In the picture Consul General Dirk Janssen. Photographer Joukje Baur for Consulate General of the Netherlands in San Francisco.
No more meetings, trade delegations, or cultural events. The emergence of Covid-19 a year ago halted business as usual for many in the diplomatic world.
The restrictions also had a major impact on the Consulate General of the Netherlands in San Francisco. But a year later, the consulate has embraced digital diplomacy by organizing digital trade missions from its own webinar studio. Consul General Dirk Janssen explains how his team launched the so-called e-Consulate.
Based in the heart of Silicon Valley, the consulate used to welcome monthly trade delegations and several government officials per year. All that action came to a sudden stop in March 2020: “With the economic uncertainty that was ahead, we were determined to continue providing our economic services to Dutch and American companies,” said Consul General Janssen. “Meeting and connecting people is our core job, so our challenge was to adapt to a new world without travel and handshakes for the time being.”
The consulate’s team followed the example of innovative tech companies in Silicon Valley and pivoted, or made a quick turn of its business. “We launched the eConsulate, in which we offer the same services for businesses, but online. Companies could book online meetings, we opened a WhatsApp number for questions, and started hosting online events on a variety of topics,” said Consul General Janssen. “We also launched an online platform through which Dutch startups were mentored by Dutch tech entrepreneurs. Surprisingly, we started to expand our audience, from the US East Coast, to Iran and even Australia. Online we could connect even more people to Dutch innovation.”
Forced into a strict lockdown in San Francisco, team members organized all this from their own homes. “It was quite an adaptation for all of us: from hosting events at the consulate to being a webinar moderator from your kitchen table. Suddenly, our economic staff had to be communications experts and our events manager had to do technical assistance,” said Consul General Janssen. “All our jobs changed, just to keep the consulate open and be of service of the Dutch and American business community. Our motto was: just do it and learn on the way. I think this pivot really represents the Netherlands, showcasing the smart Dutch flexible approach to problem solving.”
In June, the consulate hosted the first Dutch virtual trade mission, on smart and e-mobility. The consulate was transformed into a TV studio, and offered the 100 participating companies five days of webinars, and online match making and networking. Minister Kaag (Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation) and California Lieutantant Governor Eleni Kounalakis opened the mission.
“From a content perspective, I think the virtual format is a great substitute, as it was easier to find a wide variety of speakers,” said Consul General Janssen. “Discussions went well, and there was a lot of knowledge exchange and contact sharing. It turned out that for many Dutch entrepreneurs, it was less of a hurdle to participate, as they didn’t have to travel across the globe.”
They did, however, miss the social part. “Networking online is different than in a room where you can shake each other’s hands,” he said. “We also noticed some cultural differences in meeting people online for the first time. Even now, we continue working on the perfect format for online interaction.”
Almost a year after the start of the corona crisis, the eConsulate has developed from a temporary solution to a more structural approach. It has hosted multiple trade missions, a network reception with live music, a naturalization ceremony, a film screening, a Nobel Prize lecture, a startup incubator program with Prince Constantijn, and alumni events all online from its own webinar studio built in one of the consulate’s meeting rooms. “The skyline of the city is our background, giving people in the Netherlands the feeling that they’re really visiting San Francisco,” said Consul General Janssen.
Consul General Janssen foresees continuing online meetings and events even once the pandemic recedes: “I really miss offline human contact; it’s an essential part of diplomacy. However, the world has changed. People don’t want to fly that often anymore and many companies here allowed work from home indefinitely. As a consulate we have to facilitate these wishes from the business community. So I expect trade missions to become more hybrid: first an online preparation program, then getting on a plane to actually meet possible partners. Offline and online will go hand in hand.”
Photography by the Consulate General of the Netherlands.