Walkie Talkies

Arrived early for a full week of client visits in Sao Paulo this week, I’m strolling along a Sunday morning street market in Jardins, just off Oscar Freire Street. My colleague Taryn Brooks from Ovation South Africa and I both like to visit markets whenever we travel. We are always amazed by the variety of fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, fruits and herbs available and how they are presented. I had just taken a picture of a food stall selling 15 types of potatoes when, at the next stall, I pointed out chicken heads and chicken feet to my fellow Sunday morning stroller. ”Walkie Talkies” she said and I nearly died laughing.
In South Africa, apparently, chicken feet and chicken heads, (along with the intestine, hearts and giblets) are eaten in the inner cities and townships and are known as ”walkie-talkies”.
South Africans also have other fun food such as ‘smileys’. KwaZulu-Natal is home to the Zulu ethnic group and also has the largest population of Indian origin outside of India. These are the people who relish sheep’s heads – known locally as “smileys.” The severed heads are stripped and parboiled before being roasted over hot coals. The result is a head scalded a golden brown, the intense heat shrinking its lips into a grotesque smile. In Sao Paulo, on the other hand, they will serve you charbroiled chicken hearts as appetisers at any of the great steakhouses.
Over dinner, the discussion continues about strange food habits around the world. Although bugs are apparently a favourite with television shows as ”Fear Factor” in Europe and North America, the practice of eating insects for food is fairly common in many parts of the world. Insects are high in protein and apparently consist of important fatty acids and vitamins. Flour from drying and grinding up mealworm can be and is often used to make chocolate chip cookies. So next time you find a fly in your soup, think twice before you call the waiter.
Michael Freedman of Amstar, our Mexican strategic partner, reminds us about Rocky Mountain oysters and my thoughts go way back to my time at the Brussels Hilton when our General Manager, Fernand David, served them to his fellow colleagues of the ‘Club des 1000’, the association of the top ten hotels in Brussels (in the early nineties) who had a monthly luncheon to exchange challenges and look for solutions. At our one star Michelin restaurant ‘La Maison du Boeuf’, he served the body parts – that the animal had lost in order to become a ‘Boeuf’- in a creamy sauce. A symbolic middle finger gesture to those who tried to show off supremacy to their peers at this monthly gathering.
Ciara Byrne of Ovation Ireland insists that blood pudding is not food for vampires but a very common dish in Ireland and, indeed, other regions in Europe. Known in Ireland as black pudding, it is a type of sausage comprised of cooked blood and fillers like grains, potatoes or fat. The dark congealed patty is a popular treat in an Full Irish breakfast, and featured together with fried eggs, sausages, rashers, tomatoes and fried potatoes.
Our colleague Sigrun of Iceland Congress made me eat ‘rotten shark’ once- I still have the smell of it up my nostrils. In Thailand there is that stinky fruit that one finds on all the market stalls. South of our border you have our ‘haute cuisine ‘friends, the French, with their frogeye legs, garlic snails and AAAAA sausages.
Only a week ago in Switzerland I found some of our Asian guests staring at a Chiwawa on a leash in the streets of Crans Montana. I quickly reminded them that a cheesier lunch would be served soon, saving Fifi from a near death experience.

So what strange food have you come across on your travels? Let us know and Ovation Bear will declare a winner of the most unusual food experience.


Road Warriors (aka building fair relations)

Follow your dreams,
Go boldly with confidence,
Create joy, smiles and success.

Take 10 people: a Jordanian, a Maltese, a Ukrainian, a Turk, a Mauritian an Indian who lives in Oman and an American who lives in Mexico Add 3 sassy classy ladies from Croatia, Poland and Portugal. Start in Geneva and travel to Lyon, Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Marseille in the course of 5 days. Visit 6 offices where the of number of diverse staff nationalities ranges from 3 to 21. Discuss business that could go to any of 100 global meetings and events destinations.
Spice this up with snow, freezing weather, an occasional blue sky, a good shower of rain and a decent pinch of sleet. Use all manner of conveyancing devices from airplanes, trains, busses, trams to metro’s , limo’s taxis and cars Kick in the health element with some serious morning walks to catch one of the above mentioned transportation devices.

Mix a cocktail of 3 to 4 star hotels from the basics of Novotel, the local charm of the Auteuil brand in Geneva, the young pulse of Motel 6 in Berlin, the classy Crowne Plaza ‘Le Palace’ with a great history to tell in Brussels and a Park Plaza room with a view along the Thames river in London. Meet every day a team of meeting and event specialists or congress organisers face to face and educate them about new and emerging destinations.
Find some fine food and drinks along the way to nourish the body and replenish the soul. Throw in an organiser/coach/traveling concierge and butler and you know how satisfied and completely exhausted I’m feeling whilst writing this story at Heathrow Airport.

This was a week of discoveries. Not only of destinations, old and new, but more so of the people in these destinations who make it happen. Meeting with colleagues who need this business intelligence to perform beyond the call of duty and win. Gathering great ideas to provide content and theme the event. Nothing you can find on internet but stuff you can only learn from people knowing people who know people. In the evening or during the travels, we exchanged war stories, best practices and had business opportunities to share.

This was also a week to taste the local flavours of our host towns. From the effectiveness of Switzerland, gastronomy in France, EU cosmopolitanism in Brussels (including mussels from Brussels with our friend Thierry @ Chez Léon). Or discover provocative street art in Brussels (Manneken Pis) and Berlin (where size does matter when one makes a political statement). English country side living in the village of Petersfield where MCI’s most beautiful office is housed in an old mill.

In the mean time during our travels, we were listening and comparing music on iPhones and iPods; here’s our collective playlist of the week:

On the road again (Mr. Nelson again) travelling man
Follow the leader (Soca Boys)
Ticket to ride (The Beatles)
Riders on a storm (The Doors)
Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)l
Mr. Cab Driver (Lenny Kravitz)
Bruxelles (Jacques Brel)
Come fly with me (Frank Sinatra)
Ueber den wolken (Reinhard Mey)
Albatross (Fleetwood Mac)
All the road running (Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler)
Big Jet Plane (Angus & Julia Stone)
Streets of London (Gerry Rafferty)
Il Viaggio d’Inverno (Ludovico Einaudi)
Lawrence of Arabia (Maurice Jarre)
On the border (Al Stewart)
Sail Away (David Gray)
Café de Paris (Lemongrass)
Chasing Cars (Snow Patrol)
I like the way (Bodyrockers)

Without realising it we put one of the four MCI core values into action: building fair relations. To us this means that we are seeking for perfection, we want to be the best and collectively we are striving for greatness. It’s all about being genuine with others in our business relations. How we do this is clear: we are authentic in our relationships, show honesty and accountability and respect agreed rules and disciplines. By being demanding for ourselves we become perfectionists and express this elegantly. As a result we create a constant quest to build trust among our collaborators and earn the trust of our clients.

God, I love this job.

A tale of two islands

Flying back to the coolness and autumn colours of Europe I’m listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s Islands, high above the scattered Nuvole Bianche – white clouds – of the Caribbean.

E tie se uei lu core miu stae qquai.

A travel angel took me to Aruba and Curacao this week. Two islands with 365 days of sunshine. Islands just off the Venezuela coast and outside of the hurricane belt. Two and a half hours south of Miami and an average 10 hours from Central Europe. I had been in Aruba before, attending the Site International conference a couple of years ago. Curaçao I only associated with the liquor that makes exotic cocktails turn blue. I should have known better…

One happy island

One of Aruba’s best assets is its remarkable repertoire of powdery, white-sandy beaches, some of them rated as best in the world. Wind beaten Fofoti trees and palms give a special touch to the scene. Add to this the ever-sunny sky, shimmering turquoise water and a refreshing breeze and you have the perfect setting for a well-deserved break or memorable incentive experience. Aruba has been developed well in the last two decades on the tourism, conference and incentive market and has made a good impression in North and Latin America. Aruba has a lot of airlift. The island has the flexibility to host both big conferences or smaller retreats and a handful of DMC’s create lively tailored events to meet even the most demanding requirements. Oranjestad is the gateway for travellers arriving by air or by cruise ships. The major resorts are located in the North West on Palm Beach which reminds me of Cancun. All the big names are here. My favourites were the Radisson and the Hyatt Regency. For a more boutique like experience I would recommend the private villas of the Tierra Del Sol resort, golf and country club. Inland, the boulder-strewn desert terrain offers eclectic landscapes. Cactuses providing shade to birds, turtles, goats and the beautiful iguanas. Balmy Aloe Vera is everywhere and the Arikok National park is definitely a welcome alternative from a day at the beach. For lunch with the locals we stopped at Zeerover (pirate in English), a Caribbean version of the well-known Oesterput in Blankenberge on the Belgian coast. No Jack Sparrow in sight though.

Blue Curacao

Curaçao also has its fair share of sun, sea and beach but has to me and my co-travellers’ opinion a higher touch of authenticity. This is something that always appeals more, especially to a European incentive travel clientele. Few places in the world bring the Caribbean and European history together in such harmony and cultural splendour. As proud member of the UNESCO World Heritage list, its capital of Willemstad, split by a natural waterway, showcases a Dutch-Caribbean tutti fruti of cultures, history, and ethnic gastronomic escapades. Such riches are eagerly waiting to be discovered by those few who are seeking something new, real and different in their next travel award destination. Beaches and coves are never far away and a healthy colourful reef invites for snorkelling and scuba diving..

The green countryside is dotted with beautiful yellow painted land houses and quaint little villages. Buildings and houses on the island remind me of the old Dutch countryside. Locals are nice (dushi!) and welcoming, life is cool. Long gone are the days of slavery and cotton plantations; aloe vera and fruit plantations are still there. Good quality and casual dining are available all over the island. Tiny in size, yet bustling with vibrancy and allure, this captivating island offers a unique escape and a haven of tranquility for artists and people who need a relaxing and sunny break.

We were staying at the Hyatt Regency Curacao Golf Resort, Spa and Marina, offering views that are second-to-none; this is a full-service Caribbean hotel, perfectly situated on a long stretch of white sandy beach between two bodies of water: the Caribbean Sea and the Spanish Water Bay.  Located on one of the few remaining natural preserve peninsulas in the Caribbean, this hotel offers several fine dining restaurants with indigenous menu creations; a full-service spa and fitness center; multiple outdoor pools, poolside grill, lounge and cabana area. For those with a great swing there is the 18-hole Pete Dye designed championship golf course. Meeting enthusiasts will love the multiple indoor and outdoor banqueting space opportunities. For those who want to stay in the capital I would recommend the Kura Hulanda hotel and definitely dinner at ‘De Gouverneur’, my travel angel’s favorite. Nearby is also a great private hotel, the Avila, where the Dutch royals stay when on holiday and the queen has her own little private beach.


Whilst on the islands I took the time to meet with my Site friends Wichita, Ruben and Shirley from ECO Destination Management Services, who have offices in Aruba and Curacao. Eco DMS is the only company exclusively devoted to developing, managing, and handling of motivational experiences for their valued clients and their guests, laced with creativity and pizzazz, designed to deliver business results. Their efforts are dedicated to each group’s individual requirements designed to provide the most exciting entertainment packages, specific meeting requests, smoothly orchestrated transportation experiences and high energy themed reward events. ECO not only offer the traditional social programme elements but work à la carte, with the client to offer unique experiences. One night in Aruba, Ruben had a group enjoying a Carnival festival in San Nicolas where we were joined by hundreds of locals in a street party. Not an experience as in Rio but great fun for incentive groups. Other ECO exclusive programme elements include ‘barefoot elegance on a private island’, ‘Brushstroke at Sunset’ and cooking classes with a local celebrity cook.

In terms of activities, both in Aruba as in Curacao, one has the choice from the following menu: deep sea fishing, sea kayaking, sailing, snorkelling, scuba diving, sunset cruises, wind- and kitesurfing. 4×4 island tours, mountain biking, off road adventures, golfing and exploring flora and fauna. CSR activities include art workshops with local ladies making chichi dolls. As in my native Belgian people speak four languages. Here this means Papiamento (the national language), English, Dutch and Spanish. 

A case study on destination marketing

It takes a great personality to manage and drive a convention bureau and my meetings and incentives industry colleagues in Aruba must be some of the luckiest in the world. Success is not guaranteed by beautiful weather, white sandy beaches and fun. It takes a lot of hard work to bring a destination from average to top class. In Aruba, they have a lady with balls -her name is Jerusha. Not only had she prepared a full programme well in advance, she was as anticipating as a DMC should be and showed grand hospitality on a level that many hosts in the meetings and incentives industry do not reach. Jerusha advanced on every site inspection, showed constant flexibility and made us experience her destination to the fullest whilst never driving us like cattle. Everybody knows her and she knows everybody. She’s a great story teller and a fun person to be with. I already know whom I’m going to nominate for the Hugability Awards next year!

Curacao on the other hand is far from this. This destination, which has all of the elements to succeed, needs to find this inspiring person or team of specialists. The local organisation of the site inspection trip was shambles; hotel and DMC partners were called in far too late and were never allowed to fully performing and showing what they can do. The head of the bureau only showed up for a dinner at a hotel that was completely badly casted and which would never work in an incentive programme. The dining experience was a joke and the interactivity zero. It took my travel angel a lot of blood sweat and tears to bring the programme to a success. But she did – kudos to her to make it happen. I suggested to the DMC’s and hoteliers whom we have met to get together and fix this, not just let government officials run destination marketing like extra-terrestrials.

More information on the touristic aspects of this destination can be obtained from http://www.facebook.com/pages/Aruba/53580614675 or http://www.facebook.com/curacaotb

Speaking of extra-terrestrials, did you know that starting from 2014, Curacao will enter the Space Age? Buy your ticket now, the countdown has begun…

Flipper, or the cherry on the cake

They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there under, under the sea!

A life sentence


“And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges.” 

Ray (Colin Farrell)  In Bruges is a 2008 film in which Irish contract killers Ray and Ken are sent to the medieval Belgian city of Bruges following a botched hit in London to wait for further instructions from their employer Harry.

They got me. They really got me off guard. I had not seen this coming…

I got an invite to come to the annual Travel Magazine awards at the majestic Antwerp Hilton ballroom last week.  After a lavish cocktail hour, touching base with lots of people that I know in the world of travel, meetings and incentives, we had been at our table for an hour or so. At this black tie event we had gone through two dozen awards (best tour operator, best airline, best cruise company …) and had been looking at all these happy people receiving their recognition and having their two minutes of fame.  Awards in their hands, pictures taken, next one…!  There were two awards left on the table on stage. I turned around and took another sip of wine.

And then suddenly, I heard my name. But it was not my name that shocked me but hearing which award I was receiving. The Travel Magazine Life Achievement award! My immediate thoughts were that I had been in a time capsule and projected ten years ahead. Hey guys, I have another ten years of rock and roll ahead of me! Now, I’ve been on many stages around the world delivering speeches or seminars or hosting panel discussions. But never did I have the shaky legs I had last Friday. 

My dream job

My dream in 1976 was to find a job and discover the world. Now, waiting in line for the official photo shoot some moments later, my professional life flashed by. From my early days in1976 wearing my canary yellow receptionist uniform at the Holiday Inn in Bruges and checking in Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr.Universe), the lovely Marianne Rosenberg (Ich bin wie du) who gave me 3 kisses when I delivered a bunch of roses to her suite . My years in sales, I still have many friends from those days who are still around now in the travel industry. Viviane Vogels and Xavier Damster. Nico Fautsch, Michel Verhoest  and Ruud van Namen I still see on a regular basis.

 Later I moved to the Don Carlos in Marbella and learned what negotiating with tour operators and incentive travel was about. And being a Lone Ranger on the road for more than 100 days a year – an addiction I have never lost. Then coming back to Belgium and the glorious days of setting up a new brand with Pullman International hotels and experiences such as ‘le marriage des deux groupes’ with Sofitel.  My sponsorship recognition (as we now call it) with Miss Belgium at the World Travel Market in London, presenting the best of Belgium: Duvel, Godiva and Anne De Baetselier. 

Fernand David bringing me on board of the Hilton ship where I was in a great team of people of which one is now MD of one of the top hotels of Shanghai, the other Regional Director for Hilton France and the third one just became CEO of Rezidor. The launch of the Antwerp Hilton and our sales trips and sales drives around Europe. And that fabulous Mexican food festival with a group of 12 mariachis marching up and down the Boulevard de Waterloo.

 My brief stop with Sheraton hotels and then the total turnaround, my divorce and setting up my own company as a consultant. Presenting a business plan to Mayor Patrick Moenaert in Bruges for a Convention Bureau and only asking him half of the money, having negotiated the other half by the private sector.  Euro 2000 and Bruges Cultural Capital of Europe, two great events during my time at Meeting in Bruges. In 2002 the return to the Brussels, where the action was – as a partner in a company: a story with a very costly and sad ending.

 And then the resurrection, the charismatic Roger Tondeur handing me the parachute for the biggest rollercoaster experience of my career with MCI. The deployment of Ovation Global DMC with Pat and Padraic and all the colleagues and strategic partners on five continents. Working together in Brussels with a multi-cultural team of 80+ young and bright people, of 3 generations, 17 nationalities and 14 languages.

 During all this time, I had also become one of the founding members of MPI in Belgium, board member and president of Site Belux, council member of JMIC  and later moved on to the international board of SITE with the global presidency as the cherry on the cake in 2007. It has been in these communities, but also at all the IMEX and EIBTM trade shows,  that I was able to build a national and global network, learned a lot from peer to peer and had numerous opportunities to ‘give back’ by  presenting  seminars and delivering speeches around the world. It’s where I also got my industry nickname of ‘Mussels from Brussels’ after doing a sketch in Monterey California and a follow up at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne the year after. Although, personally,  I still prefer ‘Hugo Smarty-Pants which is the literal translation of my family name – and my Twitter name J of course.

 So from the bottom of my heart: thank you to all of you who travelled with me over all these years. And thanks to my family and kids who have not seen me every day of their life but were always happy when Daddy came home.  Well, guess what, Daddy is going to travel another ten years at least.

 Let’s have some more funl!

 Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, y nada más; caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante, no hay camino, sino estelas en la mar.”
Antonio Machado, Campos de Castilla

Strip Club

I have fond memories of my first trip to the abysmal depths of human debauchery. No matter what you call it, a visit to a strip club has always been a mandatory rite of passage for every young man. It signals that moment in life when a boy graduates from glossy magazines, to the real thing – well, silicone mostly.

Glossy magazines to Belgians are not what you have in mind though. Back in the day when young wolves like me hid in our rooms, silicone was far from our minds. All we thought about was adventure, passion and discovering new worlds. We sunk quietly – so quietly that our parents became nervous – into the fabulous stories and adventures of Tintin, The Smurfs, Nero, Bob & Bobette, de Rode Ridder, Michel Vailant and other comic strips That’s what we call ‘strips’ in Flemish and that’s where I caught you off guard! A strip club in Flanders is more like a small library where you can read strip books or comics – no flesh involved there!

Old men like me and Ol’ Stevie Spielberg still have those comic strip heros top of our mind and want to keep them alive. Steve turned them into a 3D-movie and I turned the Tintin story into a Brussels city rally for corporate groups and incentives.

Hergé, Tintin’s creative father, created his stories inspired by both old and contemporary masters. There would not be any ‘Adventures of Tintin’ without the inspiration found in the paintings of Bosch & Breughel. The ‘clear line’ would not have existed without the influence of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Miro.

In association with the Rocco Forte Hotel Amigo in Brussels and the Moulinsart Foundation, Ovation Belgium features an exclusive Brussels city walking tour  or treasure hunt. A cocktail or walking dinner can be hosted for your guests in the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve. More info on www.ovationdmc.com/belgium

The Oriental Travels of Miss Me and Mister Hu Go

The Oriental Travels of Miss Me and Mister Hu Go

It has often been said that business is out on the street. You just need to go out and get it. I saw living proof of that in Vietnam this weekend. Here everything and anything is available on the street. Hanoi was my first point of call and our new Ovation Strategic Partner EASIA had sent out special agent Miss Me to welcome me. Me whisked me through the airport, answered all my questions and undoubtedly made sure I was well behaved. With the movie Indochine on my mind I had set out to this mystical country, with the hope to meet the other Catherine in my life, Catherine Deneuve to be concise. Both of them were not here unfortunately.

My first meeting of the day was for lunch in a place called Ly Club. Although this colonial restaurant smelled of naphthalene and brought back memories of my grand-parents’ wardrobe, it projected me back in time to the French era where Traction Avant’s were king of the road – actually someone left one parked just outside of the restaurant. Nowadays motorbikes rule the concrete waves; more about those later. The lunch was classy to say the least. The elegance of the 3 ladies – Nguyen Thuy Hoa, Le Thi Minh Tat and Valérie Gardelle-  combined with the traditional service of exquisite Vietnamese cuisine made it a grand experience. It allowed me to get a first hint of this proud Vietnamese culture and the delights of its fine cuisine. No connection what so ever with the eatery around the corner from the office in Brussels.

Weapons of mass transportation

The afternoon was spent in business meetings and ended with another Ovation Bear finding a new home, 80 foster sisters and 10 foster brothers. We then spent the early evening discovering the old bustling centre of Hanoi. Life is on the streets here with plenty of street cafés and eateries. First thing that struck me was the traffic. I believe every inhabitant of this capital city must own a motorbike. Two weeks ago, like Katie Melua, I was looking at nine million bicycles in Beijing; here they have almost disappeared as well to be replaced by mopeds that carry people like Miss Me, brother Anh, baby Chi, mother in law Tang and father in law Bang Van Tang (I will leave this last one for the Flemish people to work out…). Mopeds are not only people carriers. Here is a non-exhaustive list of what I saw on this trip, loaded on these two wheel polluters: twenty eight chickens, fifteen ducks, a pig, a calf, a fridge, a couple in full wedding dress, 40 balloons and stars to celebrate the half fall break holiday, a giant mirror carried by the passenger between him and the driver – looking at himself and the traffic behind, a two meter chunk of a tree, a 2-seater couch. All weapons of mass transportation!

Once you have mastered the traffic, you can visit wonderful places like the One Pilar Pagoda, the Temple of Literature and the Old Colonial City, all part of a typical Hanoi city tour. Best places to stay for conference and incentive groups include the Hotel de l’Opéra, the Sofitel Plaza or the Intercontinental Hanoi. I ended the day by checking my emails and calling home in the comfort of my beautiful room at the Intercontinental which is built above the waters of the West Lake, offering a great view from downtown Hanoi and, of course, state of the art conference facilities. Talking about skyline (which is very modest here) something that catches the visitor’s eye very soon is the way of building houses and flats. The eclectic collection of colourful buildings consist of a very slim building format, 3 or 4 stories high (luckily they don’t have earthquakes in this part of the world) and you can be sure that there is a big commercial board of signage draped across the first and second floors (if not the 3d or 4th floor terrace). I was told that up to four generations of a same family live in these high stacked houses.

Day two, Saturday, time for a break to discover what this fine country has to offer for incentive practitioners. Me and Me set off to Halong Bay, through the large rice fields of the Red River Delta.  Now I have experienced traffic in India where the code of traffic comes back to a 3-rule code: Good Breaks, Good Horn, Good Luck.  No difference here. The mopeds are king of the road and drive right, left or in the middle, who cares? Trucks, cars and busses just need to find their way in between them. A long cacophonous drive, but it must be said for incentive trips this can be shortened to 3 étappes by including a stop at a handicrafts centre, a vegetable and fruit market or just a sort off-road experience in the middle of the rice fields. Here you do find bicycles and traditional clothing again, far from the maddening crowd of the city.


The visit to the handicrafts centre brought back memories to the atrocities of war. Most handicapped people who work here and who create the most beautiful embroideries and egg shell lacquered paintings are often second and third generation victims of that other secret agent, Agent Orange. Like with many wars, many years later, enemies come back, often their next generations, to revisit or visit their battle fields and pay respect. I see this on the home front in Ypres (the Great War), in Waterloo (where, according to ABBA, Napoleon did surrender) and in the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge). Battlefields have become venues for incentive trips sometimes as part of a fragile reaching out for atonement. Our strategic partner MEP in Turkey for instance, is working on a programme for an MCI Australia client bringing incentive winners to the battlegrounds of the Dardanelles where so many Aussies perished.


At noon we boarded the MS Indochina Sails III, a wooden motor cruiser with 15 spacious cabins called  junk in this part of the maritime world, which is the ideal transport to discover the UNESCO Heritage site of the Bay of Halong with its wonderful limestone formations. These junks are nothing like the Silver Whispers of my buddy Sean Mahoney but nevertheless had a nice local touch and flavour. Cruise director Tuan – “Just call me Little Buddha” – took us through a security briefing, the programme for the afternoon and served us a perfect lunch. I was a bit disappointed as the weather was not very good so it was not the ideal day to take pictures but one can imagine how great this place can be on a clear day. The afternoon gave us opportunities to pass in smaller boats or a canoe and go in places like the Luon Cave, Turtle Island or Heaven’s Gate Island and enter beautiful lagoons. At Titop Island we stopped and climbed to the top of the cliff which offered a great view of the bay and the ships dotted around. The ship also offered a possibility to meet with other travellers and I was adopted very rapidly by a nice group of Australians who were on a holiday. The ship went for anchor, happy hour was declared and dinner under the full moon could start. Little Buddha had two surprises for us for after dinner entertainment. N° 1 was the perfect cruise alternative to board games and to strip or not to strip poker: squid fishing!  As my fishing skills were very disappointing (no lunch tomorrow?) I moved to Surprise N° 2 which was a TV programme from a couple of years ago, shown in the restaurant: Top Gear in Vietnam, an epic motorcycle diary with the 3 Stooges travelling from the five star resorts of Danang to the streets of Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. Simply hilarious!

Aurora came over Halong Bay and we kicked the day off with an early morning Tai Chi class followed by a visit to some giant caves. One great semi-outdoor cave even seats 250 people for dinner, including a stage for the band and a dance floor. The journey continued on land by visiting Ninh Giang, a small farming village where I enjoyed a water puppet show performed by the locals and also experienced the genuine warmth and hospitality of the villagers. Lunch was prepared by locals and I was too glad that Fifi was not on the menu J. If you are looking for both an authentic experience and a sustainable programme element, you  do not need to look any further.

With the noise the musicians made, villagers with children joined the party and what was intended to be a private performance just for me and Me, turned out to be a jolly fun Sunday afternoon with kids around the pond in the middle of the rice paddies. Incentive travel must be memorable, motivational and meaningful… this ticked all three boxes.

Legendary hospitality

Prior to leaving for Bangkok for another industry event, EASIA kept the best for last and booked a suite for me  at the majestic Sofitel Legend Metropole, right in the heart of the old colonial part of town. I had heard of this property during my Sofitel days but never expected to find such grand luxury and top service. The Metropole sits in the heart of charming Hanoi with its boulevards and lakeside pagodas. 

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 The colonial style hotel is within easy walking distance from the Opera House and the Hoan Kiem Lake. I was welcomed at the door – again someone had parked a Traction in front of the place – by An, my floor butler, who whisked me past reception straight to the suite. Too much and too good food over the past two days did not inspire me to check out some of the hotel’s top restaurants. I will leave it up to you to check out the eclectic Angelina bar and lounge, l’Epicerie or the Spice Garden and the Bamboo Poolside bar, the Beaulieu Brasserie or Le Club, Hanoi’s top Jazz and chocolate lover’s paradise for your next visit. This year, the hotel has created cooking classes where you go out shopping with the chef in the street markets first and prepare your meal afterwards in the comfort of the hotel. This year also the hotel has incorporated ‘The Bunker’ which provides the guests with a unique insight into the history of the Metropole as a local landmark.

Tonight I settled for the fabulous spa instead to prepare body and soul for ten days of roller coaster travel, meetings and trade shows ahead. Tomorrow morning Agent Me is picking me up again to make sure I get on the plane all right. What a great new destination and partnership this will be for the Ovation family! Need to come back soon…

Open brief aan de heren Bourgeois en De Wilde

Klauwen af!

Ja, mijnheer Bourgeois en mijnheer De Wilde, u hebt het goed gelezen. Het choqueert misschien maar ik probeerde in weinig woorden en zo krachtig mogelijk mijn gedachten te bundelen en ik kon niets beters bedenken. Dus, klauwen af, laat ons met rust, bemoei u met toerisme maar niet met onze zaken!

Jullie hebben ons jaren niet erkend als meetings industrie. Jarenlang heeft men ons stiefmoederlijk behandeld onder de paraplu van het toerisme. Vorig jaar
zelfs, toen een nieuw lange termijn plan gesmeed werd voor het toerisme in Vlaanderen, werd in de eerste versies van het werkdocument onze industrie niet eens vernoemd of erkend. Slechts na herhaald lobbywerk van ‘zagen’ -­‐ waar ik fier me zelf bij reken -­‐ en van collega’s van de congressteden en de vakorganisaties, werd uiteindelijk een stuk van het document aangepast met een hoofdstuk(je) over de meetings industrie. Dit betekent nog niet dat de budgeten en ‘resources’, toegekend aan onze industrie, in balans komen met budgeten toegekend aan diverse vormen van toerisme of infrastructuur. Tijdens een interview op Kanaal Z werd onze sector niet eens vermeld!

Heren, wij bedrijven geen toerisme!

Vorige week, in Frankfurt, op de laatste dag van de 10° IMEX beurs, konden de voornaamste spelers op de markt van meetngs, incentives en congressen via-­‐via vernemen dat Toerisme Vlaanderen de stand op IMEX 2013 in Frankfurt gekaapt heeft. Brussel en Wallonië er zo maar uit geflikkerd. Zonder overleg met de sector, zonder overleg met de partners die al tien jaar samenwerken in dit project. Jullie zijn nog onbeleefd op de koop toe. Moet ik me nu als Vlaming in dewereld opnieuw gaan schamen over mijn politieke leiders? Als één van de mensen op de stand die elke dag en elke editie van deze beurs meegemaakt heeft, ben ik zelf ook erg aangedaan door deze beslissing. Als jullie goede redenen hebben, willen we daar zeker naar luisteren. Maar geen aandacht hebben voor een industrie gedurende al die jaren en ons dan komen de les spellen. Niet met die van mij!

Beleidsmakers, kabinetschefs en medewerkers kunnen misschien eerst even beginnen met onze sector te ontdekken en proberen te begrijpen. Vorig jaar schreef ik u tijdens de paasvakantie nog een volledig rapport om onze industrie te verdedigen en één en ander heb ik gepubliceerd op mijn Meetings Industry Blog (https://slimbrouckhugo.wordpress.com/2011/02/). Ik zal het hier kort en inhet Vlaams nog eens bondig herhalen, want jullie zijn echte “dure de comprenure”!

Wat is de meetings industrie? De meetings industrie is een gemeenschap die bestaat uit organisaties die werken in en rond de planning, de bediening en de accommodatie van meetings, congressen, evenementen, incentives en professionele beurzen en tentoonstellingen. Onze klanten zijn bedrijven, nationale en internationale associaties en gouvernementele en institutionele instanties, zoals de Europese gemeenschap, overheden en NGO’s. (Ergens het woord toerist gezien in deze omschrijving? Neen dus!).  Aan de aanbodzijde hebben we voornamelijk meeting planners, event managers, congrescentra, diverse technologie toepassingen, hotels en vele andere tussenpersonen. Indirecte aanbieders bestaan uit lokale transporten, luchtvaartmaatschappijen, attracties, restaurants, traiteurs, entertainment, audiovisuele techniek, hostessen en diverse kleinhandelszaken. En dan heb ik nog heel wat andere specialisten niet opgenoemd. Maar een toerist? Neen!

Wat onderscheid onze meetings industrie van toerisme? De meetings industrie gaat over “business to business” en het uitwisselen van kennis. De meetingsindustrie heeft uiteraard nauwe banden met de bedrijfs-­‐ en academische gemeenschappen. Het cliënteel bestaat helemaal niet uit toeristen maar de ondersteuning van deze sector kan het toerisme naar een stad ondersteunen. Het versterkt het profiel en ‘brand value” of marktwaarde die een stad heeft enondersteunt diverse toeristische infrastructuren. Blijkt nu net uit een recente internationale studie dat steden veel meer marktwaarde hebben als destinaties. Veel meer dan landen, regio’s of federale staten. Bekijk maar eens de marktwaarde van ‘Brugge’ en ‘Brussels’ in vergelijking met ‘Flanders’ en ‘Wallonia’. Daar was onlangs toch ook een onderzoek over?

Wat onderscheid onze industrie? De meetings industrie is big business. Deelnemers aan congressen of incentives besteden driemaal meer dan toeristische bezoekers. De voordelen van de meetings industrie worden breed uitgesmeerd in vele sectoren van de economie. Meetings en congressen brengen ‘nieuw geld’ in een lokale economie en afkomstig van buiten deze economie. Meetings bouwen een meerwaarde voor de lokale industrie en de academische wereld.

Wat is de economische rol van de meetings industrie? Meetings en congressen creëren een meerwaarde in uitgaves van deelnemers en exposanten. Meetingspromoten weliswaar op zich ook het toeristisch aspect van een destinatie en hebben een invloed op toekomstig privébezoek. Congressen en vergaderingen creëren ook een meerwaarde daar ze zich niet houden aan een toeristisch seizoen. Congressen in laag seizoen zijn pure winst voor een lokale economie. Hoewel we sinds jaren een neerwaartse trend vaststellen, brengen congressen ook een toeristische meerwaarde op het vlak van pre-­‐ en post-­‐congres bezoeken van de deelnemers en hun partners en resulteren vaak ook in toekomstige herhaling bezoeken. De meetings industrie heeft zijn invloed op de kwaliteit van de infrastructuur, voornamelijk op het gebied van accommodatie.

Wat is de ‘business development’ rol van de meetings industrie? Vergaderingen en congressen trekken bezoekers aan die anders onze destinatie niet eens zouden bezoeken. Zakenmensen worden geëxposeerd aan een stad en zijn gemeenschap van mensen, bedrijven en institutionele instellingen met de mogelijkheid opportuniteiten voor nieuwe investeringen te ontdekken. Congressen zijn vehikels die lokale bedrijven en professionele groepen kunnen gebruiken om collega’s uit andere landen uit te nodigen. Ze zijn een uitstalraam voor lokale producten en diensten.

Wat is de rol van vergaderingen en congressen op de lokale gemeenschap? Bijeenkomsten creëren toegang tot professionele ontwikkeling. Ze brengen wereldklasse kennis van zaken en expertise binnen in de lokale gemeenschap. Ze creëren faciliteiten en diensten waar de lokale gemeenschap ook verder nut van heeft op het vlak van lokale of regionale evenementen en feestelijkheden. En laat ons niet vergeten, heren politici, vergaderingen en congressen brengen niet-­‐ residentiële belasBngontvangsten waar de lokale economie van profiteert op het vlak van gemeenschapsdiensten. We hebben het dan nog niet eens over jobcreatie gehad…

Welke kritische rol speelt onze industrie naar de toekomst toe? Meetings, congressen en beurzen ondersteunen professionele, onderzoeks-­‐, technologische en academische ontwikkeling. Ze zijn perfecte vehikels voor ‘business development’, helpen bij het bouwen van netwerken en bij het overbruggen van culturele en sociale verschillen. Face to face meetings zijn perfecte werktuigen om oplossingen te vinden voor wereldse problemen.

Heren, dit is waar we u nodig hebben! Hier hebben we een nobel doel voor u. Zorg er voor dat onze belangrijkste steden (Brussel, Brugge, Gent, Luik en
Antwerpen) klimmen in de ranglijst van grootste vergader-­‐ en congressteden. Mocht u de statistieken opzoeken, we zijn nu ergens op pagina twee of drie of verder te vinden. Zorgt er dus eerst voor te investeren in congrescentra en andere infrastructuur in deze steden zodat we de internationale concurrentie aankunnen. Zorgt er voor dat u professionele mensen aantrekt binnen uw organisatie, mensen die kennis van onze sector hebben.

Maar stop er mee de andere gemeenschappen de duvel aan te doen. In de meetings industrie zijn er twee begrippen die internationaal ’brand value’ hebben: Belgium en Brussels. Dat zijn de paarden waar u moet op inzetten. Wat dat betreft blijven wij in onze industrie verder werken onder het motto “één voor allen en allen voor één”. Neem een voorbeeld aan de Zwitsers! Een federale staat die als één sterk product naar buiten komt en de meetings industrie ziet als een motor van zijn economie.

Dus, wat onze vakbeurzen betreft, en als fiere Vlaming zeg ik: klauwen af!  Of toon eindelijk eens echte interesse en investeer met ons mee in een industrie die u nog niet ontdekt hebt.

Hugo Slimbrouck

Why associations want to grow

Live communication is the most powerful way to engage audiences, hearts and minds. When people come together magic really happens! That is why congress organization is at the heart of an association’s business strategy. Associations are passionate for uniting their  different stakeholders: members, faculty, press and sponsors. The conference is where associations really come to life. A defining moment and step stone in the growth of each organisation. That is why MCI, based on its global footprint and best practice experiences, likes to present integrated solutions to association leaders. Because associations have a need to grow.  

Growth can happen in different ways…

Grow in value: by the use of strategic meeting design and logistical, creative and technological excellence, an association must deliver an outstanding and valuable experience for all participants. This should allow to maximize learning and networking opportunities before, during and after the event.
Grow regionally: every association wishes to fully engage stakeholders, peers, focal points and media. The use of MCI developed technology to capture content and knowledge must allow to expand the regional or even global reach and impact of the congress beyond the traditional audience attending the event. This will also maximize media attention and generate coverage in mainstream and specialist press and generate new membership and sponsorship from developing countries and regions.
Grow responsibly: because there is no choice anymore. In today’s world one needs to showcase sustainability in action. Through implementation and certification of your event management against international standards you will show the example to your industry. It will also allow you to showcase advanced integrated event management reporting.
Grow profitably:  a conference must never be a cost to an association. It should be a revenue generator. By balancing innovation, creativity and deliverables, a conference should have the goal to fuel other association activities. This will require meticulous cost control strategies and VAT recovery management, combined with excellent sponsorship and exhibition sales.

Guess what! Those are exactly the four areas where MCI Brussels wishes to share its experience with you. Being part of one of the world’s largest association, communication and event management companies we have gathered loads of experience and best practice exchange in these matters. Working with MCI on your future events will support your growth. Here is an example from one of our long term clients:

A case study:

EULAR (European League against Rheumatism)

 Challenge N° 1

EULAR wished  to increase the number of participants in their annual meeting, improve communication and provide a quality administrative service  to their delegates.

Solution:             MCI introduced proven promotional and communication techniques and  a state-of-the art delegate registration interface.
Results:                86% increase ( from 8307 to 15489) in the number of registrations over 10 years.  With an additional high approval rating from satisfied  delegates!

Challenge N°2

EULAR wished to increase the number of participating countries.

Solution:             MCI helped to increase the market penetration into new territories and  developed partner opportunities.
Results:                37% increase in the number of participating countries over 10 years.

 Challenge N°3

EULAR wishe to increase the number of submitted abstracts.

Solution:             MCI helped to develop the programme and provided a state-of-the-art on-line submission and peer-review system which authors and reviewers could become familiar with over a number of years.
Results:                The number of abstracts submitted has nearly tripled in 10 years;  from 1247 to 3645.

 Challenge N°4

EULAR wished to increase the support from sponsors and exhibitors.

Solution:             MCI implemented a long-term strategic plan, developed relationships and identified new prospects.
Results:                Support has steadily increased over the last 10 years. Sponsoring by 106%, exhibiton sales by 151%.


For the occasion of Motivation Week, I was hosted by London & Partners and M&IT (Meeting and Incentive Travel Magazine) to take part in a panel discussion taking place today in London. In order to prepare for the event, I was sent four questions by Rochelle Long, the publisher of M&IT magazine:

  • Do motivational events really work – what’s the tangible ROI of them?
  • What does a motivational event look like in the future?
  • How do you motivate your staff?
  • What are the key trends clients are looking for with incentives or motivational events?
  • Do the London Olympics provide a perfect setting for motivational and incentive programmes?

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I felt very enthusiastic about this panel discussion as it gave me the opportunity to clarify the strategic role of motivational events within organizations. It also allowed me to raise awareness to the fact that face to face meetings and incentive programs are recognized as the top genuine catalysts of growth. Being a past president and active member of Site I was of course passionate about this event. Site’s mission is simple – to enhance the awareness and effectiveness of motivational experiences and incentive travel thereby increasing usage globally. The Site Foundation recently released a white paper on ‘Engagement’ which is a very interesting read for corporate leaders. I would like to talk about some of its key findings.


Engagement is frequently defined as “…creating experiences that connect with people on an emotional level, deepen organizational and brand relationships, heighten levels of enthusiasm, and potentially prompt positive actions.  Incorporating the concept of engagement helps shift the focus to where it needs to be — away from just tactics and more towards building a relationship strategy that’s directly linked to business outcomes.” Is this new? No, engagement is not a new concept; there have been decades of discussion about the impact of engagement – aka satisfaction or empowerment – on corporate profits. Engagement becomes even more meaningful now that companies must squeeze maximum return from every asset. Now is really the time to move engagement from a conceptual notion to a concrete opportunity.

Opportunity to Grow

People want rewards for their accomplishments just as they did in the past but many of the old carrot-and-stick techniques are distasteful to generation Y. The younger workforce wants the opportunity to grow as individuals and then to advance in their organization. In a Site Foundation survey, 71% of talent say that a company’s culture is central to satisfaction. 57% of offsite workers agree with that claim.Employees want access to resources to do their job and they want acknowledgment of their role in the company’s success. And although being a baby boomer, I totally agree with this as I live it every day in MCI, the company that I work for.

What if… I can get no satisfaction?

Fostering employee engagement calls for the creation of an environment that allows talent, as well as clients alike, to fulfill their individual needs.  It is up to management teams at every level to promote this kind of employee/client satisfaction but it is critical that there be an overall corporate culture to support their efforts.

The Site Foundation’s 5 step approach to promote engagement

First: keep a tight focus on talent. In difficult times, employees tend to step back to the more basic hierarchical needs. With that, their sense of commitment decreases. As a result, organizations must aggressively pursue the hearts and minds of their key performers (talent, channel partners and clients alike). They must be sure they understand their staffs’ and clients’ needs — what they think and feel on a day-to-day basis — and that the organization shows adequate appreciation for their work and effort. Next step is to harvest ideas. To make sure that resources are in place to get talent and client’s input on cost savings, productivity increases, improvement, benefits and solutions. Only then (!) focus on recognition. Foster immediate recognition for significant accomplishments.. Do not make it a periodic scheduled event (remember the One Minute Manager)!  And finally, ensure compliance in every respect. Be sure that recognition activities are tracked and monitored, that they are ethical and legal, and will not create a negative image for the company, the employee or the client. Give workers and channel partners full opportunity for discussing ethical and compliance questions in regards to your motivational project.

Set standards: measure results!

Like measuring ROI, fostering engagement goes further than simply comparing before and after. It requires a detailed approach for setting standards and measuring results on a regular basis. The initiative to improve employee/client engagement is far from an altruistic venture. The results go straight to the bottom line. It initiates as well to a natural lead to motivational programs that recognize exceptional performance.

Business professionals know that it is their role and responsibility to ensure that all programs receiving applied resources be viable to the company’s overall strategy. This is true for customer service initiatives, productivity goals, marketing campaigns and any operational area within an organization. This is also true for the employment of motivational reward programs. The use of motivational programs to engage employees, channel partners and clients to achieve business objectives must have proven value to the organization.

What does this mean for me in MCI?

As a global meetings and events management company, MCI understands the core of what drives a company’s success: people. MCI assists and consults clients to unlock the power of their business strategies by unleashing the potential of their people through understanding, enabling, and motivating employees, channel partners, and customers. So am I in the right company that shares my beliefs, I certainly am! The way MCI trains and motivates its talents throughout the year is exemplary. With a workforce of close to 1200 people in 43 offices worldwide, MCI applies these rules within its own operations. There is a strong and open corporate culture, a high sense of trust and a dream we are all pursuing. The MCI Institute offers training opportunities on almost a daily basis. Management teams operate on a very open book system with their talents. Product and service practice specialists share their knowledge constantly with peers. And every year, there is the IBM, which stands for International Business Meeting. Over 700 (of a total global workforce of 1200+) share 3 days of education, peer to peer learning, networking and fun.

A case for Face-2-Face

This thought about the annual IBM made me think of another topic in our industry: face to face communication I recently read a statement in the Harvard Business Review that said: ‘Face-to-face communication contact is the broadest bandwidth communication you can have in professional life.’ To travel, to meet in person – with key customers, partners and employees, remains essential for selling new business as well as building long-term relationships. In this survey 95% of the respondents said that face to face meetings and corporate events are a key factor in building relationships with key stakeholders.

Now is the time!

The same HBR survey asked business leaders what their investment priorities for growth were. Here are the devastating results:

  • N° 1 (78%): investing in maintaining current client relationships  (understanding and listening to important internal & external customers)
  • N° 2 (72%): investing in new relationships
  • N° 3 (48%): investing in technology
  • N° 4 (47%): investing in training
  • N° 5 (42%): investing in new people

This brings me actually to the incentive travel paradox. Whilst in a down economy the N° 1 cost cutting action is to cut travel costs to the minimum (69% of respondents) we have the N° 1  priority for growth – to travel and to meet or travel with existing clients – in other words: to invest in maintaining current client relationships. Now is definitely the time to do incentive programmes! For the same reasons, company executives are mindful of how ‘travel’ is viewed. All stakeholders (partners, staff, clients, suppliers) expect to see spending moneys cleverly. Company executives need to think seriously about this, both financially as well as symbolically. Because too often, perception overrules!

Reducing face-to-face opportunities, especially in a down economic climate, hurts collaboration and makes remote teams feel marginalized. Company leadership needs to ‘connect’ with talents – sales people in particular, channel partners and clients. Incentive programmes offer the ideal climate and setting for this two-way communication to happen.

Just to remind you

What is incentive travel? Incentive travel is a global management tool that uses an exceptional travel experience to motivate and/or recognize participants for increased levels of performance in support of organizational goals. So in which situations should one use incentive travel? Here are a few practical situations:

  • To stimulate sales force
  • Introduce a product
  • Extend a distribution area
  • Move slow items
  • Open new accounts
  • Revive inactive accounts
  • Aid sales training
  • Recruit salespeople
  • Extend peak season
  • Reduce selling costs
  • Qualify prospects
  • Improve morale
  • Obtain customer referrals
  • Reduce absenteeism
  • Introduce a new model
  • Improve working habits
  • Enlist spouses’ help
  • Eliminate overstock
  • Goals & Outcome

I guess you have at least one of these situations on hand in your company! So why not take the test? Because a well-designed motivational reward program clearly demonstrates communicated goals, incremental measurement and attained business targets. As the program is reviewed for its ability to produce quantifiable facts and figures, one should not underestimate the additional benefits that will be gained: loyalty and brand building. So motivational programs are fundamentally about achieving business results! A budget model always proves the positive ROI that well-designed incentive and motivational programs provide.

Unlike many business tools, costs are directly related to results. With advertising, for example, one hopes for this kind of relationship. With motivational events and incentive travel it is easy to make the link. You only pay for the results you get. Upfront fixed costs are minimal and the programs can be designed with scalability in mind.

Even in a down market, where staying even may be the goal, there is no other marketing tool with this level of predictability for the relationship between the investment and the return on investment. When a motivational program is designed with the business purpose and measureable results in mind, the outcome is a win for all involved.

Key trends in incentive travel and motivational events 

My colleague Padraic wrote the following statement in one of his recent blogs: “Events of the past 3 years have caused us to take a hard look at how we design and market our travel awards. Nowadays “original” and “authentic” are more likely to appear in our marketing and promotional materials than “opulent” and “awesome”. We’re more conscious now of how our reward might be perceived by our company’s wider stakeholder community but we also want our travel reward to make a genuine difference to our qualifiers and also to the communities and destinations where they are hosted.

The incentive game has changed. The traditional business beliefs that brought success in the past will not bring success in the future. The old ways aren’t working anymore. People are skeptical about their relationships with business. Whether they are customers, sales partners or employees, all are looking for relationships with organizations they can trust … organizations that care … organizations that align with their values.  Too often, the real story is that businesses view people as a means to their profit end rather than as stakeholders in creating shared value. We must learn to understand, enable and motivate them on their terms. A new framework for stakeholder engagement is needed … a framework anchored in the latest research relative to human drives and behavior. The goal of this framework is to create better business results that, at the same time, enrich stakeholders in ways that are most meaningful to them. It is all about building a win-win proposition …