First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Matt Farquharsen

The Dutch invented capitalism. Or at least, they invented its modern guise when, in 1602, the first stock exchange opened in Amsterdam and the Dutch East India Company became the first firm to issue stock. It is now regarded as the original multinational corporation. The event marked the beginning of a century of Dutch pre-eminence as a merchant nation: a tiny land built up from mudflats to global dominance by the benefits of trade. Today, the building where those first stocks were traded still exists, a three-minute walk from Amsterdam’s Central Station. But the Beurs van Berlage former stock exchange no longer deals in equities. In some ways it has reverted to a more ancient kind of trade, bringing people together as a conference centre.

The people industry

‘Our merchant spirit is something really positive and it continues today,’ says Marc Horsmans, Meetings and Conventions Manager at Amsterdam Marketing. ‘That merchant spirit is to the advantage of conference organisers because conferences are a people industry. So it helps when the local people do day-to-day business with each other and cooperate very willingly on trade. This has to do with the Amsterdam merchant spirit: do as normal, but run your business and do it very well. In other words: just do your work.’ Along with capitalism, the Dutch are masters of plain speaking.

Amsterdam has been a popular conference city since the opening of an exhibition centre in the late 1890s that would go on to become the RAI in the century to follow (see box); and last year, nearly 2,600 international conferences and exhibitions took place with over 1.2 million participants. The city’s prominence in life sciences, finance, technology and IT start-ups means that those industries have been particularly keen to host events here, and the city works hard to offer local expertise to conference organisers. Once the theme for a conference is set, the supporting team at Amsterdam Marketing can tap into the knowledge of the local government, science centres or companies to help gather useful information and offer ideas and potential partners.

Label of quality

Over the last decade, a surge in the number of hotel rooms and new venues has seen the supply of space catch up with the sometimes overwhelming demand. Since 2006, hotel capacity in the city has increased by 50%. ‘Now we have nearly 38,000 rooms and we’re going to grow to nearly 40,000,’ says Horsmans. With that surge in beds, the city has been very keen to ensure standards remain up to scratch, implementing a system called Iamsterdam Approved.

‘With so many hotels under development, conference organisers were concerned that hotels would squeeze the hotel rates higher at busy times,’ says Horsmans. To get Iamsterdam Approved status, hotels must fall within a set price and quality range. ‘A three-star hotel has a different rate than the Amstel Hotel, which is a five-star deluxe, but they’re all within a certain range. It’s a promise to conference organisers: “If you come with a huge amount of people, we’re not going to ask the highest hotel rate.” Hotels understand the long-term investment, and they work with us.

I’m proud that the city can cooperate with all its conference stakeholders like that. It is really very unique,’ says Horsmans. It’s part of a service ethic has seen high-end offerings such as Concierge Amsterdam (see box) blossom in recent years. And the creative nature of the city has helped to attract suitably creative hotel chains. The city’s first W Hotel opened at the end of 2015, a few months after the first overseas outpost of East London hipster chain The Hoxton, with a Soho House – the members’ club for the creative industry – coming in 2017. Budget design hotel chain Motel One opened its first Amsterdam site last year, while local invention the Arcade Hotel pitches itself to the city’s impressive gaming industry.

Unique venues

Along with the growth in the number of hotel rooms, new meeting locations are coming. All that Golden Age merchant wealth created some impressive architecture, and much of it is becoming available to conference organisers under the banner of Unique Venues Amsterdam (uniquevenuesofamsterdam.com), alongside the glass and steel modern marvels sprouting from the shores of the IJ River behind Central Station.

‘There are buildings that have shifted their focus to the convention industry very happily – for example, the Beurs van Berlage, and also Amsterdam ArenA, which used to be just a soccer stadium but now has thousands of square meters dedicated to the meetings industry. Other funky buildings, like the Rode Hoed along the Keizersgracht, have really adapted to the meetings industry.’ And, being Amsterdam, all of these places are very close together. This is a city where it’s possible to cycle across the centre of town in 15 minutes, and where global HQs for firms as diverse as Heineken, Philips, Tommy Hilfiger and an array of financial and scientific institutions are just a few minutes apart.

‘Amsterdam is a very compact destination, but that isn’t just about getting from A to B in five minutes by bike; it’s also about people knowing each other,’ says Horsmans. ‘In many other destinations there are layers of politics, but you don’t find that in Amsterdam. That helps conference organisers, because you need to know that if something goes wrong, you can trust it will be handled quickly and in a professional way. And the pragmatism of the Amsterdam people is of course there to support that.’ Those people, ultimately, are what Horsmans sees as the city’s main competitive advantage. 

 ‘Amsterdam doesn’t really hold any big industries. We don’t make thousands of cars a day.  We’re not an industrial city like that. The people are the industry, and that makes a bit of a difference,’ he says. ‘That makes Amsterdam very unique: that merchant spirit that has been in our DNA for over 400 years’.