It was, by anyone's standards, a knees-up to remember: many of the dancers were in fancy dress, the 1970s disco hits kept on coming, and there were goody bags all round. "It certainly beats a day at the office," said one happy participant as she left to board her going-home bus. "Can we come again tomorrow?"
It's not often that a company lays on a fun-filled day out for every one of its 56,000 employees, but that's what Marks & Spencer is currently doing. Last week's event at Birmingham's NEC was the latest in a series designed to touch the lives of every one of its workers. So have its directors decided they might as well sink what's left of their dwindling profits into a final, farewell fling, or are they getting in early with the Christmas cheer? Not a bit of it: the Birmingham show might have looked all gloss and glamour, but at its heart was a serious message that M&S's beleaguered executives are hoping will put the nation's once-favourite store back on its pedestal.
The retailer is spending a reputed £10m (a figure disputed by management) on the services of an American go-get-it retail guru, Mary Gober. Gober, who hails from Chicago, has been drafted in to put a bit of fizz into the company's staff, after bosses decided a bit of geeing-up could be the key to turning around their flagging sales, which have fallen for seven quarters in a row.
There's a lot riding on the world-renowned Gober for M&S, but it is not the only firm that is sinking its funds into motivational speakers: over the past five years, an industry of charismatic speakers has sprung up across the corporate world, and is now a multimillion-pound industry. Using stunts from firewalking to giving out dollar bills, from gritty from-the-heart accounts of survival against the odds to tales of "how I turned my life around when the world was against me", the performers have the nation's employees on the edge of their seats - and, the bosses, hope, profit increases and record growth just around the corner. But motivation comes at a price: professional motivators charge as much as £10,000 a performance. For middle-ranking celebrities £20-30,000 is entirely possible, while for a big, international star such as Gober we're talking far more.
In the UK motivators fit into two broad categories: the celebrity speaker and the professional motivator. The first are big-name acts - among those netting the biggest fees are figures such as Olympic athlete Kriss Akabusi, yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, Olympic-bid architect Lord Coe and SAS hero Andy McNab - who take their listeners on a tour of their own careers in a bid to instill their own tenacious, go-getting qualities into their audience. The second category aren't household names but people who have made their own names in the business world before realising that they had a talent for inspiring similar success in others: they're top-rate communicators designed to wake up the workforce at the annual sales meeting.
Most of the professional motivators use a range of props to get their message across - and it's not just music and Powerpoint presentations, either. Gober gives each member of her audience a dollar bill to ram home the point that passing the buck isn't an option: if you work in the children's wear department and a customer asks you a question about women's underwear, you don't just point into the distance, you give the customer your time and lead her to where she wants to be and to someone who can help her.
Nigel Risner, a top performer, has a wooden arrow that he invites a volunteer to place against his neck and walk into: no blood is shed, but it's making the point that risks sometimes have to be taken, and that you will survive (he also hands out prizes to all those who offer to help him with his stunts: risk-takers, he says, deserve an instant reward).
But are these high-level performances really going to make a difference? Critics say the motivation industry merely peddles common sense for millions, while even those who take a more charitable view whisper that companies such as M&S may be confusing a "quick fix" with the deeper changes that take months or years to put into place.
According to Pam Jones, programme director at Ashridge Business School, the most important factor is not just what staff come out of their rah-rah sessions enthusing about, but what happens after the event. "What they're doing represents a tremendous amount of investment, and you want it to do more than inspire people for just a few hours," she says.
See what you think the next time you're in Marks & Spencer.
MEET THE MOTIVATORS: FOUR TO TURN TO IF YOU WANT TO LIVEN UP YOUR ACT
MARY GOBER, 56
Clients include: M&S, Royal Royal Bank of Scotland, BA
USP: Website boasts she's "the most dynamic force in customer service culture".
Buzz phrases: "Put a smile in your voice"; "Everything I do or say is either a service or disservice to another person".
NIGEL RISNER, 43
Clients include: John Lewis, Pepsi Cola, Barclays, Feltham Young Offenders' Institute.
USP: "It's less about me, and a lot more about them - 1 per cent me, 99 per cent them."
Buzz phrases: "Turning limited people limitless"; "If you're in the room, be in the room".
ANTHONY ROBINS, 45
Clients include:Hallmark, Ford, the US army
USP: Shot to fame as the speaker who teaches people to firewalk across hot coals to boost their courage.
Buzz phrases: "Turn the shoulds into musts"; "I will lead, not follow".
BEAR GRYLLS, 30
Clients include: The Institute of Directors, British Telecom.
USP: Youngest Briton to climb Everest, despite breaking his neck two years before.
Buzz phrase: "The difference between ordinary and extra-ordinary is so often simply that little word - extra."Reuse content