Bringing more business travellers to Bratislava

SLOVAKIA has great potential to become a hot new tourist destination. Its capital, Bratislava, has excellent air connections to the whole world because of its easy access to Vienna International Airport, and even though Bratislava still lacks a large convention centre, it does have the services and attractions that demanding business travellers expect. Better global name recognition for Bratislava would help the city to find a better niche on the map of great destinations for the MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions) segment of tourism.

Bratislava's old town is a favourite among tourists. Bratislava's old town is a favourite among tourists. (Source: Jana Liptáková)

SLOVAKIA has great potential to become a hot new tourist destination. Its capital, Bratislava, has excellent air connections to the whole world because of its easy access to Vienna International Airport, and even though Bratislava still lacks a large convention centre, it does have the services and attractions that demanding business travellers expect. Better global name recognition for Bratislava would help the city to find a better niche on the map of great destinations for the MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions) segment of tourism.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Konstantin Zeuke, general manager of the five-star Kempinski Hotels in Slovakia, Floortje Jeukens, general manager of the five-star Sheraton Hotel in Bratislava, Christian Reitbauer, managing director of the four-star Austria Trend Hotel Bratislava of the Verkehrsbüro Group, and Peter Pottinga, general manager of the four-star Crowne Plaza Bratislava, about the opportunities for Bratislava and Slovakia to attract more business-travel clients, how the economic downturn affected the MICE segment and how they view their work in the hospitality industry.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Before taking your current position, you had worked abroad. Can you compare tourism in Slovakia and abroad? In what respects do the markets and clients differ?

Konstantin Zeuke (KZ): I worked previously in Germany, the Middle East and Bulgaria for Kempinski. Tourism in Slovakia is still under development and it looks like that it is going in the right direction. Slovakia needs to emphasise its attractions and heritage more, such as its castles, thermal spas, and beautiful mountains and lakes, and promote them more intensively. The country still needs to improve in terms of hospitality services and quality. As many young Slovaks have worked overseas and are returning back to the country, they will bring the know-how and good service attitude with them. Slovakia is a beautiful small country in central Europe with great potential to become a good tourist destination.

Floortje Jeukens (FJ): Slovakia welcomes many international guests daily and the same goes for Sheraton Bratislava Hotel. Our guests travel the world and choose our hotels as they are familiar with our strong brand-name and the standards we offer worldwide. The guests know they will find a similar level of quality services from Sheraton Bratislava as they find in any of our other hotels and we are proud to offer these services in Bratislava.

Christian Reitbauer (ChR): In Bratislava the business travel segment is dominating. Furthermore, Slovakia’s capital is a centre of attraction for tourists interested in culture. In general, the requirements in the upscale international hotel business are the same worldwide.

Peter Pottinga (PP): My previous position was in London and obviously that is a destination with much greater name recognition than Bratislava. People know and understand what is available and possible in London, but there is much more uncertainty about Bratislava as a destination.

TSS: What are the strong and weak points of Slovakia as a destination for MICE tourism? What would help, in your opinion, to develop this segment more in Slovakia?

KZ: The biggest advantage of Slovakia is its location in the centre of Europe. For Kempinski Hotel River Park, we can benefit from the closeness and easy accessibility to Vienna International Airport. Bratislava is still lacking a large convention site to host congresses with more than 1,000 guests. The number of hotels is sufficient and there are enough attractions in the city. If we were to have a modern convention centre, we would be able to compete with Vienna, Prague or Budapest. Meeting organisers are constantly looking for new destinations and Bratislava could be one of them.

Slovakia is still a relatively undiscovered country and needs strong international promotion.

Kempinski is very active in public relations and marketing activities outside Slovakia with the help of our regional offices in UK, Germany and Russia. Five international brands are now in Slovakia, which will help to promote and market the country worldwide.

FJ: Slovakia has much to offer international travellers and it is a new destination. Travellers are interested in discovering new, emerging destinations and Slovakia should benefit from this curiosity, promoting the country as a warm, welcoming place. The city of Bratislava has a potential to increase its MICE market through development of a large exhibition centre which corresponds with the current and future requirements of exhibitors and meeting organisers. The Sheraton Bratislava hotel offers a large, state-of-the-art ballroom which accommodates large conferences, which certainly supports the objective of attracting MICE business.

ChR: Stronger international destination-marketing could positively impact the MICE-segment, in addition to having a more modern and up-to-date exhibition centre for hosting international trade fares, exhibitions and conferences. From the varied choices of accommodation, infrastructure and overall attractiveness of the city, we are very much competitive with other major cities in Europe.

PP: A strength for Bratislava is its accessibility for travellers from anywhere across the world through Vienna Airport. Soon we will also have a solid choice of internationally-recognised hotel brands at different service levels.

Bratislava’s challenges lie in two areas: lack of name recognition and lack of proper, high-quality, large conference facilities. Although Bratislava has great access opportunities through Vienna Airport, many potential customers don't know this. There are still plenty of stories of visitors flying from, for example, London through Prague to Bratislava Airport, not realizing that direct flights are available to Vienna Airport. It is this name recognition and understanding of Bratislava as a quality destination that needs to improve. Secondly, for us to consistently attract large, high-quality conferences we need a high-quality conference centre with the latest technologies and service. In this way we can attract the larger, city-wide events that take up rooms in our expanding hotel supply. Currently, the MICE facilities in the city do not meet most requirements of international conference planners.

TSS: How has the global financial and economic crisis affected tourism, especially MICE tourism, in Slovakia? Can Slovakia and, specifically the hotels you manage, find any advantages in the current economic situation?

KZ: We are, of course, aware of the economic challenges but we also see new opportunities here. The Kempinski group is currently undergoing a marketing renewal: we are implementing a new “Look and Feel” concept that is reflected, for example, in a new photographic style inspired by classical paintings, in our redesigned website, new food and beverage concepts, and a new spa concept. Our spa in the High Tatras was chosen to represent the new ‘Kempinski The Spa’ concept, which is based on the healing powers of nature.

The crises have been an opportunity to renovate, invest and offer new ideas to make it more attractive for guests to come to our hotel. But we should never cut costs on quality and service, especially to our guests.

The current situation also helped in that hoteliers are cooperating more to promote not only their individual hotels but also the destination itself. In that effort, we would appreciate strong support from the government.

Cost contingency plans were all in place to handle the economic downturn. The sales offices had to change their attitudes in selling and promoting the hotels. The market became much more price-driven, which resulted in adding value and creating attractive packages and promotions to win the guests back.

FJ: This crisis is not a challenge only for the hospitality industry. This is a crisis that goes across most, if not all, industries. The uncertainty and unpredictability of 2010 is a concern. However, we need to maintain our pricing through these times by continuing to offer our customers true lifestyle experiences. We know cutting prices doesn’t stimulate demand and that discounting is a terrible way to build brand equity. We have seen some serious crisis situations in the past (such as 9/11, SARS, and the 2004 tsunami) and have used the experience we got from these.

PP: MICE tourism has been affected just like any other part of the travel industry. Spending has been restricted by our potential customers; however, now that the economy seems to be slowly recovering, spending for MICE will return. One measure of silver lining is that with the recession, as well as the increased supply in the market, our prices are now much more competitive with prices charged in other central European cities which are competitors for MICE such as Vienna, Prague and Budapest. Just under two years ago, Bratislava prices were much higher than those of these other cities, making it even more difficult to attract MICE events.

ChR: The economic crisis has negatively impacted global tourism and to a large extent the markets of Slovakia as well. Especially the B2B-sector showed a decline of business guests and conference business. Clients are more price-sensitive then ever, offering value in terms of quality, friendliness and flexibility has become more important in the hotel business.

TSS: What are advantages and disadvantages of managing a hotel that is part of a global hotel chain?

KZ: Kempinski Hotels is Europe’s oldest and most established luxury hotel collection, founded in 1897. While the roots are in Germany, its portfolio is now spread throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. All our hotels are maintaining a leading position in the business travel market, offer superior standards of service combined with a style reflecting the individuality of the hotel and its location. Over more than 110 years of its existence, Kempinski developed excellent worldwide distribution channels. As Kempinski is not a [stock market] listed company – we have the advantage of sticking to a long-term enterprise-value strategy. All hotels within our group work very strongly together in regards to sharing of employees, career opportunities, marketing and sales activities as well as PR. There is no disadvantage at all in being part of Kempinski as the employees, headquarters and hotels run and live under one vision and mission and, even if we are all individual hotels, we cross-sell and promote all the Kempinski hotels worldwide.

FJ: Sheraton is one of the world’s most recognised, global and iconic hotel brands with 408 hotels and resorts in 76 countries. Its strength lies in years of experience. Sheraton hotels are not specifically positioned as “luxury” – but rather as a warm, welcoming, comfortable and reliable five-star brand that is a favourite among worldwide business travellers. The brand provides a social environment, signature products and distinctive offerings that enable and encourage guests to connect with other people, places and their passions. And let’s not forget Starwood’s revolutionary and award-winning “Starwood Preferred Guest” loyalty programme which offers a number of innovative redemption opportunities. It was started as the first hotel bonus programme without black-out dates and has been awarded as the best loyalty programme in the industry year after year.

ChR: As a member of Austria Trend Hotels & Resorts we are affiliated with a global distribution system and a strong sales and marketing team that in a pro-active way can generate and channel business to the various hotels of the Verkehrsbüro Group. This goes hand-in-hand with support from central revenue and reservation management which an independent hotel does not have.

PP: Being a member of a large hotel chain means that we have improved brand recognition. Clients have much more confidence in the product that we provide, as they have used it in the past in other locations. In addition we have global sales teams working from central offices focused on bringing MICE meetings to us, in addition to our own hotel-based sales and conference teams. This means that we have much greater visibility with the guests than regional chains or independent hotels might have. I really feel that there are no disadvantages to being a part of InterContinental Hotels Group, only advantages.

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