by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Reputation, Reputation, Reputation
I haven’t seen the movie “Hostel” (2005) but it does for the reputation of Slovakia and its capital what “Midnight Express” (1978) does for Turkey. To add insult to injury not a single frame of the movie was actually shot in Slovakia but in the neighbouring Czech Republic! Bratislava airport’s reliance on Ryanair, likewise, hasn’t helped to alter negative perceptions of the city, delivering high spend conference visitors to nearby Vienna and low yield stag visitors to Bratislava.
Such realities, and others, cause massive reputational interference and have made it difficult for the city to tell its positive emerging story with any degree of credibility and confidence. Over the years Bratislava has occasionally shouted above the noise, been noticed momentarily before being forgotten again.
Mostly, however, Bratislava has stayed silent or has spoken only in whispers, the embarrassed, shy girl at the party, conscious of her frumpy clothes, lingering in the corner and nodding hopefully at anyone who looks in her direction. But anyone who has given this humble girl a second glance knows she’s a real looker, gracious and natural, highly intelligent and fashionably edgy. The party guest, in fact, that could easily be its life and soul if she could upgrade her outfit a little, be more self-assured and start to smile.
All’s changed …
Recent infrastructural developments around the city are evidence of an unfolding destination make-over, significant in ambition and sustained in scope. By all accounts this is set to continue over the next few years – refurbishment of the railway station is a priority – and will certainly equip this nascent natural beauty who needs no powder or paint with poise and panache.
Here are 5 reasons why Bratislava is now a destination player for MICE.
1. Kempinski River Park Hotel
MICE destinations need great hotels and The Kempinski River Park Hotel is a genuinely impressive contemporary property that commands wonderful views over the Danube to one side and towards the Castle to the other. With 231 guest rooms and a ballroom that seats 300, the hotel offers corporate meeting and incentive planners 5 star global standards in Slovakia’s capital.
Entry level guest rooms are a spacious 35 sqm and luxuriously appointed with magnificently dressed beds, satin upholstered chairs and original lithographs. Bathrooms have full sized tubs, and separate stalls for shower and WC. 40 suites at varying levels offer extensive scope for appropriate recognition with the Presidential Suite weighing in at 280 sqm, complete with 18 carat gold tiles in the bathroom. Kempinski brings 5 star luxury to Bratislava and is the perfect choice for reward or recognition programmes seeking special touches like, for example, complimentary transfers downtown by Rolls Royce!
2. The Sheraton Bratislava for corporate meetings
Another great MICE hotel is the equally new Sheraton Bratislava which is part of a mixed use development astride the Danube that includes an ultra-contemporary shopping Mall and a brand new home for the Slovak National Theatre (build, I mention with pride, by Irish developers Ballymore Properties). With almost identical guest room count to Kempinski (186 rooms and 24 suites), this is a classy Sheraton with immense high-ceilinged meeting space perfect for the most demanding of corporate meeting requirements.
Sheraton hosted the 3rd annual Tourism Conference jointly organised by the Bratislava Tourist Board and the American Chamber of Commerce of the Slovak Republic (which included the participation of SoolNua) and did so with swagger and style providing creative refreshment breaks, great lunches and a truly engaging final reception which featured speciality wine tasting, a cool club vibe and Serenaders Sisters / Paper Moon Trio, a retro vocal group who did The Andrews Sisters better than the Sisters themselves while accompanying themselves on violin, guitar and ukulele.
3. Post Socialist City Tour
Our host in Bratislava, Martin Horvath of the Bratislava Tourist Board, surprised us following lunch on arrival day by bungling us into a tiny, noisy 1970s Skoda and sending us off with company co-owner Peter on an urban safari through recent social history.
It was an absorbing, enlightening experience that brought us up close and personal with the complexities and paradoxes of life in Bratislava today where suburban life, for some, is about trophy houses and big architectural statements while others still struggle to emerge in this post socialist brave new world.
Peter and his business partner at AuthenticSlovakia.com have understood the zeitgeist and know that today’s MICE visitors value authenticity over luxury and are profoundly curious to get inside this exciting emerging city that a mere 25 years ago was locked firmly behind the Iron Curtin. Besides Skoda Tours, they also offer Iron Curtin Bike Tours, Castle Ruins Tours, Village Pub Crawls all involving “off the beaten track” activities and local insights.
4. Old Town Walk
Patrick and I were also fortunate to have an hour with Barbara, a tour guide and architect, who walked us through the Old Town mediating our experience of Bratislava’s famous historical centre. We interrupted her erudite presentation on the origins of the city by asking why she loved Bratislava and were immediately taken to nearby contrasting buildings, the elaborately decorated Blue Church, dedicated to St Elizabeth and a former hospital building in the Functionalist style located opposite it. Barbara spoke passionately about the architectural merits of each building and took us into the creative soul of the city.
En route to the St Martin’s Cathedral (which, Barbara explained, is not, strictly speaking, a cathedral at all) we tasted Slivovica at Lucnica, the headquarters in Bratislava of an organisation that promotes traditional folkloristic dancing and singing and were introduced there by Marcella, Barabara’s friend, to the fine art of Milan Laluha, one of the city’s finest modern artists.
5. Urban House
We concluded our Bratislava immersion with a visit to Urban House, perhaps the most perfect hipster hang-out I’ve ever seen. Presenting itself variously as a coffee house, restaurant, retail outlet, craft beer bar, bookshop, venue, concert location this place is a perfect symbol for the emerging Bratislava which is all about innovation, creativity, disruption, eclecticism, edginess and, yes, let’s say it again, authenticity.
Starbucks tried to create the “third space” – that place between home and work where you go to relax, to be inspired, to re-fuel, to connect but Urban House IS that space and connects into the burgeoning techie start up eco-system that, increasingly, is becoming a strong pillar in the new emerging destination reputation.
Note: Ryanair has now introduced a range of exciting new services to attract business travellers.
There are so many individuals that deserve thanks in relation to SoolNua’s presence in Bratislava but space permits me to mention only two. Firstly, huge respect, kudos and gratitude to Marek at Enjoy Slovakia DMC, strategic partner of Ovation Global DMC in the region, passionate ambassador for the city and dear friend to Patrick and me; Secondly, immense thanks to Agata Mikulova of the Bratislava Tourist Board whose dedication and professionalism ensured an immensely successful MICE Tourism Conference.
Padraic Gilligan is Managing Partner with Patrick Delaney at SoolNua, a marketing consultancy agency specialising in the MICE niche. Please check out our website here.