The coronation of a new Prime Minister and the early symptoms of election fever have combined to make this autumn's party conference season the most eagerly anticipated for a decade.
But for charities, the fizz associated with their annual jaunts to the seaside is in danger of going a little flat. There is a growing feeling that, although conferences provide the opportunity to hobnob with ministers (see Stephen Bubb, below), they no longer represent value for money.
To have a stand at the Liberal Democrats' conference in Brighton this week, Labour's in Bournemouth next week and the Conservatives' in Blackpool the week after could easily cost a charity more than £20,000.
Add to that the cost of hotel bills (a four-night minimum stay at most major chains) and living expenses, and it is easy to understand the creeping sense of disillusionment among charities - which, it seems, feel they are getting less for their money. So is civil society in danger of becoming extinct at the party conferences?
Sultana Begum, parliamentary and campaigns officer at the NCVO, believes interest is waning. "I think fewer charities are attending because it's expensive and time-consuming, and they are questioning whether they gain much," she says. "It's become more exclusive, so only the larger charities can afford to attend and get their issues on the agenda. You could say the conferences consist of politicians going to the same places and talking to the same people."
The NCVO, traditionally a stalwart at all three parties' annual conferences, has reassessed its approach because of its concerns about the attendance of small charities. This year, it is providing bursaries for charities with incomes below £100,000 so that small voluntary organisations can attend.
But even the big players are wondering whether their attendance is worth it. The RSPCA has a special affection for the annual party conventions, and Claire Robinson, government relations manager at the charity, believes lobbying at conferences played an important role in persuading ministers to push for the hunting ban.
Foot-and-mouth disease and the response to the recent floods are top of the charity's lobbying list this year, but fewer staff will argue the cases. Instead of its usual quota of stands at all three main party conferences, and one at Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru's, the RSPCA will exhibit only at Labour's shindig this year, although staff will network at the other events.
"Conferences are definitely changing, and we will review the benefits of doing it this way," says Robinson. "Selecting key people to attend will be the way to go in the future. The events are so controlled and stage-managed that you lose the proper debate that was a feature of traditional conferences."
Power in numbers
So how do political parties cater for charities at their conferences in this era of the all-party love-in with the voluntary sector? Of the big three, only the Liberal Democrats responded to Third Sector's request for information on charity attendance (see below). But it's clear at least that stands are expensive, with the cheapest costing £500 per square metre.
An increasing number of organisations have responded to the changing times by banding together. Perhaps the best example is the Health Hotel, a coalition of 36 organisations with an interest in health. Founded in 2004, it includes charities such as Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and the Alzheimer's Society as well as the likes of trade union Unison and the British Medical Association.
Members share the costs of the coalition's £250,000 budget. In return, they get a stand and organise a total of 42 events at the main hotel at each party conference. They also get their details printed in the booklets the coalition distributes at the conferences - it gives out 6,000 at the Lib Dems' gathering, 10,000 at the Tories' and 16,000 at Labour's.
"The nature of conferences has changed," says Shonali Rodrigues, director of the coalition. "If you are an individual charity trying to promote an individual campaign, you are in danger of being drowned out. But if you work together you have a better chance of being influential. An individual charity organising a fringe meeting can pay £1,500 for a room for 90 minutes, £18 a head on catering and £350 on audio-visual equipment for only the one event."
Making your voice heard
Oxfam is collaborating with other NGOs and think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research to organise fringe events on issues such as climate change, development and foreign policy. In one joint initiative at Labour's conference, newsreader Jon Snow will interview Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary.
"We had stands before I joined, but they're expensive and don't fit with what we're trying to achieve," says Stephen Doughty, head of government relations at Oxfam. Instead, three staff will go to lobby ministers this year.
Large organisations such as Oxfam already have established links with politicians, so what is the point of going to the edges of England to see them? "Conferences are different from formal events in London," says Doughty. "You get to make all sorts of connections that you would not usually make." Oxfam is bringing an African to speak at an event this year. "It makes it more authentic," says Doughty, who says Oxfam books shared budget accommodation a year in advance to cut costs. "We have stayed in some pretty grotty places," he says.
Save the Children also prefers to send lobbyists to target key politicians, rather than hire stands. "They cost a phenomenal amount of money, and you aren't even guaranteed to meet a minister or shadow minister," says Martin Kirk, head of campaigns and advocacy at the charity. Six staff will attend the main two conferences, but only one was expected to join the Liberal Democrats this week. "We have to put our resources where the power is," says Kirk.
He believes conferences remain a highlight of the calendar - for the major charities, at least. "We are a big international charity campaigning on subjects that are important to this Government, so we don't generally suffer from problems in terms of access," he says. "But you have to maintain the dialogue. This year is particularly important because of the new Prime Minister. Charities are still finding their feet with him."
Ben Kind, parliamentary adviser at the NSPCC, agrees the seaside air is richer than in the Westminster bubble. "In the Westminster climate, we are dealing with people who don't have a huge amount of time, usually on specific issues," he says. "Conferences allow us to talk more widely about other campaigns they don't know about."
The NSPCC has stands at the Labour and Conservative Party conferences, and this year it has adopted the theme 'how the general public can help protect children'. "We still find it useful," says Kind. "It's difficult to quantify the results, but you can see elements of success in terms of attendance at events and people putting their names down on petitions."
The Salvation Army has also taken the collaborative approach. It spends one day at each event as part of a free churches delegation, which is this year lobbying on poverty.
"We don't go there as a hard lobbying exercise," says Captain Matt Spencer, public affairs spokesman at the Salvation Army. "We go to build relationships and offer support to MPs who have portfolios that we are interested in. Spending a day there and having a breakfast meeting is a useful exercise, and that hasn't diminished as conferences have become slicker."
Interest in conferences may be falling, but it seems many of the big charities will still be there this year at least.
Stand and deliver
The Liberal Democrats told Third Sector that charities make up about 20 per cent of exhibitors at their conference. Charities with incomes of more than £4m pay £638 per square metre for their stands. Smaller charities pay £503 per square metre.
Neither the Tories nor Labour replied to our inquiries. However, the Tory conference brochure says a 3x3m stand at the Conservative conference costs £9,850, excluding VAT, although charities get a 25 per cent discount. The same size stand at the Labour conference in a premium location costs £11,500, excluding VAT.
<h2> 'I had a fantastic discussion with Gordon Brown' </h2>
by Stepher Bubb
I'm afraid the party conference season is a time when one lays down one's liver in defence of one's job. All the most interesting and important discussions take place early in the morning, in a conference bar somewhere with relaxed politicians. The trick is not to be too relaxed yourself.
I remember having a fascinating discussion at a Labour Party conference at 2.30am with Stephen Byers, then transport secretary, and Richard Littlejohn, the garrulous and reactionary gossip columnist. I was berating Littlejohn for his attack on me in one of his columns for suggesting that I was elitist for daring to oppose the idea that lottery money should go to causes people vote on. And I berated Byers for the company he was keeping.
This rather chimed with an attack I was subject to at a Conservative Party fringe meeting about the lottery. A representative of the Tory shires (I suspect he was a retired colonel) denounced me as a "metropolitan bien pensant". He obviously thought it was derogatory - I rather regarded it as a compliment.
Perhaps the real value of party conferences lies in those few occasions when you can catch someone really prominent, unchaperoned by their civil service minders. Three years ago, I had a fantastic discussion with Gordon Brown about public service reform simply because he was sitting at the next table in the conference hotel restaurant.
It is very true that, on a personal level, Brown is an engaging, committed and charming person - traits his public persona sometimes hides. So my meat course got cold - but that's a sacrifice worth making in order to promote things that really matter to you.
- Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations.