Meet Jan Tonkin

Author: Christopher Durso       

Jan Tonkin 11397_120


Managing Director, The Conference Company, Auckland, New Zealand; President,  International Association of Professional Congress Organisers


Bachelor’s degree in French and Graduate School of Business General Management Programme, University of Auckland.


When I was in my early 20s, it was almost a rite of passage for New Zealanders to go traveling, so I duly followed suit. After living in France for a time and exploring Europe, I headed for London, where I spotted an advertisement for a conference manager. I didn’t get that position, but it piqued my interest, so I contacted the conference-organizing companies in the city to see if one of them would take me on. I was lucky enough to secure an entry-level role with Conference Services, which was the preeminent company in the industry at the time. Working my way up the ladder from reception to registrations to conference coordinating, I was on my way to a career as a PCO, and I haven’t looked back since.


On my return to New Zealand I found that one of the larger travel agencies was venturing into conference management. Very fortuitously for me, there were few people with a conferencing background, so I was able to join that team as they went about establishing and then growing the business. I certainly hadn’t expected to be able to follow my dream career back home quite so soon! After a time, the division was turned into an independent company of which I became part and continued to organize international association conferences won for New Zealand as well as numerous national meetings.


In 1990, I took a deep breath and launched The Conference Company with the blessing of my husband, who knew just how risky such a step might be. Twenty-seven years later, I head a fabulous team of over 30 who work from locations around New Zealand and in Sydney, Australia, organizing conferences of all kinds, associated exhibitions, and awards programs. We are also actively involved in helping to bid for international conferences for both countries. More recently our reach has expanded further into Asia-Pacific, which has been particularly exciting for my team.

I am incredibly proud to be a member — and currently president — of the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO). I am proud not just because The Conference Company continues to meet the ongoing standards and quality checks required for membership, but also because the association attracts so many dynamic individuals who want to raise the bar for the profession and enjoy one another’s company, despite being competitors. IAPCO’s teaching program, which is central to its mission, is also dear to my heart. From deliver-ing education primarily in Europe, it has branched out with seminars in all corners of the globe and an online program as well. Being a member of that training-academy faculty keeps me grounded in what matters in our business, and having the chance to interact with so many students is a real privilege.


Without a doubt, the person who has had the most influence on my career is Sarah Storie-Pugh, currently the executive director of IAPCO. I first met her at the PCO company Conference Services in London, where she was a conference manager, and I got to work closely with her. She was very generous with her time and knowledge, teaching me what she had learned on the job and giving me every opportunity to extend myself and take on more and more responsibility. In her role as IAPCO executive director, she encouraged me to apply for membership for The Conference Company, and has always been supportive of our involvement in the association, particularly when we hosted its annual conference in New Zealand. Working alongside her in my role as president has been easy and collaborative, which has reminded me of just how fortunate I have been to know her for so long and still be in close touch.


It would have to be the people. In what other job could I meet such a variety of interesting individuals from a wide range of backgrounds who are experts in all sorts of fields? I also thoroughly enjoy working with industry professionals in various destinations who are as committed to delivering valuable experiences for conference participants as I am.


When asked if I’m going to retire, I can’t think of anything that’s further from my mind. This business is too much fun for that! Rather than having a next big goal, my ongoing focus is on mentoring my team to ensure they are not only providing a valuable service but are adapting it as the industry and clients’ needs evolve, all the while enjoying every moment.


As I’m sure many others who have been in the meetings world for a long time would say: Get involved, try your hand at different roles until you find your niche, grab every opportunity that comes your way, and also make your own. Hone your computer skills and your communication skills (both oral and written). Having more than one language is a plus, and it gives you an insight into the need for cultural intelligence as well as emotional intelligence, both of which serve you well when working in a business that revolves around connecting people.


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