The Female Leaders category focuses on women in the MICE industry. This time: Kerrin MacPhie, Head of Business Events VisitBritain / VisitEngland
Please describe your career history to date?
My 25-year plus career proves that you can start at any level in the hospitality and meetings industry. My first role was in a hotel, working evening and weekends whilst continuing to study. Through this experience, I realised quite early on that relationships both with customers and colleagues is key and, to this day, relationship management is vital in everything I do.
I went on to do a five-year management course, then moved to accountancy in the hospitality industry and I loved seeing the business through a different lens. My last role in hotels was Revenue Manager where I was responsible for making the numbers work at the top of the P+L funnel and knowing what was needed to ensure a good outcome at the bottom. A rewarding task that aided my development.
My next step was destination management, supporting member venues, advising buyers and developing an Ambassador Programme. This role led me to venue management, developing new business in the meetings destination of Liverpool in a new convention centre called ACC Liverpool. I took the role two years before it opened knowing I was walking into a challenge but fully ready to get stuck in. Year one smashed all expectations and the years that followed were similar.
Twelve years later, having successfully established Liverpool as an events destination, I moved into a national role as Head of Business Events at VisitBritain. Three years into the role I am still as proud and as enthusiastic as when I first arrived. I love promoting our fantastic UK destinations, venues and suppliers and supporting the most amazing destinations in the world….but you know I would say that!
What makes the MICE business so interesting for you personally?
Meetings are where innovation takes place and lifelong relationships are created. Helping to bring people together to make a difference to them or their organisation is so fulfilling. Also, our industry is like one big happy family that supports different football teams – we all love the sport, even if we are on opposite sides. I love to learn from my industry colleagues and I am happy to share my knowledge with them for the greater good of the sector. Helping each other, especially as we navigate through this difficult time, is important.
What do you think are the main barriers women have to overcome to become successful in the industry?
This is an interesting question as I, personally, have not experienced barriers to get to where I am in our industry. As previously mentioned, from a young age I knew that I wanted a career in business events and had the confidence to go and get it. Presence and visibility is important – let people know that you are in the room. My trick was always to wear a very bright jacket so that, even at my short height, I could be seen. Having a good business network is vital for personal and professional development, something I learned very early in my career. Your network grows and, what is really nice, is that you grow with your colleagues.
How would you describe your individual style of leadership and what is important to you in this context?
My leadership style is one of support, always focusing on the positive, even in negative situations. I push individuals to be their best when I know they can do more and encourage them to step out of their comfort zone. Where there is a coordinated goal, I ensure that the team are motivated and stay focused. I am a good judge on when to use a hands on or hands-off approach, giving space to individuals to grow and develop. This way of working always gives me a feeling of great pride.
I was a mentor for Fast Forward 15, an annual programme that runs for a 12-month period during which mentees and their mentors work together to achieve objectives and goals. The programme includes two group workshops, monthly one to one mentoring and concludes with a graduation ceremony. When my mentee graduated it was a proud emotional moment, she achieved what she wanted. I helped her by getting her to see that she had all the answers and was skilled and ready to take a leap into senior management.
Who inspired you? Life and career wise and why/how?
In life my father has always been my inspiration – he has boundless energy, even at 87, and says age is just a number.
Career – so many to choose from but if I must it is Christian Mutschlechner. Christian was at the Vienna Convention Bureau for 34 years and is known for many things in our industry, however a stand out moment is when he got support from his member venues and established the Vienna Meeting Industry Report, an annual report which clearly articulates the value of the sector to the destination. I remember my first ICCA congress in Rhodes, 2006, where he was president. He taught me that you don’t get far if you haven’t got evidence to substantiate your ask.
What is your advice for female colleagues, who are just at the beginning of their careers?
Read the book Handbags in the Boardroom by Sandra Green.
Decide what you want from your career and don’t be afraid to ask your industry for advice – a human trait that is often not tapped into enough is we all love to help! Have the confidence to be who you want to be, you are in charge of you. Reach for the stars and if you are unsure if you will like the arrival destination, again, ask those around you who have already completed the journey – it is never too late to change course.
And if you don’t want to reach for the stars, that is absolutely ok too. Not everyone wants or needs to be a senior manager or leader. It is your choice, your life and your career so do what feels right for you.
Why do you think we’re still talking about gender equality at work? And why does this topic seem to have more force now, than perhaps ever before?
Gender equality is part of our daily life now and it should not be viewed as a ‘topic’ but as the norm. Women have a strong place in this industry – be it an office, in a production studio or in the boardroom and we are seeing key female players every day making a huge impact.
What have been your stand out moments at VisitBritain?
Since joining VisitBritain over three years ago, there have been so many stand out moments it is hard to know where to start. Being part of a wider tourism organisation that has evolved so much is a huge accomplishment – from the development of our Diversity & Inclusion programme which supports and celebrates the diversity of our team to our People Strategy which has been crafted with the purpose of best utilising and motivating our most important asset – our people.
In terms of the business events team and what we have managed to achieve, there are a few key moments that truly stand out. Starting with the launch of MeetEngland at IMEX America in 2019. It was an incredible show that truly demonstrated the quality and quantity of high-level destinations, venues and suppliers that England has to offer. One buyer loved our stand so much, she remained there the entire time! This moment is closely followed by the magical gala dinner at Hampton Court Palace during MeetGB 2019. Hosted in the Great Hall in one of the UK’s most historical landmarks alongside Henry VIII and his six wives, it was a poignant moment in an incredible show that I am sure will not be easily forgotten. A time that was equally challenging as it was exciting was delivering MeetGB Virtual in a very limited window. Choosing to take this event and make it virtual at the start of the pandemic was risky – we were entering unchartered waters and it was most definitely a learn as we go situation but one that paid off in the end. And finally I cannot not mention the International Business Events Action Plan being included in the Tourism Sector Deal, putting a spotlight on the business events industry in the UK and giving it the recognition it deserves.
But none of this compares to supporting my team. We have delivered an unbelievable amount of work throughout the pandemic – from virtual events and website development to writing blogs, hosting round-tables, offering grant support and continuing to support international buyers and our UK suppliers, so much has been achieved and we have a lot to be proud of.