By Nina Erneker, Business meetings consultant and place branding strategist:
If you’ve read some of my blogs, you’ve probably noticed that I don’t consider congress tourism as ‘tourism’, but that the meeting industry goes far beyond the parameters of tourism. It is a sector that cuts across affects or even directly interferes with the competencies of several departments or sectors. I will try to name a few:
- Transport – It probably does not need to be explained, moreover, in Slovakia we have tourism ‘parked’ at the ministry of transport and construction of the Slovak Republic, which is an anomaly of at least European proportions
- International relations – after all, who else should help business events than our diplomats abroad
- Economic policy and foreign direct investment – I outlined this topic in one of my older blogs
- Education, research and development – international congresses are one of the most effective tools for the exchange of know-how and also for the visibility of research and academic achievements of the state, which also benefit universities in increasing the number of (paying) foreign students
- Regional development and innovation – congresses are an accelerator of putting innovation into practice and represent an amazing tool for economic recovery and development, but I will return to that it in a separate blog
- Culture – the cultural and social benefits of the business meetings industry are probably more than obvious, and here I’d reference a smiling example from Ireland. The Dublin Convention Bureau provides direct grants to congress organisers for an accompanying programme with elements of Irish culture. Although it is only a guess whether it applies to Irish whiskey tastings:).
- Ministries of the interior and defence – in the case of state events, their role is more than key
- And last but not least, congresses intervene in communal affairs, bring employment, affect the reputation of the city, the region and the whole country, and also bring direct benefits to the inhabitants.
Why am I writing this? For more than a year now, the media have been leaning towards the construction of a new congress and cultural centre and the re-establishment of the Slovak Tourism Agency. Its new name should be Slovakia Travel. I assume that this is still a working title, as ‘Travel’ does not contain a more essential part of the industry, which is Tourism, ie organised tourism.
We abolished the national agency, including the national convention bureau, in 2016. Since then, the country’s marketing has more or less merged with participation in international tourism fairs. Now comes the renaissance of the original agency.
We have never had a purpose-built congress centre here. There are a few cultural ones, although few currently meet the necessary standards. That is why the intention to build a new congress and cultural centre is the focus of the entire industry and of those few soldiers in the field who have been presenting professionally for years and also representing the country in this field, often from their own resources and at their own risk.
So far, their state has not asked what parameters the congress centre should have in order to be functional and meet the needs of the target group. In addition, when quantifying the return on the state’s investment in the cultural and congress centre, the income from congresses is mainly taken into account. This is also confirmed by the communication of the civic association National Cultural and Congress Centre, which bases the justification for the construction of the centre mainly on this pillar.
The developers have done their homework well. Apparently, they understood that it would be a construction of a generation. Most projects, at least according to media mentions, seem to be prepared with really good quality.
The question is how prepared the state is for this investment? We are going to spend about €60+M from public sources on the undoubtedly necessary and significant construction, but there is no public expert discussion about it anywhere.
Do we know how to get those congresses here? Do we know what a regular organiser of an international congress needs? Does the city and/or region know what is expected of it when running bids and hosting congresses? Do we have something to offer academics and scientists, our much-needed ambassadors, in an effort to win a congress for the country? Can our foreign representations develop activities for successful candidacies? Do we know how the world outside us perceives us beyond our borders?
In short, there is a lack of professional and especially interdepartmental discussion about what we need to do before the centre is built. This may seem like a over long time horizon, but the truth is that by the beginning of 2023, we should be ready to offer the destination with its new congress centre. At least ‘on paper’.
Now I may be overdoing it a bit, but building a ‘barracks’ for €60+ million is not enough to start international congresses and foreign investment.
We have a unique opportunity to set all the parameters so that we can responsibly embark on the candidacies in about a year. For a start, we can trial it with local events, later we will move to smaller regional ones, and from 2023 also to larger European or indeed dozens of global ones.
The pandemic will end at some point, and if the state, its individual ministries, the city, the region and the private sector do their homework conscientiously, the recovery of the economy, and congress events, can be achieved relatively quickly.
Nina Erneker is a business meetings consultant and place branding strategist and is a former head of the Bratislava Convention Bureau.