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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

BrexitI’ve written before about how organisers of meetings and events select destinations. It’s a curious process that runs the full gamut from clear thinking rationalism to touchy feely emotion. Destinations are selected because they meet a set of fixed criteria – for example: access (delegates can reach there easily), infrastructure (there’s a range of hotels and a suitably sized convention centre), MICE infrastructure (there’s an adequate ecosystem of Destination Marketing Organisations, Destination Management Companies, Professional Conference Organisers etc). However, destinations are often selected for highly subjective reasons, because, for example, they have “appeal”, they’re seen as cool or the decision maker’s wife has always wanted to go there.

Soft v hard criteria

These “soft” criteria tend to trump the hard, much like the heart often rules the head. On paper Perfectium City has better access, better range of hotels, better pedigree and legacy in MICE yet Imperfectium City is picked because it’s perceived to be cooler and it was recently featured in Monocle magazine. Such choices can be gnawingly frustrating for DMOs and their stakeholders: you’ve spent 30 years investing in and building the perfect MICE location and the business goes to a venue without a proper convention centre, no high speed airport / city connection and only a handful of global hotels. So why does this happen? Most of the reasons, I believe, are connected with human psychology and with the largely random and accidental reality of nation and city branding and how it plays with our heads.

Nation Brand:Oxymoron?

Simon Anholt has been studying and writing about nation branding for decades and, having coined the term “nation brand” vigorously rejects the fact that such a thing is possible: it’s an oxymoron, a bit like United Kingdom (ouch!)  He doesn’t say that countries and cities can’t have a brand image like Nike or Apple or Coca Cola. They clearly can and do have brand images in that countries and cities evoke strong positive or negative feelings in people by the mere mention of their name – New York: vibrant, exciting; Baghdad: destruction, danger. What Anholt dismisses is the possibility that a nation or city brand can be consciously created, crafted or controlled the way a global brand like Adidas, Google or airbnb conceives, nourishes and protects (and sells) its brand.

The reasoning behind Anholt’s contention makes perfect sense. Cities and nations are comprised of physical and non-physical attributes from geographical location to cultural heritage but, above all, they’re made up of people or citizens, each with his or her own infinite scope to create, craft and control what constitutes, defines and communicates the reputation and related image of that location. Imposing order, control and consistency on that is as possible as minding mice at a crossroads.

If you build it, they will come?

When applied to the MICE industry, Anholt is telling us that we can build it all we like, as tall as we like, as big as we like and as pretty as we like but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will come. If the destination doesn’t resonate at that deeper emotional level with the decision maker (and, of course, his or her stakeholders) then there’s no guarantee they won’t be seduced elsewhere for reasons that – to you, at least – don’t add up. Anyone who has worked in the MICE industry has experienced this: you have the perfect MICE solution, at the perfect price but you’re not selected and when you ask why the client stutters and stammers in awkward embarrassment.

So what can you do about it?

brexitIn his collection of essays on place branding, Places: Identity, Image and Reputation (2010) Anholt sets out a framework for destinations to manage issues around reputation and, ultimately, bridge this emotional gap. It’s based on strategy (“… knowing who a nation is and where it stands today”), substance (“…the effective execution of that strategy”) and symbolic actions (“… a particular species of substance that happen to have an intrinsic communicative power”). Symbolic actions, he says, can be innovations, structures, legislation, reforms, investments, institutions which are … “suggestive, remarkable, memorable, picturesque, newsworthy, topical, poetic, touching, surprising or dramatic”.


The last couple of weeks have thrown up some really interesting examples of “symbolic actions” on the part of European countries with both negative and positive outcomes. Brexit is an interesting case in point. For the 52% of British voters who opted to leave the EU their vote was, in some respects, a statement to the rest of the world that they believe Great Britain needs to be unlocked from the EU for reasons to do with heritage, identity and economic impact. The GB / EU logo-up logo was not working for them and to re-assert their identity as a powerful global force they voted to leave. However, instead of asserting greatness they’ve re-inforced the cliche that Great Britain is arrogant and isolationist. A symbolic action gone horribly wrong.

European Championship

The European Championship currently being staged in France yields up other examples of “symbolic actions”. The travelling supporters of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland teams have been attracting remarkable media attention both on and off line since the beginning of the tournament. Both sets of fans have turned the notion of football hooliganism on its head and have built fond connections with the citizens of the various cities where the games were played as well as with the supporters of their opposing teams. Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, and Arlene Foster, First Minister at the Northern Ireland Assembly have personally attended the games and, in so doing,  have very publicly endorsed the supporters. This elevates onto the political / diplomatic platform the love affair with all things Irish unleashed by the extraordinary positive energy of the fans. It also channels and harvests, for Ireland, the enduring benefits of what started as an totally unplanned, spontaneous exhibition of joie de vivre.

The French, too, not usually known for their tolerance of spirited high jinks, have enthusiastically embraced the Irish with astonishing stories of policemen displaying a sense of humour and cajoling a group of Irish fans to “Go home for the French Police” (see here). The entire love affair culminated this week with the announcement that Anne Hildago, Mayor of Paris, will present the Irish Fans with the “Medal of the City of Paris” in recognition of their “exemplary attitude” during the tournament.

[You can read lots more about the fans in France here]

Better than marketing

Symbolic actions, clearly, play on a different plane entirely and help or hinder destinations in their on-going efforts to build competitive advantage. The positive impact of Irish fans in France has done more for Ireland’s reputation as an appealing place to go to or run a meeting in than the most expensive and sophisticated marketing and communications campaigns. And the ordinary Irish soccer fans paid for it themselves!

This post is dedicated to my Slovak friend Martin Horvath who, more than most, gets this stuff!

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working in the MICE sector advising destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training.




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