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The Lightness of Being a Beginner

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!

Let me Tell you a Story

The ancient art of storytelling

Throughout history, cultures have told stories to engage and enlighten, to teach or to seek help. Stories establish a rapport between the teller and the audience, the elder and the younger ones, the profet and his disciples, the artist and his followers. In such a way, stories have always created bonds between he or she who presents and those who listen.

Now that we are living in a more digital age, storytelling becomes even more important to pass on a message and engage your audience better. Storytelling will certainly amplify the value of your virtual and hybrid networking events. As long as you do not forget to use the same rules and structure as in meeting face to face.

Stories enable us to engage and inspire our audiences to consider our offerings. Ideally we should position our audience as the hero of the story, and we must think about his or her needs, interests and drivers as we develop the story.

No better way to start than from the beginning. How often have you not experienced a slow start of a Zoom or Teams call? People are squandering about too often from the start. This is a perfect moment to start a conversation and let the audience think and work. Best way to do this is by asking a question for the audience to imagine a story from their past and related to the topic of the call. Much better than loosing the interest from your crowd or having small talk between people who know each other and leaving out newcomers who immediately feel excluded.

Stories are a natural tool for destination and event marketeers, because what we do inherently involves interesting people, destinations, and offerings to those who, like a heroe in a story, meet challenges to achieve their business goals. The more lively you make the story, the more attention you will get. And these stories will not only let connect the audience with the organiser of the call but with each other as well. A perfect way for peer to peer inspiration because people will recognize themselves in the stories of others and discover new solutions they may not have thought about themselves. This way, the engagement begins from the start. When we exchange authentic stories we inspire others, have others intrigued and delighted or feel more confident of the solutions they plan to take. Stories connect people better.

So, how do we build up our story? Let’s find out in the next chapter.

The Lone Ranger

There are many ways to describe which elements a story should have. In his book ‘Story for Leaders’, David Pearl describes 3 elements which he calls the four F’s: fear, fantasy and formula. I have often used 3 other principles: Truth, Empathy and Vulnerability.

There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place. – J.K. Rowling

Truth for having the courage to discuss what’s on everybody’s mind. It sounds novel to talk about telling the truth in a work context, but really, how often is a lack of facts and truth in your organisation causing problems in your efforts for change? Stop and think about what’s missing from the conversation! People often lack information, which creates fear and a sense of not having control. By disclosing more information and showing a willingness to be honest and open, people will trust you more.

How many times have you heard that management makes empty promises or when there is a big change coming, the spin is ‘this will be good for you’, despite legitimate concerns raised by front line staff. Empathy is showing that you care and you really understand what your community thinks and feels.

The third principle is the hardest one for us to master because leadership were often trained to ‘be the boss’, yet you want to be in control. For that reason vulnerability earns you street credibility with your staff or audience. Acknowledging that you are not perfect, you cannot have all the answers and you should not be afraid to say so. It is a sign of self-confidence. Vulnerability invites your audience to lean in and discover they share something in common with you. They will be far more willing and patient with the bumps in the road ahead if they feel you are just as invested and with as much to lose. In storytelling terms, you are setting them up to continue onto the next chapter and to journey with you, since there is something that still needs to be figured out together.

It is your job to tell a story that others can believe in. This requires more that slick words or lofty promises. It’s your responsibility to articulate a larger cause or reason for being. Show and demonstrate leadership’s commitment to the new goal and to provide the culture architecture that can make it happen.

The power of storytelling is exactly this: to bridge the gaps where everything else has crumbled. – Paulo Coelho

Emotion is key in decision making

Compelling stories evoke emotion in an audience, and emotion is key in decision making. Compeling stories engage us by making us care about the people in the story. Storytelling is the key to change. Nobody likes a change story, people crave for continuity in a storyline. As a storyteller you need to create the stepping stones in your story so that the people in your audience can locate and identify themselves in that new story and see for themselves the reason that what you are proposing is a natural evolution and not a sudden radical change happening. It’s normal that people become attached to the ‘old story’ because it is what they know and have come to expect. It’s the reason for resistance. But by using empathy and transporting themselves in the story they finally make the new story real, their own, as long as it is a tangible, palpable experience that people can point to and say: ‘Look, that future already exists!”. In effect, you are socializing your new story into reality by showing it is already here and how it makes everyones life and job better or easier. In essence you are moving from an old to a new story. This way you avoid as well suspicion and distrust that makes creating a new culture difficult.

Since the future of our business hangs in the balance, it’s important to understand and embrace the power of purposeful storytelling in the workplace. Compelling stories make us want to know what comes next, how the story ends, what happens in the end to the people involved. Compelling stories ignite the imagination of and elicit emotion in the audience. When audiences can picture themselves in your story, they start to picture your solution as the right one for their organization.

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.

– John le Carré

The classical build up of a story consists of 3 elements: the beginning, the middle and the end. In the beginning we meet, the protagonist, our ‘hero’. A character that we know our audience will be able to relate to. In the middle of the story our heroe experiences problems and challenges and you describe how your hero has worked to overcome them. In the end, your hero emerges victorious and changed for the better. Loose ends are tied up into a resolution. So in real life, the story describes first what currently is, then moves over to roadblocks and challenges and how our protagonist is handling those. In the end, there is only bliss, where the hero has overcome the problems and now enjoys the benefits of resolving them.

A Manifesto for the Events Industry

Photo by Sebastian Ervi on Pexels.com

As a past chair of JMIC, the Joint Meetings Industry Council, I have always followed closely what excellent content they have provided on their website since we started the ‘Meetings Mean Business‘ campaign. Only a few months ago, JMIC published its Global Manifesto as a meetings & events industry rationale for the use of business events as primary agents for post-pandemic economic recovery and renewal.

Tasked with the need to re-start economies devastated by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments right now need tools and platforms that can advance a broad-based recovery in the most effective ways.

We all recognize that the primary value of the Meetings & Events Industry is the role it plays in facilitating and supporting essential exchanges in the areas of professional, corporate, academic and social development. These are integral to not only economic advancement but societal development as a whole.

This sector is therefore a critical element in delivering recovery as well as transition and renewal that can be immediately utilized by governments
responding to these requirements. JMIC articulates these pathways on its website and promotes a set of consistent, high-level arguments in the form of a ready to use PPT document and Infographic. This way they help you make your case that our industry should be utilized as a strategic tool for recovery, transition, and renewal.

Business Events as Strategic Tools for Driving Post-Pandemic Recovery and Renewal

JMIC’s position is that the meetings and events industry, which comprises a range of efficiently interconnected organizers, service providers, suppliers and facilities engaged in the development and delivery of meetings, conferences, exhibitions and related activities (collectively referred to as business events) can and should be utilized as a highly efficient and cost-effective vehicle for driving economic recovery and renewal by providing an essential platform for the economic, academic, professional and business interactions required to re-ignite these sectors.

JMIC offers 15 pathways for recovery. You can be inspired by them by downloading the infographic from this link: JMIC-Industry-Manifesto-infographic.pdf (themeetingsindustry.org)

Photo by Jonathan Ramael

Important policy implications

To be applied in a practical way, the 15 arguments described in the Infographic can and need to be embedded in government policies and structure. A starting point for this process is an acknowledgment that:

  • Business events are not public gatherings but highly controlled assemblies and should be classified and distinguished as distinct from generic mass gatherings for the purposes of re-opening policies.
  • Business events are economic, scientific and professional in nature and only incidentally tourism-related (in that they support the hospitality economy). They should therefore be seen in the context of trade, economic development, social and investment policies rather than tourism policy..
  • There should be an effort to align business events and overall government policy priorities so that events with the greatest potential to support / advance those priorities (health, education, innovation, major events) can be targeted and more effectively utilized for this purpose.
  • Existing investments in infrastructure and institutions should be reviewed for their potential to enhance competitiveness in the business events market. Financial support and increased competitiveness can often be delivered by offering relief to event organizers for the use of existing government-owned facilities rather than creating new incentive programs.
  • With governments today being called upon to articulate and demonstrate a vision for both health and safety management and economic recovery, business events can be incorporated into such strategies as strategic tools to achieve the stated goals.

The Need to Meet in Person

Photo by Belle Co on Pexels.com

During my 14 years with the MCI Group, I was very much inspired by several of my colleagues from around the world. Some of them really stood out and Juliano Lissoni is certainly one of them. We met in Sao Paulo first, some ten years ago but later Juliano moved to Canada to take over and further develop the region for the group. Earlier this month, PCMA published an interesting article from him which is so good that I asked Juliano to share it on my blog as a guest article.

 “I’ve recently challenged myself to go beyond the noise and the bias of why or why not our business of making people to come together should persist in the future. We should not assume that just because technological tools are evolving, we will only want to gather in a digital format. Trying to understand what the future of the events business will look like requires us to have a deeper understanding of our human needs, particularly those that are biological and anthropological, emotional, and economic.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought an immeasurable amount of stress into our lives, both in economic and physical terms. Limitations of movement necessitated by physical distancing — leading in some cases to outright lockdowns — took their toll on citizens and businesses alike. But for companies in the travel, tourism, and events industries, the pandemic bore down like a tsunami, turning hotels and conference halls into potentially danger zones.

Fortunately, humans are resourceful, and the combination of curiosity and innovation soon played out in our need for socialization. While COVID-19 changed how we engaged with our teams, partners, and clients, it did not eliminate our need to meet altogether. We had to initiate a sudden mastery of the digital meeting and its creative tools. It didn’t happen overnight, but in a six-month span, the ability to meet, connect, and communicate effectively increased via digital tools, if not altogether enhanced. In many ways, COVID-19 took the human tendency to think about what’s next and fast-tracked hypothesis testing in terms of digital transformation and experimentation.

With the restrictions imposed in every part of the world, the events industry took a deep dive into creatively combining content delivery platforms and digital broadcasting. The concept of “content is king” was amplified by the immense potential audience size — where scale was not limited by fire codes and the different time zones in which that global audience operated —leading to a complex business model for organizers. Now as signs indicate that a return to life as we knew it is on the horizon, players in the events ecosystem are flooded with questions on how to manage the future. Will events go back to the way they used to be? Will events be digital forevermore? Will we advocate for a blended world of “phygital?”

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels.com

The answers to these questions are not easily found, even as scientific communities progress with vaccines. Who we are and where we work also defines our preferences. The advancements in technology are creating changes in our patterns, from changing our physical activities to complementing our analytical and information retaining capabilities.

Some advocates of Darwinism suggest that digital tools will potentially replace interpersonal human connection. But where the events business is concerned, we should not assume that just because technological tools are evolving, we only will want to gather in a digital format. Human beings are far more complex than this, with preferences for social gathering being influenced by propensity to imitation, cultural homogeneity, ethograms, and symbolic behavior. So, trying to understand what the future of the events business will look like requires us to go beyond technology and have a deeper understanding of our human needs, particularly those that are biological and anthropological, emotional, and economic.

Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

We Have a Biological/Anthropological Need to Meet

The traits that make us uniquely human come from our approach to cognition, communication, and language, including the largely innate and physiologically complex phonation, and the mechanisms of learning. As highlighted by University of Amsterdam professor David Baker, collective learning is a trend seen across human history, and it is a potential unifying theme of evolution and progress. Collective learning was central to the agriculture and industrial revolutions. And as per research from University of California, Davis professor Peter J. Richerson and University of British Columbia professor Joseph Henrich, the innate components our social psychology were shaped by cultural group selection and cultural evolutionary processes.

A cumulative culture is a result of the evolution of our cognition and the social learning. We humans are social organisms that evolved not only by developing knowledge and traditions, but also by passing them along by means other than human language, including gesture, and physically embodied forms of cultural knowledge. Humans came together at first for security. And as groups expanded, so the need for energy supply, which eventually contributed to the development of methods and processes in agriculture, expansion to new geographies, and the search for innovative resources.

Evolutionary psychologists maintain that not only did our human evolution follow Darwinian principles represented by inheriting brain traits from our ancestors, our “clan living” in fact gave our brains more synapses. Our social psychology evolved as we learned how to solve problems using cooperation, and our tribal social instincts helped to design current institutions and social norms.

In this context, the advancement of digital tools is helping us to share collective knowledge and redefine the concept of community. While it is tempting to assert that human learning processes will be accelerated by digital technologies, there is a big question mark as to whether it will be enough. Production and comprehension are affected by our social intelligence. Features of other individuals and the environment help to define social situations, affecting our social strategies.

Our brains are social by nature, we are wired to connect, and as referenced from psychologist Daniel Goleman, our brain structures are built for relationship optimization due to spindle cells — the fastest acting neuron that guides our social decisions — and mirror neurons, which make us capable of predicting the behavior of people around us by subconsciously mimicking their movements.

In their evolutionary anthropology study, Loyola University Chicago professor James Calcagno and Princeton University professor Agustin Fuentes identified that for cooperative (and selfish) reasons, our brains are wired to use language, social interaction, and behavior to try to understand the minds of others.

When it comes to business events, creating opportunities for people to come together in the same space is not about content distribution, it is about reinforcing human connections through social intelligence and amplifying the effects of knowledge spillover.

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We Have an Emotional Need to Meet

Research by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Benjamin Campbell from the indicates that the human amygdala — part of our brain’s limbic system regulating behavior — makes us more emotionally sensitive to our social environment. The development of our emotions is part of human evolution. Back in time, chasing food, finding shelter, and dealing with all types of wildlife problems required humans to trust their minds — their thoughts and emotions — to guide them through every situation. Survival was a consequence of trusting the emotional radar and reliance on instincts as the first screening for information that was received.

There is a lot we can learn by observing evolution in primates. A monkey raised in cages in isolation does not thrive. Even a monkey with a doll that looked like another monkey did better than the monkey with no doll. As primates, we humans are not that dissimilar. Isolation is bad — but why are groups better than having one or two buddies?

A study from University of Illinois professor Patrick Laughlin, for example, tested the relationship between group size and performance compared to an equivalent number of individuals, finding compelling evidence that groups are far better in performing complex problem-solving tasks.

Another study led by Jahn Cornwell and published in the Journal of Sports Management, shows that being in a group while attending a sports event makes us feel more involved, be fully conscious of the activity, and the long-lasting memories making us to want to come back. Consequently, being in a group has a positive impact in our emotional lives. And emotion influences our cognitive processes with a marked influence on attention, by modulating it motivating action and behavior.

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We Have an Economic Need to Meet

Attending events and conferences, joining informal discussions, and getting to know what others are working on and what progress they are making, are all critical steps for innovation. A team of Harvard Medical School doctors analyzed all medical research articles published at Harvard and correlated their data with the distance between the authors’ offices. They found that being less than one kilometer (approximately a half-mile) away raised the quality of research — with even better results if researchers were in the same building.

This knowledge spillover effect is a proven byproduct of being physically together at some point. Another seminal study from Wesley M. Cohen and Daniel A. Levinthal noted that knowledge spillover increases how we assimilate knowledge from the environment. Connecting with people and knowledge spillover are two elements that digital will enhance, but not replace.

The context of business events also creates the learning beyond, translated as what happens when we embrace new initiatives in the direction of our curiosities. We learn not only from the available content, but also through our social intelligence and interactions. Recent studies from cognitive neuroscientists Robin I.M. Dunbar and Susanne Shultz using statistical and comparative analysis techniques show that there is a clear relationship between neocortex size and sociality.

This social intelligence has a deep impact in the way we engage. The approach to cooperation is behind problem-solving for societies across history, so cooperation is behind innovation, social gathering, and evolution. While we accelerate or scale up learning with the right use of digital technologies, our need for close cooperation in groups remains.

We humans manifest complex structures of language, communication, culture, ethograms, and symbolic behavior. While we understand the impact of technology and how digital experiences can help us, our inventions need to be harmonized with our biogenetic and evolutionary identities. While our brains have had to adjust to the realities of lockdown, there is much that we miss from life in offices — most especially, seeing and interacting with colleagues. While technology will enhance our ability to communicate, it will not replace one of the most striking elements of our evolution: our social intelligence. Being together in person, in groups, matters.

In trying to provide a window into the future of the events business, it is fair to conclude that we see an omnichannel path ahead. Digital tools will enhance the way content is distributed and meetings focused on knowledge-sharing have a longer runway in digital, but as creatures with social brains, our evolution requires being together — either for triggering the right emotions that makes us feel part of a community, or for how we economically evolve by co-innovating. It is not Zoom we are tired of. We simply crave a return to meetings and conferences, meeting people, and shaking hands, because it is in these environments that we thrive.”

This article was written by Juliano Lissoni  and previously published by PCMA

Outsider Help from Insider People

Business Support Services for SMEs and Associations

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The Digital Trends Interview

Before the pandemic hit our industries, recent trends in destination marketing and management included sustainable development and action, the use of big data to shape content creation and the development of more personalised, one to one messaging. Collaboration was one more important trend which I talked about recently in my Musketeers article; I believe it must be the foundation of every future destination marketing strategy. We have not talked about passing along the message to potential customers yet. For that reason, I interviewed one of the most innovative thinkers and doers with questions on digital marketing. What better way to do this than to base our discussion on a recent case study (The Digital Trip to Stavanger) and talk to its instigator and creator, my good friend Heidi Legein.

Heidi, in light of your destination marketing consultancy, you’ve been recently talking to a lot of convention bureaus and doing research on how they are currently promoting themselves. What were your key findings?

First of all, I can see a huge gap forming between destinations with, let’s say, an archaic structure and those who have been on the forefront of innovation, flexibility and rapid adaptability to market trends and changes in requirements for years. There are those who talk a lot, do a lot of analysis and are always a few steps behind, because their process is equally long as rigid and those who have their eyes and minds open for opportunity, even in difficult times and act upon it immediately. The key difference between the two is that the first are waiting for travel to resume and things to go back to normal and the second have understood the future is hybrid and adapting to it now is key.

Besides a long process and perhaps an outdated structure, do you see any other obstacles for destination marketers to move forward? Some DMOs are just small entities with a closely knit meetings industry community, others have much larger structures and headcounts.

One of the most recurring issues I’ve seen is that CVBs often have too many partners handling their marketing with too little interconnectivity. They have content creators for social media accounts that are not synced in terms of mindset or approach. Many suddenly built a studio for broadcasting, because that’s what everyone seems to be doing from tech suppliers to hotels. Several try to repurpose in-house meeting- and webinar tools for a whole new set of goals. What most fail at is seeing the bigger picture. Understanding that the way you need to present yourself now has dramatically changed is the first step. The fact that you need a different type of unified approach is seeping in too slowly. Because there is now a new sense of urgency to reinvent and prepare for the years ahead. And the most crucial of all; you need to work out from objectives, rather than mix and matching bits and pieces of all kinds of things that have not been adequately implemented.

One of the ways convention bureaus, DMCs and DMOs used to attract business was with so-called FAM trips and site inspections, inviting potential buyers to discover the destination in hopes of bringing their business there. What are destinations doing now, during this period where travel is either not allowed or not advised?

Unfortunately, there is a lack of inspirational activity at the moment. You will find numerous webinars where people are invited to interact with numerous destination partners. Some don’t even offer that, but are filled with one-sided, slow-death-by-Powerpoint presentations. You have your occasional venue visit, thousands of broadcasts from studios and your typical one-hour experience type scenarios from zoom breakfasts to quizzes and filmed excursion type activities to a wine tasting or cooking class. DMC networks will have plenty countries in one event and roll out presentation after presentation with, if you’re lucky, perhaps the odd entertainment in between and attendees will in most cases be forced to go talk to partners they might not even be interested in talking to. Neither of these singular components are necessarily bad, but you need to elevate the overall experience and give people an intrinsic desire to attend, rather than think “oh God, another one of those”.

So what do you think DMOs & CVBs should rather be doing then? Are we just talking about a new trend to get out of the present situation or will we go back to what we considered normal after that?

Do things properly from the beginning, but fast enough to take a lead. The destinations that prove to be most innovative now, are the ones who will get the biggest rewards right after this pandemic. You need a proper digital strategy moving forward, not just for the coming months, but the coming years. You need a unified message no matter which audience you are trying to target, so your overall goals don’t get lost in lots of failed trials.

So how different is what you are suggesting from traditional destination marketing techniques?

Very. At The MICE guru, we’ve been doing all the trial and error and we are constantly re-evaluating what works and what doesn’t, which developments are on the horizons and what are must haves and nice to haves. We kept an eye on the international market and will keep on educating and pushing boundaries for a better understanding of where we are headed. From where we started as a DMC for Norway, we now offer consultancy in digital strategy including all components from social media marketing to audience engagement, community building, producing innovative and immersive virtual- and hybrid events that make people say: “OMG, did you see what destination X did? That was awesome!”. An example of that is our “The digital trip” concept; a destination deep dive that actually makes people feel they are travelling, mingling and enjoying the learning so much, they immediately want to start organising in-destination events.

And the actual event is connected to campaigns over several months, building community and used as an industry example of how to market a destination more creatively. That is how you want to be profiling yourself. It’s about surprising and exciting and allowing for serendipity to happen digitally. And best of all, we get you started quickly, because rest assured, there is no more time to waste.

Buyer audiences are changing dramatically and a traditional client database might suddenly not be worth much anymore because a lot of talents have left the meetings industry community as they have been furlonghed or dismissed from their jobs. Some companies have ceased to exist. How do you think one should reconnect with potential buyers?

The entire landscape has changed indeed and so has the way people do business. This pandemic has brought us back to a much more human-to-human approach, rather than a b2b, or a seller-buyer relationship. As buyers, similar to their personal lives, are looking at a more direct connection (as in buying local from local enterpreneurs and producers) they, for business purposes are more interested to connect on a much more personal level.

We must move to a more niche approach, one that delivers change with a lot of personal care and understanding. People are much more eager to work with a trusted brand (read: person) who has been there for them in difficult times, rather than a company with big overall ambitions. They like to work direct within a shorter circuit. That is why a new type of community building is important; one where you support, inspire and collaborate with your own community more than ever before.

We have been very active in developing micro tribes; small niche communities of event planners who are extremely supportive of one another and build very strong relationships by being there for each other through anything. They listen, ask for advice, collaborate and support. There is now much more value in your core 1% audience, who are so connected to you that they literally become your brand ambassadors by choice. We’re back to your ‘musketeers’ principle actually!

Like to learn more about this? Understand how to building your tribe? Tell us who you are, what the painpoints are that you care about and hit the button below.

Tried and Tested

One of the main challenges of being a Belgian is to know how to source the best chocolates in town. There is simply so much choice! Life is indeed like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get – unless you tasted them yourself!

It’s the same with destination services; there are so many specialists around that it is not always easy to find the right one if you do not know the destination well. I have the luxury of having operated in this field for the past 20 years, all over the globe, and I was privileged to work with some of the best in the industry. At the same time, and thanks to years of experience, I worked with the most inspired and innovative talents whilst I also got to know and respect some of their major competitors.

Do you want me to source a DMC for you?

Based on my years of experience, I will gladly help you to recommend a DMC in the destination that you are sourcing for a future project. But I have some conditions and allowed myself some priveleges:

  • First of all, my service will be free of charge to you! I have no fee based contracts with any of the DMCs that I recommend.
  • Secondly, let’s be serious, any DMC local services are part of a bigger plan or project. And therefor I will need to understand the bigger picture. Why is the client organising the event? What is the purpose of gathering their community? Who will partake in the event? Do not expect me to work on any project without giving me a fully detailed brief of the event nor the desired outcome for the client and participant.
  • Thirdly, I have heard the phrase ‘I don’t have a budget’ too many times in my career and I have the luxury of being able to turn down any project that cannot give me a budget indication. When a corporate, association or institutional client have an engagement project in mind, they have an idea about the scope and size of the project and that includes a budget range within which they will or can operate. So, no budget, no can do… sorry! If you are knowledgeable third party intermediary and your client has not given you a budget, experience will tell you what amount will be planned for the ground services of the local agency.
  • Finally, one of the big things in the world of event management today and tomorrow is event design. A DMC is one of the key stakeholders in the creation of a perfect event, be it for a meeting, a city wide conference or an exciting incentive programme. What the industry has been doing wrong in the past was not to get the DMC around the event design table from the start. If taking an event to a certain destination is important for the customer, and they are willing to spend a reasonable budget for this, so are unique solutions, intimate destination know how, and creative added value that a DMC can bring to the table.
    Involve your DMC from the start and get their creative juices flowing to create the most unique experiences for your delegates or participants. We know that for signing a contract it would be too early but a letter of intent would prove your ethical approach from the start. Because 80% of the value of input of a DMC happens before the arrival of the group. On top of it, you will save a lot of time and effort yourself too because for them, it’s operating on tried and tested products and services with which they have an intimate and long term relationship.

If you are looking for an RFP form now, let me assure you, there is none. Just drop me a note on hugo.slimbrouck@gmail.com, use the contact button below or give me a call on +32475755273, whichever suits you the best . After that I will contact you back to set up a briefing call to fully understand the scope of your project.

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Lead Generation

Content marketing is the fertile soil from which new business leads grow. Before any B2B client will reach out to you in person, they have already gone through a pre-selection process. According to a recent study, one out of 3 search queries for products and services started from Google. Not surprising – just ask yourself what you do in your private life. For how many recent purchases have you been searching first on the internet, unless the product/service was recommended to you by word of mouth or because you are already a loyal client of the brand? In our B2B world two out of 3 social media leads come through LinkedIn. As content is king/queen, content marketing is vital for your lead generation and a necessary process for your business re-development process. The global pandemic is not over yet and as latest meetings industry research has forecasted, pick up is only really forecasted from Q3 onwards. So you still have time to be ready for the re-launch of the events industry!

No country for old men

Let’s start from the beginning, as absolute strangers. How can you start to attract new business when trade shows and workshops have gone back to the future and online/hybrid has not inspired our Zoom fatigued audiences too much? The answer is keep on inspiring your audiences first and foremost. Social media does play an important role here but needs constant fresh content delivered in the form of blog posts, story telling or Instagramable imaging that tell a thousand words. Video and live stream take on much more prominent roles as well now because they live up the experience. Soon we will not be strangers anymore. Because through inspiration these prospects will have turned into visitors of your products or services. It means at least you have eye-contact now!

OK, that first look into your eyes has captured some form of interest, how do you convert this further so that next steps are being taken. On social media, the use of websites and blogs are crucial in this process. Hence the importance of creating an inspiring landing page that has a subscription form and a call to action. Jan Vermeiren, in his e-book ‘The Client Acquisition Pathway’, calls this a ‘lead magnet’. Something that has value for the client and which he/she can download or fill in. This can be an e-book, and e-course, a tutorial video or even a pre-recorded webinar. Others include a short checklist, an assessment, an RFP form or even a quiz. In most cases this is all digital but it can also turn into a product or teaser being mailed out to the prospect. What we did now was turning an interest into a lead! A promising beginning of an interesting journey ahead.

Other than LinkedIn, which is great for new business connections and for generating leads through content and brand awareness, also Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are important social media platforms to consider in your communication mix. With Facebook you will connect primarily with professional friends around the globe and capturing prospects attention. It is a good channel to drive traffic to your blog or website. Instagram is building a lot of cloud in content generation as well. Visuals are telling the story. It’s a vey humanized way of creating community around your brand. Twitter will expose your services to primarily new audiences and the use of #hashtags can spark some interest with total strangers. Twitter also allows you to take part in trendy conversations and is an interesting tool to find out what your competitor is doing as well 😉 . More recently, also YouTube and Instagram have joined the big five of digital communication. More about this in a separate article.

Video courtesy of Kalitumba Travel

What do you mean with content?

Honestly, there are so many things you can use to create content. As we are operating in the field of meetings, conferences, corporate events and incentive travel, we most of the time have some exciting case studies to talk about. Every event is unique and has a story to tell. It must not even be a full case study, you can use anecdotes, surprising outcomes, unique experiences, comments from a client, exciting new venues, new service offerings, new digital and hybrid solutions, technological innovation and of course anything sustainable. People also like to read on who you are, what happens in your team, put a face to the name. And finally, digital trips have entered the arena too. Just make sure that the message you will carry is clear and precise. One topic – one message remains an important marketing rule.

Now that you captured interest and you know whom you are talking to it’s time to plan follow up actions. First of all, with the capture of some basic data from the prospect, we have been able to feed our CRM system with a new candidate. Now let’s continue the conversation by ways of email marketing (no it is not dead), newsletters or other forms of continuous communication. Leads are ready to become customers now if their needs and wants match with what we can offer. And so, a total stranger turned into a lead and has finally booked his/her business with you. Bravo! But it’s not over yet.

Next, you want to turn the customer into a repeat client. If there is no repeat possible in the short term, there is always the opportunity for our delighted customers to start sharing their experience with others. Or create a lead to one of your colleagues or partners whose destination is up next. So first of all ask for their testimonial and their agreement for you to use it (with or without their name or the name of their organisation). Talk about the event on your social media, in your newsletter or website. Publish a story on your blog. This way you are creating very dynamic content which can inspire other like-minded and need-sharing customers. You have now turned absolute strangers into clients and finally in co-promoters of your business!

If you want me to make an assessment of your content marketing and lead generation structure and suggest new pathways ahead, please contact me on hugo.slimbrouck@gmail.com or give me a call on +32 475 75 52 73

Vision 2022

Re-designing your client portfolio for the post-pandemic era

The time has come for me to share my career long know-how with individuals and organisations operating within the larger meetings, events and incentive travel industry. If you are a destination expert, a hotelier, a DMC, an association executive or event pro, you may want to continue reading. In essence I want to describe in which ways I can help and support your organisation to save time and resources by developing a new roadmap to recovery and continued success. Our world has changed a lot over the last year and whilst I do not have a crystal ball to describe your future, I sure can help you in starting a process of fundamental re-development and expansion based on analytical groundwork, the re-creation of a solid foundation and a workable structure.

So how can I inspire you to improve your future client acquisition?

In a first step we will need to re-define your purpose, mission and vision of your organisation in a post-pandemic situation. What should the values be that you are aspiring to now? Before you re-build, you need to fully understand where you are now and even more, where you want to be. That’s what I call business purpose. Re-defining is all about giving you a direction; it promises to be an inspiring and energising experience. This will allow you to take fundamental decisions for your business and your community. Allowing you to (re)target and (re)prioritise who your clients are and will be and which actions you may want or need to take to re-direct your business. Choosing as well which clients you want to continue to service and which new prospects you want to pursue is a crucial question for you to answer. Questioning the mission of your company is all about the right to exist and thrive. It will lead to re-defining the purpose of how you want to be better, be smarter or be more helpful to your clients. By creating this new vision of your sales organisation you will be able to see the future through the eyes of your clients even better. That is definitely the best perspective to start from, creating a ‘painted picture’ of where your clients will see yourself in the future. It’s also a first step into a re-branding exercise if need be. This will ultimately re-define the values of how you run your business, what energises you and your teams and what inspires you. But first and foremost, why your clients will choose to work with you!

For existing businesses the above is always a difficult exercise to do but it will allow you to get an ‘outsider view looking in’ on your organisation and inspire you towards a new pathway to success. The exercise will also reveal your fundamental strengths and flaws. It’s a form of introspection with help from outside. Once these steps are taken, it will be time to re-describe your ideal client portfolio. Re-describe because change is the only constant and our client community has changed a lot over the past year. So, what was an ideal client before the pandemic may not be the same in the future and so do the services you are offering. Our world is moving rapidly and new technologies have been speeding up change furthermore. On top of it, the pandemic has made organisations to pivot to new clients and services, event pros from face2face to fully digital experiences. Our future is definitely more hybrid than digital but we will need to approach it differently as we did before. This exercise will take your sales organisation to a higher ground and strengthen it vis à vis your competition.

The process we apply will start with a scan of who your clients are, past and present. It will allow you to establish a first set of benchmarks too. As described by the selling principle Selling is not Telling but Asking, this phase will be crucial to interrogate yourself, your team and your client base and come to honest answers. It will require you to stand still for a moment, reflect and make an honest inventory on what you already have and what may be missing. An important phase because it will separate you from ‘wishful thinking’ by fully weighing in on the negatives on one side and the hidden opportunities on the other. Here you will want to define who your preferred clients will be. It’s a crucial step before we move on to the strategic phase of our consulting. It will also let you focus on a smaller number of client profiles and save you time, effort and money on lesser interesting ones. As each client group will later require its own sales and marketing strategy and action plan, it’s a necessary process to do.

All the previous steps will allow you to re-creating an offer that both appeals to your existing client base as well as to your new prospects. Allowing your clients to visualise your services offering will be crucial and a base to future success. It’s all about how you will present yourself from now on. If there is a time for re-branding, it’s definitely now.

Through the Customer’s Eyes

The process of re-designing your client portfolio is all about clearly defining and describing your pain points; pinpointing what the problems are, will or could be. And why some are not your client yet. What kept them of being a believer in your business? Or why have not they discovered you yet? Ultimately we should be able to describe how you will bring a solution to their problems or opportunities. Obviously you can do all of the above on your own as well but without the added value that we bring to the table, based on multi channel experience and combined with a portfolio of established clients and prospects. This combination sets us apart from other specialists who have not been operating in the field as much as we have and who take an approach from a pure consulting standpoint.

This all comes with a price of course. As one of my all-time favourite colleagues used to say ‘I’m not Mother Theresa’, my consulting work has a price indeed. On occasion, you can always ‘pick my brain’ but as I’ve now entered the world of professional consulting, you will appreciate that there is a nominal fee for hard work and buying years of experience. But … you will get a lot back for this. First and foremost, an outsider’s view on existing business and a crystal clear picture on where the pain points are and what opportunities of growth there are in so far unchartered territories. Secondly, the analysis will define your ideal picture of how your clients will see you and where you see yourself (through their eyes) in 3 years from now. Most of all it will allow you to tap into new markets, new clients, discover new prospects all to the benefit of your business.

Call for Action

I am Brussels based but with a global operating background so, should you like me to discuss this offer with you in greater detail, feel free to drop me a note on hugo.slimbrouck@gmail.com or contact me on WhatsApp +32475755273.

More information about myself in my LinkedIn Bio.

Travelling Man

Throughout my career I have travelled extensively around the globe, often up to 120 days a year. Most of these trips were in relation to the sales trips, the DMC partnerships I set up on behalf of Ovation Global DMC or related to trade shows or meetings industry conferences. As a past president and long time member of SITE I was lucky enough as well to discover the great destinations of this world.

In more recent years I have started writing about these trips in support of the destination and the partnerships we had there. Often I was there as a host of the convention bureau, our DMC partner or as a speaker at a conference which is something I love to do, sharing insights and best practices, especially with the students or future leaders of our trade.

Of these trips I published destination reports which I then posted on my LinkedIn Profile. Some of these trips were in association with a media partner and resulted in full articles on their site. You can discover all of these travel stories and tales from the links I left below. Enjoy reading and getting inspired about some of the greatest destinations in the world. And yes, I was often humming Ricky Nelson’s Travelin’ Man on my way to the airport too.

List of destinations + link to my LinkedIn, my old WordPress blog or BBT online’s archive

South Africa South Africa Calling | LinkedIn

CubaIt is time for Cuba! | LinkedIn

PanamaPanama Capers | LinkedIn

Sri LankaThe Transformative Power of Sri Lanka | LinkedIn

IsraëlShalom and Welcome to Tel Aviv | LinkedIn

MaltaThe Knights of the Conference Table | LinkedIn

RwandaRwanda, the African conference & incentive destination on the rise. | LinkedIn as well as the pdf article on BBT Online’s archive http://www.bbtonline.eu/newsletter/take121/docs/Rwanda-BBT_Online.pdf

GreeceWhen in Greece | LinkedIn

Tbilisi, Georgia The Georgia that was not on my mind | LinkedIn as well as the pdf article on BBT Online’s archive http://www.bbtonline.eu/newsletter/take117/docs/Georgia_on_my_mind-BBTOnline.pdf

Indonesia & Bali Saïdjah’s father had a buffalo | LinkedIn as well as the pdf article on BBT Online’s archive http://www.bbtonline.eu/newsletter/take113/docs/Wonderful_Indonesia-BBT_Online.pdf

Montreal8 hours in Montréal | LinkedIn

Stavanger, Norway Northern Delights | LinkedIn as well as the pdf article on BBT Online’s archive http://www.bbtonline.eu/newsletter/take110/docs/Norway-BBTOnline.pdf

ColombiaGold | LinkedIn as well as the pdf article on BBT Online’s archive http://www.bbtonline.eu/newsletter/take110/docs/ColombianGold-BBTOnline.pdf

Riga, LatviaBaltic blues | LinkedIn as well as the pdf article on BBT Online’s archive http://www.bbtonline.eu/newsletter/take108/docs/BalticBlues-BBTOnline.pdf

Kathmandu, NepalShangri La | LinkedIn

Budapest, HungaryMy house in Budapest | LinkedIn as well as the pdf article on BBT Online’s archive http://www.bbtonline.eu/newsletter/take102/docs/Budapest-BBTOnline.pdf

Around the world(4) Around the world in 110 days | LinkedIn

Moscow, Russia – pdf article on BBT Online’s archive http://www.bbtonline.eu/newsletter/take82/docs/Moscow-BBTOnline.pdf

Greek Islands & Athens with Star Clipper – the Gods were with us September | 2011 | Hugo’s meetings industry blog (wordpress.com) and from BBT Online’s archive http://www.bbtonline.eu/Library/destinations/destinations092011.php

Aruba & CuracaoA tale of two islands | Hugo’s meetings industry blog (wordpress.com)

Switzerland – Desperate Swiss Wives July | 2009 | Hugo’s meetings industry blog (wordpress.com)

I would be more than happy to do some more destination immersions and report on my findings and discoveries in the form of an article. I usually combine these trips with a masterclass for the local meetings industry community. Should you be interested please drop me a line on hugo.slimbrouck@gmail.com

Masterclass

For years I have been speaking at international trade shows, conferences and events on a number of topics related to our business. Also I had, in association with some CVBs and media partners, the opportunity to present masterclasses to local DMO communities. Most topics are in the field of destination marketing and services, sales, business networking and incentive travel.

Below you will find a list of masterclasses I conducted before although they are adapted constantly by the emerging trends and customs. If you want to book me as a speaker, these may be some interesting topics to consider.

TopicDescription
The Art of Selling and Networking at Business EventsAn ideal session for pre-event training to destination teams or exhibitor targets.
The Future is NowOur industry is changing, where do we need to adapt from where we were before? What’s the new normal?
Re-Design Incentive ProgrammesDesign thinking on incentive travel programmes.
Making the Business Case for Incentive Travel as a Motivational ToolSelling Incentive travel as a motivational tool to C-suite audiences.
Selling by StorytellingPre-trade show or destination educational immersion session.
SITE ModulesModules prepared by SITE Global
Bleisure is back!The new norm is affecting Incentive travellers.
The Relationship between Incentives & Motivation Understanding the reasoning behind incentive travel as a motivational tool.
Knowing your Customer’s CustomerThird box thinking techniques to understand your client better.
Talking Incentive Travel with the C-SuiteToolbox for enterpreneurs to drive performance.
The Art of Incentive TravelWhat incentive travel is and why it is meaningful to any corporate buyer, be it from a marketing or HR standpoint.
The 3 main purposes of the meetings and events industryGoverment and community advocacy basics.
Your future is bright!FLF presentation for new talent entering the meetings and events industry
Incentive Travel Academy Introduction to incentive travel for third party agencies, DMCs, hoteliers and convention bureau future leaders (SITE)
Programmes delivered in Taiwan, China, Sri Lanka, Bangkok, Singapore, Georgia, UAE, Istanbul, Greece, Malta, Italy, Spain, Germany, Baltic Republics, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, U.K., Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Aruba, Panama, USA, South Africa, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Brazil, Chile