Visit Flanders: “The need for legacy impacts has definitely increased”

Flanders Convention Bureau has co-developed with #MEET4IMPACT a legacy creation and impact measurement strategy to guide the region's events agenda over the next two years
24th Mar, 2022

The Belgian region of Flanders has been committed to legacy development for several years and will be a perfect testing ground to create lasting impacts for both associations and local communities. To reinforce this purpose, VisitFlanders Convention Bureau has co-developed with #MEET4IMPACT a legacy creation and impact measurement strategy to guide the region's events agenda over the next two years. Their fields of expertise will be the starting point for a conference roadmap with wider legacies and concrete impacts. Gemmeke de Jongh (pictured in the right), International Association Expert for Flanders, unveiled the curtain on this action plan.

1) Why did you decide to go down this road and implement this legacy layer in the Flemish conference scene?

It all started with our new vision developed two years ago which includes our events and congress department, called “Travel to Tomorrow”. We saw that meetings and events were under pressure and that over-tourism would be a problem sooner or later. So, we took it as a destination that it was time to opt for a paradigm shift using the tools and means at our disposal. The end-goal was to bring us closer to a more prosperous and balanced destination for all stakeholders and partners. This means that delegates coming to Flanders need added value, locals should be comfortable with visitors coming in, and entrepreneurs should also take advantage of these events we are attracting. Instead of having more congresses, we wanted better congresses, so that people would retain something that would last longer for the benefit of locals and delegates. A vision that would translate into legacy planning and concrete impacts for our destination.

2) How has the work of #MEET4IMPACT guided your steps in implementing this project?

They helped us materialise these ideas to start defining a programme. We wanted the next congresses to have a long-term positive impact on Flanders and to promote a legacy plan. But the question has always been: how can we do it? We were struggling with this task until we came across #MEET4IMPACT with whom we put together a methodology for the next two years, working on four concrete cases. To this end, we have identified three congresses that will take place over the next two years, and the World Breaking Championship. In December, we started training local staff and local organising committees on the various tools and methods for these much-desired impacts. One of the tools we use was the “theory of change”, which is at the heart of the strategic plan over time. From there, we decided, based on that impact intention, which activities to organise, which stakeholders to involve, and how we will measure all of this. The measurement part is tricky because, as a government agency, we have to prove it. How can we make it tangible? All these questions are still a bit up in the air but we intend to solve them in the next two years, through co-working and co-development methods.

3) Do you think that this paradigm shift meets the overall perception of associations?

We have been talking about issues such as climate or sustainability for many years, and I believe there is now an urgency to address them. COVID-19 shook everyone up and made us realise the importance of being involved far beyond a one-off event. In our case, this decision was taken even before the pandemic broke out. From COP26 to the digitalisation of the industry, the need for legacy impacts has definitely increased. We felt it in the decision-making capacity in Flanders and in the availability of our teams. I think many partners in the meetings industry would like to take on these actions but often do not have the mandate, the time, and the resources to do so. As a government agency, we had a mandate to work long-term to bring new solutions to the region’s current problems. With the expected return of conference travel, our focus will be on providing additional impact to associations, their members and, ultimately, the destination.

4) Were the political authorities here in Flanders sensitive to this appeal or were they still stuck in the business-as-usual logic?

I think we have always been allowed to be innovative. We started in 2017 to operate this major shift from corporate meetings and events to just association congresses. From there we had already anticipated the move to provide more content than driving inbound money. The business world is of course very important and welcome, but this project was mostly managed by the convention bureaus of our cities and the commitment was devised for associations. Furthermore, the ministry signed a policy document ratifying this change and enabling this path to be followed. So, we were able to start this transition process earlier with a new vision and even with this push given by the pandemic.

Launch of campaign 'We're hospitable, you're happy' in Leuven

5) Do you see this project as a way to strengthen existing clusters in Flanders or as a hook for new industries to establish here?

When we started down this path, our aim was to attract associative congresses that would be linked to our strong economic hubs from 2017 to 2021. As we took on our new vision of “Travel to Tomorrow”, we considered a change of the congress hubs we would support. We therefore looked at a Flemish government vision document called “Vision 2050”, in which six transition domains were identified. These six domains − such as circular economy, lifelong learning, industry 4.0, etc. − will be crucial for the Flemish economic development in 20 years’ time. If we consider the circular economy, the fact that Flanders has created a thriving ecosystem with new development hubs, researchers and industrial partners, leads us to believe that legacies can be encouraged in this area. VisitFlanders has also embraced the values of our tourism assets, such as beers, gastronomy, cycling, nature or arts, culture and heritage. These all relate to experiences in the region, and can thus lead to long-term impacts on the congress field. If we can attract congresses within these spheres, this can increase new synergies and knowledge exchange for both parties. Our efforts and support will be directed towards strategic areas in our vision for the future.

6) Have you conducted any pilot projects to test the results and impacts you expect from these conferences?

Yes, we did. We have four concrete cases and two of them will be exhibited this year. One is Innova Flanders in June, and the other is the European Forum for Primary Care in September, both in Ghent. Our challenge is to explain to people that what is happening at these events really makes sense and is valuable. It will be a possibility to get out of the theory and experience it. For example, I have been working with the Hands On! conference that will take place in Mechelen in 2023, which aims to involve children in museums. Mechelen is a child-friendly city and one of its future political priorities is to reduce children’s poverty and to make children more resilient. So, bringing this conference to the city could act as a catalyst for local people to discuss and work towards this goal. This will take some time, but legacy also involves looking at the long term and sowing seeds to reap the rewards later.

7) How do you assess the concepts of social impact and legacy in your working framework and methodology?

In fact, they are seen differently. The development of our methodology goes through a framework that will guide us step by step in choosing − once we have defined the impact intention − which outcomes and capitals we will focus on. They could be social like the Hands On! conference, but they could also be ecological, economic or innovative impacts. We will have to define the exact impacts we want and their characteristics in order to measure them. Within our team at VisitFlanders we have a research department that will look closely at the indicators we need, and how we will measure them throughout the process. We are also moving towards structural partnerships with academics to show that in ten years’ time we can still create similar projects and measure the impacts with greater accuracy and comparability.

8) Finally, what do you expect from these future legacies in terms of turnover and calendar of business events in this coming period. Have you set any targets? 

We have recently been talking to our strategic partners about this and we are realistic. As a destination, we need volume and people coming in to articulate turnover with our social legacy projects. We are aware that for Flanders is important to have congresses, a sufficient number of delegates coming in and economic impact as well. We aknowledge the numbers we had in 2019 and we would like to get back to that point using our new KPIs. So, we want both: to increase our numbers and also convincingly start our legacy projects. We have already put some marginal targets on the number of legacy congresses, with one congress per domain. We have about ten domains and we want to complete this by 2024 when this political cycle ends. We also realise that we have our hands full with this. Working on legacies and impacts requires a lot of work. We are full circle with stakeholders, lobbying on projects, planning them, thinking strategically about what action to take. There is a lot more work than just pulling a congress to your destination. It would require a new way of working for our team. But we are happy for it because we want that change - it is about volume and quality impact.

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