Jane Longhurst has been chief executive of the Meetings Industry Association since 2004, during which time she has championed the sector, launching the AIM accreditation scheme and celebrating talent with initiatives such as the miaList. During the pandemic she has led a strategy providing insight, clarity and guidance. She is stepping down as chief executive of the Meetings Industry Association in November after 17 years at the helm.
Covid delayed my plans. I was going to step down as chair two years ago and didn’t get round to it. I was just about to say “I’m off chaps”, and then we could see Covid coming. It just felt so wrong to walk away at that point.
I’m glad I stuck around, it’s been quite a rollercoaster. I’ll never forget some of the stuff I’ve been involved with. I never thought I’d sit in a meeting with the government’s health advisers and scientific officers, it’s just mad when I think about it.
If anyone has had a good Covid, it’s me. I’ve learnt so much. I’m 64 this year, you don’t expect to learn a massive amount, but I have. I’ve really enjoyed the engagement, taking the membership with me. And I never want to repeat that. If I carried on, I’d be concerned that I’d be going back to the same old same old rather than trying to help the industry.
I joined the industry when I was 27. I went into EMAP in their events team and developed to be an events director. I’m going to miss that side of it, I am an organiser at heart. And even at a trade association you are still an organiser, I will miss that.
The sector has changed dramatically. I was one of the first people that EMAP ever sent on a health and safety course. I can remember taking events into venues in the early days with the fire doors chained up. That would just never happen now.
Every industry is impacted by the loss of their events programme. Government is finally starting to get it.
Everything’s definitely a lot more professional now. When I started nobody taught us anything. We literally flew by the seat of our pants. If you were lucky you managed to get an event off the ground. And it was completely different. From a professional organiser’s point of view, they really are genuinely professional now. And so are the venues.
The association was a bit of an old boys' network and I have fought very hard for us to shed that. Now we have a board and an association appropriate for a dynamic and professional audience. It’s grown up. The audience is considerably younger, it’s interesting how that’s changed.
Out of all the crises that have hit the industry, Covid is the one you couldn’t risk assess. The impact of this has been so devastating and far reaching. It’s hit everything. But it’s also made government realise the reach of events. Because when you’re talking to any industry they are all impacted by the loss of their events programme. Government are finally starting to get it.
We mustn’t lose that ground. For the first time they’re coming to us for research. It’s formulating policy and an understanding of the economic impact on our sector. They are desperate for stats. I’m showing them what we can collect and how easily we can collect it. But they still don’t really understand the diversity of our sector, how we filter across all sectors.
The immediate reaction to Covid was “Oh my God, I don’t want anything to do with this”. It was so scary. We aren’t a well-resourced association, and the magnitude of what was coming made me realise we were going to really struggle to manage it and support the industry as much as we eventually did.
The next reaction was to create an event. On 19 March 2020 we did a conference called Extraordinary Matters where we addressed what was happening. We brought in someone to talk about risks, public health, contracts, the legal side, what they could expect in terms of cancellations.
We took 200 delegates through what was coming and we prepared that conference in seven days. It was phenomenal. I am so glad we did it, it put the venues on the right track from the very beginning. By the time they left they knew exactly what they had to do. They had to go back, start thinking about closing down venues, preparing staff, employment law... heading for the hills would have been a lot easier! But we had to be there because the venues were so worried. So we had to roll up our sleeves and get on with it.
There’s been no let up. I’ve used absolutely everybody I could to help deliver. Wherever I’ve felt someone had a skill I’ve dragged it out of them. Our PR team, Custard, has been phenomenal. Like me they’ve worked from the crack of dawn until late at night making sure we’re delivering constantly. I couldn’t have done it without them.
Ultimately the venues have to get it right in reopening. If any of them get it wrong, potentially we could be closed down as a sector. We recognised that if we helped them prepare for reopening and we gave them that guidance, there would be consistency. As long as the venues continue the way they are, maintaining protocols around cleaning and hygiene, I think we’ll be ok.
I think the industry has a bright future. There’s been a lot of talk throughout the pandemic about this being the end of the events sector, everything’s going to go virtual. But do we honestly think that’s going to happen? No. I think there’s going to be a virtual element for some time, but I do think it’ll come back fully.
There will be some events that disappear, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing from a sustainability point of view. We have an operations board every month; we used to all trek off to London to do a meeting for four of us. There are plenty of meetings like that, they could come out of the calendar quite easily.
I think the MIA has a great future. We’ve got a really strong person coming in, I’m really excited about it. It’s exactly the right person to drive the association forward. Covid has wiped me out. So to have someone with renewed energy coming in, it’s a really good time.
It’s the start of a new period in my life. I have three French spaniels and we do a few events around that, so I’m still going to be an organiser - just with a different kind of delegate. I’ve never had to follow anyone at a conference around with a poo bag before!
I’m very outdoorsy, and this job doesn’t allow that. I spend a lot of time on trains, in hotels and conference centres. We’ve got a bit of land, so we’re going to bring some livestock in. I’ve always wanted Dexters, the little cows, and my husband would like a donkey. Plus I’ve got a deep passion for goats.