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More than meetings: the cities putting associations first

Angela Antrobus discovers the whys and wherefores of the Global Association Hubs Partnership…

Among the myriad of associations and alliances the meetings industry has spawned over many years, there is one whose main objective is not directed towards the securing and running of business events. The clue is in the name, Global Association Hubs Partnership (GAHP) – no mention of conventions, congresses or meetings.

GAHP was formed in October 2015 by Brussels, Washington, DC, Singapore and Dubai, recognised as the leading cities for international associations within their regions. They had observed the increasing decentralisation of international associations as they expanded their activities and started to open regional offices. The partners saw themselves in a position to support this.

Last year, Martin Sirk, former CEO of the International Congress & Convention Association (ICCA), took over as GAHP international advisor from Hervé Bosquet, previously MD of Brussels Convention Bureau. Both well-known meetings industry veterans and therefore intrinsically bound up with the fortunes of international associations.

Martin Sirk

It was a natural progression for Sirk who explains, “Almost every ambitious city has now embraced a meetings marketing strategy focusing on key economic growth sectors, inward investment and leveraging their knowledge economy resources. GAHP decided to differentiate itself by focusing on attributes other cities cannot authentically claim: the strength of their association eco-systems and support services and their existing regional leadership in terms of hosting association offices. This enables them to discuss long-term partnerships and broader objectives that are not simply meetings related.”

Representing the four cities are visit.brussels, Destination DC, the marketing body for Washington, DC, Singapore Exhibition & Convention Bureau (SECB) and Dubai Association Centre (DAC).

“The cities are at very different stages in their development as association hubs,” says Sirk. “Brussels and Washington, DC have a century of experience whereas Singapore and Dubai are relatively new kids on the block. But what they lack in history they have made up in strategic vision, proactively setting up the legal framework and support services to make themselves the logical location for any association with ambitions in Asia Pacific or the Middle East.”

Dubai

Dubai’s elevation as an association hub stems from its meteoric growth as a centre for business and, consequently, business events. It was only in the 1980s that free zones began to be established so that multinational organisations could set up Middle East, North Africa and South Asia headquarters there without an Emirati as a major shareholder. Hundreds of companies did this, generating a need in the region for meetings between people involved in those sectors and eventually for major international conferences. As the next step, DAC was established in 2014 so that international associations could open a representative office or start a regional chapter in Dubai.

Steen Jakobsen, assistant vice president, Dubai Business Events, says, “Over 60 regional and international associations are now registered through the DAC and we continue to engage with associations globally to explore opportunities to set up in Dubai.

“DAC engages with fellow GAHP members on how to grow and better serve international associations by using our respective partner cities as regional gateways. GAHP is therefore a channel through which associations may discover opportunities in Dubai.”

Singapore has taken things more steadily. It has consistently ranked as Asia’s top convention destination thanks to the efforts of the SECB for more than 40 years. The GAHP has accelerated its interaction with international associations and it’s now home to well over 200 headquarters and regional offices.

“We entered into the partnership to grow our strength as a regional node of the international associations industry and further catalyse an exchange of knowledge, ideas and insights,” says Dr Edward Koh, executive director, Conventions, Meetings and Incentive Travel Division.

Singapore

“Through the GAHP, we have become the platform for international associations to grow and build capacity in the region, create opportunities for local and regional associations to develop their global membership base and learn best practices.”

Dr Edward Koh

Several international associations have launched Asian editions of their meetings in Singapore in recent years and Koh believes their success and the intention to grow them provides justification for the association to set up a physical office in Singapore. “When such an opportunity arises,” he says, “SECB will come in to give support as promised through our commitments with GAHP.”

As a thriving association hub already, Destination DC is assisting its GAHP partners in identifying opportunities with associations looking for regional expansion. At the same time it’s gaining from the partnership. “The knowledge exchange with our partner cities has been exceptional,” says Melissa A Riley, vice president, convention sales and services. “We are learning how to better service our association community by recognising the benefits that other destinations are offering.

Melissa Riley

“Having the American Society of Association Executives headquartered in Washington, DC lends itself to having a robust ecosystem and support for associations,” she continues.

“The nation’s capital is home to over 12,000 lobbyists and unique in that many associations have access to lobbyists and policy makers right in their own backyard.”

Over 2,400 associations had offices in Brussels at the last count, opening at an average rate of 70 a year for the past three years. “We expect a new wave thanks to the new law on companies and associations in Belgium and to our association community building activities in the city,” says visit.brussels Convention & Association Bureau director Elisabeth Van Ingelgem.

Elisabeth Van Ingelgem

She has found the GAHP experience enlightening for various reasons: “We look at the approach each city has on the meetings promotion side towards international associations, how the local ecosystem functions and what tools are developed by each of the respective organisations for their customers. We’ve made missions to Washington, DC to better understand the environment in which US associations operate and what their demands are when operating abroad.”

Since 2017, the European Association Summit, inaugurated in Brussels four years earlier, has included a GAHP branded session with representatives of each hub highlighting the relevant aspects of operating in their respective regions. And when the first Dubai Association Conference took place in 2017, visit.brussels was there to support it.

Martin Sirk’s role is to provide strategic advice to help the partners identify new innovations and collaborative experiments and make sure the GAHP’s key messages are spread effectively. “The more we can demonstrate our ability to deliver practical solutions to associations’ most pressing global development challenges, the more associations will choose to partner with our cities,” he says. “And a greater share of international association meetings business will follow inevitably behind.”