Shaping a sustainable future
As you may have read in last issue’s cover story, there are numerous association bodies operating in the events space. However, it is arguably the Meetings Industry Association (mia) that is the most well-known.
Jane Longhurst took over as mia chief executive 15 years ago, and in that time has worked to not only reinvent it, but to drive it forwards in an ever-changing industry.
It is fair to say that some trade associations are facing an existential crisis, in that they are looking for new ways to stay relevant, to offer tangible benefits relative to the cost of membership, and to engage new members. Longhurst and her mia colleagues, though, have found a way to bring value to members, for which it has more than 800, through its popular Connect Agents Days and forums, to its #20PercentLess plastic campaign and AIM accreditation. So, ahead of the mia’s 30th anniversary next year, what’s her story, and what challenges does she think the events industry will face in the future?
How did you come to work in the events industry?
I was working in an advertising department a long time ago and discovered that I’m pretty bad at selling advertising. The company transferred me into its events section where, conversely, I discovered I’m very good at events. I was put on the organising side and I’ve developed over the years from there, to the point where I ran that organisation’s national nursing exhibitions for EMAP in Scotland, England and Ireland.
I did that for many years, along with their conferences, and then later after leaving them I joined the Institute of Electrical Engineers, now the IET, where I ran their events department.
Eventually I was head hunted by the mia, some 15 years ago, and here I remain today.
Can you outline the structure of the mia: what is its role, and what does the future hold?
First of all, we are not-for-profit. We are owned and governed by our members. I report directly to a board of directors, that board represents the total sector, including all types of venues. They give us the directions and set the strategy and then I lead it for them. We have 800 members, comprising hotels and conference facilities, right the way through to sporting stadiums, unusual venues and many more.
With any trade association, we are constantly looking to the future, looking at what our members need and evolving with those needs, and with what’s happening in the wider industry. We are always introducing new benefits, providing members with more commercial and education opportunities while recognising the talent and best practice through our high-profile initiatives such as AIM accreditation, the miaList and student awards.
The AIM accreditation is the only real recognised industry certification in the UK. Can you tell us more about it?
AIM was launched in 2007 and it is a standard that takes the venues through the customer journey and measuring excellence through that journey. When we launched it in 2007, we were very keen to get government support and recognition and we’ve been working hard to make sure that we achieve that.
The government now recognises that AIM is the only standard for the business events industry.
Mia is working towards its #20PercentLess plastic campaign; what’s the criteria and the target time frame for that?
We’re asking the whole industry to reduce its use and reliance on single-use plastic by 20% each year. We are not asking them to replace these plastic items with alternatives, we are asking them to eradicate it completely.
We think it is important from a sustainability point of view. The goal posts have moved, with the EU introducing a ban on some elements by 2021. So, we are encouraging our members to move at speed around those elements. It’s the easy wins first, like plastic straws and stirrers, then moving onto the bigger items. It’s a campaign we’re evolving. It will evolve in 2020 when we will be inspiring the sector to also address food waste.
Looking at the wider events industry, do you think, generally, it is taking its environmental impact seriously?
I think it does. Generally, the venues really want to get on top of this, but there are cost implications, and that raises a fear factor. I think they’re doing their best, but it would be great if the pressure was actually coming from the buyer side, that’s really where it needs to start and then the venues will have to respond.
So, I think it’s a bit mixed. Overall, I would say they want to, but there are the big cost implications they are concerned about. We’re trying to get them to understand that actually there are cost savings as well that they will see if they start doing this. We know, for instance, that if they move over to filtered water instead of bottled water there’s a massive cost saving from that. After the initial investment, they can save a lot of money.
Do you think the Government’s attitude towards the industry has changed?
I think the Tourism Sector Deal has given us a clear indication that at last they have woken up to the fact that our sector is very important in terms of inward investment and helping them to deliver their industrial strategy.
I think it is imperative now that the Government becomes stable, that we get a stable minister, who can help and push this through. I don’t want this to be lost, the Events Industry Board has done a fantastic job to get this where it is. It would be a great pity if it isn’t fulfilled.
Do you think that is one of the biggest challenges the industry faces over the next few years; or are there any other challenges you foresee?
It is a challenge of course, but actually I think the biggest challenge is going to be staffing. We constantly hear from our members that there is a massive shortage of good chefs in the industry and I think that is going to continue.
There is also a challenge around sustainability. It is going to turn. Clients at some point will wake up and decide that they want to be booking sustainable venues and the venues will have to respond very quickly.
I also think costs are spiralling for everybody. Energy costs and food costs especially, that’s one of the reasons why we want to look at food waste next year. It’s about helping them manage costs but also helping them address the big sustainability issues.