by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Rise up again
Twenty years ago last month, after almost 5 years of fighting, hostilities with Serbia came to an end and Croatia started to live and breathe as an independent, sovereign nation. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind there are vivid memories of devastating news reports of Dubrovnik and Zagreb from the 1990s so finding myself in Zagreb in December 2015 addressing the recently formed Croatian Meeting Professionals Association was exceedingly good karma, confirming our extraordinary human ability to rise up, no matter how often we’ve been beaten down. And Croatia has certainly risen up in spectacular fashion: the economy is stable, tourist numbers are now 3 times the size of the actual population and the country is listed amongst the Top 20 destinations for MICE visitors from the UK.
Croatian Meeting Professionals Association
Over 100, mainly Croatian, delegates were in attendance at the annual Conference of the Croatian Meeting Professionals Association held at the Palace Hotel in Zagreb. Besides an awards ceremony recognizing individual and company achievements amongst its membership, the conference focused on business opportunities from the UK market, academic research conducted by Professor Oliver Kesar of Zagreb School of Economics, Croatia on MICE tourism (delivered in Croatian) and my own presentation on how meetings business is good for destinations (delivered in Hiberno-English).
Paul Kennedy, MBE
Paul Kennedy MBE, extremely well versed in the destination appeal of South East Europe, laid out the size of the potential prize for Croatia if it can increase market share from the UK, Europe’s single biggest source market for MICE. Quoting from the recent BIMES report, Kennedy highlighted the opportunity for Croatia with over 40% of UK meeting planners now booking overseas destinations. He also identified low hanging fruit for Croatia as popular destinations for UK buyers like Turkey fall victim to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” due to concerns over safety and security. One man’s loss is another man’s gain.
Impact of Business Events
My own presentation set out 4 ways that Business Events impact destinations – economic, educational, reputational and quality of life. Extrapolating from research and studies conducted by the Meetings Mean Business alliance in the US, from the work of European Cities Marketing and from the excellent content created by the folk behind Intellectual Capitals, I demonstrated how business events deliver up to 4 times the economic benefit of leisure visitors while also bringing real and tangible value in terms of knowledge transfer, destination reputation and actual quality of life. My only regret is that I was preaching to the choir – the city authorities, politicians and public sector representatives who needed to hear this material were conspicuous by the absence!
24 Hours in Zagreb
My entire stay in Zagreb lasted less than 24 hours. I arrived from Dublin via Frankfurt in the evening at 7:30pm and departed the Palace Hotel next afternoon at 3:15pm to make the same journey in reverse. Despite the short time interval, Zagreb made her impact and is now firmly on my personal rankings of places I intend to re-visit.
Initially, however, it’s not that promising. You arrive into an airport that’s small and claustrophobic and all too reminiscent of those tier 3 destinations favoured by the low-cost carriers that Paul Kennedy MBE hates with a vengeance. The journey downtown takes you through wastelands of poor quality high rise dating from the grey years of Socialism through Novi Zagreb, or “new” Zagreb where dual carriageways lined by hoardings advertising lingerie cut wide swathes through the suburban landscape,
Then, suddenly, it all changes and you’re in a striking, handsome monumental city that recalls the imperial elegance of Vienna but on a smaller, more human scale. There are broad city squares and, in early December, trees in their winter nakedness. Like many European cities there is a well developed tramline network but the trams are clean and smart and new. You’re struck by the absence of graffiti – a leit motiv in so many European cities – and by the easy, relaxed way that people go about their business. There’s none of the frenetic rush of mega-cities like New York or London. Even in winter people are clustered in the city squares, chatting, connecting.
My early morning walk brings me towards the Upper Town where the Cathedral of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary stands tall in all its neo-gothic majesty. Originally constructed in mediaeval times, the edifice in its present form dates from the 1880s. Three massive chandeliers hang in the nave of the cathedral since 2006, allegedly a donation from Las Vegas following the demolition of a casino there in the early 2000s. From the profane to the sacred, indeed.
Following my “formidabile lezione” [an admittedly obscure but decidedly self-deprecating reference to the eponymous short story by Luigi Pirandello!] to the Croatian Meeting Professionals Association I set out at top speed with fellow member of SITE, Renata Nevidal of Globtour Event, to check out the Museum of Broken Relationships which Slaven Reljić of Coral Group (another SITE member) had mentioned the previous evening over an excellent dinner at Luna Rossa Trattoria.
Established by Croatians Dražen Grubišić and Olinka Vištica, the museum was established in 2006, originally as a travelling collection, but has had a permanent home in the Upper Town, Zagreb since 2010. Through random artefacts and pithy explanations the museum powerfully narrates people’s stories of lost love and broken promises, mostly of the romantic kind but sometimes, with devastating poignancy, focusing on the relationships between children and their parents. A previous exhibition, apparently, also included a portrait of Ivo Sanader, the former Croatian prime minister with an accompanying note from Kasum Cana, president of the Croatian Roma Forum, explaining that his “emotional relationship” with Sanader failed because of broken promises.
There’s a lot of anguish, hurt, pain, anger, bitterness, regret around the Museum of Broken Relationships. But there’s also a lot of catharsis, of rising above by laying to rest. Maybe it’s fitting that this museum is hosted in Croatia, a country that has had trouble, strife and sadness in its recent past but is now soaring high, stronger and more beautiful than ever.
Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique agency offering advice around strategy, marketing and training to destinations, venues and hotels in the MICE sector. He would like to thank Ranko Filipović, Vice President of the Croatian Meeting Professionals Association for inviting him to speak at the annual assembly.
You may also enjoy this superb service from The New York Times on Zagreb in 36 Hours