You would think that it in the midst of a pandemic year, when economic indicators were down across the board and the realities of Brexit kicked in, the British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce (BPCC) would be struggling.
But nothing could have been further from the truth in 2020. The BPCC did surprisingly well in terms of revenue stream and corporate membership which actually increased, coming as “rather a surprise to us” according to CEO Chris Barton and new chair Rui Pedro Almeida, CEO and Managing Partner of the Moneris Group.
And membership churn rate (5.5%) was less than in previous years. This year, however, will be more challenging, both believe, as traditional income streams from sponsorships and trade fairs (20%) dried up since the pandemic ruled out live events and trade shows.
“We were able to reinvent ourselves, keep our business community together and grow our membership since there was a need during the pandemic for businesses to feel more united and connected,” says Rui Pedro Almeida adding that the BPCC currently has more than 370 members, recording a net increase of 15 new members in 2020.
Chris Barton says that “the ability to adapt to changing circumstances was fundamental in these trying times”.
A comprehensive digital agenda
In 2020, the BPCC had a comprehensive agenda with different speakers on subjects as wide as the legal aspects of layoffs, talks about marketing, presentations on oil price volatility and even webinars on managing stress and burnout in the workplace.
Rui Pedro Almeida points out that fully transitioning to digital was another major change in the way the chamber operates, catalysed by the pandemic.
“I think we acted very swiftly regarding changes in the digital sphere. By March and April 2020 we were already running conferences, training workshops and seminars online, so I think we had a first-move advantage and acted very flexibly and our members really appreciated that,” he says.
In fact, not only did the BPCC attract new members, some existing members upgraded to premium membership category, while the attendance rate in terms of events “went through the roof”.
Of course, there’s always the argument that during lockdown it was simply convenient and sufficiently distracting to log onto a webinar, and that may well have been the case in the first quarter of 2020. But as Chris Barton points out “what is true today will not necessarily be true tomorrow”.
“Zoom was a novelty and then became a nuisance, fashions change quickly and what people liked in the early days was to of fashion later on,” he notes.
Hybrid format events
“The biggest challenge now is to become hybrid for those that can attend in person and those who, for time and logistical reasons, can only attend remotely,” says Rui Pedro Almeida adding that this is particularly valuable when members or interested parties are spread throughout Portugal, or indeed the world.
“Last year we started to prepare the trade missions that this year were supposed to be attended in-person, but have now become remote,” he says pointing out that the BPCC had just completed a virtual trade mission on digital, media and IT which had been “a huge success”.
Rui Pedro Almeida explains that because missions had been conducted remotely, it was possible to foster relations that otherwise would have been more difficult. For example, the BPCC promoted meetings between Portuguese tech companies and Level 39, the world’s most connected tech community, with over 200 tech startups and scaleups based onsite and 1,250 leaders in cybersecurity, fintech and retail tech based in the United Kingdom which, he says, would have been “logistically almost impossible” to bring so many interested parties together.
“The ability to shift the value proposition to digital was absolutely fundamental and highlights that we are very much focused on content rather than just social events and cocktails. If you are content based and on-line, you remain relevant,” he says.
Another important change resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic is that members based in the Algarve usually would meet with each other at events in the region. With the online events, the BPCC was able to reach a wider nationwide membership and distance was no longer an issue because people were wasting over an hour driving to and from events. “Including travel time, a lunch event could typically take up four to five hours of a member’s time. Now with remote events, it’s an hour,” says Chris Barton.
Brexit teething problems
On the issue of Brexit, the BPCC admits there have been some teething problems surrounding import and export paperwork. In some cases members in the logistics sector were able to resolve problems. “Even when the paperwork has been correct there have been delays because of the backlog, with a queue in both directions,” admits Chris Barton.
Barton also gives the example of a UK company specialising in treating oil slicks that had applied for a contract through the EU’s Maritime Safety Agency in Lisbon which was excluded from bidding for the contract because they are British and not from EU Member States.
And while not sensing any antagonism or the active creating of difficulties from the Portuguese authorities, dealings elsewhere within the EU have been “difficult with a certain attitude of ‘you left Europe, you’ve made your bed so lie in it’”.
Rui Pedro Almeida, who is also CEO and Managing Partner at grupo Moneris, specialists in accountancy and management consultancy, says the BPCC has provided an “interesting membership base where we can showcase our expertise and have ‘airtime’ which some of our most important business partners and get referrals. We’ve been involved in trade missions, training, webinars, seminars and are very much involved in the chamber’s activities”.
“Every year we ask ourselves the question on behalf of each member what are we providing for their membership fee and what are they getting out in terms of value as members? The feedback is positive through testimonials and the regional reps who meet regularly with members at their companies,” says Chris Barton.
“This regional outreach makes us unique, since we are the only chamber with delegations in both Porto and the Algarve,” concludes Chris Barton, CEO of the BPCC.
Chris Barton says the BPCC has always been quite good at being flexible, keeping up with changes and reacting. The mantra for the foreseeable future is “collaboration between members”. Rui Pedro Almeida stresses that “We want to improve collaboration and increase business opportunities for our members, encouraging connectivity and promoting regular exchange of knowledge and ideas within our membership base”.
Chris Graeme (Essential Business)