YMCA Fairthorne Group CEO, Chris Hand, writes about his Directorship at the YMCA and the changes to staff conferences over the past 21 years.

In the autumn of 1997 I was appointed as the Director of YMCA Fairthorne Manor, which at the time was part of the National Council of YMCAs. There were only about 20 of us at the first staff conference back in 1997 at YMCA Dunford House near Midhurst and the programme was all about change! My appointment marked the end of a seven-year period when I was part of a collective of people running Fairthorne Manor. Way back in 1990 when Fairthorne Manor was going through massive unwanted change due to a very poor business plan, the collective worked really well. We worked hard, played hard and involved our families to make the place run. By 1997, however, the collective was a broken model and so after a day of interviews (also at Dunford House) I was appointed as the sole Director. One of my first actions was to book Dunford House to take the whole staff team away for some team building but also to start charting a different future, and the staff conference was born.

21 years on and standing in an enormous room at the Novotel Hotel in Southampton a quick flashback to the Dunford Conference in 1997 makes me think we have come along way over all those years. Looking at a room with almost 200 people I wonder if I can remember everyone’s name; in 1997 I knew the names of the everyone’s husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends and children. In addition to the sheer number of names to remember (in fact well over 300 if you include all our staff) people are dressed in their casual clothes which only seems to add to my confusion, I look around the room and conclude I am at the wrong event as I don’t recognise anyone! Then as I gaze into the room it strikes me I can see first two, and then three, and then ten, and then 50, and then 150, and then almost the room full of people I recognise and at that point I am overcome with a fantastic sense of well being – the YMCA is in conference and I am in a crowd of like-minded souls. It’s not unlike being in a crowd at a concert or football match, there is an expectation that something is going to happen.

For 21 years we have come to conference and tried out new ideas, painted pictures of our future and enjoyed each other’s company. Of course, we don’t have the intimacy that there was in 1997 and we don’t stay overnight anymore, as we once did, but for me there is still a thrill in knowing that most of our staff are sitting in one room together and of course a slight nervousness that it needs to go well; this is after all a team I will need to look in the face over the coming days and weeks. So, this year it was great to hear that the YMCA Way is to be refreshed; It was good to be reminded about Developmental Assets and to think about ACES; that our model of community development is gaining traction; new processes and initiatives in HR will add to our drive to create a highly skilled, well rewarded workforce; and I enjoyed the inter-generational quiz and the work on sustainable development is the sign of a maturing organisation. Two things however really stick out: meeting all the teams as they were on the treasure hunt, and appearing in 26 selfies, but the very best is just standing in the crowd and realising that I don’t ever want to be in any other team!