Ashford 2019 District Conference: A Time of Celebration and Inspiration

When I attended my first District Conference in 2005 I never imagined that I would one daybe the hosting District Director. But that is exactly the situation I found myself in at Ashfordin May 2019. Toastmasters International had decided to do away with the autumn conference andrequire Districts to have just one District Conference a year, in the spring. This was the firstDistrict Conference to have all four District Contest Finals at one time. As a result it wasdecided that the conference weekend needed to be extended from the Saturday andSunday to three days, starting on Friday evening. Although a first for District 91, it was areturn to the old days – more on that later. What an amazing weekend we had! It was a hugely successful event, and the team led byKaren Ince were magnificent. Our first three-day conference as District 91 got off to a greatstart on Friday with the formal District Executive Committee (DEC) meeting, wonderfulworkshops, the District Table Topics Contest and the Candidates’ showcase. A new event that year was the Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) reception. This was an opportunity for members who have achieved their DTM award during the year to be recognised in the company of our existing DTMs. It was a fitting celebration of their notable achievement and something that we hoped would establish itself as a regular feature. The evening was rounded off with a delightful dinner and excellent entertainment from theAshford Rock Choir and the improv group A Pair of Four with Chris Murphy of TunbridgeWells Speakers Club. They played a huge part in creating a real buzz among delegatesthat continued into Saturday and the formal opening of the Conference. The highlights just kept on coming throughout the weekend. Every time I thought theconference was going really well, it just got even better! Magnificent keynote speakers, aplethora of professional workshops, and the District finals for the Humorous Speech,Evaluation, and of course the International Speech contest. Congratulations to all thecontestants. One of the greatest pleasures of my year as District Director was to recognise some of theoutstanding achievements of our members at the Hall of Fame. It is always extremelydifficult to choose which of our dedicated and hard-working members deserves these awards when there are so many worthy candidates. The awards that year went to: • Area Director of the Year – Sam Warner Area J11• Division Director of the Year – Janet Alkema Division A• Toastmaster of the Year – Steve Birch of Malvern• Speakers and Worcester Speakers. Steve sadly passed away in May 2023• District Director’s Award – Mary Robson of North• Oxford Speakers, Oxford Orators Club and Oxford Speakers Club Saturday also saw the District Council meeting, where your leaders for the nextToastmasters year were elected. Who remembers District Director Florian Bay, ProgramQuality Director Arnaud Sartre and Club Growth Director Helena Boden-Brewer, andDivision Directors Mike Burrows, Rupa Datta, Ken Essien, Sandra Mighty, Nikita Parks,Liang T Li and Beauty Zindi? What we didn’t know then was that Ashford would be the last fully in-person DistrictConference for who knows how long thanks to Covid. The world of online and hybridmeetings and events has become the new normal, but it is encouraging to see a shift backto the buzz of a live audience and the joy of meting up in person with friends, old and new.I touched on the “old days” earlier. Prior to the formation of District 91 we were part ofDistrict 71, comprising the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Not only did we havetwo District Conferences each year, in November and May, but they alternated betweenthe UK and Ireland. Although the main events took place on the Saturday and Sunday, because half of thedelegates were either travelling to or from the UK and Ireland on Friday, the Friday nightswere a time to party! That usually entailed a themed fancy dress event. I was ConferenceDirector for the 2007 Victory Conference in Portsmouth, so naturally we had a nauticaltheme, resulting in an array of sailors, pirates and even the odd mermaid! And thanks tothe Irish delegates , the Friday and Saturday night Craic, as always led by Ted Corcoran,was the thing of legend. Like all things, the District Conference has had to adapt and evolve, but it has remainedthe showcase event of the District calendar. Many of you will have great memories of pastconferences and be looking forward to more great events in the future. If you have neverattended a District conference, then why not make this year the first of many? Andy Hammond, DTM Past District Director (2018/2019)