There are four questions people often ask me during the events and trips. When did you start Expat Club? Why did you start Expat Club? How do you come up with all ideas and destinations? And, you are organising so much, are you doing this on a full time basis? Let me answer these questions for you.
When did you start Expat Club?
I started the Meetup group Expat Club Brussels on 31 March 2013 as a birthday present to myself (one day later, not a joke). My first event was a drink at Roi des Belges. With 35-40 people it was a great turnout, although I have to admit that I handed out free drinks. I guess I was just happy that I had finally started something that had been in my head for such a long time.
My second activity was a trip to the UNESCO-protected Kinderdijk windmill park and the Keukenhof flower gardens in the Netherlands. There were “just” 20 people on board the bus, but I was quite happy with how the day went. One thing was certain, I would organise many more events, both locally and to places in all corners of Belgium and many destinations abroad (see our map). The best thing of it all is that there are still some people joining me from that very first trip, now almost 3 years ago.
Why did you start Expat Club?
I’m actually an academic with a PhD in Business Administration & Management (Bocconi University, Milano), so there is not really a logical link with what I do and my educational background. But let me say a few words more about that in a minute. There were actually three major experiences that led to the creation of Expat Club. First, during my high school and student years I was very active in youth politics and joined and organised a high number of seminars, conferences and study trips, both in the Netherlands, Europe and around the world. Travelling over 50% of my time, visiting over 50 countries, and having friends everywhere, I did not only get a lot of practical organisationals skills but also got a knack for the international life. My favourite trip is still the one that I organised in 1997. Welcoming 58 people from all over Europe on board our bus in Utrecht, we travelled to Brussels, Luxembourg, Geneva, Chamonix and Strasbourg, visiting NATO, the Belgian Senate, the European Investment Bank, the Luxembourg Mayor’s office, the Red Cross and World Health Organisation, the glaciers and peaks of the Mont Blanc massive, the Council of Europe and European Parliament. What fantastic memories! Second, at intervals over a period of 18 years I contributed a lot to a major event travel company in the Netherlands. For instance, a few consecutive years I was managing trips to the famous Berlin Love Parade, which included the selection of hotels (over 1.000 rooms in about 40 hotels in just one weekend) and the logistics of getting 5.000 party people to and through the German capital.
Third, while living in Milan for my doctoral studies I set up a new group for Dutch expats (NLBorrels Milano) and organised many meetups, as well as very popular Queens Day parties and 2006 World Cup matches, frequented by hundreds of people. Needless to say that I miss those many warm nights outside and enjoying the Italian way of life. When I moved to Mumbai (my wife is Indian) I became active in the Dutch-Belgian Club, and again experienced how much fun it is to organise events that bring people together. So when I finally arrived in Brussels in 2010 I already had the plan to create something new for expats. I wanted to set up something meaningful that goes way beyond the traditional “expat event” that seem to be more about drinking and partying and being focused on singles than that it is a meeting place for every stranger in this new city. I wanted to create a safe and respectful environment for every expat and returning Belgian expats, including couples, introverts, older expats and even families. It’s just amazing how much fun you can have and what a memorable time you can have with such a diverse group of people.
We’re here to help each other and I would like to contribute my part. No doubt this sense of public duty was strengthened during my graduate studies in Public Administration & International Relations at the oldest public affairs school in the United States, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (it is also consistently ranked as the #1 public administration program in the US). Upon graduation my classmates and I took the Athenian Oath that is written on the walls of the School, and this has been one of my guiding principles ever since:
We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many;
We will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty;
We will revere and obey the city’s laws;
We will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.
Despite the many attractive sides of Brussels (e.g. parks, cultural life, good facilities etc), I feel there is a need for a sense of community that original “Brusselaars” may feel but expats not. I want to do my share to transmit this city better and more beautiful to the expat community than it was transmitted to me when I arrived with my wife and ten suitcases in 2010. Expat life goes fast. Many people only stay for a few years and hardly have the time to understand and explore the city and country, let alone making meaningful connections that give a sense of belonging. This is probably the very core of why I’m working day and night to create Expat Club and to make expat life just a bit more interesting and better than what it used to be.
How do you come up with all ideas and destinations?
I always wonder why someone can ask this question. I mean… Brussels? Belgium? The Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, France and the United Kingdom? Just have a look the Belgian map (and surroundings) and spot the vast number of places you can go to in just a day. It’s insane so many, but this is literally what I do. Pick a spot and check it out. For Brussels and Belgium there are also some great online sources, such as 365.be and of course the amazing blog Cheeseweb.eu by Alison and Andrew.
Are you doing this on a full time basis?
Expat Club is a full-time commitment for me. It may seem simple to build up a community and organise a few events, but to do it well it takes an incredibly amount of time. There are many aspects that you may not think about when you join an event or trip. As said above, for almost all trips I visit the destinations beforehand. I check parking spots, walking distances, the routes of the guided tours, lunch places, menus, museums, bars, public toilets (if you gotta go, you gotta go!). For trips with big groups I even visit service station to see how many toilets are available, simply because you don’t want to waste time standing in line along the highway. And often I ask the staff to also open up the toilets for disabled people or “stand on guard” when the ladies in our group make use of the mens room just because the architects of public restrooms want to be too democratic when it comes to dividing the toilets (women need more time, hence the lines!). Everything is meant to create the optimal program for the relatively short time we spend at our destination, to avoid unnecessary waiting, and to visit the best places for having a wonderful day. Besides the events there is also the website, communication, financials and general administration. Actually, the past year I spent most of my time on these aspects. In 2016, I increasingly spent more time on all the events and more trips. And in 2017 I will dedicate much time on building a larger community with a lot more local events and partnerships.