A close-up of HMS President, venue for this year's RecFest. Image: Ron Ellis/Shutterstock.com

Friday 10th July 2015

The boat that rocked

Barbecue, beer, toffee apples – what's not to like about RecFest?

HR and recruitment have their share of dull conferences. You’ll have been to – maybe even snoozed through – a couple yourself.

You turn up to some grey hotel, watch people in grey suits deliver grey PowerPoint slides, and when it’s time for lunch you eat grey food. The best you can wish for is that mid-afternoon one of the less energetic speakers gets deep vein thrombosis and topples off the stage, allowing relieved delegates the chance to escape and go home early.

Well, that’s not RecFest. This year’s incarnation, RecFest2, was held yesterday on HMS President in central London and attended by almost 200 in-house recruiters. It’s about as characterful as conferences come.

HMS President. Credit: as above

The presentations themselves are modest in length – you might call them Teddish – and followed by table conversations in which nine or so delegates engage in a facilitated debate about the issues raised.

The tone of the conference is set by Ken Ward. He’s less a Chair than an MC, and not so much a Peter Cheese as a Jack Dee. His safety information: ‘In the event of fire, you’re in the middle of a river. If you don’t make it, it wasn’t meant to be.’

The conference is deliberately eclectic in tone. Yesterday began with Matt Charney, recruitment content expert and ardent disruptor, wearing his baseball cap back-to-front and riffing about ‘shit your audiences care about’.

By mid-afternoon, though, the tone had shifted. Rachel Dalboth from Unilever was approaching resourcing from a rather more elegant, corporate angle. She talked about ‘culture-keepers’, ‘brand ambassadors’, ‘key enablers’ and ‘TRM’ – that’s Talent Relationship Management, if you’re unsure of the latest lingo.

Candy floss

In a cultural locale somewhere between Charney and Dalboth, Workday director Roopesh Panchasra was all about audience participation, leading everyone in a singalong to the closing credits theme from Only Fools and Horses. (This was part of a bit on the spivviness of agency recruiters, who are almost without exception referred to at RecFest as ‘the dark side’.)

The rest of the day includes a BBQ lunch on the deck of the boat, and most promising of all, an ‘After Party presenting DJ Weisenberg all the way from San Fran, Fish & Chips and a Vintage Funfair with all-you-can-eat popcorn and candy floss.’ But you don’t need to wait until the platters start spinning for a drink: the bar opens at 1pm.

Critics call RecFest gimmicky. Jamie Leonard, the MD of Reconverse and founder of RecFest, doesn’t disagree.

‘There’s nothing wrong with that,’ he says. ‘The festival theme strips away a lot of negative stuff you get at most events – pomposity, ego and pretence. Most importantly, it means we don’t look like any other event in our industry. RecFest has a brand. It stands out.’

It certainly does. The tone of RecFest is  iconoclastic: the CIPD gets cast in a Granny role in many conversations, and has its share of detractors. But the hugely talented individuals here are keen to create new ways of recruiting, often through astute grasps of technology, rather than just eager to poke fun at the old guard.

Dynamos in action

Leonard: a picture of resourcefulness

Leonard himself is no slouch when it comes to recruitment futurology. ‘I see the market moving from recruitment to resourcing and that presents a whole host of issues, like up-skilling recruiters, getting to grips with available and emerging technologies and being able to push back on dated metrics like time-to-hire,’ he says.

‘Everyone seems to be trying to define quality of hire as a metric, and it’s a waste of time because a universal formula doesn’t exist. That and a shortage of quality in-house recruiters. Demand is very much outweighing supply in that sense.’

Rewind back to Tuesday night though, and Leonard ‘s having a nightmare. Transport union negotiations have failed, and a tube strike threatened for Thursday – RecFest day – is definitely going ahead.

When that news came in, was Leonard nervous? ‘No doubt about it. But I’ve learned by managing over a hundred events that panicking doesn’t help. When something’s out of your control, what’s the point stressing? Do what you can, be inventive, consider everyone, move on.’

The impressive Reconverse machine sprung into action, emailing out alternative travel plans, setting back the start of the day to allow for late joiners, and even using the setback to add another layer of wit to the event. Its social media people took to Twitter with #thisshipwontsink messages and appropriated an image of magician Dynamo (left) to raise the Dunkirk spirit.

As it turned out, almost all the RecFest fans made it on the day, despite the efforts of the unions to scuttle the event. Incidentally, what level of disaster would it have taken for Leonard to lob himself over the side of the boat?

‘The use of the term Big Data,’ he replies sagely, hovering close to the bar.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.