The road to the events industry recovery: Lessons learnt from the Eurovision Song Contest

After a one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) took place in Rotterdam in May 2021. Hosting an event of such big scale during a pandemic requires high levels of collaboration, creativity, resilience and innovation. On 28 September, Rotterdam Partners shared how they did it with their global audience during the third Rotterdam Experiment hybrid event, as well as the lessons learnt from being the host city of the 65th edition of the ESC.

The ESC is one of the best examples of what a global event in the post-pandemic world can look like. Rotterdam worked collaboratively to make it happen and welcomed all the contestants and spectators safely into the city. The local community was involved and were proud to be the host city. The event was broadcast globally in a way that engaged, excited and gave goosebumps to the virtual audience.

So, how did they do it? This you will find out in my coverage of the third edition of the Rotterdam Experiment. 

I watched The Rotterdam Experiment virtually and it contained three roundtable discussions with representatives from organisations that played a key role in the planning and delivery of the event. 

The Rotterdam Experiment was expertly moderated by Arjanne Hoogstad, Manager of Marketing & Communications at Rotterdam Partners. The first roundtable was entitled “Why Eurovision Song Contest?” and presented the big picture: Why did Rotterdam want to organise the Eurovision Song Contest; how does this event fit into the city’s strategy; and what were the important moments of change and adaptation?

The roundtable guests included Alice Vlaanderen, Project Director of ESC 2021 Host City Rotterdam; Lars Crama, Chairman of the International Advisory Board; and Eveline van der Pluijm, Manager of the Convention Bureau & Tourism Board.

‘Rotterdam is a city of innovation and experimentation, and knowledge sharing comes with that,’ shared Arjanne Hoogstad, Manager of Marketing & Communications at Rotterdam Partners, during her opening remarks. She then opened the discussion, with the first question being directed to Alice Vlaanderen, Project Director of ESC 2021 Host City Rotterdam, when she was asked, ‘What would you bring to your job from this experience as the head of culture at the municipality of Rotterdam?’ 

According to Alice, ‘The Eurovision Song Contest was about working together, setting goals together, uniting around the same strategy, and sticking to the plan.

‘Recently, we developed a new event policy that states that events can be hosted by the city if they match the values of the city: boldness, roughness, diversity, innovativeness.

‘Events are very important in the city: it’s a place where people can meet, they can express their identity, and they make the city bustle. Those aspects are very important for international promotion and showing Rotterdam to the world. We invest in a diverse and wide range of events for everybody. That’s why we introduced annual Theme Weeks, such as the art week, street culture weekend, architectural week, maritime month, and so on.’

What role do events play in the recovery of the sector? 

Lars Crama, Chairman of the International Advisory Board, shared the role that events play in the recovery of the sector.

‘Firstly, it is the economic value and direct revenue that these events generate, but also the indirect spending that comes out of it. Secondly, events serve as a driver for innovation. The city has a big transition agenda, whether it’s energy transition, inclusion, digitalisation, circular economy, etc. Thirdly, online and hybrid events can reach new geographies and target audiences. When events take place in Rotterdam and are broadcast globally, such as the ESC, they will be able to capture the global audience and bring value to the city.’ 

MICE approach and the focus of the Convention Bureau 

Eveline van der Pluijm, Manager of the Convention Bureau & Tourism Board, shared the focus of the Convention Bureau (CVB) in MICE approach to being involved with global events. 

‘Our goal, as a CVB, is to engage in acquisition of international events, exhibitions and congresses that contribute to the sustainable economic development of Rotterdam. But we do very proactive acquisition of events that match with our sectors, DNA and ambition of the city. We are a very future-focused city, so we embrace innovation, resilience and experimentation. 

‘Rotterdam is future ready and this will attract new kind of conferences, for example, Urban Future. This also led to new kinds of development products we’ve created as a CVB, like the Collaboration For Green, where we match an event with a green project in the city. When we look at events, we try to match their ambitions and goals with the ambitions and goals of the city so there’s a good synergy taking place. It’s more than just economic value: It’s the development of education, networks, collaboration, new businesses, etc.

‘This is also the reason why we created the Rotterdam Experiment: to share this with everyone. For me, the ESC was an opportunity we could make happen to show to the whole world what we could do in Rotterdam. We were able to remain, even under the most difficult circumstances, innovative, experimental and resilient.’

What are the biggest lessons learnt from the ESC?

According to Alice, ‘One of the biggest lessons learnt is that you should always take into account every possible risk that you can imagine. We never imagined a pandemic would occur. We never had a pandemic on our risk list, yet, it occurred, and we then had to organise Eurovision Song Contest under very difficult circumstances. Because we had a vision together, we had well-defined goals, we were able to stay flexible, to stay creative, and organise different scenarios that could reach our goals. We had to experiment; we had to be innovative, creative; and we had to work closely together with our team and the partners in our city.’

Collaboration with partners in Rotterdam played a big role in the event. Alice continued, ‘We had  invested in our partners and in the European Broadcasting Union, the host broadcaster. The relations were very good. So, when COVID occurred, we benefited from this good relationship. We saw each other only on the screen, but we knew each other, we could rely on our partners: they all knew their responsibilities and what kind of results they should generate.’

The CVB was one of the major partners, bringing together different parties for the event. Eveline shared how they involved different parties from the city in the ESC. ‘We were involved from the very start, when we had to make the bid. We had very limited time, so we created a small team and we were flexible. The power of Rotterdam is that we have a very strong network and the lines are very short; it’s metropolitan but it’s almost like a village; we work fast because it’s so easy and compact. That was very important for a successful bid. Hotels were essential in the bid. All had the big goal to make it happen: to make sure that we won the bid. 

‘When I saw the big finale on the television, you could see all the energy, all the love, the passion and professionalism coming together. It was very special to see.’

Future of hybrid-event formats 

Lars shared the viable hybrid-event formats for the future. ‘We’ve all been in an experiment in the past 18 months. Looking at the ESC and its hybrid format, it’s key to think about how you design the user experience: What are the things you want to do online and what are the things that you want to do offline, and why do you do it online or offline? Events that are really able to distinguish between those two have a clear user journey. 

‘Next are events that are able to have multiple touch points over time: pre, during and after the event. And lastly, the hub-and-spoke model, when events are organised locally but connect to global events or other regions and bring them together.’ 

Hybrid events are opportunity for destinations 

Eveline shared that, from a city perspective, hybrid events are an opportunity. ‘Looking at the acceleration of innovation and digitalisation during COVID, I think there are many aspects we can, as a city, learn from and take advantage of. As a city, we are very well organised, we have good infrastructure, and work with professional partners. Further, we learnt new things and we shared this together. An advantage is, for example, creating a European Hub. That way, we can host conferences that, before, were too big for our city. There are also new ways to promote the city. Rotterdam is a very beautiful city for films, so that is something we can use for promotion. If we look at new opportunities, we can all benefit from it.’

The outside perspective 

Lars worked with a group of specialists from outside the events industry and asked how they see Rotterdam as an event city. Lars shared the findings. ‘The first thing they said after spending time in the city is that the “make it happen” slogan can be felt: it’s an entrepreneurial city. We talk about Rotterdam, but we should really think about the region. There are three of the best universities in the world in this region (Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam).

‘They were also critical. They said that competition out there is fierce. Other cities are competing for the same type of event. They identified a gap between the ambitions of the city, the perception that users have, and the reality. They shared recommendations how to close these gaps to become even better.’ 

Additional thoughts 

Attending the third Rotterdam Experiment in a row feels like a puzzle coming together and all the lessons learnt are building upon each other, providing a very comprehensive approach to the future of events. 

We didn’t go through 18 months of a pandemic to revert back to old practices; Coming out of the pandemic, it’s important to have a mindset shift and be bolder and not afraid to experiment. 

I particularly loved the insights from Eveline on seeing hybrid events as an opportunity and not a threat (as virtual might cannibalise visitor numbers). This way, destinations can reach a wider audience, while being more inclusive and accessible. As with the Rotterdam Experiment, virtual is excellent for knowledge sharing, which is an important aspect of expertise-driven destinations. 

Secondly, I found the insights from Lars regarding the importance of engaging outside experts to be very crucial. As an industry, we sometimes tend to be very complacent with how well things are going and that slows down innovation. It’s important to collaborate with partners within and outside of the industry, and be ready to receive constructive criticism. 

Lastly, I find the policy that states that events can only be hosted by the city if they match the values of the city, as shared by Alice, to be an excellent indicator of the sustainable recovery of the events industry. It’s no longer just about the number of rooms at a destination, as even that can be solved with a hybrid solution: it’s about having the right partners, matching values between the event and the destination, and engaging with the right clusters of expertise that fit the event. This, as a result, will create a lasting events legacy, such as the ESC, which will be talked about and used as a case study for many years to come. 

Photo credit: Adrienne Wildeman/ Rotterdam Partners.

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