An Audacious Plan

At the start of every association project, hopes are high. Expectations will be exceeded, deliverables will be timely and members will be amazed with outcomes and recommend peers to join the movement. What we all look forward to is pure bliss, especially in times of trouble as the past two years have proven. Unfortunately, such a smooth plan is not always the case. There are times when projects go horribly off, timelines are missed and outcomes do not live up to the member’s vision or expectation. The realization of success dwindles, creating a threat to membership relations and, even more damaging, the reputation of a business or even an industry.

What consistently yields a positive outcome to projects of all scopes and sizes is far less of a what and more of a who. The true advocates for a project, and the gatekeepers of a project’s heroic success are project champions. Throughout my career I have seen this happen, both in business as in industry associations and councils. A handful of people, with a vision and the ability to communicate and federate, drive a project to completion.

Once all goes well and noses are turned in the same direction, that is when the challenges start. That is when one must carry a message across the field to all stakeholders. It means getting the buy in and support from people, institutions and leadership who often have no understanding or feeling of where we come from, what our intrinsic values are and what the benefits and opportunities are to, in my case our event communities, the society at large and often themselves.

This is what was happening within the meetings and events industry, not only in my country Belgium, but in many other countries around the world in the past two years. It took a pandemic to unite the events industry. Covid-19 has brought the live events industries together in every community. We wanted to do that for many years (just look back on what JMIC or the Events Industry Council have been working on since the start of this century); but it never really happened, did not it? Things like this always need a disaster or a major set-back to kick off a movement, like 9-11, the subprime mortgage crisis or in this case a global pandemic.  The process reminds me of the boiled frog syndrome. This story is based on an urban legend describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is simple: if a frog is suddenly put into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out and save itself from impending death. But, if the frog is put in lukewarm water, with the temperature rising slowly, it will not perceive any danger to itself and will be cooked to death. That’s often the moment where heroes enter the scene, to kickstart a movement and carry a mission forward.

In from the deep end

I experienced this in June of last year when I was called into my first (online) meeting of our combined industries, cabinet officials and civil servants debating how and when our live or hybrid events industry was going to get going again.

From ‘our’ side, I could feel the frustration mounting after a year and a half of negotiating, building trust, unifying visions, and battling anything that worked against us. When you feel like you have not concorded that mountain yet, there are other slopes and valleys ahead to cross. But the clock was ticking, the fall season and later winter season were looming, and we never received any full get-go because of all the restrictions and regulations bestowed upon us.

From the other side of the virtual table, I observed a different problem. Something that we must work on even harder, and that is building the right advocacy for our events industry, especially towards these policy makers. Let me call a spade a spade: the events industry does not consist of public, mass media events, concerts or festivals alone! Because that is the image our industry often has with the public and people in cabinets who were very much ruling our lives and livelihood. Who was to blame for that? Well, in the first place we should look in the mirror, because we have never fully ‘sold’ our message well or unified our industry under one banner. A big challenge for us to still accomplish, not only in Belgium, but across the world of business events.

At a time where everybody became a virologist, it was time to set the record straight and clearly articulate who we are as an industry and more importantly, what we do for society. It’s time that we focus on Simon Sinek’s WHY!

There have been numerous economic impact studies about the meetings and events industry over the past few years and most of these have been moderate to overly beneficial to the local community. But that is only telling our audience how many people we employ and how much money we create. To be sustainable, we must achieve a greater level of recognition for the benefits we deliver in relation to global economic and professional development as well as investment creation and innovation. Other than economic impact, it is the sharing of knowledge and attracting of investments to our communities that are often overlooked by institutional leadership. (For more details on this, I refer to the article ‘Meetings Matter’ that I published on LinkedIn on May 13, 2020, and of which you can find a copy on my blog ‘Destinations & Events’ here.)

The Event Confederation

Yet we have come a long way over the past 24 months and therefor I want to celebrate two individuals, true champions, who have carried our concerns, gathered the troops and moved forward to work on viable solutions: Bruno Schaubroeck & Stijn Snaet of the EVENT Confederation. Both gentlemen have taken up the challenge to negotiate and communicate on behalf of the Belgian events industry and have tirelessly done so. Because for more than a year, for multiple companies in our field, business has been down: no concerts, no trade fairs, no festivals, no live kick-offs, no corporate motivational events, no incentive trips, no conventions, the list is long. For passionate and hands on people like event marketeers and event producers, these have been horrible times.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the Belgian Event Confederation was founded, with the aim of uniting, representing and speaking with one voice to policy makers, media and influential stakeholders such as the virologists. The Event Confederation currently unites several trade unions: ACC (the events agencies), BESA (the events suppliers), Febelux (representing primarily conference, trade show and event venues as well as PCO’s), BSV (Brussels Special Venues), FMIV (the Flemish Festivals association) and its counterpartner Fédération des Festivals de Musique Wallonie-Bruxelles Festivals Wallonie and UPT/BECAS (the event caterers) and will hopefully be expanding further with other industry associations and strategic partners joining us officially. EC is an umbrella federation that consulted weekly with different cabinets, administrations, corona commissioner, virologists, and the broad supporters of federations and stakeholders around our sector.

Research and Innovation

During the past two years, a lot of advancement was made on the topic of parity committee, the creation of a captains of industry advisory board and extending membership to other trade associations. Based on the findings of two industry surveys, through a partnership with Deloitte and the KdG Hogeschool, a clearer picture was drawn of the size and scope of the industry in terms of companies (2447) and talents (80.000 +). That’s bigger than our Belgian farming community to put it into context! It is fair to say that due to the pandemic, we did lose some of these individuals to other industries though, creating a major challenge to find the right people when we re-start our business.

The confederation, together with governmental authorities worked out several operational pandemic models (CERM: Covid Event Risk Model as well as the CIRM: the Covid Safe Venues model. We collaborated on the development and implementation of the CST (the Covid Safe Ticket) for events as well. And more lately we co-designed the Event Barometer. The group got a seat around the negotiating table and multiple meetings were organized with diverse governmental institutions to safeguard the industry and its talents during the pandemic.

The main result that the Event Confederation has achieved is that our sector is now better known, is more clearly visible and is systematically heard by policy makers. We dare to mark many of the current support measures on our record, because of our resilience and our persistent lobbying and knocking on doors.

But there is still a long way to go. We are certainly not there yet!

The next step is the recognition of Event Confederation as an official Belgian employers’ organisation. This will be a tough cookie for an industry that employs many self-employed talents, free-lancers and SMEs of multiple trades and professions. We strive for this with a view to setting up our own Joint Committee for the events sector. Such an acknowledgment can only happen when the Event Confederation has enough representative members. Because the Event Confederation wants to represent the entire sector in Belgium. From small to large, from corporate to private, institutional to associations, from exclusive boutique events to large audiences, from French-speaking to Dutch- and German speaking Belgians, from Ostend to Arlon, from freelancer to SME entrepreneurs and major players in the field, …. the Event Confederation aims to represents all their voices and advocates for their combined future as an industry.

A new kid on the block

To carry the Event Confederation project forward, the board of EC hired me nine months ago to develop a 3-year strategic plan, drawing together our events industry ‘painted picture’ into an events industry manifesto and to support and build on the groundwork of our two heroes, driving the project forward.  Now at the end of the pandemic this assignment ends here for me and I’m wishing the team all the luck in the further development of the confederation as the official events industry employers’ organisation as well as establishing the joint committee umbrella organisation that will allow us to be known as a strong representative of the estimated 80.000 talents in Belgium alone.

Published by hugoslimbrouck

I am a destination marketer with a specialisation in meetings, events, conferences and incentives. Destination marketing, training and consulting as well as business networking are the things I'm good at. For the past 14 years I worked for the MCI Group and managed our global portfolio of strategic partners for the Ovation Global DMC brand. I'm also a past president of SITE and JMIC. During my career, I travelled an average of 120 days which allowed me to build a global network of buyers, prospects and influencers. Please check me out under my LinkedIn profile as well, either under my name or my alias hugosmartypants. I'm a father of 4 and grandfather of 6. Hiking out on the countryside is one of my favourite hobbies.

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