As the Biba conference celebrates its 30th anniversary, Alex Davis asked stalwarts of the industry for their favourite recollections.
The inaugural Biba conference was held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, in October 1978. A look through the archives reveals the year to be dominated by bad hair, ill-advised clothes and England failing to qualify for the World Cup. Biba itself was newly formed in the wake of the 1977 Insurance Broker’s Act, and the industry was busy getting its house in order.
The first year was a relatively small affair. There were 450 attendees, no exhibition and no guest speakers. It did, however, set the standard for the spirit of future events - as one stalwart attests: “It was a very good laugh.”
Since then it has swelled to become the bonanza it is today, with nearly 200 stands and over 3,200 attendees in 2007. Peter Staddon, head of technical services at Biba, has been involved in the conference since 1998. He says: “The conference has been growing and changing shape. We’ve been trying to make the exhibition a market place in its own right. We have had people coming from outside the UK – Poland and Australia, for instance – who get blown away.”
The conference is especially loved for the opportunity it provides for everybody to let their hair down. “It’s a great way of talking to people in a different environment. I can get policy quotes at any time over the phone, but here you can forge relationships,” says Staddon.
“One year, we held the chairman’s dinner in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral. Last year, we had a guy dressed as Del Boy and another as Dame Edna Everage, just wandering round. A chief exec said to me ‘I’ve never seen [the industry] in this light’.
“Of course it’s hard work. Organisers and exhibitors won’t finish until midnight, and then it’s up again at 7.45 the next morning. But we have a lot of fun.”
Fun is high on the agenda and everyone has their own tale to tell, from the surreal surroundings of a blitz-style party to the tellingly hazy recollections of John Foster, Foster Leighton (see overleaf).
Staddon remembers his personal highlight: “For me, it was the time they tied up [former Biba chief executive] Mike Williams and threw knives at him.”
Williams has his own memories of the near-death experience: “It was actually quite worrying. I had absolutely no warning at the banquet. I was asked whether I’d like to wear a blindfold or not, and then a gent proceeded to throw real knives at me. The wind from one of them just whistled past my ear.”
A recollection Williams holds more fondly comes from his first conference. “It was in 1995 in Nottingham. The chairman’s dinner was in costume, with a Sherwood forest theme. We all wore Robin Hood outfits complete with green tights.”
“In Nottingham, the chairmans dinner was in costume, with a Sherwood forest theme. We all wore Robin Hood outfits complete with green tights.
Mike Williams, ex-Biba chief executive
With the 30th year set to continue the success of the preceding 29, the Biba conference is the finest excuse for all and sundry to come together, loosen the shackles and continue to push the industry forward.
Ian Mantel, director, Manor Insurance:
“Every [conference] that I’ve been to has been absolutely blinding, year on year, every one of them. There have been so many good guest speakers, [Olympic 1500m gold medallist] Sebastian Coe during the Olympic bid, for instance. But the one I remember best was six or seven years ago, when [Olympic rowing gold medallist] Matthew Pinsent was saying, ‘do your best, you can always do better’, when he pulls something out of his pocket and says: ‘Look, here’s what an Olympic gold medal looks like’. Then he says: ‘Here’s another,’ and pulls one out of his other pocket.”
Dennis Veingard, commercial manager, Churchill Insurance Consultants:
“I’ve been to the majority of conferences and I’m going again this year. The old memory’s fading, so I don’t remember any too clearly, just late night sessions chewing the cud. I remember it was a very good laugh. There were a lot of characters around then, like the guys from Hamilton Wellard, although most of them have retired by now.”
Eamonn Browne, director, James & Browne:
“I started going about 18 years ago and the best part was the end of conference event. It’s now the gala banquet, but it used to be nearly always in fancy dress. In pre-PC days it was a time to be letting your hair down. I especially remember a year with a South Sea Island theme. Some guests turned up wearing grass skirts and coconuts. Now no one would dare to wear fancy dress. We seem to be getting out of the habit of having fun. We don’t relax enough any more.”
Graham Anderson, managing director, BSSA Insurance Brokers:
“Every year I turn up, wander round in a daze, then go home on the Friday. This year I’m going to the gala dinner. In eight years, the only speaker I missed was [former Conservative Party leader] William Hague. Of course, every time I hear something about the conference, there are people saying about him being the best speaker ever – a born entertainer.”
Heather Wells, commercial account handler, Towergate:
“I especially remember a year with a South Sea Island theme. Some guests turned up wearing grass skirts and coconuts.
Eamonn Browne, James & Browne
“The most memorable speakers I recall were: Matthew Pinsent, who even passed his gold medals around for us all to have a look at, and hold, albeit for only a few seconds; former Shadow Chancellor, Michael Portillo; William Hague; and [former director general of security organisation MI5] Dame Stella Rimington. I am looking forward to hearing this year’s guest speakers. I also remember enjoying partaking of the chocolate fountain at the Groupama stand a few years ago – very delicious. I also remember Abbey Legal Protection hosting evenings at a vintage car museum in Bournemouth, and on the tall ship in Glasgow. Both were very enjoyable evenings, despite twisting my knees badly on the ship!”
Vida Wilson, associate director, Jardine Lloyd Thompson:
“The one thing which I quote to everyone was last year when [Private Eye editor] Ian Hislop was speaking and he told everyone: ‘I’m only here to get good quotes for libel and slander insurance’ – that really appealed to my sense of humour. I also managed to win an all-expenses trip to the Rugby World Cup semi-final on the Norwich Union stand prize draw. I never win anything and when my PA rang me on the way back from the conference to tell me to ring Norwich Union, I couldn’t believe it. Of course, I had no idea the semi-final would turn out to be England versus France – it was the experience of a lifetime.”
Jill Hamilton, Hamilton Leigh:
“The immediate memories that spring to mind are the fantastic keynote speakers like Robert Winston [popular scientist], and the very witty William Hague. We have always managed to come away each year with one very significant network opportunity that makes the trip to the conference very worthwhile.”
Lindsay Campbell, Biba conference organiser:
“In 2005 , the chairman’s dinner was held on 6 April at the Manchester Art Gallery. I had already gone ahead of the coaches transporting the guests to the venue, to lay out the place cards and ensure everything was OK for their arrival. I waited and waited. Time was now ticking by and even though it was a relatively short journey from the conference venue to the art gallery, still the two coaches, full of our guests, had not appeared. To top it all, it had also started to pour with rain. Eventually, and much to my relief, the coaches turned up. One of them had a slight collision en route with a bus. Thankfully no one was hurt, but the guests certainly were in need of a pre-dinner drink or two.”
Neil Cook, specialist, Delite Insurance Agency:
“The most notable memory for me was at the last Glasgow event. I was at the Biba blitz do, in the dark with the sound of an air raid and war going on around us when I saw an evil spectral sight. It was my ex boss – a big pale bald guy – in the light as they opened the door. It was worse than any horror film. I almost had a heart attack.”