The new chairman of York’s tourism bureau is anything but a haughty aristocrat, finds STEPHEN LEWIS

WITH a name like Jane, Lady Gibson, you expect the new chairman of Visit York to be a certain kind of person. A haughty aristocrat in the mould of Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham (as played by Maggie Smith), perhaps.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The woman who will be stepping out at York Racecourse today to officially open the city’s annual tourism conference is certainly formidable: she has 25 years experience as a theatre, TV and regional arts events producer, for example, sits on the board of organisations such as the National Trust Yorkshire & North East, and was chair of this year’s York Mystery Plays advisory board.

She has also led an interesting life. She grew up in Harrogate – where her family ran a TV and radio shop, Blackburn & Swallow – studied drama at Hull University, spent 11 years as housekeeper to a Nobel Prize-winning novelist in London, then left the capital and headed for the wilds of Northumbria after having recurring dreams about drystone walls.

But haughty? Not a bit of it. She’s held the title Lady Gibson for less than two years, she points out – since she married Morrison’s chairman Sir Ian Gibson, at York Register Office, on New Year’s Eve, 2010. Before that, she was plain Jane Blackburn.

Jane, Lady Gibson, is how the etiquette experts say she should be officially addressed, she says. “But just call me Jane.”

At the racecourse today, the 48-year-old will be mingling with representatives of as many as 200 tourism businesses to seek views on York’s tourism strategy for the future. Her central message will be that there is no room for complacency.

Yes, York is a wonderful city, she says – with a history, architecture and international reputation second to none. It has come through the recession remarkably well in many ways, and its hotels, restaurants, shops and guest houses do a great job of making visitors feel welcome. “In comparison to others, York is doing incredibly well. But we cannot deny that there is competition out there.”

She seems a good choice to be taking over at Visit York – the city’s tourism bureau – at a time like this. In addition to her years of experience in the world of arts and culture administration, she has the blood of small businesses running in her veins.

The family shop in Harrogate was set up by her grandfather. At one point, there was a small chain of shops, including one in Acomb. As a girl, she learned early the small business mantra of commitment to your customers.

She went to the local state school – St Aidan’s CoE. It was “at the top of the road”, she says: though she admits that as state schools go it was better than most. It had no trouble attracting great teachers because “it was a popular area for teachers to live.”

From school, she went to the University of Hull to study drama. She was more interested in the production side than acting.

“I don’t perform. I always wanted to be the one who signs cheques. Acting is a grim business: auditioning three times a day, being told you’re not right three times a day.” She loved Hull and became a supporter of Hull Rugby League Club and, when she finished her degree, didn’t want to leave. “All drama students want to stay forever in Hull, and work with Hull Truck.”

But a tutor persuaded her it was time to move on. So she rang a university friend who was now in London. The friend just happened to be the goddaughter of Doris Lessing, the novelist who was later to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for books such as The Golden Notebook and The Good Terrorist.

For 11 years, Jane lived with Lessing at her home in Hampstead, acting as the writer’s housekeeper while also working as a theatre, TV and record producer.

It was an extraordinary time of her life, she says. “I was a drama student working in theatre in London, and I’d come home from a night out and there was Arthur Miller standing on the stairs. Salman Rushdie was a visitor too, during his fatwa.”

As a housekeeper, her job involved cleaning the house at weekends, and looking after Lessing’s cats, Charles, Butchkin and Rufus.

The writer loved her cats, she says, and even when travelling seemed to have an uncanny feel for when Jane wasn’t looking after them as well as usual, although most of the time Jane would be home in plenty of time to feed the animals. When she wasn’t, it seemed almost as though the cats had a direct line to their absent owner.

“Doris would ring without fail and say ‘have you fed the cats?’”

Eventually, however, after nine years, she decided it was time to move on. “I started to get recurring dreams about drystone walls, and I thought: it’s time to leave London.” As if to underline that, the week she left, her car was broken into three times.

So she got into that car and drove north: not stopping until she reached Northumberland. Hexham was a lovely little town, she says. “I fell in love with the flapjacks at Mrs Miggins’ coffee house.”

It was 1994, she was 30, and it was time for a new phase of her life.

Over the next 16 years, she carved out a successful career as an arts administrator and freelance consultant. She worked with the Newcastle and Gateshead Initiative, helped set up a cultural festival in Newcastle around Euro 96, and ran a music festival at Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland.

In 2000, she set up her own consultancy, Joined Up North, which specialised in promoting regeneration across the North of England through culture, heritage and tourism projects. She ran the business for ten years from offices in Newcastle, helping set up Northumberland Tourism amongst other things, and always returning home in the evenings to a little railway terrace in Morpeth, where she could watch the sun set behind trees. “I love trees.”

She stopped running her business when she married at the end of 2010, and came to live in York. But she has remained active with voluntary work: as a member of the regional advisory board of the National Trust and a board member of a small Northumbrian theatre company, amongst others things.

Both those roles necessitated frequent train journeys to the north-east. “And I was thinking ‘I’m living in York, now, I’d like to do something in my home town’.”

She was appointed chairman of the advisory board of the 2012 York Mystery Plays and then, when she learned about the role at Visit York, applied for that. She was interviewed by an appointments panel chaired by Sir Ron Cooke, and officially took over as the new Visit York chairman – an unpaid role – at the beginning of October.

The organisation, which is 25 years old, is in the process of developing a new strategy for the future but, as those attending the tourism conference at the Knavesmire today will no doubt find out, she already has a few ideas.

York should be reaching out to more visitors from BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – she says. And the city should be trying to encourage more people to come for winter visits.

“When you walk around York in winter, you realise how amazing this place is,” she says. “And having visitors coming 12 months a year… that’s the holy grail of tourism.”


• Visit York – formerly the York Visitor and Conference Bureau – is 25 this year.

Its mission is to “champion and support the city’s accommodation and hospitality providers, retailers and visitor attractions, ensuring York’s reputation as a first-class visitor destination (reaches) …across the globe”.

In 1987, when the bureau was set up, just over two million people visited York every year; now it is seven million. In 1987, tourism generated £55 million for the local economy; today is it more than £440 million. Tourism is now responsible for 23,000 jobs in York, compared to 5,000 in the mid 1980s.

Over the past 25 years, as well as seeing visitor numbers soar, York has also gained a host of accolades as a tourist destination. These have included Best UK City in the Telegraph Awards in 2004, 2007 and 2008; Visitor City of the Year in the 2004 Good Tourism Guide; European Tourism City of the year in 2007/8 and Britain’s Favourite Small City in 2011, amongst many others.

York streets have also won awards. Shambles was named ‘most picturesque street in Britain’ in the 2010 Google Street View Awards – with Stonegate second in the fashion street category and Fossgate third in the food street category. Last year Petergate was shortlisted in the ‘best shopping street’ category in the same awards.