Awards dinners are seen by many as an unavoidable business chore, so why have they become such a lucrative business?
Awards dinners. Love 'em or hate 'em, unless you are a hermit you cannot easily avoid 'em. They have burgeoned like creepers in the business jungle. Hundreds of thousands of people attend awards dinners each year in this country, coughing up around £20 million a year for the privilege.
It's a small but perfectly formed industry.
Yet almost nobody attends an awards dinner either to be entertained or for the grub. Most view it as an unavoidable business chore. The rest are either hopeful contenders - oh! the glamour of that triumphal stroll in the spotlight - or the guests of hopeful contenders. To maximise attendances, and revenue, skilful organisers quickly grow adept at hinting to all and sundry that they are in with a very good chance. (This process, as yet without a name, should be dubbed gong-teasing.)
All the major banquets take place in London, but awards dinners can and do occur in every chandelier-spangled hotel in the country.
In London, the economics run something like this. The dinner will be attended by 800-1,000 paying guests. (The Great Room at the Grosvenor House can squeeze in up to 1,500, while Olympia can manage 2,500.) Entrants are charged hefty fees for the privilege of entering the competition, and tickets for the dinner will cost around £100 or more. Additionally, the principal sponsor will raise maybe another £30,000 from sub-sponsors, programme advertisers, gift givers and other anything-but-charitable donors. Potential revenue will be in the region of £200,000 plus.
On the downside, the sponsor - often but not always a leading trade magazine - pays for the nosh, and hands the company organising the bun-fight about £25,000. (There are now several thriving companies that specialise in organising awards bun-fights.) Additionally, the sponsor pays an absurd amount, maybe £10,000 or so, for the hand-crafted, individually inscribed and appallingly vulgar prize doorstops. Except for the compere, that's almost it. The juries are never paid, receiving a buffet lunch during the judging, a free invite to the do (usually) and a few bottles of plonk (maybe). The compere - aye, there's the rub - will pocket anything from £5,000 to a top whack of £25,000.
Up to £50,000 profit will be netted - not without more than a little effort, it must be added, and some tantrums and wobblies on the night.
Tried and tested
For the comperes, awards dinners are a money-spinner. Top performers can easily pull in over £300,000 a year. Not bad for 15 or 20 evenings' work, with minimal rehearsal. But compering is no doddle. Desperate to avoid using - yawn - Clive Anderson, Griff Rhys-Jones, Angus Deayton or even Bob Monkhouse again, organisers search endlessly for new and cheaper talent. But time and again they get driven back to the handful of tried-and-testeds. Deayton's award-junket patter now includes loads of quips about how many awards junkets he does. The cabaret material of most comperes never varies much - they mix and match it to fit whichever awards they're hosting. And the comperes are always male: the reason is inherent in the unyielding structure of the event.
Come the evening, it progressively becomes clear to an increasing majority of those present that they won't be making the triumphal stroll. They then lose interest in the entire proceedings. Worse still, they are deflated, and pretty profoundly pissed-off by the evidently bovine stupidity of the judges. It is at this point that things can get bumpy. Dolled-up though they are in black ties and finery, some losers - insufficiently consoled by several years' intake of booze units - express their grief by taking a punch at (a) the winner (of their category, naturally), or (b) several of the bovine judges, or (c) anyone nearby to whose cuff-links they have taken a fierce dislike during the course of the evening.
Ask any conference organiser. They'll tell you their principal role is crowd control, or what they call 'managing the risks'.
Why have awards and awards shindigs become so apparently indispensable to modern business life? A visiting Martian would be veritably bewildered by our insatiable urge to ring each other's necks with garlands. Lately I keep finding myself driving behind vehicles proudly displaying the accolade 'Coach Operator of the Year' in their rear window. Who on earth, I always wonder, gave them the accolade, and why?
Quite simply, awards help us convince ourselves that the value of our work to society is much greater than can be measured by the meagre little envelope we receive each month. That's the reason for the dressing-up, the spotlights, the fanfares, the glamorous venues, the famous comperes and the rest. They imbue the awards with almost religious significance.
In an increasingly mercenary world, the glittering prizes are an increasingly alluring antidote.
Unlike your bosses at work, the judges are not influenced by company politics, or by your servility, or by the way you dress. They are presumed to be objective, and wise, and to recognise true worth. (Though in practice, results are almost always gently rigged - to stop the same people winning too frequently, to even out geographic spread, or whatever other reason.)
Best of all, while pretending to embrace only higher values, awards deliver the shekels too. To the winners they deliver extra sales, higher salaries, increased profits: merit and money indissolubly entwined. At the end of the 20th century, a perfect marriage.