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Paris: a light that never goes out

The French capital is using its experience, reputation and guile to weather the COVID-19 storm. Words James Lancaster…

Although one of the worst hit countries in Europe, France’s robust response to the coronavirus outbreak meant that by July it had already set a date for the reopening of conferences.

Meeting industry leaders were hopeful that September 1st would signal a gradual easing of restrictions that had put an end to ordinary business life and international travel.

Sadly, it marked the briefest return to face-to-face activity.  Events were held – including the 40th congress of the French Haematology Society – but further disruption proved unavoidable.

A sooner-than-expected second wave has put the country back into lockdown, with tens of thousands of positive tests every day and the daily death count once again in the hundreds.

But if any city is likely to get through the crisis it is Paris whose enduring appeal as a place to hold international association meetings saw it top the ICCA City Rankings in 2018 and 2019.

Neither terrorist outrages nor a protracted street campaign by the gilets jaunes were enough to put a dent in the popularity of the City of Lights whose meetings infrastructure is second to none.

The opening of the Paris Convention Centre – the largest meetings facility in Europe – in November 2017 looked as though it had cemented the city’s future as a host for business events.

The future – for now – is a blend of virtual and hybrid and how Paris can pivot away from traditional formats, while utilising its existing infrastructure, will be key to its continued success.

The signs are good. The European Association Osseointegration used a Paris studio to produce a highly innovative annual congress in October (See Case Study p.26), while the International Association of Convention Centres (AIPC), held its first hybrid conference in Paris weeks earlier.

More than 300 events had been postponed or cancelled at Viparis venues between March 14 and August 31, and the group had been looking forward to welcoming visitors this Autumn.

According to CEO Viparis CEO Pablo Cerruti (left) the business events industry nets €5.5bn for the French economy every year –equivalent to hosting the Olympic Games, which Paris does in 2024.

Although the events industry is experiencing its annus horribilis, it is hard to see Paris’ position as top dog – competing with the likes of Barcelona and Vienna – under serious threat.

As Cerruti said: “Business meetings are one of the linchpins of our economic recovery and Paris will maintain its appeal as a business destination and its leading international position.”

 

CASE STUDY

AIPC Annual Congress, 24-25th September, 2020

In the end 25 AIPC members from across Europe travelled to Paris to attend the event in person, whereas 125 delegates logged on to join the two-day conference remotely.

The event took place at the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild in the city centre, one of nine event venues in Paris managed by VIParis, including the Paris Expo Porte de Versailles.

The new format gave the event a much broader platform where all members had access to high educational content and participated in discussions about the state of the industry.

Tellingly participants recognised the high value of the content provided digitally by the AIPC and the importance of its international reach through this hybrid event.

The extent to which cities like Paris can add value to the conference programme – through connecting associations to universities, business clusters etc – will surely determine who emerges from the crisis strongest.

Conversations at the event revolved around collaboration, regeneration and the opportunities of innovation with a highlight of a panel debate on The Economic Model of Hybrid Events.

Talks and presentations looked at how convention bureau and venues are hosting test events to put health and safely protocols in place, and how marketing is now focused on reassurance, trust and confidence, with destinations frequently presented as ‘safe, reliable and clean’.

Being flexible is of course more important than ever: congress centres, which are members of AIPC, all emphasized the fact that they are more partners of their clients, than mere suppliers.

Where can destinations retain their uniqueness in this new reality?

By promoting even more their history, legacy, links to universities and research centres, and values carried by the city, with congress venues leading the way in the matter. In this context, all stakeholders will contribute to economic recovery and regeneration: local, national and – hopefully soon – international events will be the main supporters of change in this environment.

Aloysius Arlando, President of AIPC (right) said: “It’s important to be sensitive and sympathetic to the widespread impact the virus has had, but now is the time to think and define our future as an industry. The path towards success in the events sector involves thinking outside-the-box and actively meeting people’s needs. As a city that is re-inventing itself, Paris not only reflects the conference’s theme of re-generation, but in many ways illustrates how these issues are evolving. The vibrant French capital is at the forefront of cities that are looking to the future.”

This out-of-the-box thinking was emphasised by the event’s keynote speaker, Mark Gallagher – media commentator with great experience in Formula 1 – who compared the issues of the two industries and concluded that it’s now time for the industry to reposition and reinvent itself.

 

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