I am proud of the countless CSR initiatives of our members who selflessly helped health care institutions and all vulnerable categories in Serbia, their care for others, solidarity and resilience.
Under the slogan “How can we help you?”, during the pandemic, we have invested effort into organizing as many useful online conferences, webinars and club meetings as possible in order to overcome the new situation as easily as possible through joint campaigns, initiatives and solutions.
What does 2020 look like from your perspective and what expectations do you have for 2021?
The year 2020 was particularly difficult in many respects – for our member companies, that have been facing unexpected and difficult challenges, and for the Chamber that lived through their challenges and tried to provide them with maximum support. We also had our own challenges that, in addition to the impossibility one part of our core business that is event organization functioning properly, were additionally complicated by the human resources challenges in the Chamber. As of this year, and that is good news, we are coming out stronger with two more babies in the Chamber, and with the awareness that we are a fantastic team in crisis.
What are the Chamber’s most important successes in terms of supporting its members?
I am especially satisfied with the speed of our reactions in a crisis. On the very first day of the state of emergency, after consulting our members from the ranks of small and medium-sized enterprises, we wrote to Minister Mali with a request for assistance measures for SMEs. Twelve other bilateral associations in Serbia joined our campaign of sending a request to the Minister of Finance in a short period, because they recognized the importance of that initiative.
Thanks to the fact that our chamber is a part of the large network of French chambers of commerce abroad, we have managed to organize regional webinars on the topic of agriculture, transport and logistics and energy, with French chambers of commerce in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Owing to these webinars, the chamber members could see how companies in the region were dealing with the pandemic, compare experiences and hear the opinions of experts and representatives of institutions. Members must know that we are always there for them.
To what extent have the measures implemented so far benefited small and medium-sized enterprises, i.e. your members?
Even before the implementation of the state of emergency in Serbia, we realized that the global health crisis will affect the business of our members and partners in Serbia. Therefore, we reacted very quickly and took certain actions like send requests to the Government and ministries to take into account the difficulties faced by companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. SMEs make up a large percentage of our members, they are the backbone of the Serbian economy and we need to fight for the support for these companies and help them overcome this difficult period. I think that the measures to support businesses are satisfactory, but that, especially early on, their technical implementation was not clear enough.
We also need greater flexibility in the Labour Law, i.e. the possibility for employees to work part-time or to be temporarily unemployed for a longer period, without being fired, because that would increase the percentage of job preservation. Generally speaking, except for companies operating in particularly vulnerable sectors, such as our members from the hotel industry or event management, the Chamber members are still holding up well. We hope it stays that way.
How much did the know-up and exchange of experiences with your colleagues in other chambers help you with offering your members quality content in digital format?
For several years now, digitalization has been a priority for French chambers of commerce abroad. The global platform that connects members was launched 2 years ago and an increasing number of members use it for contacts with companies worldwide. I am especially proud of the cooperation we have with colleagues from 6 other Central and Eastern European countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Croatia), with whom we set up a sort of crisis headquarters back in March, which meets every two weeks to exchange experiences and information. This initiative helps us to overcome this crisis year more easily, but also to lay the foundation for future business, because together we organized a large number of sectoral webinars for French companies to motivate them for nearshoring and choosing Eastern Europe as the best destination.
On the other hand, with colleagues from the German and Italian chambers, we continued the traditional organization of joint events, but we just broadcast them online. We had quite operational dialogues between members, the Customs Administration and the Tax Administration. These are institutions that hesitated a bit when we proposed this new way of functioning, but the results were such that we will continue to organize such events in this format. In 2021, we have more ideas for joint initiatives as our trio works great because our members share similar interests.
What questions do your members most often ask you today? What has changed since the start of the pandemic?
During the strongest wave of the Covid-19 virus, at the end of March and during April, our members contacted us with various inquiries, most of which were related to imports and exports, border blockades, difficult customs procedures at the EU entrance and obtaining permits for their workers during the curfew. Fortunately, these difficulties are no more, so the inquiries are mainly related to the resumption of activities, opportunities to export to France and the EU, providing information regarding legislation regarding remote work, networking, as well as our plans for 2021. Business meetings and networking are also an important part of our activities and members contact us with initiatives for joint organization of webinars and workshops in the areas in which they specialize. I would say that all of us, both our members and we, in the Chamber, are in a combat regime and that we are actively working on the recovery of companies and the economy.
What are the Chamber’s plans for 2021?
2019 was a great year for us. I believe that 2020 was just a short break, and that in 2021, all started projects will continue, and many more will be launched too.
We plan to continue with hold webinars in the early 2021, considering that people are bit jaded when it comes to online events, hence we are going to try to make these events as attractive and useful as possible. And as soon as sanitary inspectors allow it, we are starting with our live events because we are craving socializing. We are going to start preparing for our Gala evening, the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau, our Event Booster fairs, Bonjour France, and certain novelties like a big food event.
On the other hand, one of our priorities is presenting Serbia and its economic potentials to French companies, which we have been successfully implementing through conferences and B2B meetings. We are planning to hold several conferences next year, including a regional one in Belgrade, on public-private partnerships. We hope that next year we will be able to continue our activities in France, especially organizing B2B meetings with companies. In the meantime, online activities will continue, as early as January 26. We are participating in the e-Business Booster Forum Europe, where we are animating the workshop called “Serbia, a new industrial hub in the heart of Europe”, and participating in B2B meetings.