'The fact is, marketing won't let us off ...'

It was bad enough, says John Brinnamoor, going to an alumni reunion. How much worse, he then discovered, to have to organise one

November 2, 2007

Her call was unexpected; her voice was warm and intimate, her lips close to the microphone. "Hi, John, it's Charlotte." Charlotte? "You spoke to my friend Amy last month - about the reunion, remember?"

The jigsaw pieces thudded into place. The reunion clock of my former place of learning had finally swung round to point at 1979. The friendly alumni office student temps had been badgering me all summer to sign up, with each call escalating the coquettish charm until it was a point of honour to refuse - on moral grounds, if nothing else.

"OK, so who is going from my department?" I was playing for time, trying to find a flaw in her pitch.

"Oh, gosh - loads," came the expansive response, "though I can't tell you who, of course. Data protection, you know."

"We'd really love you to come back and see us. The dean said how much he was looking forward to meeting you."

I found this unlikely. "You mean, the dean - who was probably still at school when I graduated - asked for me, specially, by name?"

There was a pause, just long enough to make me think I'd hurt her feelings. "Well, no, not actually. It was more sort of general ..."

"Sorry," I resolved, "I don't think I can make it. Awfully busy, you know."

She sighed, struck by a moment of (financial) loss. "OK," she brightened, "how about a discount?"

Saving 20 per cent and negotiating a room with en suite, tea-making facilities and a teeny bar of soap with the university crest on it naturally made all the difference. But I didn't realise the extent of what I'd done until I arrived at the barrier that now guards the campus car park. The security man - quite possible a relative of Sid, my former arch- nemesis - waved me through and saluted. Saluted!

As I walked into the reception, things got even weirder. It looked like the cast reunion from Grease, all denim, leather jackets and questionable hair. The saddest bunch of 50-year-olds this side of the park bench: whatever did they think they looked like? Then I caught sight of my reflection in the window, sucked my gut in a bit and accepted reality and a glass of red wine.

Naturally enough, a few of the old crew were there - people I regard as close friends, despite having seen them only a handful of times since graduation.

That left the people I hadn't seen for nearly 30 years. Some had obviously done well and were busy networking, with colourful DVD business cards slipping discreetly from hand to hand. Around them, circling like supplicants, were the lost souls who even the first time around never managed to break into the inner circle of cool.

Astonishingly, a few of the faculty I knew in the late 1970s were still chugging along. One, I swear, was wearing the same tweed jacket. They smiled and shook hands, pretended to recognise me, asked how I was getting on and then scuttled off to refill their glasses when the pained silence got too gruelling.

Later, as the evening slid from polite to convivial to raucous, I saw someone looking at me from across the room. Her eyes were amused and familiar. With a burst of temporal shock, I realised that it was Helen - the girl that I had belatedly realised was really quite fond of me, something I was unaware of as I tried desperately to get off with her room-mate. It was Helen who had taken me to casualty when the target of my affection had thrown an ashtray at me - a heavy, glass one.

She looked terrific, as I told her, and was just as zappily intelligent as I remembered. She touched the ashtray scar on my forehead and smiled. Neurons lit up that I had forgotten existed. We had another glass of wine. I was telling her all about how interesting life as a lecturer at a small provincial university really was when I noticed a slight lack of attention on her part. Her eyes were wandering off - checking the newcomers at the door, glancing over my shoulder. I asked her if she was looking for someone. "Simon," she said, and my fantasy world collapsed. "He's been phoning me from the alumni office for months to get me to come. I sort of hoped he might be here, he sounded such a sweetie ..."

I suppose I deserved the hangover I had when I got back on Monday, but the department meeting really didn't help. As the agenda ground remorselessly on, Mike, the department head, tried to jolly us along - but even he knew what we really thought about item six.

"Look," he eventually confessed, "I don't like the idea any more than you. But the fact is that marketing won't let us off. We have to have another reunion."

He consulted a document. "They reckon that the 1995 cohort is the best target this time - some bullshit about peak disposable income and core empathy index. So the admissions tutor that year was ..." His finger slid down the page, stopped. He looked up, straight at me. "John ... Well done, mate, you get to be in charge."

It was only when I got the briefing from marketing that I understood just what I had taken on. This was no simple "come back and see us" visit with a cup of tea and a few biscuits - this was a military operation, an operation with targets.

"We were running at well below 10 per cent," they explained. "Definitely sub- optimal, so we ramped up the communications plan and we've got participation up to nearly 20 - plus revenue has gone through the roof."

Revenue? This was another world, as was the call centre, where a pool of Charlottes and Simons talked earnestly to our alumni - warmly, lips close to the microphone.

"The personal touch - it really makes a difference," said my guide without apparent irony, gazing at the rows of screens. "And the CRM package really delivers the goods ..."

"Customer Relationship Management" - so it has come to this. I finally realised that I wasn't "that weird hairy bloke" to anyone at my university any more - just good old 7614659. It seemed a shame, but I had other worries; I had to deliver a major event and maximise revenue. How was I going to manage that?

"No problem," oozed the chap from marketing. "It's all a question of margin. The ones we can't hook first time get the special treatment: the extra phone calls, chatty e-mails, you know the drill. Plus we scale up the charges on the first pass so that we can offer a discount on the package later on - 20 per cent usually does the trick - and still make a healthy profit. And, of course, no one gets away without a copy of the yearbook and teddy in a university scarf."

Perhaps surprisingly, the reunion went off reasonably well. There were a couple of scuffles, but nothing major. And, as I explained afterwards, the ambulances were really overkill. There were a few frosty-looking spouses, due to old and better forgotten friendships being salaciously rekindled on the dance floor, but I managed to keep the enforced guests - my faculty colleagues - away from the booze for long enough to keep them vertical.

A few vaguely familiar former students wandered up and said hello. They looked happy, relaxed and successful ... but after a while I found I had to wander off and refill my glass. They are all out there doing great things, and I'm still here selling teddies. It doesn't seem right, somehow.

John Brinnamoor is a pseudonym.

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