Conference organizers are reaching out to the Paris Convention Bureau more than in the past few months, but the numbers are still significantly below 2015.
In any other year, France’s new business events video would elicit a sense of wonder at the sumptuous scenes spreading from the lavender fields of Luberon to the beaches of Deauville.
Except, France is still officially under a state of emergency following the November terrorism attacks, for the first time since 1961, and discussions are underway to extend that through July for the Tour de France bike race.
The new meetings video is narrated in French by celebrity chef Guy Savoy, with subtitles expressing how the culture of France inspires his creativity and that of visiting conference attendees. While there’s little in the video showing anything new in terms of meetings infrastructure, industry sector expertise, or technology innovation, the power is in the ephemeral visuals and Savoy’s mien viscerally emphasizing all that is France.
Even someone who’s traveled to France often to attend conferences will feel a tug back to the country after watching scenes like those in the Parisian flower market and Cannes’ harbor.
Clement Laloux, director of marketing for the Paris Convention Bureau, was part of the team that unveiled the new video during the IMEX Frankfurt meetings industry trade show this week. For those in attendance, the classic imagery on the screen of Paris in springtime clashed vividly with images of the attacks in the media since November.
Mostly, it was clearly evident how much tourism boards are challenged when it comes to marketing a destination’s more nuanced and sublime attributes during a time of crisis, even one that is waning, without any control in the matter.
Laloux told Skift that his office finally saw an uptick in request for proposals (RFPs) from conference organizers in March, following a very quiet winter, although the number of requests is still below par for this time of year.
Following is our interview with Laloux about the Paris Convention Bureau’s strategy to engage the international meetings marketplace since November, and moving into the future.
Skift: During IMEX Frankfurt this week, what have planners been asking you about the security situation in Paris?
Clement Laloux: Well, there are a lot of questions about the state of emergency, which is something not very understandable to everyone, so we have to explain a lot about what it means. Actually it means that it’s only a process to ease police procedures and how the police works and so on. If they have suspicions, for example, they can be quickly directed to arrest people that they have suspicions about. They don’t have to go through a judiciary process, which sometimes can be long. For them it’s to kind of fast-track everything. It has absolutely no impact on the visitors, whether they come for leisure or for business. It has no impact.
The main thing the meeting planners want to know is how can my meeting or my event be secure. So we are working closely with local authorities and especially the police authority, who are keen to host and welcome the event planners to show how security works in Paris.
Skift: How do they do that?
Laloux: We can organize meetings in the police surveillance room with all of the security cameras. I just had a Chinese group there, and the policeman asked them, “Where do you stay?” Then he showed them how the camera can see precisely who is getting in and who is getting out of the hotel at any time. So it gives confidence.
That’s just an example to tell you that security is definitely an issue at the national level and the local level, and how they are very keen to give reassurance to the people organizing events, to let them know that everything that can be done will be done. We only organize that when we feel that it’s a real concern. The meeting planners, they are most of the time always confident, but we have to convince the client, the final client.
Skift: Do you have any statistics to show what the impact of the November attacks on convention business?
Laloux: We faced a decrease of 15 to 20 percent of our visitors according to the latest figures we have for the month of January in overall international visitation. So 2016 won’t be a good year definitely, especially since the last three years were really good for Paris. What we can see now is that the RFPs are coming back. January and February were very low. Now starting from March, the RFPs are coming again. Compared to March last year, we still have kind of a decrease of maybe about 20 to 30 percent, but it’s coming back. The trend is good.
Skift: The Paris CVB website has been transparent since the attacks providing updates about the security situation in the city. Has there been any special messaging toward meeting planners?
Laloux: Right after the attacks in the first month, we kept communicating about what was going on, what was open or not open. Many meeting planners asked, “Can we still come?” So we had to explain a lot because there was a lot of confusion and many misconceptions. Then let’s say in December, January and then early February, we had to give reassurance. We explained all of the security measures that have been taken by the national government to meeting planners, and what they had to do to secure the private events they were organizing. Because for two months, they had to prepare the police by providing information about the group, and getting as much detail as possible for the programs to the local police.
By March 2016, we have started communicating again in a normal way. So okay, Paris had to face these attacks, it’s a reality. Now if you come back, you will see that life goes on. You have people in the streets, in the cafés. There are thousands of meetings taking place. There are a lot of different things happening in Paris. And now, what are trying to do in terms of marketing, is organize as many meeting planner and media fam (familiarization) trips as we can so they can come and see for themselves how Paris is living now.
Skift: It must be really frustrating as a convention bureau executive to keep having this conversation six months after the attacks, especially because there’s nothing you can do about the situation itself.
Laloux: Sure. It’s my job. My duty is to say that everything goes well, but we are trying to be balanced. Like we say, if you come, security is at the highest level. You won’t even see it sometimes, but it is a big concern at the national level.
Skift: Looking at the new video, it’s beautifully crafted but the messaging and visuals still focus on the classic romanticism of Paris. Has there been any internal conversation about presenting a new image to meeting planners in terms of the technology clusters, science and academic facilities, or innovative startups that planners can incorporate into their programs?
Laloux: Yeah, definitely. This is something we are trying to expand on, because of course, Paris is very famous for luxury, shopping, and leisure. But Paris is also a place for business. We have many innovation clusters. Paris is also the number one European city for headquarters of Fortune 500 companies, and the third in the world after Tokyo and Beijing, but ahead of New York and London. This is something which is not very well known, actually. There is a very strong policy towards innovation in Paris, and the whole city has become a very large incubator for startups. There is a kind of a competition with London, as always, in many sectors. Our innovation startup ecosystem is very favorable.
Skift: Speaking of that, London & Partners has been instrumental in developing London Technology Week, and that’s really starting to shift perception around the destination brand for meeting planners. But you don’t see that brand positioning in Paris so much in the convention market.
Laloux: The thing is that in Paris we have many, many technology companies and events. What London did very well is that they gathered everything during one week. This is something we could think about because there are so many technology events taking place in Paris for everything from biotechnology to media. What we would like to do, but it’s still a project in development, is to have a week of communication technology, the week of design tech, the week of fashion tech, etc.
Skift: That would be great.
Laloux: That would be great. We have to convince the organizers to change their dates and to do something at the same time, but this is for the image of Paris. It’s a project run by the city itself, and there’s a lot of technology-themed events in Paris throughout our calendar that we can work with.
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Photo credit: The Paris Convention Bureau is flying in meeting planners to show the normalcy of daily life in the French capital. Atout France