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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE

Business Events – is it tourism or economic development?

The debate around whether Business Events should be categorised under “Tourism” or “Economic Development” has been on-going for a decade or more and hasn’t reached any finality or, truth be known, consensus. At a JMIC meeting earlier this year in Germany the topic was given a good airing and, amidst much huffing and puffing, the loudest voices in the room declared that “Economic Development” was our true home and the quicker we rid ourselves of the tourism scourge, the better.

I said little during that part of the meeting (a first for me!) but, at the time, in the secret chambers of my mind, I declared myself to be ambidextrous on the matter or, maybe, bisexual – I’m frankly unsure which analogy works better. In genuine terms I found myself going both ways on the matter. I definitely got and continue to get how “Business Events” as a sector is intrinsically connected with “economic development” – particularly when you look at the multifarious benefits corporate meetings or association conferences bestow on a destination – significant inward investment, prodigious knowledge exchange, destination showcase, reputational enhancement, leverage of soft power and so on.

The Duck Test

That said, I also saw how business events’ delegates are tourists too, not, perhaps, actively selecting the destination like leisure tourists (– although conference delegates, arguably, decide themselves whether or not to attend the annual conference – ) but consuming services and products in analogous ways to leisure tourists: transferring to and from the airport, being accommodated in hotels, consuming meals, buying stuff in local shops etc. Frankly, it’s hard to deny that it’s tourism – it definitely passes the duck test: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck then …  it’s probably a duck!

Municipalities and nations, without exception, have always categorised business events and MICE with tourism. Moreover, the fact that some national ministries combine tourism and economic development under the same portfolio hasn’t led to any  ground breaking alignment – at least that I am aware of – between the FDI and the tourism interests. On global basis, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has been laying claim to Business Events, paying much more attention to MICE than heretofore and engaging with key MICE industry associations on the definition, meaning and overall value of the niche sector.

On the Ground

That’s the prevailing situation regarding category management for the business events sector but on the ground things are evolving of their own accord. I realised this forcibly this week in Slovenia. I came for 2 reasons: to present the latest iteration of the brand and marketing strategy for the Slovenian Convention Bureau and to speak at a conference organised by the Slovenian Tourism Board on the opportunities in Slovenia for incentive travel.


Miha Kovačič, director of the Bureau, was anxious that I graduate to the Advanced Course in Slovenia destination knowledge and set up some inspiring meetings and encounters. We had lunch with Suzana Pavlin, Marketing Manager at Perla Casino & Hotel in Novo Gorica. Part of the HIT Group with 11 hotel properties around Slovenia, Perla is a destination property, better known in gaming circles, perhaps,  than the very town in which it is located. Our discussion over a truly sumptuous lunch focused on how to develop MICE business in properties whose core purpose is related to gaming – and, naturally, Las Vegas provides an interesting case study for developing a diverse destination brand. Lunch was followed by a strenuous hike up Pot Po Robu trail in Otlica, near Ajdovščina.



En route with Miha to the conference location (the magnificent Istrian coastal town of Portroz) we met Matej Lisjak, entrepreneur producer of Lisjak Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a family business that started already in the 1930s. Meeting and exchanging ideas with Matej brought home to me how MICE – and particularly incentive travel, the “I” in MICE – and tourism are two sides of the same coin, unified in the desire to deliver memorable experiences to qualifiers / tourists. In addition, Matej’s business as a producer of high grade olive oil and his transformation of his olive press into a nascent brand home is a clear example of how tourism and economic development stand side by side.


Matej is a true entrepreneur, capable of executing quickly once he sees an opportunity. Over the past couple of years he has developed his core business as a producer of high quality olive oil into a multi-faceted retail initiative involving a wide range of oil and cosmetic products as well as by-products such as once-off furniture pieces fashioned from ancient olive trees.


Encouraged by the business events community in Slovenia – notably the long established and experienced Intours DMC –Matej has now taken the initiative one step further, setting up a truly unique, high touch, experiential product aimed at incentive qualifiers and discerning, intrepid individuals. He purchased 15 vintage Fiat vans, pimped them with elegance and flair and created an incentive product with the following characteristics:


Your group is picked up by vintage vehicle – each van can take up to 8 persons – and driven to an olive grove where local wine is served along with cheese and charcuterie. Depending on the season, you see the olives growing on the trees and learn about harvesting, both traditional and modern. You then proceed to the Olive Press and get to witness the actual manufacturing process and bottling – at Lisjak, somewhat uniquely, olives are pressed within 4 hours of harvest. Then it’s down to the degustation room where you get to taste a full aromatic line of products – oil infused with truffles or garlic or lemon. In a short space of time you experience a genuine, local tradition that’s part of a centuries old natural cycle, all the time enjoyed the breathtaking rustic scenery typical of the Istrian coast.

And, of course, Matej hasn’t stopped there. Entrepreneurs never do. He’s currently developing a roof top hospitality area with swimming pool to encourage visitors spend more time at this stunning facility. He also has more long term plans to create a regional gastronomic hub where the full gamut of local culinary delights – olives, wine, cheese, charcuterie – will all be available in one location.

Is this economic development? Is this tourism? Is this MICE? Truth be known it’s all three and the sooner we learn to declassify and aggregate the better!

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations (like Slovenia!), hotels and venues on Strategy, Marketing and Training





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