Friday, 22 May 2009

Outdoor adventures - global and local

I’ve had quite an ‘outdoorsy’ week, which has been very enjoyable. It began with me collecting this beast, which the Family Lines has just invested in. We looked at loads of great tents, but this was the one that really took our fancy – the size, layout, headroom and general quality all appealed. So, we made the choice and look forward to a bit of camping, or maybe even ‘glamping’, very soon.

Anticipating future nights under canvass I then set off for the unashamedly plush Carden Park near Chester, to attend the Berghaus spring/summer 2010 sales conference. There, delegates representing about 30 countries in which Berghaus products are sold, were presented with details of the range that will be available to consumers around the world from next February. I can’t spill the beans on all of that here, but suffice it to say there are (as there seem to be every season these days) some very exciting developments and plenty for Press Ahead to get its PR teeth stuck into.

Berghaus has an outstanding team of sponsored athletes and many of them attended and contributed to the conference this week. Sir Chris Bonington, Mick Fowler and Leo Houlding all gave inspirational presentations about their exploits and demonstrated very clearly how they are the personification of everything that is great about the Berghaus brand. Also at the conference were Anniken Binz, Rob Jarman, Leah Crane and Carlos Suarez – they are all very much part of an extended Berghaus family.

On Tuesday, I led a workshop that Berghaus marketing director Sarah Wilson and I put together for the international representatives. It was designed to give them an insight into how sponsorship can be used to build the brand (and subsequently sales) in their market, and to give them tips on how to create their own sponsorship strategies. Our magnificent seven Berghaus athletes were also involved in the workshop and it was a thoroughly enjoyable session that the audience seemed to both enjoy and find very useful.

One of the best aspects of a Berghaus sales conference is that it gives people involved in the business around the globe the opportunity to get to know each other and share best practice and ideas. At every conference, the company lays on some sort of team activity. This time delegates were split into mixed groups and then set a series of challenges in the grounds of Carden Park. My team included a few from the UK, including Berghaus brand president Richard Cotter, along with representatives from Spain, the Czech Republic and South Korea.

Over the course of a couple of hours, we tried a range of activities and challenges, with varying degrees of success. Our team ‘excelled’ at archery and climbing, but was less successful when it came to ‘laser’ clay pigeon shooting and building a tower of crates. It was all great fun and the sight of Richard Cotter and European sales director Simon Roberts racing each other up a telegraph pole was pretty entertaining. Simon, with reckless disregard to his career prospects, reached the top first and was then given the charming title of 'tree monkey' by Richard!

The images below were taken during the crate building exercise and provide an idea of the fun that was had. The guy balancing at, and then falling off, the top is Mike Clark, Berghaus' retail operations manager.

Overall, the conference was a big success, thanks to a huge amount of work put in by people across the business, from product design and development, sourcing and logistics, and of course the marketing team who co-ordinated the whole event. Well done to everyone involved – now comes the work of selling and promoting the new range!

I returned to the North East to find that the Outdoor and Active campaign up here is really starting to gather momentum. The media coverage in the region is starting to roll in, with a lot more activity in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the team at Press Ahead has been picking up the ’phone to national journalists and visits are being arranged as I type. We’ve got a really cool (can I use that word at my age?) initiative lined up to launch in June, that I think is going to have very wide appeal. I won’t reveal all now, but watch this space for more news on that soon.

So, yes, the outdoors has been the dominant theme of my week. And with the Bank Holiday weekend weather forecast looking quite promising up here in the glorious North East, I dare say I’ll be heading outside quite a bit more over the next few days.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A guide to alienating the nation, by the House of Commons

“The Mother of Parliaments” is a phrase sometimes used to describe the House of Commons. It was actually coined to refer to something else and anyway, at the moment, a more accurate description of that part of Westminster could be “The Mother of Expense Accounts”.

Yes, this has been a pretty awful week for the reputations of British politicians and our political institutions. The scandal of MPs’ expenses has been the elephant in the room for a while now and it finally started trumpeting loudly from the moment that the Telegraph published the first instalment of the leaked information it had acquired.

I won’t repeat the details here – there’s too much of it and it leaves such a bad taste that I’m not going to waste my energy. The point is that the sleaze that in the past tended to be associated with one party at a time, has on this occasion tainted them all. Each of the three main parties has culprits among its MPs. Collectively, the British public has witnessed this story develop with disgust (though interestingly I have not detected much surprise in the voxpops I have seen and heard) and has decided that politicians are collectively corrupt. That label can be added to all of the other less than flattering terms that we use to refer to them.

This really is not good and on this I have to take issue with Stephen Fry, much though I agree with some of his comments on the matter. Mr Fry is absolutely correct to point out that we should in general be more concerned with the macro political decisions that our MPs get right or wrong. However, although this whole brouhaha may be of little consequence in the broader context of war, poverty, health, education and global economic meltdown, I fear that the long term fall out could be profound and seriously harm engagement with our political system.

While the truth is that a large number of MPs have nothing to be ashamed of, they are all now well and truly tarred with the same brush (the cost of which was claimed back as it was used to creosote a garden fence at the second home of an unnamed backbencher). The consequences are going to be far reaching and their impact extends well beyond Westminster and the changes that will have to be made there.

We are privileged to live in a democracy and we can choose who governs at pretty much every level of our society. The problem is that more and more people are voting with their feet, rather than with a ballot paper. Since 1992, turnout in General Elections has dropped from 77% to 61% in 2005 (with a record post war low of 59% in 2001).

What can we expect next time? Younger voters are already disinterested in politics, while people who have consistently voted throughout their adult lives are disillusioned. I know – I’ve spoken to them (and they include my parents). Will the public be inspired by their French counterparts and take to the streets in a more concerted campaign of direct action? Will parties from the far right and far left benefit from the public belief that the centre is rotten (the imminent local and European elections will be an intriguing bellwether)? More questions than answers from me I’m afraid.

Meanwhile, how appealing is a career in politics today? MPs used to be among the most respected members of a community – not now. It was accepted that they worked to serve the public and lived by a political doctrine that was in fact a calling (okay, I know this was not a universal state of affairs, but I hope you take my point). Today, they are perceived to serve (and help) themselves.

Young people who are already unimpressed and uninterested in politics are becoming even more disengaged and dismissive. So far, the UK has not benefited from an Obama lightning rod, and our politicians appear to more disconnected from ‘real’ society than ever. I really worry about the future make up of Parliament in the UK, and if that institution is compromised further, the cascade to all levels of Government will inevitably happen and the effects could be disastrous.

But I am a glass half full person and I still know many good people for whom politics is a real vocation; people who hold genuine, fervent political beliefs and who strive for office for the ‘right’ reasons.

My eldest son’s godfather, Ed Fordham, is one of them, and he is not alone. There are many others from across the political spectrum and they give me hope. But their job is going to be significantly more difficult thanks to the greed and, in my opinion, stupidity of some of the current crop of MPs. And Ed is my age (late 30s), so what about the generation after him, and his colleagues and opponents of a similar vintage? Someone reassure me that they will emerge. Please. Here's Ed expressing his views on the expenses saga, 27 minutes and 28 seconds into this episode of Newsnight.

I am a layperson when it comes to politics, but that makes me no less passionate than the ‘professionals’ about what Aristotle described as the most authoritative science. According to Aristotle, politics governs the other sciences and their ends serve to meet its end, which is nothing less than the human good. Here in the UK at the moment, the science of politics feels a lot less dignified and worthy than that. I hope that will change for the better again soon.