Ramy Salameh visits Slovakia’s second city, to find out how the city is capitalising on its cultural history.
Slovakia’s second largest metropolis, Košice, was designated a European Capital of Culture in 2013, a European Capital of Sport in 2016, and now an UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts.
It has defined itself as a capital of culture, creativity and cool; an evolving hub of innovation, art and design, which locals have accepted as a key driver for further development of the city and generator to an expanding MICE sector.
There has been a trend towards second-tier cities gaining momentum with planners over the past few years. It is a trend that offers affordability and quirky venues, allowing the organiser to better reflect and differentiate their brand.
Košice fits this mould in many ways; one just needs to walk along the historical artery, Hlavná (Main) Street, to admire Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic, Rococo and Art Nouveau architecture of venues across merchant houses, palaces, St Elizabeth Cathedral and the State theatre, all contributing to the meetings sector.
The award of ECC2013 acted as a catalyst in the development of ‘soft power’ and the creative economy, underpinned by three cultural facilities that today form key MICE sites in Košice and gave rise to others.
These are the ‘Kulturpark’, where the buildings of the former army barracks include multifunctional halls ideal for conferencing. ‘Kunsthalle’, the former swimming baths are a public space devoted to contemporary art. And, finally, ‘SPOTs’ – the redevelopment of disused heat exchange stations converted into community centres for residents.
Hlavná Street gathers many landmark venues in the historic centre; the neo-baroque ‘Košice State Theatre’ is capable of adding grandeur to events for up to 500 people. Audiences are rewarded with ceiling frescoes depicting Shakespearian plays and richly decorated gold-leaf balconies from which to watch presentations on the lyre-shaped stage.
A moment’s walk away from the theatre is Slovakia’s oldest restaurant, Hostinec, dating from 1542. Under the vaulted gothic arches of the eatery, a craft-beer micro-brewery provides beer tasting tour incentives among the cellar vats, followed by hearty Slovak cuisine.
The East Slovak Gallery, is another of Hlavná’s key venues, presenting historic and contemporary artists, within a carefully curated set of spaces providing the latest technology to support a variety of events. The modern, minimalist concrete space of Exhibition hall ‘Q’, counts Heineken as a former client. The space offers reinforced ceiling capabilities to suspend cars from, if required. While, on an upper floor, the elegant and colonnaded ‘Historical Hall’ is available for hire and harks back to an aristocratic epoch.
AquaCity & The High Tatras
Moments from the historic centre, Košice Rail Station can whisk delegates to the City of Poprad in under one hour; a gateway to the High Tatras Mountains, a playground of well-being, adventure sport and nature related incentives, teambuilding and meeting possibilities.
With the snowy mountain peaks as the backdrop, ‘AquaCity Poprad’ is within 10 minutes of the International Airport and rail station. The resort has all the ingredients to tempt sports teams, incentive groups and conferences (245sqm main hall hold up to 350 people) for planners interested in combining meetings with wellness.
AquaCity has long been hosting Premier League football teams, making use of thermal outdoor and indoor pools, an ultra-modern two-storey wellness area and Cryotherapy Centre, along with several hotel options.
AquaCity is also an example of sustainability, having been awarded a string of World Travel Awards, from the ‘World’ to ‘European’ Leading Green Hotel. “This region sits on a reservoir of geothermal water, so our entire complex is virtually energy self-sufficient, even our neighbouring 5,000-seat national training centre’s heated pitch,” says Lucia Blaskova, Manager of the AcquaCity-based enjoyTatras.com DMC.
Just 20 minutes’ drive from AquaCity Poprad, the national park High Tatras Mountains is within reach, offering some 600km of marked hiking trails. Within this setting the Grand Kempinski Resort continues to provide a dramatic environment, especially for automotive brands, such as Volvo which partners the hotel, looking to test drive models on winding and peaceful mountain roads, with luxury meeting and bedroom facilities to welcome delegates.
AquaCity and High Tatras can provide a concentrated base for sports teams, and will do for many when the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships descend on Košice in May 2019.
The Ice Hockey World Championships are expected to attract 250,000 fans in May. Košice’s largest venue, The Steel Arena, will host this holy grail sporting event for an ice hockey mad nation.
Sport has always been part of the city fabric. Andrea Porkorwa, Project Manager for Progress Promotion Košice, a leading local event management company, says: “We have been excited to assist many partners in the build-up to the championships, which is adding to an increasing demand from commercial companies to hold events in Košice.”
Progress Promotions organised the annual Košice Peace Marathon (the second oldest marathon in the world), the Pro-Educo International Education Fair, which has grown year-on-year, adding 30 exhibitors since 2017, instigating a move to the Steel Arena.
Porkorwa’s optimism for Košice’s future expansion as a top MICE destination comes with a caveat: “The piece of the puzzle that is missing is a dedicated congress centre which would attract the biggest and best events to Košice and region.”
The Steel Arena can seat over 8,000 guests, rising to 12,000 for concerts, and it will open an onsite hotel in time for the Ice Hockey World Championships. “Another challenge is to meet growing MICE demand, by increasing the hotel capacity for larger events. Currently, Hotel Yasmin, Centrum and Double Tree by Hilton are the main meeting hotels in Košice,” Porkorwa adds.
Invisibility & Creativity
The Invisible Hotel concept is “just a small, but important part of the cultural output” for Creative Industry Košice (CIKE), a non-profit making organisation that evolved from ECC2013, according to CIKE’s Director Michal Hladký. The hotel concept fuses tourism with art, by offering guests insightful stories of the city, people and crafts.
The Invisible Hotel’s five individual rooms are designed by local artists and are spread across city-centre hotels. Each room celebrates a unique historical event e.g. ‘Room Golden Treasure’, which depicts, through modern design, the hoard of 2,910 gold coins found during city renovations in 1935, currently displayed at the East Slovak Museum. Guests also receive a welcome pack offering a curated selection of craft products and free tickets to cultural institutions such as the retro Kino Usmev cinema.
CIKE recently organised an important ‘Art & Tech Conference’ in Košice and used one of the city’s most iconic cultural venues Tabaka KulturFabric as part of their programme. This multifunctional building best encapsulates Košice’s cultural economy and alternative urban scene. Tabaka is described as a ‘social innovator’, holding on average 1,000 events annually, across 2,500sqm of varying spaces and fostering new young talent across the creative arts and media spectrum. Tabaka plays a big part in developing culture and creativity as a ‘soft power’ in Košice.
ECC2013’s knock-on effect, is still being felt, not just within this city’s MICE sector, whose portfolio of unique venues is firmly on the radar of planners, but also reverberating out towards nature and the UNESCO filled regions.
Košice’s accolades and event ‘wins’ keep coming – this year it is the European Capital of Volunteering and next, hosting the 2020 World Master Orienteering Championships, which will help plot another active course for this captivating Slovak destination.