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Day in the Life: Tjeerd Bokhout, conference director, ChemCon Conferences

From planning a gala dinner on the Great Wall of China to working with Jazz legends in New Orleans, Tjeerd Bokhout details a day in his life as the conference director for ChemCon Conferences…

HP: What’s your current role within the meeting planning industry and what was your professional journey to get there?

TB: My journey into events started in the ’90s when I organised many, mainly sport‐related, events when I attended university.

After my graduation, I travelled around the globe, mainly Asia, for a year, before joining a travel company. One of my roles within this company was field manager in the Peoples Republic of China. In 1999 I was approached by Royal HaskoningDHV, a global engineering and consultant firm, to work for them as an environmental and chemicals management consultant in combination with establishing their office in China. When I worked in China, I needed local and global knowledge of chemical control legislation, so I attended the first ChemCon Asia in Singapore in 2003.

An event that was postponed for six months due to SARS, one of the first known global corona infections. When ChemCon expanded to North America a new director was needed. Royal HaskoningDHV, taking into account their motto ‘enhancing society together’, agreed to support the event and allowed me to become the new conference director. A full-time function, but something I need to do part‐time since my primary job, one I also enjoy, is supporting industry and governmental bodies with strategic advice on chemicals management.

My journey as conference director of ChemCon Conferences started in 2007. ChemCon Conferences was initiated in 1996 by BASF, The Austrian Chamber of Commerce and the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI) to help compliance-driven companies in the global chemical sector to deal with issues of regulatory affairs.

An ever‐relevant theme, especially now in Europe where the European Commission in October 2020 presented their Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability towards a toxic‐free environment. This Strategy aims for speeding up the processes to phase out the most toxic chemicals and strengthen the development of more safe and sustainable products and processes, especially for those uses that are essential for the transition to a sustainable society. Such a Strategy is like organising an event. It starts with bold ambition, lots of dedicated and committed stakeholders and the will to succeed. No wavering during the journey, but always adding new and exciting challenges along the road.

HP: What does a typical day in your role involve?

TB: I have quite a versatile job and I love to challenge my team and myself. A day is never the same, but there is a consistency in the aim of what I do; connecting and helping our ChemCon family and other stakeholders with understanding chemical control legislation and providing directions for global compliance to these regulations. Today, for instance, I will be recording our quarterly ChemConnection video bulletin, which provides our network with regulatory news in between ChemCon Conferences. ChemConnection also provides our audience with relevant information leading up to our next live event, something very much needed in these uncertain COVID‐times.

HP: How has COVID‐19 affected ChemCon Conferences?

TB: Since ChemCon is a live event only, we were lucky that we still had a very successful ChemCon The Americas in the first week of March 2020. After that, COVID has put ChemCon in hibernation mode. Like Snow White, we are now waking up and preparing for our next event ChemCon Europe 2022 in London. We are confident that a global live event is possible, but we do not have a magic mirror or crystal ball, so time will tell.

HP: What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?

TB: I think I like the interaction with various cultures and people best. On the one hand, interacting with my team members (some already since 2003, mainly European and Asian) to put together an excellent event and on the other hand all the delegates we help with finding their way in the regulatory jungle (after a week of ChemCon it feels like a hike in the park, but it is still a jungle out there). And of course all the local people I am fortunate to work with when exploring a destination and executing an event. Due to my explorations, I have become an unofficial ambassador of many destinations and venues. And I am happy to share the insights and knowledge I gained with my peers in the meeting industry. We all have been on many site inspections and there is never a perfect match. Or in other words, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your handsome prince. Of course, many frogs can be a match made in heaven for another event.

HP: What has been your most memorable event to date and why?

TB: Our 2018 New Orleans event started with a second line in which all delegates marched, accompanied by a brass band, towards the location of the event; Marché located in the French Market of New Orleans – a memorable event, but not the most memorable.

The most memorable was our once in a lifetime dinner on the Great Wall during ChemCon Asia 2017 in Beijing. We always keep the location of our social event a secret, even for the majority of my own team. Since I had worked in China for many years, I used all my connections to see if I could implement my wild hunch of organising a dinner on the Great Wall. With the support of my connections and after many discussions, we finally received the necessary permit and in addition, the catering team of our hotel was willing to execute a dinner on the Great Wall. I also found a partner willing to support a sightseeing walking tour on the Great Wall (a sightseeing tour is something we normally only do in Europe). A great excuse to lure our delegates to this location.

Instead of at the end of the walk taking them back in the bus to a dinner location, the delegates were rewarded with a seated buffet‐style dinner on the Great Wall itself. One last remark on this extraordinary event. Normally we host our social event on Wednesday night, but due to the weather forecasts of thunderstorms, this was impossible. Luckily the Great Wall is not a regular social event venue, so no other events were scheduled, allowing us to reschedule to Tuesday night. A gamble with high stakes, but it paid off in memories people will treasure for life.

HP: What’s the most challenging aspect of your role and how do you deal with it?

TB: Since I am fortunate to work with many passionate people, my biggest challenge is that, unconsciously, I am almost 24/7 triggered by event-related impulses. Which I try to ignore as much as possible and occasionally I take some dedicated time with my team to harvest the most valuable ideas. However, often there is also a need for a just‐do‐it‐mentality. In that case, I pick up the phone and start investigating and implementing a hunch, the start of a new journey. Sometimes a short and sometimes a long journey. An example of a long journey our sustainable exhibition concept that we ship around the globe. Almost a turnkey exhibition for our exhibitors; hassle-free and fairly green with a print‐on‐demand only policy. This is one of the details of our event which is highly appreciated by our exhibitors. It is always about details, details and details.

HP: What do you wish you had known when you started the role?

TB: I am a curious person and like to stay in control, so I do wish I had known a few things in advance. Maybe people could have told me that organising an event with a passionate team for delegates with a drive will become an addiction.

HP: What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve received?

TB: Be yourself! In my case, keep expanding your boundaries and challenge yourself and others. One of the things I enjoy a lot is that since 2014 we have had a daily ChemCon TV programme at the event. For this ChemCon TV programme, I am allowed to interview authorities and industry experts. The interview always starts with a cartoon that sketches the serious topic of the interview with a comical twist. These interviews force me to take a deep dive into the latest regulations and their details.

There are many other regular items in our news bulletin, but the one item I enjoy most is not related to the conference programme, but is all about our host city. We have a local reporter showcasing the city with informative stories. One of my favourite local reporters is Ron Jones, a famous jazz musician from New Orleans. In his role as our local reporter in 2018, he touched on many interesting New Orleans stories, ranging from the Superbowl, Hurricane Katrina, plantation life and of course Mardi Grass. In addition, many stories were brought to life by Ron with a song behind his piano. Ranging from Summertime from Ella Fitzgerald to What a Wonderful World from Louis Armstrong. Ron and his band also played at our social event and thanks to his appearance in our ChemCon TV program, that evening it felt that all delegates personally knew him.

HP: What are the biggest challenges when organising international events, especially in the current pandemic?

TB: Uncertainties are the biggest challenge during the ongoing pandemic. Therefore, on‐time communication and expectation management both with stakeholders (like the conference venue) and delegates, is key. But above all, start preparations for your next event. This requires guts and trust, but we know that our international delegates are very keen to meet in person again and in need of information on their journey through the chemical control legislation jungle.

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