Where there's muck there's brass for celebrity speakers

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The Independent Online
I'M AN unimaginative type, I'm afraid, and conference schedules rarely grip me. But it was difficult not to goggle at one that arrived promoting the Yorkshire Business Conference on 19 May.

Speakers at the conference, which is supposed to "reflect the dynamism and diversity of Yorkshire commerce and industry", include Lord Healey, Helen Sharman, General Sir Peter de la Billire, Maurice Saatchi and - wait for it - Henry Kissinger.

What is it about Harewood House that has attracted such an illustrious bunch? Is the Earl of Harewood that well connected? Do they all have Yorkshire roots? Baser stuff, I'm afraid: the speakers, with some honourable exceptions, have come because they have been paid. Dr Kissinger, or Kissinger Associates to his friends, is getting $100,000 (£63,000) for his trouble. The total cost of the day will, the organisers say, be close to half a million.

And who on earth is coughing that sort of money up? Most of it - £400,000 - will come from 2,000 folk who are turning up at £200 a head (800 as guests of company sponsors). But the balance - probably a few tens of thousands - will come out of the pocket of Mike Firth.

Here we get to the nub. Mr Firth is head of Yorkshire Foods and a great county patriot (countriot?). He has an almond processing factory in a town called Bakersfield in California, which is now known across the States for its annual conference. This was started 10 years ago by a local lawyer, George Martin, to get the place well known and attract investment. It grew and grew, and last year had 13,500 people jammed into the biggest tent in the world. Now Mr Firth wants to do the same for Yorkshire.

The trick, as he says, is to get the momentum going. "It's a difficult concept to sell," he says. "We're trying to bring speakers in who can educate, entertain and inspire." Dr Kissinger was not Mr Firth's first choice, he admits. It was FW de Klerk. And no, the doctor will not be talking about business opportunities in Yorkshire. Shame really: that would be quite something.