Featured Placement: Robin van Puyenbroeck at World Trade Centers Association

by Kieran McTague

Senior Vice President and Director, New York

Posted October 23, 2020

The World Trade Centers Association is committed to connecting the business world. Earlier this year, Development Guild partnered with World Trade Centers Association on their executive search for an Executive Director – Business Development. We placed Robin van Puyenbroeck, the former Vice President, Business Development at Ethan Allen Global. Our Senior Vice President and Director, New York Kieran McTague recently sat down with Robin to discuss what he has been focusing on in his new role, and how WTCA has adapted its brand, events, and business development during COVID. Keep reading to discover what he had to say!

Kieran: What attracted you to the Executive Director- Business Development opportunity at WTCA?

Robin van Puyenbroeck headshot

Robin van Puyenbroeck

Robin: I’ve been working in business development and focusing on partnerships most of my professional life, and I knew I wanted to continue to grow in that role. So that attracted me to the Executive Director position itself, but I was also really interested in WTCA as an international trade organization.

I’ve long been involved in international relations, having been engaged with organizations close to the United Nations system. The opportunity at WTCA aligned my professional ambitions with my personal interest in that international/global perspective, as well as my interest in trade and development. I was also very impressed with the transformation the organization had experienced. WTCA had recently gone through an in-depth review and strategic planning process. The fact that they are so open to change, to looking inwards critically – that was very telling. I wanted to be part of that change.

WTCA is a membership-based organization. What do you see as the greatest benefits of membership?

The benefits are multiple. As a member and licensee, you are able to use the iconic WTCA brand, which is universally known and respected. But it’s so much more than a name on the building. We’re a beehive of economic activity with a truly global network of interconnected members in almost 100 countries. We have members that are real-estate focused, with an emphasis on iconic properties. We have members that are focused on trade services. And of course, most members do both. In addition, there’s a whole category of members that includes free trade zones, conference and exhibition centers, airports, universities, and organizations that focus on foreign direct investment. It’s really a diverse footprint that I am looking to expand. For all of our members, it provides a network of connectivity and trust. You know you can call someone who you have never met before, but because you are both WTCA members, there is a level of comfort – you know they will be willing to help you because there is a reciprocity there.

And I think this has only become truer and more important during the pandemic. People are honestly more connected now than ever before because we are all virtual. So, to have access to that network, to be able to have that support while we’re all virtual – it’s hugely beneficial and it’s a message we are always reinforcing. Our network has proven to be incredibly resilient during this time of crisis.

On the topic of embracing virtual communications – I know events are a key element of WTCA’s programming. How have you adapted your events strategy in recent months?

Historically WTCA has had essentially two main events: the general assembly and the fall members event. We’ve decided to do both of them virtually this year due to the pandemic. We’re putting together robust programming that we’ll share with members soon.

I think, now that we’re many months into the pandemic crisis, many of us may be feeling ‘zoomed out,’ so part of planning this programming has been us thinking about how to make the program engaging and work for as many people as possible. We’re keeping each session to no more than 30 minutes, and they’ll be live so there’s an interactive component. We’re trying to figure out a way for people to network virtually, too, since that’s always been an important aspect of our events.

I think, a more positive aspect in terms of events planning during COVID, is that high quality speakers can be easier to commit now. There’s no travel necessary, and it’s a smaller time commitment. We’re finding that the leaders of organizations we partner with are making themselves more available. And at the same time, there isn’t a maximum for how many people can attend a virtual event. All this means that there’s really no limit to who you can engage.

Our virtual events will be a test, but I’m very comfortable trying things out. If it works, great, and if it doesn’t, then we learn. But we have to adapt, we have to try new things – that’s the only opportunity for success. After all, insanity is doing the same things over and over again but expecting different results.

I know you strongly believe that partnerships are a key tool for business development. Can you expand on this idea?

Partnerships are the most critical component of our business development strategy. I would’ve made it my primary focus before the pandemic, and it’s even more important now. We can’t travel for sales, so how do you prospect? You have to rely on partnerships.

For instance, we recently announced a new partner that is a global umbrella organization for the conference and exhibition industry. This provides us access to new networks as well as relevant expertise. But also, it open doors for their members to consider becoming a WTC and strengthening their value proposition. When we’re all engaged in this way, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship; it isn’t a transaction, it’s a true partnership. 

How do you think about brand equity? And how has COVID impacted WTCA’s brand equity and how you communicate it?

Brand equity is crucial. As an organization, we are licensing that brand, and for someone to become a licensee, they need to see the value in it. From my perspective, there are three core components to creating a strong brand equity: a consistent brand narrative, clear and well-communicated principles, and being part of the conversations taking place within your industry.

The first step is to make sure that your brand narrative concisely states who you are and what you do – this isn’t easy to accomplish. Especially as a global organization with so many entities and members, our brand narrative can become varied. Furthermore, it can take time to create that brand narrative and have everyone embrace it. And at the same time, our environment is rapidly and constantly changing during COVID, so we have to be able to adapt our message. But still, there should be a core brand narrative that remains true and consistent.

And of course, once you have your narrative, you have to also make sure that your brand stands for something – that it has clearly defined principles. We’re moving away from a brand that is just a logo or a name to a brand that really stands for certain beliefs and that recognizes what people in our space are thinking about and concerned with. This isn’t a perspective that is unique to WTCA. You see major investment firms embracing ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) principles now. That, to me, is an indicator of a real shift in thought and approach around the value of a brand.

Then, there’s a multiplier effect. If you have a strong brand narrative and clear principles, you’re going to be part of larger conversations – with your clients and members but also at a national and global level.

Most of our readership is nonprofit professionals. I know you serve on the Board of the UN Association and EUCLID. How are those organizations navigating COVID and the overall challenges of 2020?

It isn’t news to say that for many organizations, it’s a difficult situation. Some donors are more reluctant to give right now, given the financial uncertainty we’re facing. And of course, just like it has at WTCA, the pandemic has mandated a rethinking of events, which are big drivers of fundraising.

The UN Association of New York has gone completely virtual with its events. In the past, the events have been a real draw – people enjoy the round-table experience, and the opportunity to interact with speakers and ambassadors and debate in person. Of course, it feels very different to try and replicate that experience virtually. Does that impact the organization and its fundraising efforts? Yes. But have we adapted? Yes and with great success. Change has not come at the expense of quality programs though – again, embracing change is the only option.

Meanwhile, with EUCLID, it’s a bit of a different story, since it’s an international, inter-governmental organization with a university mandate. From the very beginning, the concept behind EUCLID was for teaching faculty from around the world to provide a high-quality education to students from around the world, all while completely virtual. And up until 6 months ago, the virtual learning model was considered somewhat lacking by societal standards, but the pandemic has made that model go mainstream. People understand the value of a strong virtual education much better now. So, Euclid has been very resilient in recent months.   

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