Not surprisingly the first thing that comes to mind about Maastricht was the start of the European journey with the signing of the EU Treaty in 1992. Essentially, the Dutch city carries that unblemished reputation as a prime venue for meetings to this day as a result of a multitude of leading institutions with a focus on innovation, science and technology. Headquarters went there last month to visit the renovated MECC Maastricht hosting the WCO 2022 Technology Conference and Exhibition, and with the local bureau about meaningful events.
AUTHOR: Manuel A. Fernandes, HQ Magazine Manager
From Brussels, it only took about an hour and a half until we spotted the Maastricht train station after a short change in Liège. Connected to several other locations in the region and sharing an airport with the German city of Aachen, the multitude of transport options marks the centrality of this city in Benelux, just a few kilometres from three different countries. Crossing its cultural and historic buildings (the second highest number in the Netherlands just after Amsterdam), it didn’t take much to find the charms of this lively Romanesque town with a compact, walkable centre and a Burgundian lifestyle. However, Maastricht’s gloss of history gives way to a bubbling academic, scientific and industrial quarter surrounding its premium, brand new convention centre after some renovations in the process − the MECC Maastricht. This combination of antiquity and modernity is at the heart of the city’s promotional campaign where “heritage meets science”, and “history meets innovation."
“We try to generate maximum impact for each event through the unique combination of our intimate and historic city in the heart of Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, our innovative knowledge ecosystem in the areas of science and innovation and our strong destination community,” explains Anouk Maas, Business Development Manager Associations at the Maastricht Convention Bureau (MCB). Getting back to MECC Maastricht, the venue now has a total capacity of 5,000 participants, also a 30,000 m2 exhibition space divided into 3 halls that can be connected. Four conferences can be held here simultaneously. Because of the close cooperation of all stakeholders, the Municipality of Maastricht decided to locate the MCB offices here where everyone works together in this new event hub. “The pandemic has caused venues, to redirect staff members’ positions. On the other hand, it also made us communicate and share knowledge with our destination community more than before to rebuild trust in business travel,” Ingrid Grimbergen, Marketing & Communication Manager at MCB tells us. MECC immediately installed a studio, specifically designed to host online events, adding all the necessary technical facilities with an application to host virtual events.
Rising to the post-pandemic challenges, Maastricht has leveraged a number of pillars for sector businesses: Health, Chemicals and Materials, Data Science and Food, Nutrition and Agricultural Businesses − all in close cooperation with Brightlands Campusses, Maastricht University, Maastricht University Medical Center +, and the entire destination community. “The impact of organising a conference in Maastricht goes far beyond the exchange of knowledge, providing education and widening anyone’s network. As well as empowering the region and fostering economic growth, an association can leave a significant impact on community and social development,” says Maas. As a result of strong synergies with their destination community, MCB will be able to connect an association or meeting organiser with these local stakeholders to work on activities that can leave a lasting, positive and sustainable legacy. In alignment with an association’s overall legacy objectives, they will help them develop a tailor-made local impact programme with a unique point of contact along the entire bidding phase. In addition, the Netherlands also provides a pre-financing fund to provide financial security to associations, especially in uncertain times of global economic inflation. Another point of order discussed with the hostesses was the multimedia campaign “A Word from the Expert”, giving voice to key personalities from the academic, business and R&D ecosystem who are promoting the city’s efforts in various professional areas. “About 80% of our bids are related to one of our region’s top expertises so this operation was very important to us. We recently hosted the International Conference on Mass Spectrometry after two years in virtual format, and one of the reasons for its coming is that Europe’s largest molecular imaging center is set here − the Multimodal Molecular Imaging Institute (M4i). This event was also associated with a distinguished professor and highly acknowledged researcher in the field of molecular imaging (Dr Ron Heeren) who was one of the top ambassadors of the conference,” Grimbergen tells us.
Another example of an event they recently won was the European Sleep Research Conference in a collective bid with Belgium and Luxembourg and their three national societies. “As we have industry-based business development teams, giving voice to key personalities within our knowledge ecosystem is very important. On the other hand, as there is a high demand for a local committee to support a candidacy, it is a bonus for our teams to be in close contact with these local experts. It’s a win-win situation,” adds Maas. With nearly 6,000 hotel rooms, the pandemic has been a difficult time especially for the hospitality industry. “Our partners were very creative and flexible, doing their best to look at their employability.” An example of this was the catering sector with almost all restaurants offering take away options, prompting a vibrant industry around this niche. For Maastricht, adapting to new times and building trust is crucial. Many conferences were rescheduled and the flexibility of dates and reconfiguration of venues gave planners the ability to reassess their initial decisions. “We want to transform client events into educational workshops with asset-generating potential," says Maas.
MCB also sees technology as a complementary improvement to the destination by including online sessions that allow to broaden the audience and diversify the scope of the programmes. If we look at the population of the city, one-sixth are college students and these generations intuitively use new technologies as everyday tools. This also comes as an advantage, because during the pandemic we all saw that large congresses of about 10,000 people had to scale down. “Given our size, this also gives us a chance to compete for these big hybrid congresses − hosting more than 6,000 people would be quite challenging for us, but if they split the number with online attendees, Maastricht could emerge as a real option,” says Maas. In Maastricht, the aim of creating a healthy and innovative city with a high quality of life for all has brought the city’s sustainability ambitions, from a community perspective, into line with global sustainable development goals. Maastricht is a city with a large green environment that is doing its bit on waste management which in turn encourages the use of local products. “Within our industry, we feel a commitment to minimise the life cycle impact of the event and specifically in the field of production and consumption methods. For example, at the events we organise, many stands, materials and food are left over behind us. Our partners were already connected to the ‘Too Good Too Go’ app and decided to use it to dispatch these leftovers where all materials and food were packed and distributed by them,” Grimbergen concluded.
From 18 till 20 October, more than 1,200 participants from 136 countries attended the WCO 2022 Technology Conference and Exhibition at MECC Maastricht, with around 600 additional delegates joining the online event. During those three days, under the theme “Driving Customs performance with data and technology in the changing landscape of global trade”, representatives from customs, international organisations, the private sector and academia discussed issues related to the various technologies used to manage the flows of goods, people and means of transport across borders. Participants who attended the event in person had the opportunity to test and discover innovative solutions and equipment by visiting the Exhibition running in parallel with the Conference. “The highly innovative and international nature of the region makes Maastricht a great venue for the conference that we as the Dutch Customs Administration wanted to put on for our international colleagues. The destination community really walked the extra mile to ensure maximum impact of the WCO conference. The Dutch Customs organisation was keen to keep delegates engaged in the programme and wanted to avoid people straying off for shopping or other distractions. They managed to keep their delegates really engaged in both the educational and social programmes,” Frank Heijmann – Director National Committee on Trade Facilitation & Head of Trade Relations at the Dutch Customs Administration, told us.
Supported by the Union of International Associations (UIA), the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) and the Interel Group, the global public affairs and association management consultancy, Headquarters Magazines serve the needs of international associations organising worldwide congresses.