17 July 2018 Insight

A Q&A with Colette Cunningham

CBI Scotland Events Manager Colette received a British Empire Medal (BEM) for services to the community in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list this year

After 30 years’ service with the CBI we asked Colette to reflect on that experience and share her thoughts about what makes a great event. We also get the down-low on her favourite speakers, what’s coming up in 2018 and what to buy Colette if you find her at the bar (clue: it isn’t a cheap round!).

Q. How did you feel about being recognised in the honour’s list?
A. Genuinely stunned. It was something I had never considered and the announcement was a total surprise. After the initial shock subsided, I just felt incredibly proud that someone had considered my contribution to be worthy of that kind of recognition.

Working for such a high-profile organisation like the CBI, particularly on the events side where there are always so many moving parts to get on top of, you tend to just put your head down and get on with the job in front of you. When events involve top politicians, captains of industry, CBI members and journalists, there’s a pressure to get things right – and that’s what makes organising a successful event so rewarding.   

Frankly, it’s always nice to be told that you’ve done well at something, but this is on a different level. To be honest, I still can’t believe it.       

Q. What first brought you to work for the CBI?
A. Coincidence really. I had just left university and was looking for a temp job until I decided what to do next. The CBI then offered me a permanent position and 30 years later I’m still here!

Q. How has the events side of the CBI changed in that period? Are there any new challenges?
A. When I first joined, there really wasn’t an events function at all. The annual dinner, then held at the Albany Hotel in Bothwell Street, was our only source of event revenue for the whole year – and that only held 350 guests.

The events side of the CBI really started to develop in the early 90s. Mostly it just involved policy roadshows coming from London until we branched out and looked at running some Scotland specific events. The 1997 election and the subsequent devolution of powers to Scotland changed everything –   once we had our own parliament with a specific policy remit, that prompted a real increase in demand for local engagement events.

Now things are completely different, with the events side fully embedded within the commercial operation of the CBI. Ensuring consistency of product across the UK has meant a degree of recentralisation so there’s a little sense of going full circle. The good thing is that we’re continually refining our approach to give members events that really suit their needs.  

Q. What has been the best event you were involved in facilitating?
A. While others have their good points, my favourite event of the year is always the Scotland annual dinner. Historically they’re always the most successful events in the schedule and have the highest profile speakers and attendees.

The best annual dinner I’ve ever been involved in was in 2007. We always have a high attendance but that one was exceptional, with more than 820 people packed into the Hilton Hotel in Glasgow. We were so short on space that the piper was struggling to lead the top table into the room!

The atmosphere that night was tremendous and the event was so popular that I actually started selling the next year’s tables that very night. 

Q. Who has been your favourite speaker?
A. It’s really hard to pick a favourite speaker because it sounds like I’m being ungrateful to the ones I don’t pick – we really do attract some outstanding speakers and they’re all an absolute pleasure to work with. If I’m being put on the spot, I tend to prefer the diplomats – they’re all exceptionally charming and it’s probably part of the training for the job to know how to warm up an audience.

Last year we had the Australian Ambassador to the UK and he had us all cracking up with some of his jokes, however my all-time favourite has to be Louis B. Susman, US Ambassador to the Court of St James during Obama’s first. He was quite a character. Not only was he a brilliant speaker, making his points with a mixture of humour and gravitas, he also brought the biggest security detail we’ve ever seen, which kept us and the hotel staff on our toes.

Q. What have you got in store for this year’s CBI Scotland annual dinner?
A. One of the biggest challenges of annual dinners is not being able to reveal the name of the keynote political speakers until the very last minute. Obviously, we have to be careful about withdrawals, but it’s most down to security protocols.

This year we have a really fantastic speaker lined up, someone new to the CBI and someone I know members won’t want to miss. The whole Scotland team are really excited about the 2018 dinner and it’s that sense of working together to pull off an event of that scale that’s so satisfying. We even get to see [Senior Policy Executive] Gregor in a tie, which is a rare treat indeed.

Q. Where do we find you at the annual dinner?
A. There’s usually a good bit of running around in the early part of the day, making sure everything is set up correctly and that the hotel staff are fully briefed on any last-minute changes. Once that’s done, I can usually be found chatting to members – I’ve known a lot of them for a good number of years now and it’s always a great chance to catch up. If you catch me at the right moment, you might even find me at the bar celebrating with a nice gin cocktail!

This year’s CBI Scotland annual dinner takes place on Thursday 6 September at the Hilton Hotel, 1 William Street Glasgow. A limited number of places are still available so please book your place via the following link to guarantee attendance:




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