Every year, the Communication Directors’ Forum sets sail for a three-day cruise bringing together agencies, in-house communicators and others in the communications industry for an invaluable conference and forum. Brittany Golob reports
The time of the annual Communicators Directors’ Forum (CDF), run by Richmond Events, is nearing once again. The event offers a unique experience to all members of the communications industry – agencies, suppliers and clients alike – to come together for three days every October aboard the Aurora cruise ship, floating in the English Channel just off Guernsey, for conferencing, networking and fun.
The boat offers, “Invaluable insight” as a result of its “Focus strictly on communications,” according to Nick Terry, MD at events and leadership communications agency Top Banana. It is, ultimately, an excellent way for agencies to generate new business and for businesses to newly recruit agencies. But, the CDF also offers a comprehensive conference programme covering the issues relevant to communications professionals each year.
Brexit will be a big topic of discussion on this year’s boat. Two of the keynote speakers, Daniel Hannan, MEP for the south east and economist David McWilliams, will be examining the situation and what it means for Britain’s economic and political future. The mood is lightened a bit by Michael Foale, a former NASA astronaut who will discuss the ways in which space agencies tackle the challenges presented by sending humans to live and work in space.
Almost unanimously, suppliers and delegates alike say the conference is a key way of keeping abreast of developments in the comms industry. This year’s sessions extend from crisis communications to content to managing IPOs to managing a Millennial workforce.
“We’ve attended the forum several times, and each time we’ve been able to begin conversations with new contacts, learn a lot about the changing face of communications and the challenges the delegates face”
One session, led by Chas Howes, the former CFO of SuperGroup plc, purveyor of the Superdry clothing line, will discuss the company’s IPO and the challenges of transforming from an owner-led business, to a public company. SuperGroup’s 2010 IPO was conducted over a short nine month period, putting Howes at the centre of the financial communications puzzle, managing the needs of the company’s varied stakeholders – including analysts, journalists, PRs, regulators and more. “All of that revolves around managing the external messaging, managing the share price as much as you can manage it, and delivering on the expectations of that shareholder group,” Howes says.
He will be speaking across the Communication Directors’ Forum, and the concurrent Marketing Forum and Financial Directors’ Forum, all with different angles. His personal perspective on the company’s IPO should allow attendees to learn from the lessons of the journey and understand what is involved in such a process. But, he also hopes to spark a discussion among delegates. “I learn from the questions people ask me,” Howes adds. “They make me think and they challenge me to think in different ways.”
Alongside the conference sessions, and typically the main draw for the forum are the meetings between suppliers and delegates. Communications agencies, professional associations and other suppliers will have set meetings and informal networking opportunities with the considerable amount of in-house corporate communications professionals aboard ship.
Simon Banks, video expert at production company Tallboy Communications, says the CDF’s reputation is what makes the conference a key focus for the agency. “The networking opportunities are immense, and the venue will ensure everyone is focused on making the most of the occasion.” The hallmark of the forum is its location on board the Aurora, floating off the coast of Guernsey. Isolation allows for fewer distractions and means the networking and learning experiences throughout the forum are taken advantage of.
Longtime suppliers return year after year for the opportunities provided by the CDF. One such company, brand and creative communications agency Maverick lauds the ship for its ability to form connections. Andy Myring, Maverick’s head of design, says the forum has a good value for securing new business, “Before our ever first attendance at the event we were slightly sceptical about how successful the event would be and the quality of the clients attending, but we were reassured from the start. This event is very well run and the clients keen talk to new consultants and suppliers.”
For Terry and Top Banana, also longtime attendees, the networking and relationship building offered by the CDF are key factors for returning each year. “The value for us is in both the sharing of knowledge and the development of a wider network,” he says.
Alan Cooper, founder of digital communications agency Freestyle Interactive, agrees, adding, “We’ve attended the forum several times, and each time we’ve been able to begin conversations with new contacts, learn a lot about the changing face of communications and the challenges the delegates face. It’s also a good source of potential new business for us!”
For first-time attendees, the CDF may seem daunting. It’s massive. The Aurora has 10 decks and weighs 76,000 tonnes. Add to that, the intensive programme, full of conference sessions, keynote addresses, working breakfasts, lunches and dinners, networking drinks and events, the boat never sleeps. Literally, sometimes, as the bars, casinos and evening programming keep the after hours crowd from their cabins until the wee hours.
But the value is apparent, even to newcomers. For Fable, a newly-anointed storytelling agency led by James Kerr and Roger Hart, the forum will provide an opportunity to introduce Fable to the communications industry and talk to fellow communicators about the way it works. Kerr, who is also leading a session about his book on the importance of leadership to the All Blacks rugby team, says, “It offers a chance to speak to some of the best and brightest in the country.”
The returns are not always immediate, as any boat veteran knows, but suppliers almost always say they see a return based on connections made during the CDF. For six years, communications agency drp has climbed aboard the ship each October. Ryan Curtis, drp’s head of PR & marketing says, “Typically we meet with individuals, form good relationships, and if we do not win business with them there and then, we will always stay in touch. Later on, when or if our paths cross again, this normally leads to business.”
Delegates too, get a lot of out of the meetings and the conference alike. Many in-house communicators turn up on the docks in Southampton for multiple years in the search of agency partners, new knowledge about the industry or simply the opportunity to make new connections across communications.
For the 125 delegates on board, the programme is packed full of meetings, meals and more, offering little down time. Yet, the return for them is the knowledge they gain and the people they meet. It’s intensive, but it’s invaluable.
There is no escape from the Aurora from sundown on Wednesday to sunrise on Saturday. The luxury provided by P&O cruises aboard the ship helps mitigate this. But there are fun and games too. Each evening, entertainment is planned for attendees. Last year, run during the Rugby World Cup, midnight screenings took over the ship’s theatre. This year, former professional cricketer Geoff Miller will provide his comedic stylings based on his 20 years on the pitch. Aboard ship will also be a family of string instrumentalists who combine comedy and classical electric music with live beat-boxing in what will prove to be a unique performance. All that and the hope of avoiding seasickness, will keep attendees entertained and engaged throughout the cruise.
Cooper points out the value in these diversions. “You’re all locked together and there’s no escape! It has a particular collaborative atmosphere which is partly fueled by the physical circumstances of the event, and we’re all in it for a three-day hard slog! Beyond that, there seems a genuine desire to learn from each other, and most people are there without colleagues to turn to. It’s rare for large groups who share common interests to have this much time to share their challenges, and the event definitely feels like it’s a proper place to do business.”
The good ship Aurora sets sail on 5 October from Southampton and returns two-and-a-half days later, more sleepy, with less alcohol aboard, and significantly less food, but with the addition of an immeasurable amount of knowledge, new business relationships and value for all on board.