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How can destinations help to enhance event experiences?

Blog post sponsored by VISITFLANDERS Convention Bureau

Event attendees travel from across the globe to meet at a venue and then spend the next couple of days indoors, whilst listening to a carefully crafted programme of speakers. The problem? The event could be taking place anywhere in the world. Other than accessibility and onsite facilities the location is mostly irrelevant.

Photo: Courtesy of VISITFLANDERS

The recent growth in Bleisure - blending business and leisure, demonstrates the fact that attendees are increasingly interested in exploring the destination of their business activities. How then, can the destination enhance the event experience and encourage attendees to spend more time there, either for business or leisure?

During Associations World Congress 2018, over 470 attendees descended on Antwerp to hear 77 experts share their knowledge in over 100 sessions. As international association conferences offer large growth potential to Flanders as a destination, VISITFLANDERS is aiming to attract 106 extra conferences to Flanders by 2021, an increase of 51%. With this in mind the Associations World Congress was a golden opportunity to showcase the destination by immersing attendees in destination experiences.

Importantly, the event took place in the pièce de résistance of Flanders’ venue collection: Flanders Meeting and Convention Center, Antwerp (FMCCA), the only convention centre in the world with a zoo onsite.

Photo: Flanders Meeting and Convention Center

The location of the convention centre in a zoo, offers a strong CSR opportunity for businesses, as well as wellbeing benefits for attendees. Opening the congress, Anja Stas, Chief Commercial Officer at, Flanders Meeting and Convention Center Antwerp, claimed “Nature does good things to our brain. It’s the balancing factor against a digital age. Meetings at FMCCA are powered by nature.” Included in delegate passes for the congress was complimentary access to the zoo, so attendees were able to take advantage of the opportunity to connect with nature and recharge during the breaks.

Photo: Zoo Antwerpen

The zoo theme was taken further by integrating Matadi, the silverback gorilla who has become the face of the convention centre, into the event. A photo booth was set up with a statue of Matadi, so that attendees could have their photo taken with him and share the pictures on social media. Miniature figurines of Matadi were placed on the auditorium seats to greet guests as they arrived for the opening plenary.

Photo: Matadi figurine at Associations World Congress

FMCCA embodies the meetings and events offer of the region. Anja encouraged events to embrace the heritage of the past and to leave a legacy for the future. This is exactly what the building itself does. The convention centre team had an exhibition stand at the congress and lunchtime tours of the meeting space were on offer to attendees. Opened in 1843, Antwerp zoo is one of the oldest in the world and the historical wing preserves this history in its architectural splendour and display of natural artefacts, including the skeleton of a whale suspended from the ceiling of the Darwin Room. United to the historical wing by a large atrium is the Elisabeth Hall, a 2000 plus capacity concert hall and congress centre with state of the art technology.

Photo: Meeting spaces at FMCCA

The catering team at FMCCA also highlighted the destination by tempting the taste buds of attendees with local gastronomies including seafood dishes from Antwerp’s famous port, and desserts featuring the food that Belgium is often most recognised for - chocolate.

Photo: FMCCA catering during Associations World Congress

The real masterpiece of the experience was the awards and gala dinner on the first night of the congress. Flanders is home of the Flemish Masters, who were at the forefront of the European art scene between the 15th and 17th century. VISITFLANDER’s Flemish Masters project focuses on Flemish Masters inspired activities taking place in the region between 2018 and 2020. To highlight this, the dinner, of course was Flemish Masters themed.

On arrival guests were presented with backdrops created from artwork of either Van Eyck, Bruegel or Rubens. In front of the backdrops performance artists posed in period style clothing and make-up, encouraging guests to select their preferred artist by selecting a card from the basket. The card selected would determine the guests experience of the evening. Elements of the food and the drink menu were then tailored around which artist was chosen.

Photos: The Flemish Master gala dinner at Associations World Congress

Guests were also encouraged to party like it’s 1525 and take their photos amongst a scene celebrating the Flemish Masters. On departure, guests were handed a goody bag with a Flemish Masters print on the front and containing various Flemish Masters gifts.

Photos: The Flemish Master gala dinner at Associations World Congress

Evelyne Bardyn, Senior Meetings Manager at VISITFLANDERS Convention Bureau , Meet In Flanders welcomed guests to the dinner and introduced guest speaker: Ben Weyts, Flemish Minister for Mobility, Public Works, the Vlaamse Rand, Tourism and Animal Welfare. Minister Weyts shared his passion for the region with the audience and highlighted the many benefits of hosting business events in Flanders.

Photos: Speeches during the gala dinner at Associations Worlds Congress

By linking the event experience to the destination, congress organisers were able to offer a more memorable experience and VISITFLANDERS were able to offer attendees a flavour of Flanders, hopefully encouraging them to return.

Have you experienced any inspiring ways that destinations have become part of the event experience? If you would like to learn inspiring ways to enhance your event with Flemish experiences, explore VISITFLANDERS Convention Bureau’s website and contact the team.