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Interview with Luďěk Vocílka, the managing director of GUARANT International spol. s r.o. (GI)

Luděk Vocílka is the CEO and co-owner of GUARANT International. Back in 1991, when he founded the company, he did not have a detailed business plan. He just wanted to do business and had the courage, enthusiasm and interest to build the so-called “capitalism”. Thirty years have gone by and the company is still prospering. We are in a time of pandemic, which has hit the congress industry very hard. GI has survived. Despite the fact that the time of the pandemic is very complicated and psychologically demanding, the CEO looks very calm.

Initially, what were the reasons why you decided to open up an agency and start a business?
A beautiful time, enthusiasm and an interest in building something new, the so-called “capitalism”. That was, of course, the main motto. I was 25 years old at the time and, at that moment, I wasn’t looking for reasons why something couldn’t be done, how risky it was, how complicated it could be. We went rushing headfirst into it without great expectations. A lot of people of my age did that, especially those who felt the need to fulfil their potential in some way, which had not been possible since 1948. The need for fulfilling one’s potential was undoubtedly very strong.

Did you find the time of the 1990s easy or complicated to do business?
I would say two-edged because it was definitely easier in that everything was considered as a blank slate. People were happy to do business freely. There were no references, no recommendations. Everything was built from scratch. It was a “pioneering act.” Having completed my military service, I returned to work at the Čedok travel agency. In addition to the limitless enthusiasm to build something new, there was yet another level. We tried to agree with Čedok on establishing some kind of a franchise and organizing congresses under the Čedok brand, just as McDonald’s or many other brands work. But the time was not yet ripe for that, which we did not realize at first. As the division of the Čedok travel agency between the Czech and Slovak Republics was taking place, it was accompanied by certain problems. The whole plan fell through based on the fact that Čedok was not ready for such negotiations at that particular moment, and therefore the option “let’s go our own way” won.

Many similar companies and agencies were established in the 1990s, but only a few of them have stayed in business to this day. What makes GI unique?
There are two distinct categories. Firstly, there are quality people working with us and secondly, there is determining and defining the direction in which to go, not only in the Czech Republic but also internationally. GI is exceptional because of its people. Quality people are always the most important wealth in any range of services. People influence the company’s behaviour and its entire setting. The second aspect is that we have significantly defined the various directions which we then developed, especially in the field of the congress industry, association management and venue management. Nothing like that existed here except for the state form. In this area, we have, in our own way, set the parameters for the operations direction, and I believe that we will continue this “pioneering”.

What was the most difficult time for you?
Undoubtedly the current COVID-19 period. For myself, I compare it to the situation when James Bond gets on a plane that needs to be lifted to fly over a building. James Bond, of course, pulls the stick and steps hard on the pedal to lift the plane. This scene lasts about 10 to 15 seconds. After that, the viewers feel relieved even though they knew all along that the outcome was always going to be positive. However, Covid-19 didn’t take 10 to 15 seconds but more than 15 months. Therefore, lifting the plane out of the danger zone so that it would fly safely has taken us “infinitely longer.” And still today, the plane isn’t flying completely free over the horizon. There is still uncertainty as to how things will be in the autumn. Will everyone be vaccinated then? Will everything be in perfect order? Are we going back to the normal we used to have? So, this is clearly the most difficult period in many ways.

What did the pandemic take away from you and what lesson have you learnt from it?
The pandemic has taken away from me some illusion about the functioning of the state administration, which should generally create a “safety net” when businesses must be closed down or restricted. By its unprofessional decision, the state broke up the support into a number of activities while demonstrably damaging some of them to a great extent. For more than nine months, we have been asking for a setup of professional support, which we then finally received in March of this year or, it might be better to say, won. Ultimately, this sectoral support was one of the most significant tools for surviving this difficult period.

And what lesson did I learn from the pandemic? Let me get back to one of the pillars in terms of GI’s uniqueness, which are our quality people. Under such considerable pressure, characters are formed. It so happened that some people left when they were unable to withstand the surrounding pressure but, on the other hand, I also came across a number of correct attitudes which have helped the company and contributed to the proper functioning of relationships on which we are trying to build.

During the pandemic, GI has quickly switched to a virtual concept of event organization. How do you perceive virtual technologies?
I see them adequately for my age – I am not completely dependent on them, but I work with them and see them as a part of our work. The problem is that the virtual technologies did not take off as a result of evolution, gradually and smoothly, but they came into our lives as revolutionary. They started very abruptly and thus showed us all the pros and cons, such as our unpreparedness and irreplaceability of social communication among people. They also showed us that they are excellent tools for situations where we already know the person well and need to exchange basic information with them. Instead of meeting physically for every little thing, we can come together as a group or even individuals and communicate things online. This also applies to the category of virtual events. They are tools that help people not lag behind in their education and development. Nevertheless, virtual technologies have deprived people of their personal contacts, which are important to them and which were helping them develop, for example, foreign cooperation, among other things. What was supposed to happen in five to ten years happened at once, right then. And it occurred under the pressure of imperfections of the tools which we had not yet mastered so well and which we had to continually modify or adapt as we went along.

Those aged over 40 will never be prepared to communicate exclusively in a virtual form. It is possible that the younger people who were still at school when the change happened will be able to do that, and unfortunately, with a slight regret in my voice, I note that they will not lack the real social interaction. I will mention just a few little things that make up the whole—for example, speakers at virtual events who see no response. In the conference room, one can see and perceive how people react, if they like what they see, if they shake their heads, clap, have a strong reaction. But you won’t get anything like that from your monitor. You will not know whether the participants understand your talk, whether the information you are presenting is sufficiently comprehensible for them, etc.

How do you think that the event virtualization will continue once the pandemic is over?
The principle that applies here is that no man ever steps in the same river twice, so expecting a mere return to how it used to be would be an illusion. There will probably be more pressure to run hybrid events, but that is still up for consideration and it is my personal perception. There will be those who will regain access to transport and accommodation in richer accessible countries, so it is expected that people will be happy to return to travel and meet again.

On the contrary, the hybrid model could help, for example, young scientists, doctors and lawyers who do not have the funds to travel. In this way, they can at least use a virtual platform to gain experience and knowledge, even when they do not have the resources and no one will provide them for them. This can be combined with video libraries and other tools which will work for the congress industry as a source of education for anyone around the world. So, it will definitely be beneficial in this respect. From this point of view, I think that hybridization is likely to stay with us. However, it will be approached pragmatically because the hybrid model is the most economically demanding one. It will have to be handled with care to make it work to the satisfaction of everyone involved.

By contrast, have you ever experienced a feeling of euphoria?
A major turning point came with the International Monetary Fund. It was the biggest event for us, including a budget of almost a billion, all the remarkable people who gathered there, the exceptional security measures which I hope I will never have to experience again, and the violence outbreaks here in Prague. It was a completely unrepeatable event that uplifted GI greatly, because telling anyone that we had a professional reference from organizing the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Annual Meeting made it basically clear that we were able to fulfil their ideas and organize any event to anyone’s complete satisfaction.

What was the size of your implementation team that organized this event?
The team was composed of several parts: GI, the World Bank, the Ministry of Finance and the government representative. Everyone was working together so that the event would run smoothly, to the satisfaction of the clients and the participants, and so that it would serve as an excellent reference for both GI and the Czech Republic. And we fully succeeded in our efforts.

How do you relax? What is your idea of your most relaxing past-time?
Sport. It is my vent, my way of switching off. For me personally, it’s tennis. I devote myself to this little yellow ball. When you play, you realize that you can’t be doing anything else. Otherwise, you will notice that you are not giving it your all. It is best to learn to leave all the stressful issues behind. I rest actively and happily.

What is your motto?
“Humour is mankind’s greatest blessing”. – Mark Twain