Michael Hirst sits as Chairman of the Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP) at the pinnacle of the events industry’s representative structure. He is a man respected right across the spectrum of the events, meetings and hospitality sector and that is largely due to the fact that he has been everywhere and done everything.
Many now benefit from his advice and he holds the industry’s master key to the political portal accessing the corridors of power in Westminster.
Under Hirst’s watch the BVEP has gone from a primus inter pares industry association to a body now leading the industry’s response to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Inquiry into the sector and a gaining authority in Westminster and beyond.
The route that brought Michael Hirst to the gates of Westminster, and indeed Buckingham Palace, where he received his OBE in 2004, began in North London.
His father passed away when he was eight and his mother acquired a small hotel in St James’s where the young Master Hirst lived and helped out in various roles including porterage, cleaning and serving breakfast.
“That gave me the enthusiasm to study hotel keeping which I did at Westminster Hotel School,” he says.
The young graduate Hirst first worked as a trainee for Forte & Co, eventually going into the company’s ‘Leisure business – theme parks, seaside piers and amusement centres and night clubs’ division. It was then onto Ladbroke holiday centres, bingo clubs and, eventually, its hotels.
Hirst was MD at Ladbroke Hotels when Ladbroke acquired Hilton for whom he became, first, Operation Director for Hilton International and then Chief Executive.
Hirst’s move into events proper was while representing the hospitality Industry on a Ministerial Group in 1997 when the then Secretary of State, Virginia Bottomley, was preparing a new Tourism Strategy.
“Her advisor Roy Tutty, also President of the Meetings Industry Association (mia), pointed out to her there was no inclusion of business tourism. She looked around the room, rested her gaze on me and asked if I would Chair a working committee on such a strategy. This I did with the old British Tourist Authority.”
The Conservatives lost the election but the new Labour Secretary of State, Chris Smith, decided to include the business tourism strategy in his own plans. The forerunner to the BVEP, the Business Tourism Partnership, was created as a result of this strategy in 1999.
Hirst has clearly been able to say ‘Yes, Minister’, and has made the right connections all along the line, continuing the process of creating a strong network among the trade bodies in the industry.
His secret of success, he says, is “keeping at it and emphasising the same message for over 14 years”.
Asked what were the biggest obstacles to overcome when making the case for the importance of events in the UK, he picks out “defining the sector and finding champions that can influence the outcomes the industry would like to see”.
A defining moment came, he says, when he was able to proclaim the benefits from the Olympics in showing what Britain’s event talents were able to deliver.
This and the establishment of the APPG and its subsequent report recognising that the BVEP should be re-enforced as the industry’s unifying body, he picks out as highlights of his term leading the BVEP.
So, what does he think are the secrets of dealing with government ministers and Whitehall?
“Relationships and trying to offer solutions to the political policies being pursued by the parties,” he says.
Of course, the door has only recently been prised open in Westminster and Hirst lists the following tasks for the BVEP and the industry as a whole to develop and work on:
? Establishing better cohesion in the industry
? Spreading best practice
? Raising the profile of the contribution the industry makes
? Campaigning for a more competitive business environment
? Raising professionalism
And if he could bring in a single piece of legislation to help the UK meetings and events industry, he says it would be: “Lower business and employment taxes”.
The sector is often accused of having too many chiefs and associations claiming to represent it. Hirst acknowledges the fact that, “it’s a diverse industry which has many facets each requiring specialist representation. The BVEP acts rather like a CBI or Federation of Small Businesses to enable a co-ordinated platform for action when there are common interests”.
While Hirst talks with a passion about the UK events industry’s talent and creativity, he is no little Englander and realises the need to draw in the best from all over the world to complement our own rich talent.
“The UK is highly creative and professional in its delivery of events. We could learn from others as to how to align event strategies with the country’s economic objectives. More local understanding of the power of events to drive local economies would be good as local authorities and municipalities really hold the key to success,” he says.
Looking back on what is rather a long career indeed, Hirst, who was born in 1943, picks out his early career running London’s foremost theatre restaurant, The Talk of The Town and also being involved in the UK Holiday business with Ladbroke Holidays as a particularly enjoyable period.
“Hilton International was a great experience; international travel to over 100 countries marrying different cultures with an international brand. It was also a critical time for the rejuvenation of the brand on a world stage. Of course receiving the OBE from the Queens for services to UK tourism and other awards have been a highlight as well.”
Hirst may be the nearest thing the UK events industry has to a grandee, but he is still looking to make an impact and is always visible on the industry trade show floors, bustling from shell scheme pillar to custom built post to make a point here, encourage an exhibitor there and add to the debate further down the line.
He still holds a hotel advisory role for property specialists CBRE and advises also several companies in the leisure and hospitality space.
His goal for the BVEP in five years time?
“I hope BVEP will be even more influential and that the Britain For Events campaign will be seen by the government as an important part of its export promotion for UK industry.”
Asked about his attitude to subvention funding to assist UK destinations bidding for major events, he says it is something that needs to be dealt with on a local destination level. “There is more going on than meets the eye. Subvention need not only be extra cash. As the BVEP report showed, there are many benefits local destinations can offer as part of a subvention package.”
Always one to give a straight answer, Hirst answers the question of whether we rely too much on foreign capital to build our convention centres of the future, directly and to the point: “We live in competitive times and in an international marketplace of inward investment and capital projects. It’s gratifying to know that global investors seek out UK venues and infrastructure as a place to put their money. Clearly they have faith in the UK industry being able to deliver a good return on their investment. It’ll be interesting to see who now bids for the NEC Group. I suspect this, too, will be of considerable interest to international investors.”
Asked to offer advice for those contemplating a career in an industry that Michael Hirst, OBE, has known so well and for so many years, he says: “Go for it. It is one of the most exciting and varied industries in which to work.”
And, for when the going gets tough, he shares the best piece of advice he ever received: “Keep your head down and keep going.”
This was first published in the April issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston