Like most journalists, I have a love-hate relationship with corporate entertainment.
At this time of year, my diary is usually full of summer drinks receptions, typically champagne and nibbles in flashy bank reception areas or private viewings around art galleries.
The deal is this: the hosts dish out tasty snacks and booze, you chat to bankers and investors, and the public relations people nervously hang over your shoulder in case anyone accidentally says something interesting, always ready to swoop in with a reminder that the evening’s proceedings are strictly off the record.
Executives pretend never to have met you before when in fact they have been feeding you tips for years. The flacks stay sober all evening and can hear a banker telling you something juicy from 50 paces.
Several elements of these evenings are genuinely pleasurable. Quite aside from the art, a lot of financial markets professionals are actually nice. Some of them are even fun. The chit-chat often leads to stories or ideas. You get to hang out with other journalists, buddies from previous jobs, and have a gossip at someone else’s expense. Plus, posh canapés are god’s own food, even though they never fill you up.
So what’s not to like? Your partner is at home feeding the kids and muttering under their breath about how you’re “out again”. In fact, you are of course using a domestic credit for being “out” without going on the razz.
Fun can also be in short supply if the bankers are either too dull or too terrified of their roving flacks to engage in a normal conversation. The booze, even in moderation, hangs heavy the next day over journalists of a certain age. And at the risk of sounding like an ungrateful brat, after the first, say, three drinks receptions of the summer months, you’re done. Enough.
Still, I miss it. In pre-Covid times, the Good Old Days, I would be trying to wriggle out of some of those events. Instead, in lockdown, semi-lockdown or whatever purgatory we now inhabit, I am craving them, badly. A bit of banter with some fellow hacks from outside the FT would be a serious treat right now — to say nothing of the thrill of tiny food.
PRs, too, are wondering how they can still mingle, virtually of course, in the summer of Covid.
One recent suggestion: a bank offered to send a group of us a bottle of wine each, and set up a videoconference with its economists. Unsure what to make of this, I suggested it to my team. They looked at me with a mix of bewilderment and disgust at this contrived suggestion of ersatz fun. When you can’t get journalists to accept a bottle of booze, something has gone wrong.
The next offering went down just as badly. How about we form a team and enter a virtual “escape room”, solving puzzles together in a competition with other teams? Again, it was a genuine, kind effort to cheer our otherwise monotonous lives. But again, the feedback was “how about no?” The prospect of an evening on a conference call with the same bunch of people you’ve already spoken to that day on at least one other conference call, role-playing puzzles through a patchy video link, is somehow less entertaining than sitting on the sofa being irritable with your family and watching poor quality television.
What is it about organised online fun that’s just so . . . naff? My colleague Laura Noonan wrote recently about how big investment banks are doing internships in lockdown. The social element is like nails down a blackboard: online wine-tasting and scavenger hunts. Nope. Naff. An online performance by actors from a hit Broadway show. Heaven help us. Are you supposed to sing along? At home? Maybe clap? Is it just me? This is surely hell and, with everyone stuck at home, the only excuse you can present is, “Thanks, but no thanks”.
Corporate entertainment is clearly not the most vital economic victim of the global pandemic, unless it typically provides your livelihood. And Covid-19 may be the trigger to consider whether it really serves any useful purpose at all.
Schmoozing these days is certainly tougher — but do we miss our strange nights out enough to give them space in our diaries once the tiny canapés can return?