It has been a long and beautiful ride. It all started with a daring move. On June 16th, 1976 I parked my bicycle against the wall of a hotel in my hometown Bruges and walked in to ask if they had a job for me for the summer months. Just like that. In from the deep end! A cold call. The next day, I started my career in the hospitality and meetings & events industry as a dishwasher/baggage handler for the Holiday Inn Bruges. Only a few hours into the job I made my first tip! From a guy who, on first sight, looked very much stronger than me. An Austrian traveller, with plenty of luggage to carry, had asked for his baggage to be brought it up to his suite and he gave me a generous tip. At that time, Mr. Schwarzenegger had not yet come up with his famous one liner ‘I’ll be back’ but I dare hope I will see him again in Bruges one day.
I was a happy child in the sixties and seventies when Europe veered up in the post-war era. For my parents, life was tough. For my father, a shoemaker, and my mother a housewife with four children, times were not always easy. But their hard work, stamina and perseverance got us through. I was lucky enough to be able to go to college and every year dad took us on a summer trip around Europe with the whole family crammed into a small second-hand car. These were my first travels. This was the age of Eddy Merckx, the Kennedy’s, the Beatles & the Stones, Elvis, Woodstock and the hippie movement. At that moment, I did not realise yet that one of those hippies would make a big mark in my career.
Not having had the opportunity to continue my studies at university level, I had made a promise to myself that somehow, some day, some way, I was going to travel the world. That was my dream, that became my mission: travel the world and have someone else pay for it 😉. This first hotel job gave me that window of opportunity. When months later, I was working night shifts at the reception desk, Ben Ancher, our GM (or Innkeeper as we called them) discovered that I probably had some talent and certainly a desire to pursue a career as a hotelier. He promised he would help me, but first I had to read a book. He walked to his apartment and came back with Arthur Hailey’s ‘HOTEL’. A bestselling novel (that was later turned into a movie with Rod Taylor and Karl Malden) revolving around an elegant but old hotel in New Orleans.
From that moment on, the hospitality industry inspired me. After reading this novel, my mentor gave me plenty of books and training manuals to read and study. I also took some evening classes so I would be able to climb up the corporate ladder as a hotelier, a tourism and business events expert. Soon enough I ended up in sales, which was and always would be my true vocation. Beautiful years followed as a sales manager for our 4 Holiday Inn hotels franchise in Europe, the exciting 5* Don Carlos Hotel in Marbella, the launch of the Compagnie des Wagon-Lits’ Pullman International hotels in the Benelux, the expansion of the Sofitel brand in Northern Europe, Hilton and ITT Sheraton. My Hilton years in the early nineties under Fernand David were probably the most inspiring in terms of learning whilst my years in Marbella had allowed me discover the world of incentive travel and becoming a frequent traveller myself.
Personal reasons brought me back to my hometown in 1995 where I created Meeting in Brugge, the local convention bureau in the form of a joint venture between the private sector and the city of Bruges. This was also the time I got more and more involved in SITE and MPI and learned about the power of education, peer to peer learning and business networking in meetings and events industry associations. But, by the early 2000s, the historic city of Bruges was again too small for me and I moved to Brussels to take up the position of General Manager in one of the leading DMCs.
In the meantime, I had joined the international board of SITE where I was flanked by some of the incentive industry stalwarts like Patrick Delaney, Paul Flackett, Fay Beauchine, David Ridell, Carolyn Dow, Bill Boyd, Padraic Gilligan just to name a few as well as a friendly Swiss guy called Roger Tondeur. Roger (the former hippie) had a dream, and I wanted to be part of the team that would make this dream happen. In 2006, the year that I was voted global president of SITE, I joined MCI and together with Padraic and Patrick and a handful of great colleagues we put the first global DMC brand into the market. Our promise was to service our clientele in 100+ destinations around the world. And so we did!
This all happened fourteen years ago and what a ride it has been! I travelled the world one day out of 3, built a network of about 50 Ovation Strategic Partners covering 70+ destinations. In the meantime, I remained a fervent supporter of SITE and as a past president of JMIC, I was often invited to speak on the topic of incentive travel, destination services and marketing all over the world. This also allowed me to give back to our industry community by educating young professionals, sharing best practices and mentoring future leaders. What an incredible worldwide network of event planners and professionals this has given me and what a wealth of human capital this represents.
All went well, until February 28, 2020 when I came back from a trade event in South Africa. Since that day we have been confined to our homes. For the first time in my life I have slept 270 consecutive nights in my own bed! Can you believe that? I even ran out of hotel shampoo… My derrière has not felt the comfort of an airline seat in 10 months. And this boy’s stomach has not enjoyed the wellness of a room service Club Sandwich or Caesar salad either. Furthermore, my hands have seen more alcohol than my liver! But most of all, I have not been able to do what I like most of all and that is business networking, meeting people face to face, creating connections, selling face to face. Meeting clients, doing presentations, selling and speaking at trade shows and events, organising sales missions and networking events and having fun with our multi-cultural group of partners, colleagues, prospects and clients all over the globe.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had its toll on every single person working in this industry. Dramas have unfolded with people being furloughed, families losing income, companies downsizing and some going bust. Unnumerable freelancers on which our industry depends are now looking to find a job on the outside of our industry. There has been a lot of talk about the loss of income but what is worse, is the waste of highly trained and experienced talent. When shall this end? No-one knows. Best estimates are hoping for as early as Q2 next year now that the vaccines have arrived but more likely this situation will not return to normal for at least another two years. No fun times for our industry. And how will that ‘normal’ look like then?
And yet, the last few months have not been in vain. We have seen how our community got together. We learned about new technologies, we recreated programmes and developed new activities. And we shared a lot of our learnings peer to peer in digital chats and formats. Strategies were revised and the positioning of destination services companies have been re-evaluated. All this has showed again how resilient and creative we are in this business.
Many of us have been upskilling and reskilling over the past half year and the MCI Group have demonstrated in this respect to walk the talk rather than to sit back and wait for the storm to pass. We did not just bring our ship in the safety of the harbour, we put the vessel in the dry docks and re-fitted it for the future. In the meantime we delivered more than 1000 virtual and hybrid events around the globe and we can truly say that we start to master the game. As a company MCI must use this opportunity to improve its customer experiences (virtual, hybrid or live) within the boundaries of confinement. Covid-19 has accelerated our digital transformation and client approach. We learned that hybrid events augment the client’s ROI, allows us to expand audiences and are therefore here to stay.
With all these changes and hardship still ahead, I believe the time was right for a retreat from MCI. These times are not much fun for our event planning clients, and they have not been much of an enjoyment for our DMC partners, free-lancers, and suppliers either. We all suffered too much and it looks like this situation will not return soon to the levels of business and activity we had in destination services before the pandemic hit us. Virtual and hybrid events are now the new line of business in the short term but only a partial solution because the nature of people is to meet in person! Virtual event specialists are having most of the fun for the moment – a new profession was born. But we all long for face to face meetings to return.
Alles gaat voorbij Maar het goede blijft altijd bij Nu al een gemis (Herman Van Rompuy)
But, this is certainly not the end! I look forward to remaining active as a brand ambassador for Ovation Global DMC and the MCI Group as a whole. I will certainly miss the inspiring and fun interaction with my colleagues with Ovation Global DMC and at the MCI Brussels office, my professional home away from home. MCI is going through a complete rebranding from an event management to an engagement agency and is ready and able to tackle an exciting new future. At MCI we believe the future of live events are phygital: fully integrated live and online engagement concepts. As for our Ovation Strategic Partners, often the last link in our value chain, each one of them have proved why we have chosen them years ago as our brothers and sisters in arms. They are simply the best DMCs in their destination and will remain friends forever! They made us shine and I could not have done it without them!
So, what is next? I now look forward to continue sharing my professional experiences and know how as an expert consultant to our broader destination marketing, conference, association community and hospitality industry at large for another couple of years. I will be more than happy to train, mentor or speak at international events and share knowledge as well as finding solutions together. And for someone who never missed a day of IMEX or IBTM in his life; it would be odd not to be there next year when the action is back!
And my immediate plans for now? I am very much looking forward to spending more time with my family, bringing my youngest daughter Lola to school and the hockey club, taking care of my aging father, visiting my children and 6 grandchildren in Bruges, hiking with my buddies around Belgium and hopefully the Alps soon again. I will also further develop my skills as a gardener and transform my little jungle into a green paradise – Capability Brown & André Le Nôtre, you ain’t seen nothing yet!
My life and my career have been beautiful because of the people I met. To you, my professional family, I thank you and I wish you well. Have fun!
4 thoughts on “The Lightness of Being a Beginner”
It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.
What a “journey” ! Thank you Hugo, it has been a wonderful walk of DMC passionate colleagues…and can’t wait to welcome you back to the Swiss Alps 🙂
We could not have done it without the passionate people we had around the table from the start of this journey as well as the loyal partners who joined us from around the world.
Hugo, I love the way you write and describe your wonderful professional and personal life, you definitely are my mentor and I am thankful with life, that I have been able to share with you so many good times and laughter. Wish you well my friend and I hope to see you soon, probably in November for IMEX2021. Love you!