Roughly 2290 metres below the summit of Vitosha, the mountain that looms over the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, is the equally mammoth Paradise Centre, the venue that was chosen for this year’s EuroFM conference. Now celebrating its 30th year, EuroFM is an international industry event that is designed to improve cross-border business relations and culture collaboration. It also aims to bring greater clarity to FM issues through the dissemination of FM, Workplace, and wider built environment research. The conference is represented by 23 European nations, as well as those from further a field, and is attended by a variety of practitioners, academics, and industry bodies.
In recent times, this international congregation of FM and Workplace professionals has been hosted in cities like Milan, Madrid, and Berlin, where the industry’s presence is more pronounced. While prosperous and picturesque, it’s clear that Sofia cannot yet be considered an FM ‘hub’ in the same way as its predecessors. Indeed, as the deputy mayor for Sofia remarked upon opening proceedings, there isn’t currently a phrase in modern Bulgarian that adequately describes what ‘facilities management’ actually is, illustrating the industry’s infancy in this part of the world.
Definitions aside, the reasons for choosing Sofia soon became apparent. Delegates were assured that the city, Bulgaria, and the wider Balkan region takes FM seriously and wants to enjoy the same economic benefits it has provided to neighbouring countries. The investment opportunities are clear, a cursory glance across the city shows you that new buildings of all shapes and sizes are flying up, replacing the old Soviet concrete blocks that have stood for decades. There is also a demographic change in the works, an emerging middle class that is diversifying the workforce and consequently the type of built environment that is being developed (Sofia is widely considered one of the top destinations for tech start ups). In short, the city was chosen because it’s a new frontier for FM, one that’s ripe for investment and interested to learn more.
Admittedly, this was my first outing to an industry event outside of the UK, but even so I could tell this was something a little different. It was clearly a conference that placed emphasis on knowledge sharing, rather than promotion. Even the layout of the hall was designed to be open and interactive, with a 360-degree stage and chairs for attendees gathered closely round its edges. As David Martinez, director of CIFMERS, remarked early on, this layout was entirely intentional – it was trying to mimic those great discussions and debates that families have around the dinner table. It worked. The room rarely, if ever, felt flat or uninterested in what was happening on stage.
While some things at EuroFM were definitely different, some FM conference mainstays inevitably popped up. Anxieties around how the industry can add value, standardisation, the use of an FM vocabulary, the role of new technologies and innovations, sustainability, millennials, workplace, so and so forth. But while this is ground that has been covered many times before, the event format and sustained interest of attendees produced genuinely productive results. Perhaps this was down to the fact that EuroFM is just as interested to hear from researchers and academics, as it is from service providers. That said, the companies that did send representatives there to speak also produced insightful and unbiased commentary that covered all the big issues in our industry. A welcome change from the sometimes overly commercial focus of other exhibitions and events.
There were a few stand out moments. On the first day I found the presentation from Paul Cannock, head of facilities at the European Space Agency, to be fascinating. Here he explained how FM is helping to create the experimental conditions needed to mimic the environments found on the Moon and Mars (the ESA plans to go to these extra-terrestrial destinations in the near future). We so often hear debates around how FM adds value, well here was a prime example. Were it not for the efforts of the FM team, the ESA’s facilities would not be able to adequately test their aspirations to go further than any human has gone before. There was also a video of a rocket taking off which seemed to pique everyone’s interest (especially mine, I love space).
Back down on earth there was an excellent change of pace from Chris Moriarty, formerly of Leesman and now director of insight at the BIFM. In his presentation he convincingly laid the groundwork for why ‘Workplace’ (note the capital ‘W’) must be included in any future discussions and what the FM industry must do to secure greater recognition from its contemporaries. It certainly stirred the room and produced plenty of debate as the morning session adjourned. In the afternoon, Paul Bagust, director of RICS, chaired an equally compelling panel debate on technology, data, and its relationship with FM. Seemingly a topic permanently fixed on the agenda industry events, this session nevertheless produced some real food for thought and offered for UK delegates a refreshingly non-domestic angle.
If there was to be one call to action over the two days, however, it was this: come together to move things forward. Associations and professional bodies have often been accused of being too commercially driven, serving in the interests of a few rather than the overall health of the industry they are intended to represent. EuroFM was a pleasant change of pace in this respect – its ambassadors continually stressed the significance of community and understanding in the pursuit of progress. In that sense, it seemed apt that the conference took place at the base of a mountain. Yes, there are steep hills to climb but summits are rarely crested by going it alone.
To summarise, if you are looking to learn, as I was, this type of event is an great opportunity to do so. EuroFM is a truly international conference that is as much welcoming as it is interesting. The content was engaging and the event was well-excuted against a very friendly atmosphere. I am keen to return next year when the 31st edition is held in Dublin.