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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

VUCA – the new normal in the meetings industry?

Apparently it’s a military term in use since the 90s but the acronym VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – applies more than ever today, particularly within the world of meetings and events. Yesterday’s mysterious disappearance of an Air Egypt plane en route from Paris to Cairo is a stark reminder that we’re still in the midst of a VUCA cycle, in case we’ve managed to forget the recent terrorist attacks on Paris, Istanbul and, of course, Brussels.  Add political and economic realities to the mix and you end up with so many variables and unknowns that it’s a wonder meetings professionals and destination marketers can do any meaningful  planning at all.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 22.00.12We’ve been systematically transitioning to a “new normal” in the meetings industry over the past couple of decades at both micro and macro levels. Just consider: lead times for events have shrunk to “on-demand” levels, procurement now stands between meeting planners and destination suppliers, budgets have been bullied into meek, modest quantities, the supply chain has been totally dis-intermediated, conferences have become “un-conferences”, concerns around safety and security are now front and centre for destination selection.

We’re gripped by longing and nostalgia for the past when relationships counted and you didn’t have to take your clothes off every time you went to an airport. We’ve been plunged into a kind of existential crises but, if so, then it’s of the Samuel Beckett variety:

… it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

We can often feel utterly powerless  in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity but there’s also a mysteriously strong resilience in there somewhere that causes us to “go on” despite the apparent impossibility to do so.


I was reminded of this during the week when I came across a user-generated-content campaign launched in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Brussels. Co-ordinated by the Flemish De Tijd and the Francophone L’Echo daily newspapers, #DiningForBrussels encourages residents of the city to resume normal routines by getting out there and booking a table at a Brussels restaurant. At the end of their meal diners configure the peace sign on their empty plates using their utensils and then post with the hashtag #DiningForBrussels to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

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The impact of the campaign is three-fold – city restaurants whose business has tanked following the March attacks get much needed business, the city itself is encouraged to resume normal service and, through social media reach, awareness, profile and, most importantly, good will is generated for the city. There’s a further impact, too, in that the campaign is also an inspirational call to action, rejecting extremism, hatred and radicalisation, aligning citizens and visitors around a vision for Brussels that pivots on acceptance of diversity, tolerance and peace.

What can we do in the Meetings Industry?

Tom Jenkins of the European Tour Operators Association, speaking recently on CNCB, compared cancellations and recovery in the wake of terrorist actions in the 80s and 90s with those of more recent attacks. The recovery time for leisure visitors to Paris following last year’s attacks was 3 – 4 weeks, a fraction of what it was in previous decades. He attributes this to visitors being better informed and educated about the possibility and reality of terrorism. As leisure travellers we now appear to accept terrorism as another risk consideration in any decision to journey to another country. In our minds it’s there with plane crashes, sudden illnesses and loss of personal belongings on the broad spectrum of things from calamitous tragedies to unfortunate discomforts that can go wrong when you travel.

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Cancelling – Responsible action or cowardice?

So, as leisure visitors, we’ve started to accommodate to this “new” normal. We remain prudent but we don’t allow the terrorist action – or the prospect of one – to disrupt our life style for any longer that it absolutely needs to.  However, corporate travel for meetings and events hasn’t quite caught up with where we stand as individual leisure travellers. There is still a tendency to err on the side of extreme caution by immediately canceling corporate meetings and events in the immediate wake of a terrorist atrocity.

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In some corporate environments this is seen as the safe, prudent and responsible thing to do. Sometimes, however, it’s none of these things at all but a bad decision driven by uninformed perception,  appalling lack of cultural and geographical understanding and, dare I say it, cowardice. Cancelling a meeting or event as a result of terrorism may sometimes be the right thing to do but sometimes, too, I suggest, it could be playing right into the hands of the terrorists whose sole objective is to create fear and trepidation and de-stable normally rock solid cities.

I spoke with a number of US based corporate meeting planners in the aftermath of Paris and Brussels and was extraordinarily proud of Dan Young at Thrivent Financial and Kathy Roche at Columbus Life who did NOT and will NOT cancel their conferences in Europe. They evaluated the risks as objectively as possible, consulted with their own internal security, strengthened their security detail where necessary but kept or will keep the show on the road. Some of their qualifiers called them seeking reassurance and one or two asked to be taken off the trip. But these US corporations refused to alter their plans and, in so doing, showed immerse moral courage and determination. They stood up for our industry and for Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and all those cities of the past and the future that have withstood or will withstand the evils of extremism.

This post was promoted by SITE friends in Belgium – so huge thanks to Tasso Pappas, Thierry Scheers Jean Pierre Cornelis and Juan Dores but particularly to one of my best industry friends, Mussels from Brussels himself, Hugo Slimbrouck whose 10 reasons to visit Belgium follow below:


1.       We have the best battlefields where Europe meets.

Remember 1815 Waterloo , WW1 In Flanders Fields , WW2 Battle of the Ardennes , 2016 Brussels L? Europe likes to come to Belgium to fight their wars. Other than that, there is the city of Brussels. Where the European Parliament is an ongoing battle field of verbal diarrhea and the streets of Brussels see regular charges of lighter brigades such as syndicalists, farmers, truckers, taxi drivers against UBER and other nuisance of that sort.


2.       Who needs a stairway to heaven when you have a pipeline?

In the city of Bruges, the Half Moon Brewery installed a 2 km pipeline to connect it’s old town brewery with the bottling room out of town. This was a crowd funded sustainability project to relieve the historic center from the many trucks they needed to take the beer out of town. Even CNN came down this week this week as they could not believe it  Some of my friends and family members in Bruges are now trying to figure out how they can connect their homes to have an alternative to tap water. Brugse Zot or Straffe Hendrik straight to your kitchen, sounds tempting indeed.


3.       Music of all ages.


Not only the Queen Elisabeth Competiton (one of the most prestigious classic music competitions in the world, listen here online ) or the upcoming Brussel Jazz festival but many other open air music festivals like Rock Werchter. Tomorrowland was actually voted several times the N°1 music festival in the world.  The concept has now been exported to Atlanta, Brazil, Cape Town, …


4.       Brussels is the essence of Europe.

The capital of Europe brings extra benefits to the city of Brussels. It’s one of the most truly cosmopolitan cities with people from all over Europe and the world gathering and living and working together. A melting pot of cultures and languages. Of fashion and arts. Being the capital of political Europe also has the benefit that the city of Brussels is extremely well connected to every major regional city in Europe, either through a dense airline network or the excellent HST (High Speed Train) connections  with Thalys, Eurostar and ICE. Brussels is right in the heart of this grid.


5.       Chocolate

According to our family doctor, who calculated my BMI, my legs are too short… One of the main reasons for that is the excellent quality of Belgian Chocolates. I rest my case!


6.       We have the highest tax rate in the world.

But other than its devastating influence on my disposable family income we do have an awful lot of services, like in Scandinavian countries, for which we do not have to pay for. And you, our visitors and guests neither. Welcome to Belgium, I already paid for you my friend!


7.       Surrealism

Many things seem surreal in our country and Brussels in particular. And I’m not referring to Surrealism as the form of art that shaped our cultural scene over the last two centuries. But surrealism in politics is our newest art form. Belgium is world champion in creating parliaments. We have a European Parliament, a Belgian National Parliament, a Flemish Parliament, a Brussels Capital Region Parliament, a Walloon Parliament and a German Speaking Region Parliament We also have NATO which is some sort of a military parliament I guess. And the city of Brussels has 19 mayors J. No other country in the world has more parliaments and politicians per capita as we have in Belgium. But they all care of our and your well- being as well of their own wallets.


8.       The cradle of great football.

Or at least the place where the cradle stood of many great football players who now play in different competitions around Europe. Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel, Christian Benteke, Mousa Dembéle, Kevin Mirallas, Toby Alderweirels, Michy Batshuayi, Jason Denayer, Thomas Meuneur, Divock Origi, Radja Nainggolan… Need I go on? Our Red Devils are ready! Paris, here we come!


9.       Private investigations.


Tintin was born and raised in Brussels. Maigret was from Liège. Agatha Christie even imported Hercules Poirot from Belgium. More recently  Pieter Aspe (Van In, Brugge) acts like the Flemish version of Ian Rankin (Rebus, Edinbroughà. Not only do we have excellent investigators in our tiny little country but comic strips made real heroes of many of them. Holywood even came down a couple of years ago a named the city of Bruges a shithole. Check out the movie trailer here. Shoot first, sightsee later!

10.   Flanders, state of the art.

My Irish friends will claim they have the best poets and writers of the English language (we do, Hugo. It’s an incontrovertible fact!) but Flanders definitely has created, on its tiny little surface, some of the greatest art in the world. Just think about names like Memlinc, Van Eyck, Breughel, Rubens, Van Dyck, Ensor, Magritte, … Or the wonderful Flemish tapestries which you can find in every major ancient palace or castle around Europe. Most of this art was created in the Flemish art cities of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Mechelen, Leuven, etc.  And all of these cities are within a maximum one hour drive from the capital Brussels.





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