Tapping MICE tourism

SLOVAKIA is an almost ideal tourist destination: it boasts every possible natural and historical advantage, if one overlooks the absence of a coastline. But the country is currently failing to tap all its opportunities and take a bigger bite of the incentive tourism cake.

The High Tatras are a great venue for MICE tourism.The High Tatras are a great venue for MICE tourism. (Source: SME)

SLOVAKIA is an almost ideal tourist destination: it boasts every possible natural and historical advantage, if one overlooks the absence of a coastline. But the country is currently failing to tap all its opportunities and take a bigger bite of the incentive tourism cake.

“Slovakia has great prospects in incentive tourism, but this segment has not been satisfactorily tapped so far,” Jozef Orgonáš, general secretary of the Association of Trade and Tourism (ZOCR), told The Slovak Spectator. “Even Bratislava, which is predestined for such tourism, does not organise any special events to support incentive tourism.”

What organisations and entities active in tourism in Slovakia say they lack is better and more comprehensive promotion of the country as a tourist destination. Another hindrance is the lack of a proper congress centre able to hold, for example, a congress with 2,000 participants. However, the range of smaller venues able to hold events with 300-600 participants has increased over the last few years as new hotels with conference facilities have mushroomed in Bratislava and beyond.

According to Orgonáš, it is the duty of the Slovak Tourist Board (SACR) to promote Slovakia as a tourist destination. He told The Slovak Spectator that its activities have intensified since the government of Iveta Radičová replaced the previous management in the fall of 2010.

“But, since what is at issue is conceptual work and long-term activities, results may arrive only in five to ten years,” said Orgonáš, adding that SACR has all the preconditions to present Slovakia positively as a MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) destination. “It is doing this and we believe that its activities will bear fruit very soon.”

On the other hand, he believes that bigger activity from regions and hotels with proper capacities themselves may help development of MICE tourism in Slovakia too.

“It is not enough that only Liptov klaster [a local grouping of entities active in tourism], Bratislava Region and the High Tatras are active,” said Orgonáš. “Slovakia has everything that creates tourism except the sea, i.e. caves, spas, and so on up to MICE tourism.”

The Slovak Convention Bureau

To support MICE tourism, SACR launched the non-profit Slovak Convention Bureau (SCB) in October 2010.

“The main aim of the SCB is to actively promote Slovakia as a MICE destination, to increase the number of MICE events held in Slovakia and to support tourism in the regions in this way,” Jaroslava Čujková from the incentive tourism department at SACR told The Slovak Spectator.

Čujková specified that the SCB’s goals include carrying out activities to promote incentive tourism in Slovakia, to create a system to present and promote Slovakia, and to support and promote existing and new incentive tourism products.

“A precondition for more effective operation of the SCB is more significant interest from relevant subjects in membership,” Čujková said, adding that for now the SCB has 10 members. These include hotels, travel agencies, Incheba, the City of Bratislava, and others.

The SCB acts as a central representative of its members and conveys the requirements of foreign clients to them. It participates in specialised fairs, organises familiarisation tours and press trips, searches for usable contacts and cooperates with international associations. It has is own website and is now preparing promotional materials.

According to SACR research, no universal model for such an organisation exists, but experience shows that entities operating in incentive tourism directly or indirectly as suppliers are strongly interested in the functioning of such organisations. The SCB’s model of operation is based on clustering the finances of private entities and the resources of municipal, regional and state budgets.

So far the SCB has participated in a number of exhibitions and fairs focusing on MICE tourism in the Czech Republic and Great Britain – where it attended the most prestigious business-to-business fair, WTM, in London – as well in Spain and Germany. It wants to continue in such activities in the coming months as well as to use its website to convey information about unique aspects of Slovakia’s MICE offering.

Pavol Kašuba, the secretary general of the Association of Hotels and Restaurants of Slovakia (ZHR SR), thinks that it is too early to assess the activities of the SCB. But he believes that, apart from the absence of a proper congress centre, Bratislava as well as the rest of Slovakia lacks an adequate range of leisure activities and that this is where Bratislava and Slovakia lag behind popular incentive destinations like Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Čujková agrees, saying that in order to become an attractive and competitive congress and MICE destination Slovakia needs to build specialised congress centres, improve infrastructure, focus on details and constantly increase its quality of service. Here she pointed to development projects which are in the pipeline, for example the project to construct a specialised congress centre in Košice, which is the number two MICE destination after Bratislava. In the capital, according to her, the newly reconstructed ice hockey stadium may also serve for some congress events.

“Of course, the capital, Bratislava, has the best conditions for development of MICE, followed by Košice and the High Tatras mountain region,” said Čujková. “Over recent years new hotels of the highest categories have also been built outside Bratislava, for example in the High Tatras, Košice, Žilina and Trnava. The latter are also interesting for incentive tourism as it is possible to link MICE events and tourist attractions.”

For smaller events, seminars and training courses she sees historical and spa towns or centres in the mountains as being ideal.

“For the time being the bigger stress in incentive tourism is being laid on the uniqueness of programmes that include culture, entertainment, family-oriented elements, an individual approach to dining and to selection of quality restaurants, private visits to attractions, shops and museums,” said Čujková. “All these Slovakia can offer.”

With regards to accommodation capacities Orgonáš said that even though there may be some regional differences, in general Slovakia has more capacity than it actually needs and that it has everything from pensions up to five-star hotels.

Orgonáš believes that satellite events held in Slovakia and accompanying events in Vienna would help to develop tourism in Slovakia, but it would be better to draw congresses and MICE events directly to Slovakia.

Čujková added that such satellite congress events have already been held in Bratislava, for example last year’s International Press Institute congress.

“Neighbouring cities and countries with developed infrastructure and facilities belong among the strong players in incentive tourism,” said Čujková. “Slovakia faces a difficult task to change the traditional flows of events.”

Historical venues

While Slovakia still does not have a full-size congress centre, it is full of historical buildings which no longer serve their original purposes. Many of them have been turned into hotels and cultural sites which lure visitors with their unique atmosphere, something that no new building can offer. Walls which ‘breathe’ history provide added value and can create a pleasant environment with a positive effect on the final results of business meetings, educational events, company celebrations, conferences and so on. Thanks to these, interest in holding MICE events in historic buildings is high.

“To hold a successful event, conference or training session requires a stress on details, which is exactly what historic hotels provide,” Michal Čuridlo, secretary general of the Association of Historic Hotels of Slovakia (HHS), which clusters nine hotels located in castles, mansions and historic buildings in Slovakia, told The Slovak Spectator.

The historic hotels differ in size as well as amenities and not all of them have large conference halls at their disposal. According to Čuridlo, instead they have small or medium-sized convention premises. This factor is often balanced by the possibility of extending an event into adjacent historical gardens and parks.

With regards to their clientele, historical hotels are a desired venue for a wide portfolio of customers ranging from pharmaceutical companies to car importers, and Čuridlo does not see any sectoral limitations.

“The interest in presenting companies at a high level and in an original way is high,” he said, adding that in the case of companies with foreign capital it is possible to see a difference in interest because historic hotels abroad have a greater tradition than in Slovakia and thus company managers are more inclined to select a historic hotel as a venue for such an event.

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