Brussels – a world-class conference centre?


Brussel’s potential to be a world-class conference centre and the successes of the fifth European Business Summit are discussed by Rudi Thomaes, CEO of the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium (FEB), in this interview with EURACTIV.

I have a few questions on your general impression of the 5th EBS. So are you happy with the attendance, the conference, the different discussions? What’s your first impression?

I was satisfied with a few elements for us, especially your session this morning (energy/climate change session) – in terms of quality, if you compare with the previous versions, in some of the sessions we really attained excellent quality. I also received really positive input on the session on innovation – it also depends, of course, on the speakers that you can get. 

Personally, I tried to organise a session around health – a common market in health services and there I see that the business community, when they come to a big summit such as this one, is more interested in more traditional subjects. But I think it’s our duty to take steps in the direction of more experimental workshops – we had one on health services and I think that we should continue in that way, notwithstanding the fact that you have only 50-60 people in the room. But it can be a mix of old subjects then more experimental topics, because later on, these things – the evolution of patient mobility, the mobility of health professionals – will take place in any event. 

There’s a lot of things going on at that same time; don’t you think that it would be more interesting to focus on particular subjects? If you had focused on three topics, for instance, including your health session, it probably would have generated more interest, but now there are so many things going on at the same time, shouldn’t the content of the EBS be a bit more focused? 

We are open to advice because we are still on a learning curve. Although it is the fifth edition, we are still looking for input and feedback and we ask the people for feedback. I think that is certainly one lesson that we can draw. Another one – but this is a very practical one – I’m wondering whether we did not take too many square metres? At certain times it looked empty. 

Although we did have more than 2,000 people here, so maybe we should renew it again because we do it for the comfort of the people. The space is for the comfort of the people and it was appreciated. Yes, so you need to have the space, this is the kind of trade-off you have to make – you have the space, people feel comfortable, but at other moments it really looks quite empty.

But what I really also want to prove with this is the potential of Brussels as a conference centre. I really think that we do not explore this enough, and when we talk about new services, such as new medical services, then this country should learn how to organise conferences in a professional way and to exploit, much more, the fact that it is a crossroads of international organisations, lobby groups and so on. So I think the government and the city of Brussels should reflect about what they have to do to boost enterprise and employment in the area, because we have lots of potential. 

Talking about participants, for five years now it has been mostly a business community gathering – you had an NGO speaker occasionally  – don’t you think that it is time now, after five years, to throw open your doors and invite civil society, perhaps NGOs, and maybe even have a session with journalists, in which business interrogates journalists on why we report and how we report about business?

One very important topic for me is Europe, press, entrepreneurs and the general public, where in fact we see that all newspapers’ bosses tell me that it is one of the subjects that is selling least well. 

There are exceptions!

Bringing articles in local newspapers, and at the end of the day these newspapers are read by the SME bosses and the general public. Putting too much European stuff is not increasing, but decreasing sales. This is really a paradox.

One last question, what are your plans for 2008? Are you planning a new European Business Summit? 

We are considering having another one but the final decision has still to be taken.