Badminton’s new director has had a tough start with the 2020 event being cancelled due to Covid-19. She talks exclusively to Pippa Roome about her 46-year history with the event and the changes that will now come in for 2021...
Oddly, the day I interviewed Jane Tuckwell was also the day I started taking the coronavirus seriously. It was late February – we wanted the interview sorted early before Badminton’s new director became frantically busy with the event’s final build-up – and BBC Radio 4 was non-stop Covid-19 as I drove through pelting rain to Gloucestershire.
Dashing into the warm welcome of the office Jane shares with commercial director Andrew Tucker, it felt like the weather was more likely to kibosh this spring’s British five-star. But just three weeks later, the event became an inevitable casualty of the pandemic.
Back in February, Jane said that cancellations are “the toughest times” of working at Badminton. On the phone six weeks later, she reflects on how this year differs to previous cancellations.
“Cancellation is a terrible thing, it removes enjoyment from people’s lives and it’s so devastating because of all the people who are commercially involved,” she says. “But apart from the horrendous affect on people’s livelihoods, in the big picture of what’s going on, it seems insignificant this time. Lots of worse things are happening in the world.”
Typically, this self-effacing and extremely efficient lady doesn’t feel sorry for herself. Her thoughts are concentrated on the likes of tradestand holders who rely on Badminton for income, and on riders and owners.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic hopeful or a person with one horse. If this is the right year to do Badminton, you can’t rewind it,” she says.
Before Jane can focus on next year, the team will be busy “putting this event to bed” until beyond the defunct event dates (6–10 May).
“You have to get in touch with all the contractors – perhaps you owe them some money or you don’t,” she explains. “There’s a lot to do with the insurance company, working with the loss adjuster; they want information about the cost of running the event. You have to take down all the cross-country fences.
“It’s different cancelling a long way out, but even this year the grandstands were about a third up. In the wet years when we have got very close, it’s devastating because you’ve done all the work, you’re on a high and ready to rock and roll. An early cancellation just leaves you with a bit of an empty feeling.”
A long-standing team member
“I don’t know where home ends and work starts – it’s just a way of life,” she muses. “I love Badminton because I’ve grown up with it. I love the fact that it has an end result every year and so every year it’s like a new chapter.”
Jane lives in the house she was brought up in, some eight miles from Badminton, with her husband Philip, who breeds and produces showjumpers – his third-generation home-bred Galtur jumped in Nations Cups for Britain last year – and her daughter Melissa lives in the same village.
Jane’s father was joint-master of the Beaufort and she was in the Pony Club, though always more interested in hunting than competing. She left school at 15 and, after secretarial and cookery courses, started working for Badminton’s then-director Colonel Frank Weldon when she was 18.
“I helped with the entries for a Pony Club area trial at Lavington,” she explains. “We were at a meet not far from here and Col Weldon rode round and round me and said, ‘Well Jane, I hear you didn’t do a bad job with the Pony Club area trials, you’d better come and work for me at Badminton. Don’t worry, it won’t interfere with your hunting.’”
Jane “didn’t dare speak” when she started in the Badminton office. For 10 years, she worked there in the lead-up to the event and in the other months she headed to London or America, was a professional dress-maker and did “cooking in the Highlands”, which “all helped, because it was all experience”.
In 1984, Jane was promoted to secretary, which soon became a full-time job. In 2006, she was given the assistant director title – “so that people recognised I could answer questions when Hugh wasn’t here” – although her duties had not really changed.
Jane believes that while Badminton has always evolved, there has been more growth in the 21st century than in the 50 years before that, and the team has grown to match that.
“The event hasn’t grown in numbers, but it’s grown in people’s expectations, health and safety, social media and email,” she says.
Col Weldon taught Jane that “just because it’s worked for 20 years, doesn’t mean it’ll work for 21”, and she is always open to ideas.
Jane did not have much time to hunt her coloured horse, Paddy, last season, but she says that the ease with which people – such as the event’s hundreds of volunteers – make suggestions when she is mounted is one of the great advantages of doing so.
Time to step up
Hugh Thomas announced his retirement the Monday after Badminton 2019.
“I was completely stunned – I don’t think it had entered my head working here without Hugh,” says Jane. “I wasn’t ready to retire, but because I’d grown along with the event, I’d never thought about doing the top job.”
Hugh suggested the ever-modest Jane apply for the directorship.
“Afterwards, I had my first sleepless night about Badminton,” she admits. “I was just very flattered, that people thought I could do it.”
She was interviewed by the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort, among others.
“To be interviewed for a job you’ve effectively done for 45 years was very nerve-racking,” she says. “Badminton House has never worried me or scared me, but I did feel quite nervous. But they were incredibly kind.”
The chief challenge is keeping Badminton where it should be, “the biggest and the best”, says Jane, adding that contrary to many people’s beliefs, Badminton and Burghley are “great friends, we work with each other”.
However, Badminton has to maintain its place in eventing’s changing structure, with developments such as the Event Rider Masters and talk of “five-star short” competitions.
“I think everybody wants to be very careful that they don’t dilute the top end of the sport and devalue those top events to a degree that it damages the sport,” says Jane. “Badminton is the one everybody wants to win, the one visitors want to come to, the one sponsors want to sponsor, the one businesses want to take their tradestand to, and you’ve got to keep it up there.
“If you want to be five-star, you’ve got to fit the full criteria. I don’t think you should have a five-star with four-star cross-country.”
Jane is used to the fact “the buck stops here and keeping all the balls in the air”, but finds public-facing situations such as media interviews hard.
“I was a backroom girl and I want to do a good job, but I don’t want the glory,” she says. “But I am somebody that if I’ve got to do something, I get on with it.”
Taking a fresh look
Mitsubishi Motors ended their title sponsorship of Badminton with last year’s event, after 28 years. But Jane believes there is an upside to everything.
“If Mitsubishi Motors were still with us, I’d be saying, ‘Gosh, aren’t we the luckiest?’ – and we would be, because they’ve been incredibly good sponsors,” says Jane. “But losing them has made us look at everything fresh.”
Andrew Tucker has been at the forefront of the sponsorship push and has signed up and spent much time “bedding in” Mars Equestrian and Science Supplements as partners. The team hope to add two more partners or a title sponsor.
Jane spends time visiting other events, from BBC Countryfile Live to Wimbledon. The team are aiming to make Badminton more sustainable – no plastic bottles and 25p off for hot drinks in reusable cups.
“One of the things we learnt from Wimbledon is you’re never going to get it all done in one year,” says Andrew. “It’s knowing where you are on the pathway and telling people about it, so they understand you can’t just change it overnight.”
The team have also “worked very hard” on traffic, after bad queues last year.
“We’ve developed a new route in and we’re going to have people qualified to direct traffic out on the roads,” says Jane. “It’s always a moving thing – people have a bad experience coming from the south one year and they’ll probably all come from the north the next.
“It’s like the whole job – if you feel you’ve done everything you can to make it as good as possible for everybody, I don’t think you should be over-worried if it hasn’t worked. But last year we sold far more tickets in advance than day sales and weren’t quick enough to change our signage. You kick yourself because we should have woken up to that.”
Above all, Jane is a true team player – she knows every job at Badminton, but believes in delegation.
“If you delegate to the right person, you never have to worry again,” she says.
Asked what legacy she would like to leave as director, she says: “I would like to leave a happy ship, that still has that wonderful Badminton feel. I want to leave it in a good place financially and also in a good place within the structure of the sport.”
And her alternative career, if she hadn’t devoted her life to Badminton?
“Anything to do with the countryside, the horse or the hound. It would have to include one of those ingredients.”
Who are we to argue with that?
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