Published: 29/07/2004, Volume II4, No. 5916 Page 16 17

Hide and Seek, Musical Chairs, Pin the Tail on the Bed Bug and, of course, terrible food. . . the party conference season may be grim in prospect, but in the second of a series of articles linked to the Health Hotel, the Health Foundation's chief executive says that this year he will not be able to stay away

The Health Foundation, which recently celebrated its first birthday, is getting ready to go to the party political conferences for the first time this year.Having once vowed never to set foot in a seaside town during the months of September or October, why am I doing it again?

Our communications director, a veteran of Capitol Hill, described her first impression of the British conference season to me as 'quaint'. I sometimes think that 'inhumane'would be a better word. For many party delegates, a week by the seaside in the company of like-minded people is attractive. But for representatives of nongovernment organisations tied in to a Charity Commissioncompliant stay at all three conferences over consecutive weeks, the prospect is more appalling than appealing.

It is the convention of the fringe that should be held responsible.

The packed calendar of sideshows results in a highly competitive, zero-sum game where more exposure and contact with politicians for one group means less for someone else. Organisations that share the same goals and commitment to improving health are reduced to squabbling over speakers and competing for delegates.

But I will be back this year, because something is happening that will make it different. As part of the health hotel, 27 health organisations have joined forces to rewrite the rules of the party conference season. The organisations will be hosting a joint reception at all three party conferences, and for the first time they will be holding their fringe sessions under one roof at the Labour Party conference.

The Health Hotel is an unprecedented alliance that includes a diverse range of organisations from across the health sector, including patient groups, professional associations, think tanks and NHS bodies. It is an exciting development - and one that the Health Foundation is delighted to support.

Competition has been replaced with collaboration, and the benefits are already apparent.

The party conference experience as we know it is about to change.

But not before time, if one considers previous events.

Who remembers Spot the Difference at last year's Conservative conference? The fringe guide featured no fewer than five health-related fringe events running simultaneously during a single afternoon. Four featured the word 'choice' in their title, and no less than three boasted then shadow health secretary Tim Yeo as a speaker.

Hide and Seek is another fondly remembered conference parlour game. There is not a public affairs manager of any health-related organisation who does not sport a grey hair gained while trying to track down a late-running, triple-booked frontbench speaker for a fringe session that has already had to start without them. It is not unknown for scuffles to break out between rival search parties at the back of a room while 'their' speaker is still winding up.

Advanced players sometimes combine Hide and Seek with Musical Chairs, a nerve-wracking game of brinkmanship that involves running an entire fringe debate with no more than one speaker present on the top table at any one time.

This year, Health Hotel members have shared their ideas for fringe sessions with each other in advance.We have succeeded in eradicating any duplication, and seen some strong combinations as organisations have come together to address related topics. For the Labour conference, where all the fringe sessions will be taking place under one roof, the members were able to make a coordinated approach to prospective speakers, a development much welcomed by special advisers. A pull-out supplement to the Labour fringe guide raises the profile of the health presence at this year's conference still further.

Back to the games. Feeding the 5,000 will be well known to anyone attending - or even worse, hosting - a fringe event in a sub-standard hotel to which three times more people than expected show up and the catering consists of a solitary sardine sandwich.

The provision of free catering is a serious business at party conferences. For party delegates it is a four-day diet-busting fiesta.

For the stoic representatives of non-governmental organisations existing on canapés for three consecutive weeks, it is a brush with scurvy. Near the end of the season, It is not uncommon for the salad garnish to vanish before the deep-fried cheese puffs have even been touched.

The ironies of serving sausages on sticks while debating the obesity epidemic are not lost on the organisations taking part, and the caterers for the Health Hotel's receptions and the fringe events at the Old Ship in Brighton will offer healthy eating options.

Plans are afoot to distribute free fruit juice, water and fresh fruit to delegates to raise awareness of the Health Hotel and the common concerns of its members. And for delegates anxious about the effect the season might be having on their health, free health checks will be on offer.

Another game that has its roots in the deeply competitive atmosphere of the conference fringe is Celebrity Trumps. This involves the deployment of unfair tactics to out-do the competition by inviting real celebrities to speak at your fringe session, when everyone knows you are supposed to settle for politicians.

For the Health Foundation's fringe event at this year's Labour conference, former junior health minister Lord Hunt and The Guardian's Malcolm Dean will be asking: 'How safe is your hospital?' Titans of policy, both.

Happily, because of the coordinated approach to planning the health fringes this year, they will escape such competition as Charlie Dimmock extolling the benefits of gardening for mental health in the next room.

And I am delighted that, in this area as in many others, competition on the conference fringes will be giving way to collaboration.With health at the top of the agenda for the general election campaign, the Health Hotel initiative is a really exciting opportunity to promote new ideas about the priorities for the next government at what is probably the last party conference season before the election.

This unique alliance demonstrates the strength of partnership-working among health organisations and their shared commitment to work together to improve patient care and promote public health.

The aim of the Health Hotel is not to present a single set of proposals, but to exchange ideas and prompt an open and challenging dialogue about the health priorities for a future government.

The extent of collaboration shows how significant we all feel health issues are to future government policy. As a result, we can all be sure of mounting a professional, high-impact presence.

There is no doubt that health organisations will be more influential in consequence. For the first time in years, I am actually looking forward to it.

Sadly, there is one element of the fun that not even the Health Hotel is likely to eliminate. Pin the Tail on the Bed Bug, that favourite pastime of seaside conference accommodation, looks set to be a fixture for a few more years yet.

The Health Hotel is a unique forum of over 25 organisations, including HSJ , which are forming a lobby group at each of the party political conferences