executives, not holidaymakers, disembarked from P&O's luxury liner The Arcadia when it docked in Southampton last Sunday. Following the "by invitation only" two-and-a-half day cruise around the coasts of Brittany and the Channel Islands, most were probably teased by family and friends for enjoying a relaxing "jolly". But in reality they had attended an intensive and, for most, a highly productive "strategic business forum".

They had taken part in a programme of keynote speeches, presentations and workshops and joined in discussion groups, "hands-on" sessions and a think- tank. They met senior representatives of 111 firms offering goods and services in which they had a professional interest. All this, apart from drinks, cost them nothing.

The original concept of running forums for senior executives on cruise liners was developed in 1989 by a division of Emap which ran trade shows. After a management buy-out in 1992, Richmond Events was formed and is now owned by its original management team and employees.

Mark Rayner, managing director, explains that sometimes there were problems in delivering a decent audience to the exhibitors at trade shows. "That's not to say all trade shows fail to deliver a decent audience ... but as soon as you take the decision-making up to a senior level, where larger sums may be involved and where it's a more strategic or intellectual decision, it is very difficult to get these people to come along to a trade show."

He says that to attract senior executives to the forums for two days, "we have to give them real business value from the event. We give them a three-way proposition. We offer a programme of conference options. This is not a conventional two-day conference programme. We find that what most senior people want to do is pick two or three sessions that really interest them and then spend the rest of the time meeting people and networking.

"They can see a selection of suppliers where they not only know which company is going to be there, but also which individual will represent the company. If suppliers send someone junior, delegates don't ask to see them.

"They also get 60 hours on board when they have time to mix with people doing the same job as themselves ... which many regard as at least as valuable, if not more valuable than anything else on board. So it's that triple mix which makes it worth their while giving up two days."

By drawing audiences of senior executives there by invitation only, suppliers of goods and services appear happy to pay for the event. "We say, rather than spending huge amounts on a stand in an exhibition hall, would you like to pay simply for the time you spend on board?" They are told the number of meetings available to them, and can name those they would like to see, although the organisers cannot guarantee that those delegates will want to see them. Each delegate receives a personalised timetable two weeks before sailing detailing their conference sessions. The cost to suppliers is up to pounds 14,000.

The concept has proved very successful, although the first events in 1990 and 1991 suffered a loss. This year there will be 13 such events, including two out of New York on the QE2 and two from Italy. The UK functions covered include catering (on The Arcadia) IT, finance, logistics and marketing (all on The Oriana).

Many events start with a good concept but fail in their execution, particularly by poor administration and cost-paring. There were no such failings on the human resource forum. The main complaint was that the swimming pool and jacuzzis had been drained "for cleaning" on the organiser's instructions - to stop delegates being seduced away from their schedule. When word leaked out as to the real reason, delegates ruefully admitted that they were probably sensible to do so.

Some also felt that the programme was perhaps too packed. Because delegates were even meeting suppliers over meals - they could be fully occupied from breakfast at 7.45am until the end of dinner at 10.30pm.

People were impressed by the attention given to the details. These included the calibre of the speakers and the preparation which had gone into most of their talks. Speakers, under the chairmanship of broadcaster Peter Hobday, included Shaun Holliday the managing director of the Guinness Ireland Group; Barry Gibbons who was formerly world- wide chairman and chief executive officer of Burger King; and James Bellini, analyst and author.

Delegates commented on the quality of the literature, the consistent design of speakers' slides, the timekeeping of sessions, audio-cassettes of all major talks being available for purchase, and the free daily newsletter produced on-board by the prize-winning human resources team. They enjoyed too the 20-strong military band playing as we set sail.

Bearing in mind the cost, what did the suppliers think of it all? Helen Pitcher, managing director of Cedar International, told the human resources newsletter that "we did pounds 200,000 worth of business last year and 1998 looks even better". As they say "worse things happen at sea".