The City-Wide Event That Changed Dates, Twice

Skift Take

Changing the dates of a city-wide congress sounds like a planner's worst nightmare. Try doing it twice.

The World Energy Congress (WEC) is an 18,000-person four-day city-wide event hosted by the World Energy Council every three years. The historical congress has gathered private and public energy leaders from around the world since 1924. Abu Dhabi hosted the last edition in 2019. The 2022 edition was scheduled for St.Petersberg, Russia. Rotterdam, the Netherlands, confirmed as the host of the following congress, scheduled for 2025.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine meant advanced plans to host the congress in St. Petersburg had to be scrapped. The World Energy Council asked Rotterdam to bring the congress forward from 2025 to 2023. Despite extremely limited availability, the city was able to accommodate the request. 

Shortly after the new dates were publicly announced, a change of date to the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) forced another date change. The 26th edition of the World Energy Congress is now scheduled for April 22-25, 2024.

The triennial pattern of the congress meant that the Covid pandemic did not directly impact it. In a cruel twist of fate, the war in Ukraine scuppered advanced hosting and promotional plans. This is a startling example of the uncertainty that planners face today.

A Powerful Congress

The World Energy Congress is an event with 100 years of history. The first edition in 1924 attracted 1,700 attendees from 40 countries to London. When Munich hosted the event in 1980, the city’s mayor dubbed it the ‘Energy Olympics.’

The latest edition was in 2019, when over 18,000 attendees from 146 countries gathered in Abu Dhabi for the 24th World Energy Congress under the theme ‘Energy for Prosperity.’ The event showcased 257 exhibitors using 35,000 square meters of exhibition space. This marked the first time that the WEC was held in a Middle Eastern country.

It’s a desirable event to host, particularly for any country and city that wants to make a statement in the energy sector. The WEC’s request for bids document states the “host must secure the highest level of political support.” 

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak led the Russian hosting of the now-canceled 2022 edition. The 2024 edition of the WEC expects to host more than 200 energy leaders, including heads of state and ministers joining around 7,000 international energy stakeholders from the private and public sectors.

Destinations looking to bid for the next edition must agree to pay the World Energy Council a royalty fee of $2.1 million (£1.7 million). Sample budgets in the bid documents suggest that congress hosts can generate up to $8 million (£6.7 million).

Bidding is currently open for World Energy Week 2025. A request for proposals for the next World Energy Congress will open in May.

Rotterdam’s Drive

Rotterdam has largest seaport in Europe and it plays a key role in the energy supply for Northwest Europe. It also consumes a huge amount of energy, around 750-850GWh, the equivalent to the energy consumption of 250,000 Dutch homes. 

The Dutch government has ambitious plans for an energy transition for the Rotterdam port, making hosting the WEC extra attractive. “The energy sector is one of the most important sectors for the city.  Turning over to new forms of energy has been a huge part of the agenda, so that made us very keen on hosting,” said Mirjam van de Kamp, director of conventions at the Rotterdam Ahoy Convention Centre.

Van de Kamp was a key figure in bringing the event to Rotterdam. She started the process as account manager convention bureau at Rotterdam Partners, the city’s convention bureau, before later joining the Rotterdam Ahoy team in February last year. She gathered and aligned partners for a full year to bid on the WEC. “We worked for a year on feasibility and getting the right partners around the table before we even could start bidding on this event,“ she said.

“Being a second-tier city, you’re always working a little bit harder to get things done and to be memorable,” said van de Kamp. The bidding process was extensive and included creating a full multimedia publicity campaign. The Covid pandemic delayed the process, but they won the bid in December 2020 to host the WEC in 2025, narrowly beating Lisbon in the final voting round.

Interim Meeting Fills the Gap

Without a congress in 2022, the World Energy Council faced a serious financial challenge. “The Congress is our single largest physical platform that generates income as well as patronages,” said Tania Baumann, chief operating officer at the World Energy Council.

There was also an international community of energy stakeholders keen to meet again, particularly after a long Covid-pandemic-induced hiatus from in-person meetings. “The cancellation of the St Petersburg congress and the impact of Covid resulted in a real demand for our community to physically get together,” said Baumann.

To fill the gap at short notice, the World Energy Council announced in June 2022 that an Energy Trilemma Summit to take place in September in Aberdeen, Scotland, supported by the Scottish Government. This was a much smaller meeting, with 228 participants from 49 countries. However, it was important to generate much-needed income for the organization and bring key stakeholders together. 

The Scottish city, the UK’s main hub for the offshore petroleum industry, was a keen host destination, and hosted a successful meeting. “Aberdeen was an ideal host as a city. It could not only accommodate our community but even more importantly, the support of the government, city and stakeholders to the energy transition agenda and the Council […] was really fantastic,” said Baumann.

Bringing a City-Wide Forward

After having confidential conversations regarding canceling the St.Petersberg congress, it was all hands on deck to find an alternative. “They were actually asking initially also for 2022, which we said was a very short timeline, 2023 is already a stretch,” said Raya van Hugten, director, association solutions division, MCI The Netherlands. She has led the congress organizing and marketing team since winning the bid in late 2020.

Bringing a city-wide congress forward is complex and involves multiple stakeholders. “It’s not only looking for delegates, but it’s very much around liaising with the PR agency and corporate affairs. It’s a very high level of interest and obviously very important for the Netherlands,” said van Hugten. The wide-ranging work involves connecting with everyone from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Change to energy-focused start-ups and scale-ups.

The host venue, the Rotterdam Ahoy, expanded in 2020, just before turning 50 in 2021. Its newly increased capacity matches the WEC’s logistical requirements, which include a plenary room with a 3,500 capacity and 25,000 square meters of dedicated exhibition space. 

The recent expansion and multi-faceted nature of the venue meant it was in high demand, making finding gaps in the Ahoy’s availability even harder. “It’s all our event or exhibition halls and the arena [so it impacted] concerts, sports events, and other exhibitions […] some things had to move,” said van de Kamp.

Two options emerged: December 4-7, 2023, and April 22-25, 2024. Despite the shorter timeline, the World Energy Council and the local host committee chose the 2023 dates. Next came a lengthy administrative process involving securing official government approval and commitment from officials to be present.

In September, the World Energy Council announced that Rotterdam would host the WEC in December 2023 rather than September 2025 as planned. 

COP28 Forces Second Date Change

In November, representatives from the World Energy Council were in Rotterdam for a site visit when they learned that the United Nations had changed the dates of COP28. “We had prepared a very exclusive dinner in a very special place in Rotterdam. […] During that dinner, we heard the new announcement of the COP dates,” said van Hugten.

The overlap in dates was a tough blow. It meant several stakeholders involved in both events would need to choose between them and the WEC would innevitably lose out. There was no choice by to go back to the drawing board and start the date-change process again.

Fortunately, van Hugten had kept April 2024 dates at the Rotterdam Ahoy as a backup option. The motivation for this was safeguarding against the Covid pandemic. This shrewd move ended up making the date selection process much simpler. “If we had not done that, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to hold to move the congress to the Spring of 2024. We would have been looking at the end of 2024 eventually or the earliest gap,” she said.

After briefly considering moving to Amsterdam, the dates of the WEC in Rotterdam changed again, this time to April 2024.

Lessons Learned

“Changing dates is not that uncommon anymore. Due to Covid, we’ve done that a lot,” said van de Kamp. Date changes, most often cause by the Covid pandemic, have haunted planners for the last few years. “We are never frustrated with any of this. We just look at this as part of the deal. I mean, especially after Covid, right? We’ve become even more flexible,” said van Hugten.

Sometime we cannot avoid canceling or postponing an event. When this happens it’s important to consider all the possible implications. “You might have to make a call about the potential impact and optics, commercial impacts in terms of sponsors and exhibitors, reputational impacts, availability impacts, delegates, speakers etc.,” said Baumann.

“Think further about how you will communicate the cancellation to your stakeholders including delivery partners, the city and others such as potential delegates, speakers, and the media, so that negative impacts can be minimized and relations can be maintained as far as possible,” added Baumann

The Importance of Contracts

Mitigating the impacts of date changes starts with having contract clauses that address these situations directly. “It may seem obvious to you that the conditions make your event impossible to proceed, but how does your contract deal with this? What are the contractual terms that cannot be fulfilled, and do these constitute a material breach or material conditions that you can rely on?” said Baumann.

Beyond determining that an event cannot go forward there is also the actual process of cancelation to consider. “Who do you need to consult to ensure that if you are forced to cancel, that you have done so in the correct and proper way? Your Board, legal advisors, insurers, members?” said Baumann.

Even if an event is fully insured, the cancellation is not simple. Baumann encourages planners to engage with insurers and communicate clearly with them to avoid creating further risks. “Process is important to observe, so that you are protected in the unfortunate event of a legal dispute that could end up being expensive and protracted, something everyone surely wants to avoid,” she said.

Partnership Is Crucial

The importance of truly partnering and being fully transparent with suppliers quickly becomes apparent. “It’s not a question of client-supplier anymore. It’s a question of connecting it all together. The success of their event is my responsibility as well,” said van de Kamp. “The Dutch can be considered very direct, but I think, in this case, that is helpful as well,” she added.

Working with companies with the capacity to continually support events despite significant changes may also be worth considering. “We are really happy that we can actually offer them the security of not having to worry about a shortage of staff or not not being able to scale up or down,” said van Hugten

Ultimately the importance of organizers working closely with their partners cannot be overstated. “Working with your partners is vital to reach a decision, and flexibility and support of the host, venue, and the partners are really important to an association,” said Baumann.

Timeline of Events

  • June 6, 2019: Russia announced as host of the the 25th WEC
  • September 9-12, 2019: Adu Dhabi, UAE hosts the 24th WEC
  • January 9, 2021: Rotterdam, the Netherlands, announced as host of the 26th WEC
  • April 20, 2021: Registration opens for the 25th WEC in St. Petersburg, Russia
  • February 21, 2022: Gazprom announced as platinum sponsor of the 25th WEC
  • February 24, 2022: Russia invades Ukraine
  • June 21, 2022: Energy Trilemma Summit announced for Aberdeen, UK, in October 2022
  • September 20, 2022: 26th WEC announced for December 4-7, 2023 in Rotterdam
  • October 12-13, 2022: Aberdeen hosts the Energy Trilemma Summit
  • November 15, 2022: The UN announces a change of dates for COP 28
  • December 14, 2022: New dates (April 22-25, 2024) announced for the 26th WEC in Rotterdam
  • April 22-25, 2024: The 26th World Energy Congress is to take place in Rotterdam