Combining the best in tourism with the top of communication
How did you start in this events business? What was your career path until you got to what events by tlc is today?
I started studying Tourism and Hotel Management, in Lisbon, at International, and I had my first business adventure with a catering project, while I was at school. Then I joined some professional internships, went to London, and at Intercontinental in Hyde Park Corner, I was part of a team of almost 20 people in the commercial department of a hotel that is a profit machine. I learned a lot, I stayed there practically a year, and then I was invited to go back to Portugal and work in Dom Pedro hotels, until I felt it was time to start my own business. I believed, and still believe, in Portugal... in fact I think our agency helped the country get where it is now. I'm not saying that we were the only ones, there were others, but I think we've done a lot for Portugal to be fashionable. And we believed it would one day become a tier-one destination in the international market, something that started to happen very recently. We believed that and 15 years ago we decided to create events by tlc, which at the time was called The Lisbon Consortium. This is what "tlc" stands for.
And what did it focus on back then?
We specialised in attracting international events for Lisbon. In our first year of operation, in 2003, we started having clients asking us to work Porto and Algarve. And The Lisbon Consortium didn't work anymore and in our second year we rebranded for TLC - Events in Portugal. However, our business model also evolved, always with a dedicated creative team, whitch looked at the briefing in its logistical need, but before that in its communication aspect. We have developed this business model, always with these premises, and we continued growing until we had clients asking us to look at Brazil, especially after the country won events like the World Cup and the Olympics.
And so you did...
Over a year I went there ten times to study the market and after that time I believed that we could make a difference and open in Brazil. We had an excellent World Cup with international clients, sponsors and national teams. Then we did the Rio Olympics in 2016, also with great success. Later that year, we made an acquisition in Brazil and merged with Case Imagine. And this was very relevant throughout our path, because it gave substance to what has always been my vision: combining the best in Tourism with the top of Communication. Events by tlc, a specialist in international event logistics, and Case, the Brazilian market leader in brand activation, live marketing, digital. With this step we assume that we are a much more strategic company than a DMC. We can say that we are a local agency with global competences, that acts in the Ibero-American market, and that today has operations in Portugal, Brazil, Spain and Florida. The Sunshine State plays a very important role here because large companies make their decisions in Miami. This places us very close to decision makers and, on the other hand, gives us an ability to operate in what is the largest region for Brazilians.
What about Spain?
We bought Ole Special Events in 2014, after being in Brazil, and understanding that the Latin American market had an enormous potential for us and for our type of customers. To continue this growth we felt that we needed an Iberian presence, namely in Spain. One day we will have to continue this expansion process in Latin America. It will not happen this year, for now we are consolidating our operation with Case, but in the future.
Harnessing each culture for the benefit of all
Along these 15 years of activity, what were the most striking moments for you?
In terms of growth, the merger with Case was a very remarkable moment because it gave muscle to our vision. The first event we did was a very striking moment too. Participating in the MTV Europe Music Awards, where we did a large part of the event. In 2004, in the European Football Championship we had 23 operations. It was unbelievable because there were five of us. The Champions League Final in Portugal. Real Madrid won and offerred a jersey signed by all players, asking me to deliver it to the president of Benfica. That was a special moment too. Being in Brazil, in the World Cup, with a robust operation was also quite remarkable.
What are the main differences between working in Portugal, Spain, Brazil and the United States? And what do you think they can learn from each other?
One thing I have been careful not to do is to take for granted that cultures are similar just because we speak the same language. I think this is a very basic error, which happens recurrently, and which typically goes wrong. We must recognise different cultures and modus operandi and be a little more political and understand what is the best we can make of each culture, for the benefit of a whole. That is the challenge, but on the other hand it is also an opportunity. A very basic example: creativity. Brazil wins many creativity awards. It makes sense combining this with the robustness of processes and procedures of an European operation. On the other hand, it is a risk, by assuming that we have a business with a successful model in one country, and replicating it in its essence in another country, does not work. I learned from my own mistakes as well. We did not do well in Brazil at the beginning. We had three very difficult years in which we thought of leaving several times. It was difficult, we lost money, we got very tired, exactly because the starting point was that culture would be similar.
But what do you bring from these cultures for your operation in Portugal?
We have a very wide exchange of people. The holding company is in Portugal and has shared services, and we now have a development direction, with six people developing technology full-time, and the director here in Portugal is Brazilian. Not long ago we had a big event in Brazil and there were three people there. And we ended up valuing people, because they are relevant in what is the consistency of the group.
With the economic crisis, your diversification strategy was vital.
Absolutely. We grew strengthening our operation in Portugal, in what its core business was, a DMC, although I do not consider ourselves a DMC. There has to be an evolution of that name, as solving the logistics of a particular event is not enough these days, although it is important to solve it well. We grew expanding to new geographies, Spain, Brazil and Florida. And we grew with the launching of new business areas. Sports, for example, where we already have three proprietary events. And there is a fourth dimension of growth that is disruptive innovation, where we have a team of six people, in technology, designing, and in which we are working on very ambitious projects for the future.
A look over the industry
How do you look at the events sector in Portugal? Have budgets gone back to what they were? Are companies already organising more events?
Portugal has a size problem. For example, in Brazil, when we do some brand activation or digital strategy for a company we think of 200 million inhabitants, while here we think of 11. And that difference is reflected in budgets. The ability to impact people when we do an Xbox project in São Paulo is 20 times greater than here in Portugal. Budgets follow this reality. Portugal has this limitation, but it feels that there is more budget, and more availability for differentiated ideas. Generally speaking, companies have two main concerns. One is to expand their investment online. The physical does not disappear; rather, it is essential, but it has to be expanded online, and we have those skills internally. And the other is to measure the return. But what does this really mean? Will I sell more with this action?
How do you see this tourism boom? Do you think it can somehow harm the events business?
There is a statistic that is very relevant, speaking of the international market: 95% of the people who visit Portugal say they want to return. And this is the best statistic to say that this is not a trend, that it is sustainable. I think we should recognise the work done by Turismo de Portugal and the Secretary of State for Tourism, realising that in economic terms we would never be able to compete with countries like England, the United States, or Spain, regarding advertising funds. So we were much smarter at doing our job, we realised that we had a very limited budget but that we had an exceptional country and what is better than bringing here those who decide and opinion makers? Nothing. We provide experiences to those who have a view on the industry, and this put the country in the spotlight. We recently won a number of awards. This has helped. Then there are also natural ambassadors here: Madonna, Louboutin, Philippe Starck. They are the ones who admit that this is the best country in the world to live. Do we miss some things? Yes. There is still some courage lacking to assume that we are a niche country, that we have to increase our value, because we can not be a mass destination, we have to be a little more selective, and some international hotel chains are lacking in the country, especially to attract the American and Canadian market, which buy a lot based on brands. I hope this will happen in the next few years, it is a gap that the market still shows. Portugal had relatively low occupations, was what is called a buyers market, but nowadays it is a sellers market, that is, the market is more on the side of the suppliers, because occupations are high and this brings more difficulty in doing business to short term. The last minute is very difficult to achieve.
And how do you look at the other regions in the country? Which destinations do you find most interesting at this time?
Porto, where we have been operating for a few years, came very close to Lisbon. Nowadays there are times when Porto is more expensive than Lisbon, for example in hotel capacity. Porto has a very interesting dynamics, and I think the re-elected mayor had a very good vision for the city, that is, not to create a single zone, but to make the whole city grow with more boutique projects, and that was a success. Porto has also been awarded and recognised as a good destination. Last year we brought InVoyage because we wanted to get that message across. We believe that Porto will be a great destination. It still lacks some hotel capacity, despite the growth, it needs some international chains as well. Bringing Porto and Douro together also seems important to me, because there has been a great highlight of the Douro region, it has some growing charm that I think is here to stay. In relation to international incentives, this combination with Lisbon is delicious. Everybody wants to come back. We have been calling attention to the Algarve, although flight connections are still a big gap. The Algarve is perhaps one of the best destinations for incentives during the winter and this is not yet present in the international mindset. The Algarve will grow a lot in the future. All regions have been growing, but I would highlight Lisbon and Porto all year round and the Algarve which is amazing off-season.
Cláudia Coutinho de Sousa