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The government can play a crucial role for the conference industry in the future

Two experts on the government’s role in future-proof conferences

While a sector can be inventive in how it tackles a crisis, it must always operate within the law. Fortunately the legal framework leaves plenty of margin for remarkable initiatives. Better yet, the government can even play a stimulating role, offering indispensable support to a future-proof conference industry. So which roles can the municipal and national authorities play in this? Two experts share their views.

Many sectors are experiencing upheaval as a result of the COVID-19 storm. In fact, the uncertainty about the relaunch is such that the financial sector can no longer fulfil its role. Banks and insurers are so worried about the risk that they find it difficult to give the conference industry the financial wind it needs under its wings to grow or even survive. That is where the government should step in, says Bart Candaele. He runs the VLAIO Network Department at Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship, the government body that stimulates innovation and entrepreneurship.

Bart Candaele

Bart Candaele - Department Head, Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship


The government must provide the wind under organisations’ wings

“Banks are loath to giving loans to companies in the conference industry because the risk that the event will be cancelled is simply too great. In which case they won’t be reimbursed. That is why insurance companies refuse to cover the risk of cancellation due to COVID-19. To give the industry an opportunity to resume or continue its activities, the Government of Flanders has temporarily stepped in to lend a hand.”

“In Flanders a triple measure was put in place for the events industry, which includes PCOs. Firstly, the association or PCO can receive public financing for organising a conference. Secondly, the financing must not be reimbursed in the event of a cancellation due to COVID-19. Thirdly, companies that saw their revenue drop significantly are compensated for this loss thanks to the Flemish Protection Mechanism. These measures apply to all industries, including the conference industry.” 

Every downside has its upside

Thanks to this triple measure, the industry can pick up where it left off and become profitable again. Bart Candaele: “The government’s cost-benefit analysis must be different from that of the banks and insurers. The risk of a whole industry being unable to operate for an entire year outweighs the risk that a number of organisers will be unable to reimburse this financing. The government must ensure that the industry can overcome this crisis and can get the ball rolling again. Government measures can be lifted once the private sector regains ability to finance and insure conferences.”

As the mythical Dutch star footballer Johan Cruijff said, every downside has its upside and Bart Candaele thinks that there’s also an upside to this pandemic. It teaches PCOs important lessons for the future, in case the industry is hit by a new tsunami. “COVID-19 forced businesses to renew their business model. Whether they will survive the crisis depends on the success of their innovation. Often innovation is all about setting up new partnerships with different partners. The government can play an important role by supporting this wave of innovation. In Flanders, the innovation is definitely ongoing. More companies are applying for innovation grants now, compared with before the pandemic.

Collaboration on the local level is just as crucial

The municipal authorities also play a crucial role, albeit on the local level, as a host city. Like Bart Candaele, Inge Marstboom – who works in Antwerp, where close to 21,500 conferences find their home each year – says that it’s important to facilitate collaboration in the conference industry.

“During a crisis people and companies grow closer and join forces. Whereas previously the emphasis was on your own individual identity, we tend to look for allies in a crisis. A conference venue and a concert hall suddenly realise that they have much more in common than they thought. The city can bring these partners together, because they are stronger together. I hope that the various parties involved will continue to search for partnerships and cross-overs, as part of long-term collaborations. If a conference organiser partners with a concert hall during a crisis, there is no reason why this partnership shouldn’t continue post-crisis. The partnerships that are being forged today will pay off in the long term.”

Everyone likes a positive message

Marstboom thinks that the city has another important task, namely communication. “The city authorities must continue to promote the city as a destination to professional conference organisers, even in bad times. It’s crucial to show associations and PCOs that the city is very much alive and kicking, that it is still a nice and fun place to organise your conference.

Obviously you need to explain that we try to assure maximum safety by applying all rules as recommended by specialists. But that’s not the key message, this won’t make the difference. Cities must focus on a positive message, or a humorous one, like Antwerp is doing this autumn. To give an example: conferences delegates no longer queue at the buffet because we have switched to table service.”

Inge Marstboom

Inge Marstboom - Manager Business Development at Visit Antwerp

Every downside has its upside part 2

IMEX 2017

Obviously cities can take specific measures, such as reducing or even cancelling the overnight stay tax for delegates. Visit Antwerp’s Manager Business Development agrees with Bart Candaele that there are also benefits to this crisis.

“The business community and the city have been very flexible during this crisis. Instead of obstinately enforcing the rules and regulations, we realised that everyone would have to put on their thinking cap and start from scratch. I really enjoyed seeing this dynamic and being part of the experience. I truly hope that this flexibility will be maintained.”

“Another bonus: the city’s service and that of service providers is now even better tailored to the needs of the associations and the PCOs. We are in a perfect position to play an intermediary role since the city stands between these clients and the providers. We know what clients want and can help providers with the practical translation. If an association or PCO prefers a hybrid meeting format, we know exactly whom to involve in this. Another example: we can help find conference sponsors thanks to our contacts with the business community. I truly believe that the authorities can play an important role for the conference industry in the future.”

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