Conference chairs

A bid, a site inspection and then fingers crossed 

Will it be Utrecht or Hamburg? Groningen instead of Venice? For convention and conference bureaus, every race for a bid is exciting. There’s successes, obstacles and other unforeseen matters. “Paying to bid? No, we don’t do that.”

Convention bureaus on their approaches, successes and challenges

During corona, a live event suddenly had to be turned into an online event. “That wasn’t an easy task with 2,400 participants from around the world”, says Sandra Mulder of Congress by Design in the northern Dutch city of Groningen. “It required adding a dozen specialists to the team, sometimes even volunteers. It was great that China and Iran were able to log in even without YouTube at a crucial moment for AILA 2021, the international congress about the dynamics of language. “We’re proud of how we got the job done.”

It’s safe to say that no convention can be held without the innovative power of convention and conference bureaus. But how do they make sure that their city and venues get noticed by convention organisers?

The approaches vary. Where one city prides itself on its USPs, the other uses local ambassadors who stand up within their global association and win a convention.


It’s often a question of patience and endurance, says Monique André de la Porte of the Utrecht Convention Bureau, which is part of Utrecht Marketing.

“For the International Ultrasonics Symposium of the IEEE that we’ve won for 2025, a bid was made and unfortunately, it was also lost several times. Losing a bid often means starting all over again for the next one. It’s always a disappointment, but we also know that there can be several reasons why.”

“Often, we know roughly what the obstacle is. But there are also situations where you don’t know whether it’s really about finances. You don’t know each other’s bids and are therefore not aware of what the competition – the other cities in the race – has bid. Awarding can also be done by the members voting, which you have less influence over, or the board deciding using legacy is an important factor. It’s always exciting.”

‘Losing a bid often means starting all over again’

For this year’s edition, Utrecht lost to Venice, but in three years, ‘Dom City’ will host the International Ultrasonics Symposium.

“Also, we spent a lot of time organising the EUROMAR and Health Technology Assessment International, two wonderful conventions that were held in Utrecht this year. In the case of EUROMAR, we’re talking about a four-year journey from bid to execution”, explains André de la Porte.

“Excluding corona and smaller events, Utrecht is in the Top 5 of the Netherlands with some 85 multi-day international conventions on an annual basis. The Utrecht Convention Bureau’s main task is to encourage organisations to hold their knowledge events in Utrecht.”

“To do this, we work with professional conference organisers. Sometimes, we also bring a bid out together. You’re stronger together, especially when it comes to large international conventions.”

“After all, an incredible number of factors have to be considered. This morning we had a site inspection of one of our venues. Now it’s fingers crossed and waiting for that decisive phone call.”

State secret

In the city of Groningen, collaborations have been created to ‘sell’ the province of Groningen. Founded three years ago, the Groningen Congres Alliantie is the driving force behind this, says Wouter Olland of Groningen Conventions.

“We’re still in an early phase as an alliance, but we think that we can make a difference as a destination both nationally and internationally. That’s why we recently joined the ICCA, the International Congress and Convention Association.”

“We think that we can interest parties because we firmly believe in live communication. That’s why I approach meeting planners, associations and companies with a personal invitation to come and have a look. Sometimes, it can be as simple as that. Show them what you have to offer, is the motto.”

“We may represent a relatively small city, but we are right behind the Top 5 in the country when it comes to the number of conventions.”

The alliance already has two figureheads in its region that count internationally: the University of Groningen and the University Medical Center Groningen.

“The focus is on three pillars: Groningen’s asset is energy transition, because a lot is going on with hydrogen. There’s also health and digitalising. We’re building connections in all these fields.”

“Look, it’s no state secret that most conventions take place in the middle and the busy western part of the country. The north is still seen as an outpost. It will take time to arouse interest”, explains Olland.

Blood, sweat and tears

Nevertheless, when it comes to organising international conventions, the province of Groningen has a great track record.

There’s enough creativity, as witnessed by the online AILA 2021 edition. “These are the hurdles that you have to overcome as an organiser. Suddenly, we had to switch gears. No programme with excursions on location, but 2,400 people at the computer and activities such as speed dating, yoga lessons and workshops online.”

“The main problem was, how are you going to organise something like this with different time zones? How do we use streaming services? By gaining knowledge from people who know how things work in China, for example, we were able to avoid problems. And when everyone had to log in in order to participate on Monday morning, a team of 40 volunteers and seven experts were ready to coordinate things.”

“Things always go wrong, at both physical and online events. The catering is too late or the technology has issues, you know that things will happen. Going online for such a large group was new, but with blood, sweat and tears we managed to make it a success”, says Olland.

Working with ambassadors

Collaborating with a large group of ambassadors is gold for his city, says Daniël op den Buijsch of the Leiden Convention Bureau. “A unique formula for the Netherlands, as far as I know.”

“It concerns 120 dignitaries from the city, including professors, doctors and business people who have scientific connections. They help us very directly by looking for and finding conventions that are suitable for Leiden. They’re people who are in the thick of things and also attend conventions abroad and therefore have an idea of what could be potentially suitable.”

“It’s a large group that gets bigger every year. We poll potential ambassadors when someone has made a name for themselves in a field of research, for example.”

The collaboration is bearing fruit. It ensured that the birth city of Rembrandt hosted the 10th edition of the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) this year. The first FAIR Digital Objects Conference also came to Leiden this way.

‘You have to know what makes your city unique’

“We have a wide range of interests at our university. There’s certainly a large pool of scientific conventions that we could bid on, which also means that there’s a lot of competition.”

“We already wanted to have the ESOF in 2020, but it was awarded to Trieste. Then we were in the running for 2022 and we won. It’s very important to know which fields make our city unique. For that, we need our ambassadors.”

“What Leiden won’t usually do is buy a convention. The fact that the person with the biggest wallet can attract the biggest conventions, I see as unfair competition,” says Op den Buijsch.

‘Best ever’ convention

Above all, don’t think small, is the motto of Director Herma van Keulen of Friesland Convention Partners.

Since Leeuwarden was the European Capital of Culture in 2018, the northern province of Friesland has been on the world map. In part, thanks to the 48th World Trade Center Congress that drew visitors from the United States, China and Qatar, among others.

“We were judged the ‘best ever’, leaving behind cities such as Paris, London and Kansas City that had also been organisers. Why? Our Dutch cosiness, knowledge of water, people enjoying a terrace on the canal, that sort of thing. So, what are we afraid of? We can do it.”

It’s not difficult to capture the interest of convention bureaus as long as you convey the right message. And as for Friesland, it has something to offer in the fields of water and sustainable agriculture.

“People come from China for that and from all over the world for the annual water conference. Bear in mind that all cities with convention locations and hotels are about a 20-minute drive away, and you’ll understand why we proudly claim that Friesland is a world-class convention destination.”

“Since 2018, our WTC has had a partnership with the WTC in Las Vegas, and in 2023 we will visit them to strengthen ties. So, yes, we dare to compete with major international convention cities”, says Van Keulen.