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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Congress Destinations

In the late 80s when the iron curtain opened to reveal what used to be called Eastern Europe, Prague and Budapest were the first  actors to take to the stage and assume protagonist roles in the theatre of Congress Tourism. Initially they were unsteady and gauche, like the actor in Shakespeare’s famous sonnet

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part …

Soon, however, the raw awkwardness of their initial MICE performances was replaced by a new air of confidence. These cities now are regular cast members in a repertory  that includes such shining stars as Copenhagen, Rome and Lisbon – Prague, in fact, actually made the Top 10 cities in Europe by number of meetings hosted in last year’s ICCA rankings. The ascent of Prague and Budapest onto the fiercely contested stage of ICCA’s top 20 rankings is good news for other former Eastern European cities like Zagreb, Bratislava and Ljubljana who are now preparing for principal parts before an audience ever hungry for novelty and freshness.

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What makes a successful conference – the client’s view

It was nice to be back in Prague on the occasion of the 5th annual Prague Convention Bureau (PCB) seminar. I was privileged to moderate an educational event that brought such heavy hitters to Prague as PCO guru Michael Foreman and ICCA Executive Director Martin Sirk along with expert local speakers in digital marketing and a truly inspiring, award winning congress ambassador, gastroenterologist Prof Julius Špičák.

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Prof Špičák’s intervention had the unique benefit of being presented by a person of ultimate authority, ie, an actual end-user client. According to Špičák, the ideal host city for an association congress balances scientific, logistical and human factors. But the science is primary. First there needs to be a strong, charismatic local ambassador with great communication skills. He or she must have a global reputation in his or her field of research and be able to assemble a world class faculty for the event. Without a guru or gurus and brilliant content, there isn’t a congress at all.

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Logistical support in the city comes next. PCOs will be immensely relieved to hear that Prof Špičák is a fan, even weighting the contribution of the PCO above that of a dedicated convention facility in his ranking of requirements for a successful congress. He also favours the neighbourhood agency over the global PCO, citing local knowledge and connections as vital for the positive outcome of the congress. Easy access, infrastructure and climate are other key requirements with warm, sunny locations tending to attract more delegate votes.

Prof Špičák also highlighted the human factor in the congress decision making process indicating how the spouse or partner of the Congress Chair  often plays a key role in the destination choice.. This underlines how cities need to adopt a holistic approach to destination marketing as its leisure profile is frequently a seminal influencer both at the moment of its selection and again when delegates are actually evaluating whether or not to attend the conference. Prof Špičák reported to a delighted audience that any congresses hosted by him in Prague has always reported a significant uplift in delegate numbers.

What makes a successful conference – the professionals’ view

Mike Foreman and Martin Sirk had further sage input for the assembled MICE community as Prague gears up to host the International ICCA Assembly in 2017. Sirk dispensed his erudition and expertise with characteristic graciousness and generosity fielding an avalanche of questions, submitted via the useful on-line message board, from the 100 strong audience. Referencing his personal experience from attendance at 20+ ICCA conferences he encouraged Prague to be daring and innovative and not to eschew experimentation.

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Foreman focused on legacy, quoting another congress guru, Isabel Bardinet of the European Society of Cardiology:

I’m not interested in how much money we bring a city, how many hotel rooms we fill or how many meals we eat. I’m interested in what we leave behind – making the lives of everyone in the city better.

He then introduced the excellent Kindology initiative and presented the highly impressive “Go the Extra Mile” case study from a recent Cancer Congress in Vienna where attendees at the congress and local citizens got involved together in a high profile fun run that raised awareness (12m social media impressions) as well as €100,000 for cancer research. This created a tangible bridge between the congress and the city for the mutual enrichment and benefit of each.

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Stories from the Grand Hotel Europa

Our hosts then arranged a walking tour of Prague for Michael and myself. Over a short but impactful couple of hours, remaining exclusively within the 9 hectares of the protected UNESCO heritage site, our delightful and enthusiastic guide led us through some fascinating chapters in the extraordinary story of the city. On Wenceslas Square we
stopped to admire the soon-to-be-restored Art Nouveau Grand Hotel Europa and heard an extraordinary story of altruism, heroism and courage.

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 09.34.45Just prior to the outbreak of World War II Sir Nicholas George Winton saved the lives of 669 Jewish children by transporting them to Britain from the Czech Republic. This astonishing fact remained unknown for almost 40 years until Winton’s wife found scrapbooks and documents in their attic and donated them to a Holocaust researcher. Winton  only passed away last year, aged 106, having met some of the children whom he saved in 2009 at a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the kindertransport initiative. Winton’s “office” in Prague was his table at the dining room of the Grand Hotel Europa.

Pádraic Gilligan along with his business partner Patrick Delaney own and run SoolNua, a boutique agency working on strategy, marketing and training for destinations, hotels and agencies in the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events sector.

He was moderator and speaker on Digital Marketing at the 5th Annual PCB Seminar and would like to thank the Board and executive team at PCB, particularly Tzveta Kambourova who took care of all arrangements beautifully.

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