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Associations and convention bureaux are a match made in heaven – but many are only just beginning to take notice.

 

“Destinations partnering with associations can be the first step in attracting specific industries to a city,” says VisitFlanders’ Gemmeke de Jongh, speaking at IMEX Frankfurt’s Association Day in May.

“Associations can be the catalyst for economic development. If convention bureaux can convince the leading minds in any industry to come to their destination, there is a chance they will stay, helping to drive growth and innovation.”

De Jongh is speaking about a problem many in the audience at IMEX’s Association Day have faced. When asked, association event organisers say they receive little help and poor communication from the convention bureaux they work with. De Jongh says this is a missed opportunity: associations, she points out, are hubs of knowledge and expertise - and targeting them has huge benefits for a destination. “Here in Flanders, we target industries in which our region is already strong, to become world-leaders in these fields,” she says. 

VisitFlanders has a dedicated team which researches associations that could have a positive impact on a particular region or industry.

There are few industries that spring to mind in Belgium moreso than beer, and joining de Jongh on stage via video interview is Jan de Grave, communications director at The Brewers of Europe. BoE is a collection of brewers’ associations, which brings together many of the leading figures in a region known for its alcoholic ingenuity. It partnered with VisitFlanders to host its Brewers of Europe Forum in 2019, and de Grave explains why.

“We wanted a convention bureau that could provide practical support, to help us deliver an event that could grow outside of its scope. Another key factor was the links to government which VisitFlanders was able to help us with. Being linked with both regional and national organisations was a big benefit for us.”

VisitFlanders, de Jongh tells us, has a dedicated team which researches associations that could have a positive impact on a particular region or industry. This detailed approach, combined with the on-the-ground support they are able to offer each association, gives them a huge advantage over other destinations.

 

Aye do

Alcohol is a key ingredient for any first date, and the Brewers of Europe and VisitFlanders are an example of how two organisations can enjoy a mutually successful partnership over a cold drink. But another relationship between convention bureaux and associations can be found in a nearby city, where they might be more likely to sit down over a whiskey on the rocks…

Convention Edinburgh is the conferencing arm of Marketing Edinburgh, which handles destination marketing in the Scottish capital. The organisation has a successful ambassador programme, which it has been using to attract association business for many years.

Amanda Ferguson, head of business tourism, explains: “Edinburgh has operated an ambassador programme for more than 22 years and currently boasts over 550 ambassadors. They are based across 25 diverse organisations – approximately half of which are based within one of the four universities in Edinburgh. Convention Edinburgh offers a comprehensive service to support them in bringing conferences to the city.”

Those services are far-reaching, and include everything from bid support to venue-finding, site inspections, accommodation booking, social activities and sourcing suppliers for the conference. Much like VisitFlanders, Convention Edinburgh is not sitting around twiddling its thumbs and waiting for enquiries – the organisation employs two researchers who actively seek out potential conferences and ambassadors which could come to Edinburgh. They are the first point of contact with any association, before sales get involved. This, Ferguson says, ensures both parties feel they are a good match before any business is done. 

Could this be, perhaps, the secret to the 22-year-long happy marriage between Convention Edinburgh and the association sector?

Ferguson points us to one recent example of an association event moving to Edinburgh – the European Music Therapy Congress, which is planned for 2022. Convention Edinburgh’s ambassadors approached the British Association for Music Therapy, and a collaborative bid was won in January 2019. The event is predicted to bring 550 specialists in the field of music therapy to the city, alongside £1.1m of economic impact.

Philippa Derrington, chair of the local organising committee of EMTC 2022, said: “The support from Convention Edinburgh was vital in producing a strong, professional bid which persuaded the decision makers to select Edinburgh.

“It allowed everyone to play to their strengths – their knowledge of the city and experience of winning conferences, and our experience and reputation in the field of music therapy, was a winning combination. Now that the event is confirmed, they are continuing to support us to attract delegates, and ensure we make all the right connections in the city.”

Association events are not just an extra income stream. If destinations put in the effort to court the association sector, and develop the relationship into a lasting one, they’ll find the long-term benefits mutually beneficial for all.