"Never waste a crisis", it is sometimes said. The Enterprise Europe Network experienced this first-hand when the coronavirus took hold of the world. We made changes at lightning speed to keep our professional Network active. And the results were impressive! Entrepreneurs did not feel abandoned. Supporting and connecting people, even at the height of the storm: this is the strength of our Network!
It is March 2020, the borders are closing and events get canceled one after the other. Questions from worried business leaders are pouring in. The need for support is greater than ever and the Network cannot leave entrepreneurs alone and out in the cold. In a short time, we transformed our entire organisational work into an online portal. In this way, we continued to meet our customers "in person", though from a distance.
Although online registrations were already part of our matchmaking activities, when events and in-person meetings were postponed or canceled, the Enterprise Europe Network started launching digital matchmaking platforms successfully. For example, a Eurostars matchmaking event attracted 262 participants from 24 countries: they had more than 500 virtual meetings. Similarly, the virtual fashion week in early October 2020 was also a great success: 875 participants and a multitude of virtual B2B conversations were set up.
Personal contact obviously works best, but the online barrier turned out to be less cumbersome than expected. Participation increased, meaning that companies we would not normally reach became more and more prominent and registrations are still very high for the upcoming events as well. Business leaders find these online events a valuable alternative that we want to use more often in the future, although this will not become our exclusive way of working. Trade fairs are certainly still useful today, but digital meetings are very interesting for a first business contact, especially on an intercontinental level.
Online meetings have another advantage in our daily activities: we can involve foreign colleagues or partners more quickly. This has proved to be very important during the current health crisis. If there is a shortage of medical aids, you must be able to act immediately, without waiting for the next trade fair or long prospecting. The vigorous collaboration among Network partners that we have experienced in recent months has been heart-warming. The interaction among Network partners has always been there, but we noticed a different dynamic. There was a sense of urgency, regardless of political or economic interests. This created great solidarity among the members of the Network. Not just to help your own customers, but everyone who needed it. For every question, the same answer: "Yes, we can!" Back in March, we immediately realised that what suddenly happened to our colleagues in Lombardy could also happen to us from one day to another. And this network effect will definitely persist in the future.
In addition to matchmaking events and answering questions, we will continue to provide companies with maximum information about European initiatives with regard to resilience and innovation. For example, we notice a growing interest in European grant programmes. In preparation for some of those programmes, we organise the so-called "mock pitches": an online simulation in which we advise entrepreneurs on how to improve their pitch. The Network gives us the opportunity to put together an international jury, with various valuable views on the specific cases. After such an exercise, companies feel strengthened to defend their cause at the European level. Helping these young innovative scale-ups to become more confident in international affairs is very rewarding for us: you really get the feeling that you contribute to their success.
Furthermore, in addition to Covid-19, Brexit is also causing a lot of headaches to many of our SMEs. Together with our Network colleagues, we are also ready to assist our clients in the coming months. Because of Covid-19 and Brexit, now more than ever it has become clear that as a company you should not be dependent on one market. The Network will encourage companies with internationalisation ambitions to diversify their partners and markets even more. In addition, we are seeing an increasing number of questions about certification. The importance of adequate safety and quality guarantees has been evident.
The crisis has certainly shaken up entrepreneurs in multiple areas but the Enterprise Europe Network keeps on doing its best to help SMEs turning challenges into opportunities.
Lutgart Spaepen is coordinating the Enterprise Europe Network in Flanders (Belgium) since 2008. She is active in SME policy, regional development and EU projects since 1980.
The article was co-authored by Matthia Simone Sorrentino, Communication Adviser at the European Commission for the Enterprise Europe Network.
The information and views set out in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.