Universidad Pontificia Comillas
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Universidad Pontificia Comillas

Protocol in Madrid

It was my first time in Madrid when I landed on 9 February, 2023. I quickly passed through other passengers at the airport and got in a taxi. There was no traffic that evening, and within a short half an hour, I found myself entering Hotel Indigo, right opposite El Corte Inglés. I don’t know why, but I always start getting to know the city where I am with going to a grocery store, so I rushed to El Corte Inglés, hoping they had one. And yes, there it was! I was amazed how kind and helpful people were in the store and when I found the many different hams in colourful bags hanging on hooks on the wall, I could not help but taking a picture and posting it immediately on Facebook.

It was already late so I did not go to explore the city, instead, I devoted myself to go through my lectures for the following day. I spent the first part of Friday at the Escuela Internacional de Protocolo, a huge institute where more than 900 students study the various aspects of event management while being enrolled to obtain their Bachelor’s Degree. I lectured on how NATO Summits are organized providing a little bit of “NATO behind the scenes” experience. Madrid also hosted one of the so-called full-fledged Summits in the city last year and judging from the many photos available on NATO’s website, it was impeccably staged. I myself led the organization of 3 NATO Summits, the 2014 in Wales, the 2016 in Warsaw, and the 2017 May 25 “Handover” High-level Meeting of Heads of State and Government in Brussels, so I drew on these high-level events to highlight a few key aspects. There were very many interested students, the future event professionals, and I hope we will find them at mega events, such as Expos, or football world cups or maybe in national protocol services. Surely, they will be perfectly equipped to be hired by the best event teams anywhere after having studied here. My main goal with my lecture was to draw the students’ attention to NATO as an international organization and to promote it as a great workplace even for event management professionals.  

I was also invited by the leadership of the Escuela Internacional de Protocolo for lunch in the Bloom by Salvador Bachiller Restaurant. I liked the interior very much and the food was great with very professional service. We started with a Table de Quesos and my main course was Carrillera Ibérica con puré trufado recommended by my hosts. An absolutely great choice, and a very delicious Spanish speciality! We had a great conversation and time flew very quickly. One of the questions I got was how I treated working lunches and dinners in NATO HQ from the perspective of food service. I pointed out that these working lunches and dinners are meetings of the North Atlantic Council with a set agenda and speakers’ list, and as a result, my focus was to make sure I minimalized waiters’ movements in the room to avoid distraction, which required careful planning. First of all, we always served a cold starter which was already on the table for our high-level guests (e.g. foreign or defence ministers) a few minutes before the working lunch or dinner started, as well as the corresponding cold white wine was already poured in the glasses. With this, I avoided the movement of waiters during the opening speech of the NATO Secretary General, and other key speakers such as the United States or others. The ministers could eat while the Secretary General was speaking (he even encouraged that because a hungry minister is never a good idea!), they could drink if they were thirsty, and if he raised his glass in honour of someone, the drinks were ready for the toast. I always pre-determined, under which speeches we could have service but I kept eye contact with my protocol colleagues, or went to the headwaiter standing farther in the service door if I needed something quickly. I of course had a “double-hat” for such events, being also the Secretary of the North Atlantic Council and 8 other ambassadorial or higher level bodies, managing the meetings and the speaker’s list while also being the Chief of Protocol.

In fact, my conversation with my lunch hosts in Madrid was so interesting that eventually, I had to rush away at 4.00 pm because my lectures at Comillas Pontifical University were about to start soon. I lectured from 17.00-21.00 that day and from 8.30 to 13.00, as well as from 14.30 to 18.30 on Saturday.

I think I can say that I have never been at such awell-equipped, beautiful and neat place as Comillas. I lectured at the apparently brand new Comillas Conecta Lab and also in the Main Red Building Auditorium. I was amazed how state-of-the-art and clean everything was. Even the cast iron gates outside. No idea how this was possible looking at the heavy traffic in the street.

I met some 60 or so very proactive, attentive and knowledgeable students, the future policy decision-makers in international relations. I attached great importance to these lectures to them, as I find it essential to spread the message that event organization, including a protocol job, is a multifaceted, hard and time-consuming work. I mentioned to the students that once a Director of the Private Office of the NATO Secretary General asked me “why I am making such a fuss about the organization of the meetings of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s supreme decision-making body (such meetings we usually had 2-3 per week, or sometimes more), when in fact for him it seems like a drill and he just walks in the room, sits down, listens to the Ambassadors (Permanent Representatives as we call them) speak under the different agenda items and then the meeting ends with the Secretary General’s conclusion, after which he bangs the gavel and we all leave”. I responded that “yes, you just do all this, you enter, listen and leave”, but for us, the Council Secretariat, coordinating every element of it, issuing the agendas, assigning the minute writer and drafting, checking with all relevant Divisions and issuing the minutes of the meeting after receiving the relevant approvals, preparing the seating plan with the names of all those who must sit at the table, and behind, as the meeting can be in various formats, also making sure we have the most up-to-date version of that seating plan, as well as for all those colleagues working behind the scenes in Conference Management, from conference room reservations, to the ushers who set the table with the nametags, papers, pencils, from the IT colleagues, to the many other technicians, interpreters, as well as Security who will check the badges of everyone attending the meeting before entering the Council Chamber, for all of us, one Council session is a whole lot of work.” For the Council Secretariat, I was heading, even the easiest Council meant 80 phone calls with the Divisions, sections, Allies and potential Partner Nations. And you can imagine, we had more of such Councils every single week.

During my lectures on various topics I shared some other stories too and I was happy to see how interested the students were and how surprised they were listening to the many challenges protocol professionals and event organizers face and the potential solutions which can be found through which we provided the most conducive environment for international dialogue and negotiations at the highest levels. I ended my lectures Saturday evening thanking the students for their continued attention during the long hours with me, for their many questions and different approaches which opened new perspectives for me too. I also expressed my hope that in their future professional life they will look at some of the challenges differently based on what we discussed and that they will remember that any solution can be a good one if they can come up with a good explanation to sell the idea.

Thank you Comillas for these two very rewarding days!

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