Paul Colston finds that Malta has kept all its conference charm and has been adding to the package during the pandemic.
Landing in Malta in late August for my first international press trip in months brought much anticipation. Following in the footsteps of the Knights of St John, I witnessed how the traditional pull of heritage is today being reinforced with a modern technology twist and plenty of culinary and activity seasoning.
The Maltese islands are easily accessible for European visitors – its main market, and the short transfer times within Malta do not eat into your programme. For someone based in the UK like me there is no quarantining, just ensure all your documents are in order before travel.
The Maltese MICE welcome (merhba) is as warm and deep as the country’s 7,000-year-old culture, embracing eras of influence from the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Europeans and more. It all adds up to a rich brew and fascinating backdrop for events.
While the conference canvas offers organisers a chance to paint their own event experience, the practicalities are all in place, with plenty of providers used to working in a visitor economy.
Ronald Sultana, director of tourism and economic development for the island of Gozo, the smaller island now served by a fast ferry service since June 2021 that links with Malta in just 30 minutes, told me that the incentives market was a priority for his government, which was supporting venue operators, initially, with a fund offering up to 50% of upgrading costs up to a maximum of €50,000.
Gozo has two five-star hotels and potential to make a two-centre event with its larger neighbour. “Gozo is more than just able to service the ‘I’ in MICE,” Sultana noted.
Over at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta, virtual reality is being brought to bear in the nearly 500-year old structure that started life as a hospital. An €8m project, ‘Re-living the Sacra Infermeria’, allows visitors, via an app, to relive 18 scenes recreated to illustrate how the venue looked in the past. MCC’s more recent history has included hosting world summits, such as Euromed, Arab-Israeli leaders and former presidents Gorbachev and Bush.
Big corporate brand clients include Porsche and, last year, Samsung.
The Malta Fairs and Conventions Centre (MFCC) services the fast-growing SiGMA Europe gaming event and offers vast exhibition space next to the national stadium in Ta’ Qali.
Trade fairs resume from September, so far with a cap on numbers (300 outside), but by dividing groups into cohorts and using the full outdoor flow, capacities can be increased, says Anita Mifsud, the MFCC CEO.
“We lost some staff,” she added, but explained that government support of up to €800 per employee per month, had helped a great deal.
With Malta Tourism Authority, Mifsud and her team designed, in June 2021, a ‘bubble’ confex scheme based on 400 delegate cohorts. “It was a big success,” she said.
Aside from the two big event venue behemoths, MFCC and MCC, Malta has many boutique jewels in its venue crown. One such is Casa Rocca Piccola, a house museum built in 1850 and still lived in by the noble De Piro family. There are rooms for rent, as well as a chance to hear first-hand all about the history from the live-in Marquis himself!
Xara Lodge is one of several beautiful wedding venues on the island.
My own base was in The Hilton, St Julian’s, which was hosting the local X-Factor show during my stay. The hotel can cater for up to 480 delegates in its Business Centre and up to 1,330 in its Conference Centre. And X certainly marks the Mediterranean MICE hub spot in Malta as its events business gathers momentum.
Check out this interactive map on Malta’s Best Cultural and Slow Travel Locations. Some of the travel insights the interactive map offers include:
Malta boasts hubs of micro-culture, like Ta’dbiegi Crafts Village – watch locals create artisanal products and chat with the friendly tradespeople.
Just one of Malta’s picturesque locations, the Blue Lagoon, has turquoise water and a cove that’s perfect for snorkeling.
Despite Malta’s small (0.5 million) population, it still has a national football stadium in Ta’Qali, which seats 17,000 people.
Malta provides opportunities for travellers to give back to the local community. Volunteer at Malta Horse Sanctuary in Siggiewi and Tomasina Cat Sanctuary in Qormi.