Vooralsnog is deze post alleen in het Engels beschikbaar. Sorry daarvoor.
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When I started as an interest representative in Brussels, I had no idea that organizing events and meetings would be such a big part of the job. Indeed, organizing an event is one of the great ways of reaching out to policymakers, introducing your ideas or connecting to the right people. However, organizing an event in Brussels can be stressful to a point that it becomes a nightmare. I have organized numerous meetings and events in Brussels and decided to write this manual so that everyone can now make an awesome event!
Chronology of Actions
Here is a very brief overview of actions you will need to do to organize your event. At the minimum you will need six weeks to organize an event. I have organized succesfull meetings and events within a matter of weeks (my personal record is 7 days), but those were exceptions. If you want to be sure that you have enough time, six weeks is an absolute minimum. First you need to pick a date. Without a date, you can’t arrange anything. After you set the date find a location. Third, work out the concept; will you have a panel discussion or a network event. This concept doesn’t need to be clear from the start. You can fine tune it as you go. After you have the location and date, try to work out most logistics like catering and arranging a moderator. It is usually these things that are left to the end because they seem easy to arrange. This is true, but because they are relatively simple to arrange, deal with them in the beginning so that you don’t have to deal with them in the last minute when you need all your time for crisis-management. Arrange the speakers as soon as possible. Agenda’s fill up quite fast so as soon as you know what your concept is start with approaching speakers. Then deal with invitations. Send a “save the date” as soon as you know the location and time. Send the official invitations, at the minimum three weeks before your event. I personally don’t like to send reminders because they look desperate. When organizing an event in Brussels, I never sent printed invitations. Instead I always used email. Not only is it more cost-efficient, but respondents only had to reply to the email to sign up. Lastly, promote your event.
Setting the date for your event
Picking the date is without doubt the most crucial steps when organizing an event in Brussels. While you will never able to tell with certainty that you have chosen a good date (I think there is no such thing as the perfect date), there are a couple of rules and principles that you need to keep in mind. The European Parliament resided more or less once a month in Strasbourg, so needless to say that you should avoid this week. Another bad week is the so called “constituency weeks”, where Members of the European Parliament go back to their countries to speak to their constituencies. These weeks occur around 6 times a year. In general, forget about organizing something on Fridays. I always avoid organizing things on Friday because most Parliamentarians are gone, and a lot of people in the Brussels bubble leave town. Some say that for the same reason Thursday-evening is a bad day, but my experience is that Thursday evening is perfectly viable. Another thing to take into consideration is that the College of European Commissioners usually gets together on Wednesday. So if you would like to involve a European Commissioner this might be a good day. Ironically this is also the plenary day of the Flemish Parliament, so forget about inviting members of the Flemish Parliament.
Taking all the above into account, it is easy to imagine that there aren’t actually many good dates throughout the year. Maybe only a handful. To make things worse you will not be the only one that is searching for a suitable date. That is why there are some days throughout the year where 10 or 20 different events are organized in one day. Therefore it is very important to know what other events are going on, so that you don’t compete with similar or more pressing events. In October for example there is the regional Open Days where all the European regions organize events. Unless you are a region, this is a terrible week to organize something. Sometimes it is good to organize on a day that everyone else avoids. I organized an event on the day the Commission was presenting its proposal for a multi-annual budget. Since no-one thought this to be a good idea, it was almost the only event of the day.
Location, location, location
Together with the date, having the right location is one of the most important, if not thé most important thing to consider when organizing an event. What location you should have really depends on what kind of event you are organizing. I will start explaining where and why to organize smaller events (10-50 persons), and afterwards will share some insights about bigger events (+100 persons) A breakfast or a lunch meeting are ideal to speak to policymakers while respecting their time. Everyone has to eat at some point in the day, why not mix business and pleasure. One absolute requirement is that it isshort and relevant. If a lunchevent lasts longer that promised you mess up the agendas of the guests, making them regret they signed up for the lunchevent. Breakfast meetings are tricky. In theory they should start before work starts, but actually rarely do. One drawback is that I noticed that stakeholders send their interns and stagairs to attend them. Organizations like the European Policy Center have successful meetings in the early morning, but they have the clout and reputation to pull it off. Here are a couple of places which are ideal to organize lunch or breakfast meetings. The Stanhope hotel is a lovely, posh boutique hotel with a couple of meeting rooms. Rooms like the Wellington serve perfectly for smaller, intimate lunch meeting. If you prefer to have a meeting more closely to the Berlaymont instead of the Parliament. Martin’s Central Park also offers a couple of meeting rooms, and moreover they are also sometimes willing to close certain parts of the Icones Restaurant for groups. Moreover they have a great garden, which can also be used for lunch meetings. Hotel Rennaisance also offers good value for money, moreover it is very nearby the European Parliament. Then there are a couple of options which are not so accessible because you need someone to “get you in”. The European Parliament has a couple of member saloons which are ideal for organizing smaller meetings. However you will need to persuade a MEP to support your event because only MEP’s can reserve space in the European Parliament. The same goes for the Warande. The Warande is a true gem, a lovely space in the heart of Brussels. However since the Warande belongs to the society of Flemish people in Brussels, you need to know someone who is Flemish, and is a member of the society to help you book a room. In my opinion the Warande is a little bit on the expensive side.
When it comes to bigger events, Brussels houses some top notch locations. One of my favorite is Bibliotheque Solvay. It is located very near the Parliament, and in general you don’t need to worry about giving directions as most of the Brussels crowd knows where it is. Bibliotheque Solvay has a rich decor of precious wood, mosaics and stained glass windows, all covered by a large glass roof, which gives it a feel of prestige and luxury. On a similar note is Concert Noble, charm of a location located in the heart of the European quarter, it boasts a beautiful ballroom, giving it a feel of splendor. A bit out of the way is the Claridge. The Claridge is located near Madau and would certainly not be mentioned were it not for their unique Digital Wallpaper, giving you the opportunity to give your presentation on all walls of the venue. Some people like the Museum of Natural Sciences, because it is located near the Parliament, and sitting alongside dinosaurs is something special. However, mind that they oblige you to work with their caterers and moreover charge you also for the chairs people sit on. I personally prefer when venues give me a total price upfront instead that I have to pay for each single service individually. Also a bit out of the way of the European quarter is the Munt, the old Opera House of Brussels. I like the Munt because the location is relatively cheap and moreover quite flexible concerning what you can do with decorations and stuff. If you are organizing something for a young crowd Area 42 is an interesting alternative. It isn’t in the European quarter but the location is very modern and funky and you can really let your creativity run wild. Then there are a couple of public buildings which are also for rent. The Flemish Parliament has some meeting rooms for rent, but also a space for events like the Schelp. And then there is of course the European Parliament. The Yehudi MENUHIN room is usually used when you also have a concert or music during your event. Again, you will need an MEP to get this space. Moreover, because of its popularity and technical requirements, you will need to plan something at least six months up front if you want to organize something in the Yehudi MENUHIN hall.
When organizing an event, you have to think of a lot more than just the location and the date. Re-run in your head all the things that are going to be needed for the event, and what can go wrong. Will people arrive by car or on foot? Will you have to direct them to a parking? Is all the physical infrastructure like chairs and lighting present at the location or will you need to rent something? Personally I have worked with Design4Rent and I am satisfied with their services. For more practical stuff like stages I worked with Festi. For flowers, I like to work with Schuman Flowers. A lot of people no’t know, but apart from their flower-stand they also deliver for events.
Whether for the welcome-drink or the network cocktail, when organizing an event, you will have to have some kind of catering. Because there is no catering with which I am 100% satisfied, I decided not to give any suggestion for the time being. But please email me if you have any great suggestions!
If you are organizing a bigger event, you might want to hire a moderator or someone who hosts the event. Be aware that this person can make or break your event. I wished I had a list here with good moderators, but it really depends on the event and more importantly on the audience. If you have the budget go for moderators that are famous persons, as this attracts crowd by itself. Another no-brainer is that the person actually knows something about the topic. If the person is passionate about the interest you convey, it will make the event all the much better. In the other extreme if the moderator has no knowledge of the matter at hand, he will make silly mistakes and it will suck out the life of the party.
When organizing a public affairs event in Brussels, you will probably arrange some speakers. Some speakers will not have to be arranged because they are either part of your public affairs network or your internal organizations. But if you are asking MEP’s, European Commission officials or other to speak here is some advice, in order to make sure they agree to come, and actually show up. Members of the European Parliament or notorious for cancelling, arriving late and leaving early. To be sure that a MEP agree to come to your event there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, instead if it is an electorate week (green week) MEP’s don’t like to travel. So your event will need to be near the Parliament if not in the Parliament. Secondly, MEP’s don’t like to share the spotlight. Asking more MEP can raise the profile of your event, but it can also be the reason for the cancellation of some MEP’s. So while it is certainly not forbidden, you will have to know how a MEP will react to other MEP’s being present. Time is of course important; don’t organize anything during the actual committee meetings of MEP’s or during voting time. In order to create commitment request for a meeting with the MEP to brief him/her about the event and his or her role in it. Finally, put the MEP in the spotlight. Arrange an interview before or after the event, and make sure that the MEP has his 5 minutes of fame to convey his political message.
Arranging a European Commissionaire is quite tricky. They have little time, and are very picky about what event to go to. In all honesty I have arranged (and failed to arrange) a couple of European Commissionaires, but still I can’t say exactly what was the main reason for my success or failure. Here are some humble tips anyway. Announce to the secretary by telephone that an invitation is coming s coming. This will create a mental note for the secretary or personal assistant. I have had a few instances that I never got a reply. The assistants receive hundreds of emails every day and they will probably forget to respond to one or two. Therefore it is important to make this mental-post it. Make sure that the invitation is relevant to the Commissionaires portfolio. After you have sent the invitation, don’t hesitate to call the secretary again to see if she has received it and to ask when you can expect a reply. After this it is up to the Commissionaire to decide if he wants to come to your event. Of course things like the profile of the event, and the presence of media will help your chances.
Not to be under-estimated is the concept of your event. 90 % of all the events in Brussels are panel-debates. If you do not invest time, creativity and effort your event run the danger of being remembered as boring. Because in Brussels you operate in a administrative-political environment, there are limitations on what you can do. The Brussels crowd likes to be entertained but not to be humiliated or made fun of. So a moderator can be challenging, but can’t go over the edge. One way it to re-shape your panel debates into something more fun. You can make it look like a TV-show. I heard of a debate inside a boxing-ring. One consultancy sent out invitations in the form of airplaine-boarding tickets. During one event I visited, there was a fashion-show. For this reason, organizers often also give gifts to guest when they leave. At the yearly KPN event guests were given Moleskine notebooks. I operated once on a low budget, but I still wanted to give something as a parting-gift. So we came up with the idea to give Sunflowers to all guests. They absolutely loved it! You need to have this twist to your event to separate it from competing events, and more importantly to be remembered. One of the reasons you are organizing this event is to convey a political message that “sticks”. So you don’t want to organize something that is easily forgotten, or worse; remembered as a failure.
Promoting your event
Finaly, you will also have to do some promotion of your event. This is not only so you draw more crowd to your event. This is only part of why you prmote your event. By promoting your event, you are also promoting the political message that is enshrined in your event. So no opportunity should be missed to promote both your event as well as your message. I always post my event on the European Agenda. Moreover I use various groups on linkedin. Apart from promotion before the event happens, make sure you also do some after-promotion. This ranges from making a press release to summing up the conclusions of the event. Also you can have a dedicated website with all the fotographs of the event. You can even mention the event months later, in publications or speaches, in order to give it the air of a "landmark" event.