This post is original content produced by the SkiftX team for our Skift Cities platform launching in March 2018.

Holland’s convention bureau wants meeting and conference organizers to think of the country as one big integrated city.

The four largest Dutch cities are Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, all of which are located less than a 40-minute train ride from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. The tight-knit geography is somewhat similar to the boroughs of New York City, where each metropolitan area has an individual identity and visitor experience, but together they make up a larger whole with each city complementing the other.

The Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (NBTC) has devised a strategy internally referred to as “HollandCity” to get international organizers to expand their perspective of Holland beyond Amsterdam. The goal is to drive visitation and economic development to the other cities, and alleviate some of the crush of visitors in Amsterdam, by promoting the close proximity and ease of access between the various urban centers.

Equally important, the NBTC is also identifying the different industry sector clusters in each of the regional cities in an attempt to provide a clear value proposition for organizers affiliated with those sectors, which helps further differentiate those cities from Amsterdam.

The Hague, for example, has strong industry and academic clusters in security, government, law, and peace and justice. Local organizations attracting conferences in greater numbers to The Hague working in those sectors include: Europol, the International Court of Justice, and the European Network for Cyber Security.

Rotterdam, located only 10 miles away from The Hague, is a global leader in logistics and mobility, clean tech, agri-food and “SmartIndustry.”

In 2017, Rotterdam was designated as a host city for the Global Center of Excellence on Climate Adaptation, in collaboration with UN Environment, based on the volume of local research institutions and startups tackling global warming. The city is also a leading member of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities network “dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.”

Therefore, that sector expertise specific to both The Hague and Rotterdam provides a targeted availability of potential speakers, exhibitors, researchers, audience members, sponsors and other business partners related to a conference’s unique subject matter.

In 2015, the NBTC launched Conventions.Holland.com (more background here). The site is organized by the nation’s top nine industry sectors, which then drills down into the different cities that are strong in each sector, followed by listings of the conference spaces and hotels in the area. It was the first time a national convention bureau created such a comprehensive portal leading with the industry sectors first, although the site is presently under redevelopment.

Many national convention bureaus are devising similar sector-specific strategies that leverage their country’s industry expertise to engage international conference organizers in more elevated and targeted ways. The challenge is getting the regional bureaus to embrace the same vision, align their messaging with that vision, and build stronger networks with their local industry and academic leaders.

Skift spoke with Antonia Koedijk, North American director of the NBTC, to see how the HollandCity strategy is evolving, and how midsize cities are promoting their sector expertise more intentionally to conference planners.

Skift: How does the HollandCity initiative fit within your day-to-day operations to promote Holland to U.S. conference organizers?

Antonia Koedijk: HollandCity is a very hot topic with us, and we use it in communications with our partners that include our individual city convention bureaus, convention centers, and some hotel groups, as well as non-partners on a daily basis. We try to educate them on why it’s so important that we position Holland as a city, so people understand all of the options they have in the different cities located so close together in one country. We also want people to see how easy it is to get around between them, because a lot of our visitors are surprised by that.

In our campaigns, we don’t necessarily talk about HollandCity. However, you will see that we are moving away from only focusing on Amsterdam. This is a major shift for us, absolutely, because we used to focus very much on Amsterdam. So, we don’t really communicate HollandCity to our customers because we don’t want to confuse people, but it is a working title that’s very much being used right now.

Skift: Are you also promoting the ease of getting around Holland more so than previously?

Koedijk: Yes, we’re especially aiming to explain that it’s very easy to use a transportation pass that is accepted everywhere at public transportation outlets, and also that’s very easy to purchase by a global traveler. That has been a bit of an issue in the past where credit cards weren’t always accepted, or in Europe where you will need a chip card. We definitely want to enhance those programs.

As far as the transportation network, our metro connections are being expanded because our urban areas are expanding. In Utrecht, for example, the number of inhabitants is exponentially growing so we’re continually developing what is already a very modern and efficient public transportation network.

Skift: In the last few years, the NBTC has focused more on promoting each city’s industry clusters to highlight why organizers in those industries should consider Holland as a host destination. How is that evolving?

Koedijk: Our top nine sectors in the Netherlands come up frequently in initial conversations with associations and other clients, much more so than even a few years ago. We also talk a lot about the sectors when we communicate with our partners. The Ministry of Economic Affairs is very adamant about promoting these sectors, but to do that, we need to include Rotterdam and our other midsize cities because Amsterdam doesn’t represent all nine sectors.

When we introduced the HollandCity concept, and started talking about expanding the spread of travelers regionally, that motivated us to start looking at the top sectors in each city. As a result, we started reaching out to the different cities, and they started reaching out to us to explain how their expertise in certain sectors could enhance a conference. I think there was a logical development there due to the demands of the government, and due to the fact that other cities started seeing why they needed to position themselves differently, by promoting their sector strengths, if they wanted to remain relevant.

This is important for a second-tier city because they have to show their added value. Their sector strengths add a lot of value to the proposition, and that’s why this whole strategy is becoming more prominent. We take representatives in those sectors along in our marketing visits, and the associations that we talk to are responding positively. I don’t think we are there yet. We have a long way to go because it’s not always the main topic when we start a conversation with an organization.

Skift: What is an example of a city other than Amsterdam that’s promoting its sector expertise as a value proposition more so now than in the past?

Koedijk: The World Forum convention center in The Hague now has more technology user conferences because people started discovering that The Hague has a large cluster of companies in IT and cybersecurity. A lot of larger global corporations previously only looked at Amsterdam because they figured that’s where most tech companies have established themselves, but now other areas in the Netherlands are becoming more active in attracting corporate headquarters.

Every city, and especially the smaller ones, really want to stand out so we’re trying to not focus on regions as much anymore, and focus far more on content about where the sectors are that might appeal to a client. That’s how we’re generating more awareness for our cities beyond Amsterdam.

Skift: What other sectors are cities using as a competitive advantage that differentiate them from Amsterdam?

Koedijk: The Nuclear Security Summit, which is a very prestigious government-organized event, took place in The Hague in 2014. I know that Amsterdam also submitted a bid but The Hague was selected. It was absolutely because the presence of the government bodies, the knowledge that was available, their experience with cybersecurity, and also the presence of international organizations in the field of security. The Hague is also attracting more and more justice-related organizations, either on the European or at the global level.

For Rotterdam, the offshore and harbor activities are extremely well developed because Rotterdam is one of the world’s largest harbors. So, Rotterdam is a leader in transportation and offshore. I believe that there is still work to be done, absolutely, to convey that message more, and probably more clearly.

Skift: Are more U.S. planners asking about sector expertise in the different cities?

Koedijk: When I look at the growth of workshops on this topic at our industry conferences, I see that there’s higher interest among organizers. They’re looking for information about content development and how to line up local investors and knowledge centers, and link them with their own organization. There’s a very high interest more so on an executive and board member level than there is on the level of the meeting planner. I think the association and corporate meeting planner have a goal to fulfill the meeting request. It’s a little bit more black and white. When we look at RFPs, rarely will we find a paragraph about how relevant it is that we reach out to our local knowledge centers. But once we start communicating, it’s coming up more and more. I would expect that if this is so important, why don’t planners include it in the RFP process? That is a little surprising to me.

I think it might be more important for a board member, or an executive management team, to know how they can incorporate our sector expertise into their events. I’m not sure if meeting planners are really involved with that discussion and with those changes that are happening in the marketplace.

Skift: Sherrif Karamat, CEO of PCMA (Professional Convention Management Association) is trying to expand the title of meeting planner to “business event strategist.” If that’s the case, and planners are evolving more as strategists, do you think it would benefit them to look at how they can align their programming more with local sector expertise?

Koedijk: I always believe in a big picture approach. In general, I think annual meetings are not self-standing. They’re part of a strategy developed by the executive team and marketing department. However, meeting planners, and I’m not talking for the entire community, might have four meetings under their wings during the year, and that’s what they need to get done. They’re probably not part of the marketing team but more of the organizational team. Organizations are integrating their meetings with strategy, and designing these meetings as a marketing and business development tool. That is extremely important, but I wonder how much that’s really happening with any participation from the planners. I do see it with some organizations.

Skift: What about Rotterdam Partners, which consists of the local economic development organization, convention bureau, and various industry and academic ambassadors? Does that help international planners connect the dots?

Koedijk: It definitely helps because I feel very confident when we reach out to Rotterdam with a request from a client who’s interested in knowing more about the city. The different parties work very closely together, so it’s also a very efficient process, which definitely helps. Mostly, Rotterdam Partners is extremely professional, and they have good insight into what is relevant to clients. They know their sectors. They really have a lot of knowledge that they can share about their sectors on the top of their heads, which I don’t always see in other areas. It definitely impresses clients.

I heard one staff member from Rotterdam Partners speak at IMEX America. The amount of knowledge about the food sector, for example, that she was sharing was enormous, and why this sector is so relevant to related organizations in the U.S.

Skift: It seems that a lot of bureaus we speak with should have a deeper understanding of their clusters, so they can better communicate the added value to planners.

Koedijk: Absolutely. You then become a better partner for your clients when you operate on a higher level or when you meet with an executive director. You can represent your city more effectively in that respect. You can also be a better partner because you will get a quicker and more comprehensive understanding of what challenges the client has, if you speak about issues in a certain sector. We need to know what keeps our clients up at night.

The above content was produced by the SkiftX team for the upcoming Skift Cities platform, defining how cities are connecting visitors and locals to co-create the future of urban industry and livability.

Photo Credit: The World Trade Center, The Hague. WTC The Hague