If you run an organisation of any size, delivering your annual conference is doubtless one of the mian things giving you sleepless nights.
From booking venues and catering, to arranging the guest list and printing the souvenir tote bags; the to-do list is endless.
Well, spare a thought for the scandal-hit Confederation of British Industry (CBI) this year.
However, at today’s event, at Westminster’s QEII Centre, one key element of an elite business conference – named, as it happens, ‘Raising the Voice of Business’ – appeared to be missing: the voices of business leaders.
Last year at the CBI’s 2022 annual shindig, held at Birmingham’s The Vox conference centre, big names were front and centre.
From Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, British Airways CEO Sean Doyle and John Lewis chairman Sharon Lewis, to Dragon’s Den star Deborah Meaden, podcaster Alistair Campbell and BBC director-general Tim Davie, it sounds like attendees could hardly move without bumping into quasi-celebrities.
The list of “world-class speakers” also included Euan Blair and CEOs like Octopus’ Greg Jackson, Pensionbee’s Romi Savova and the Phoenix Group’s Andy Briggs.
This year’s offering was a little slimmer; with the only CEOs in the named speakers list being Mike Hawes, of SMMT, and Universities UK’s Vivienne Stern, both of which are more trade bodies than FTSE giants.
It’s well-known that the CBI – which faced a series of sexual misconduct claims, including rapes, earlier this year – almost faced a total wipe out.
Rivals, from MakeUK to the British Chambers of Commerce, were snapping at the it’s heels, ready to claim the business lobbying crown.
But the CBI has just managed to survive, bringing in former chief economist Rain Newton-Smith as chief executive.
The organisation began the mammoth task of turning things around, and as Newton-Smith told City A.M. ahead of party conferences last month, it was a “baptism of fire”.
Several key tests have been passed so far. They’ve reengaged with the government – and the Labour Party – both of which had paused their work with the group in the wake of the misconduct allegations, which police opened investigations into.
And, despite business secretary Kemi Badenoch’s apparent snub, the CBI secured some top ministerial speakers.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt – a key get in Autumn Statement week – held a ‘fireside chat’ [no fire as far as we could see] and shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds gave a speech which saw him joke that he’d “had breakfast at some point with everyone here”.
But when it comes to CEOs – who, unlike politicians, aren’t facing an election year, perhaps the reputational risk was still deemed a little too dicey.
Other leaders may believe they have a more direct line to the government – or government-in-waiting. Labour have just announced their new infrastructure council, where CEO’s, including from HSBC, Lloyds and Santander, will meet regularly with Rachel Reeves.
On the battle for the boardrooms, it looks like the CBI still has a way to go.
A CBI spokesperson said: “Given events earlier this year, we naturally had to adjust our normal programme of events and activities.
“As such we took the decision to hold a different type of conference for members – one that focused both on the immediate economic outlook for the country and ahead to the general election.
“We were delighted to have so many members join us in London, and to welcome both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the shadow business and trade secretary.”