As part of his graduate scheme, Dan spent four months with Roxie (interview #9) and I at Informa’s Business Intelligence Division in 2017. During this time he managed to faint and hit is head on his toilet sink, and break his ankle while playing five a side football. But he was also bright and keen to learn, often questioning why we did certain things with a strong ability to see the bigger picture. We spoke in mid-June.
The impact of Covid-19 on the global events industry has been significant; events were cancelled as international travel came to a standstill and countries restricted gatherings of large groups indoors. Dan spent his final rotation of his graduate scheme at Fan Expo in Toronto, which eventually lead to an offer for him to stay longer and work on what he describes as Informa’s version of Comic-Con.
“It’s a consumer event where people can meet celebrities; it could be Stan Lee who co-created a lot of the Marvel comics, or a couple of guys from Sons Of Anarchy. It also gathers lots of vendors selling comic books, pins, badges, swords, anything in the pop culture space. It’s a very nice and inclusive space where people dress up as superheroes and meet their favourite celebrities or artists.”
Fan Expo puts on shows across North America, with the largest ones in Toronto, Dallas and Orlando attract around 100,000 people over a weekend, with smaller ones in Boston, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary reaching between 20,000 to 40,000 people.
“I’m involved in getting celebrities in, speaking with agents and signing contracts, and executing the show. We’ve got Steven Seagal for example and we had to fly him out from outer Mongolia. We get hundreds of celebrities, and I’ll help negotiate the deal on behalf of the president. Then I’ll project manage the team booking the flights and hotels and making sure that all the other points happen, such as the marketing announcements and that the copy needed for online content is approved. It’s quite a unique role, it gets intense when you do about twelve shows a year.”
A Fan Expo event in Toronto, Canada
There are lots of questions being asked about the future of the events industry, Dan says things are unlikely to improve until the first or second quarter on 2021.
“My boss told me that after the dot-com bubble and 2008 crisis Fan Expo, and consumer events in general, reacted really strongly because rather than go on big holidays people spent more locally on entertainment. So I think events that focus on local audiences, communities and trade, will bounce back really well. But if you wanted to go to a comms specialist conference in San Diego, that brings together experts from across the world, those will take a bit longer to rebound.”
Dan is the youngest person I have spoken to so far in this series and I was interested in his thoughts on how a crisis like Covid-19 might impact his prospects. He admits that he is concerned by the situation but happy that he has a few years work experience in the bag.
“I worry for graduates, all the way down to people who are 14 or 15 and are meant to be doing their GCSEs and are going to get predictive grades. It can make a fundamental difference to certain types of students. Unconscious bias exists in the education system, which means that some may be unfairly disadvantaged by the fact that they can’t do a test. The worry for me is that when times are tough people play it safe, so an organisation is less likely to take a gamble on you, but it pales into comparison with people who have lost their livelihoods.”
Covid-19 is not the only thing causing a shift in society, there is also a renewed focus on racism in many countries, as Roxie and I discussed. Dan grew up in Birmingham, one of the most diverse cities in the UK, so I was keen to hear his take on these events. When I mention the microaggression examples other people have told me about, Dan smiles and nods.
“I saw a tweet saying ‘Being black is going into a store and feeling guilty for not buying something’. I hate walking out of a store if I haven’t bought anything! I almost psych myself up for that moment because I feel the weight of the world at that moment, and I will always get a receipt. I’ve always just lived with it and never thought about why.”
While Roxie questioned the long term impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, Dan feels that something is different this time, although he also admits that all depends on the reaction and if companies and organisations are willing to make structural changes.
“You’ve seen Minneapolis make plans to disabandon their police force, which seems really controversial until you realise Camden, a small town near New Jersey did the same a few years ago and saw their crime rate drop significantly. It’s things that look like they can’t change, like in South Africa before the early 90s, it didn’t feel like a world without apartheid could exist. In the early 20th century it didn’t feel like it could be possible for women to vote. It’s gotta be the kind of change that is so fundamental that it feels out of reach before it happens. Disabandoning a police force does not mean getting rid of law and order, it just means a new approach to community support and safety.”
One of the key differences that Dan sees this time is the concept of allyship and the general acceptance that not being racist is no longer enough. He is also encouraged by the practical steps people are taking to invest in black businesses and black communities. And that companies that try and make symbolic gestures are being called out.
“The amount of companies posting a black square and then deleting it. Or L’Oréal saying they’re standing with black models and consumers when they dropped the black trans model Munroe Bergdorf from a campaign two years ago for discussing the racial violence of white people or something to that affect in an interview. Taking tangible steps by donating, understanding your privilege, right it wherever you see it; if you know that something you’re involved in is discriminating to minority colleagues, stopping it or pointing it out. It’s not about making people feel guilty, it’s about understanding structurally what’s happening. Six of the top ten New York Time best sellers right now are about race, and that’s what moves the needle; taking time to read and understand.”
I mention a recent conversation I had with my current team, where two members from minority backgrounds shared their experiences of discrimination, and how difficult I found it to ask them if they wanted to share their stories. And while we agree that the issue is not that a Swedish white male finds it difficult to know how to lead these conversations without putting minorities in a position where they feel forced to be spokespeople, it shows that change is hard in many ways.
“What people struggle with is being burned when they go and say ‘hey, can you tell me about your experience’. Correct, it’s not a black person’s responsibility to tell a white person about racism. It’s not their duty. Being anti-racist is the way to tackle structural issues. Most people that are in positions where they can make structural changes are white.”
Before Dan joined Informa’s graduate scheme he worked as an education officer at Nottingham University. One of his focus areas was the attainment gap, the name given for the difference in educational performance between students from deprived and wealthier backgrounds, disproportionately affecting black and minority ethnic students.
“I remember going to our university Council, I’m 21 and have never been in a real job before. There are only board members in the room and the deputy registrar’s first response to me was: ‘we understand this [gap between white and BAME students] exists but black people pick harder courses. And look at our Indian or Chinese students, they actually do better in medicine.’ I didn’t have the knowledge to challenge him then, but if you dig a bit deeper; why is it that black students take harder courses? Is it because they don’t have the same luxuries to not do engineering, medicine or maths? If they do an arts or psychology degree, will they have the same opportunity to get a job? By closing the door, saying they take harder classes, you see the kind of barriers we are up against.”
Without realising it at the time, Dan says he was lucky growing up. He describes his upbringing as being carefully curated by his parents to limit his exposure to racism.
“My mom is half British half Pakistani, so she’s mixed heritage herself. My dad’s Jamaican, my step-dad is mixed heritage, so everyone in my life has experienced prejudice. My mom made sure I grew up in a multicultural environment. I went to a primary and secondary school where I think there were four or five white people in my year.”
It wasn’t until university, when he met mixed-race or black students who had been the only non-white person in their school or town, that Dan realised how lucky he was to have the upbringing he had. A lot of it was down to his mother’s aim to avoid him going through the same experience as she had.
“She has very fair skin but as dark hair as I do. In school she used to say she was Greek since she’d get less abuse than if she’d told them she was half Pakistani. She went on to do Islamic and cultural studies at University purely for those reasons. Now she works tackling those things, making sure the curriculum changes for school children to better reflect black stories. At the moment you learn nothing about the British involvement in colonialism and what the empire did.”
And with that useful reminder that education, and the fact that it’s the responsibility of all of us, we closed a conversation that despite the sometime heavy topics felt surprisingly optimistic; a Chelsea fan and an Arsenal fan, learning from each other. Just don’t mention the FA Cup final (to me)!
You can follow Dan on LinkedIn.