Last week I took a rare opportunity to indulge in a spot of mild annual leave. There was no Ryanair, no tapas, no Euros, and no hateful airports. I spent the whole week at home, emerging only to ride my damn fool bicycle and walk in the woods.
It was glorious.
Sadly, though, bicycling and walking in the countryside can’t be done when the sun has gone down, this meant that in the evenings I had to make camp on my sofa. To add some extra spice to the occasion, I watched some TV.
One evening I stumbled across EastEnders – one of the UK’s most popular soap operas. Why this show is popular is a mystery. It is full of misery and despair and death stalks Albert Square like a traffic warden stalks Oxford Street.
I used to watch it in the nineties and it is remarkable how it has barely changed at all. The Queen Vic still looks like the sort of pub you wouldn’t want to visit after dark, the market sells things you couldn’t possibly ever want, and the café does not convincingly comply with contemporary health and safety standards.
And that’s the thing: Albert Square looks the same today as it did when it was first beamed into our living rooms in 1985. The various Beale/Fowler/Cotton dynasties are still there, as is the pub, the market, the café, the park benches and the general sense of poverty and hopelessness. The only difference is that everyone now has a smartphone.
As a TV spectacle, EastEnders is hopelessly out of date – well, they’ve included ExCel London and The O2 in the intro. Anyway, when it started, life in the East End of London was pretty grim. Unemployment was high, prospects were low, and the regeneration of the Docklands area was but the fevered dream of a mad man. Today, though, unemployment is low, prospects are high, and Docklands is a maze of glass and fiscal magnificence.
Despite all the business and the booming, EastEnders still depicts the area as grim and poor. It is not. A realistic storyline today would be Ian Beale selling his huge Victorian pile for about £1.2m and moving further out into the suburbs, maybe to Chelmsford. Or Billericay. If all the landlords and homeowners did this then the show would be full of wealthy bankers and lawyers, the Vic would become a wine bar with a new anti-monarch name, the café would be a fair trade vegan tofu street food shop & book clinic, and the laundrette would be turned into luxury apartments.
But no: because of the audiences’ love for tradition, the same depressing storylines are told over and over again in an environment that is as dated as Walmington-on-Sea (the fictional setting of Dad’s Army, in case you didn’t know).
The problem is that EastEnders has never had a break. It’s a soap, which means it doesn’t run in seasons. It’s constant. The result is that the writers never have a chance to sit back, take stock, and review where they are or, more importantly, where they are going.
Whenever ratings get low, they bring back Leslie Grantham – once he’s put his hook away – and reveal how he faked his own death all those years ago, despite being shot and drowning in a canal. The wheel keeps spinning; nothing is ever new.
We, the viewers, pick up on mistakes and clangers all the time. For example, I’m fairly sure Nick Cotton has been killed twice – so how do the writers not spot such glaring errors?
This, naturally, brings me on to the conference and meetings industry. In my experience so far, everyone involved in any sort of event lauds its success regardless. I don’t blame them. The work that goes into organising event after event after event is hard and tiring. Universal success or not, if you’ve worked hard on something then it is only natural to take the positives.
This, though, is the problem. You become so engrossed in something that things find their natural head. Comfortable routine is just that: routine. You always book a south-facing venue because, well, you did it once and people liked the extra light. You don’t bother with ID card barcodes because why bother, your printed spreadsheet and checklist has worked fine all these years. And why on earth should you change your website? The one you’ve got has been doing its job perfectly well for 12 years.
What if, though, people get irritated with your south-facing venue because the glare from the sun’s rare appearance makes the projector screen impossible to see? What if moving towards scanning barcodes will save you time rather than flicking through 50 pages of grid? What if your website is no longer visible to people on newer browsers because its so old?
You may not be aware of any of these issues unless someone points them out to you. But people complain about the silliest things these days, so why bother listening to them? It’s only ‘one or two people’. Are you sure? Are you sure there aren’t hundreds of people out there comparing the conference you’ve organised with potentially better ones?
Ask any event manager or conference organiser what the key to a successful event is and they will likely begin the list with ‘planning’ – and rightly so. To be critical of ones’ self, though, is just as important. Ask yourself: is this the best it can be? Even if you’ve done it ‘that way’ for 10 years, that doesn’t mean it’s strictly ‘the best way’.
There’s no right or wrong way, well, there’s plenty of wrong ways, but getting with the times is an important place to start. You don’t need to use technology for technology’s sake, or start booking rooms in basements to cancel out the possibility that sunlight may glare the screen. What you don’t want, though, are people comparing you to a soap opera that thinks it’s still an accurate portrayal of how things are. Because it just isn’t.
Times change. Make sure your event does too.