by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Perfect for Culturally Curious + Social Energisers
During the MCI / Ovation years Patrick and I were privileged to work on the annual conference of a Professional Association in Ireland. We helped to stage this event all over Europe but usually in tier two or tier three destinations like Florence or Kracow or Seville. The participants were very well travelled so there was little point in bringing them to London or Paris where they’d been scores of times on their own account for leisure or work.
History and High Jinks
This annual event had an intriguing and delightful attendee profile that destination marketers would categorise as somewhere between “culturally curious” and “social energisers”. This meant that their destination of choice would always combine history and high jinks, great food and great fun, legacy and laughter, culture and craic. They typically stayed 4 or 5 star, preferring to keep everyone under the same roof and expected great food and impeccable service. They wanted pulse and personality in a destination experience and actively sought out and embraced cultural diversity, wanting to be locals, not tourists, always delighting in spontaneous discovery.
Following 3 days in Ljubljana this week, to attend Conventa 2015, I left convinced that the capital of Slovenia would make the perfect destination for that client’s annual conference.
Ljubljana ranks amongst the great capital cities of middle Europe which include Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Bratislava, Zagreb. It fits easily with that Austro-Hungarian set combing something of Vienna’s big imperial statement and Prague’s mediaeval charm. However, there’s also an strong underlying sense of Latin swagger and style due, no doubt, to its geographical proximity to Trieste and Venice. You can reasonably describe it as Vienna + Prague with a bit of Venice on the side.
It’s a small capital with only quarter of a million inhabitants laid out around the Ljubljanica river at the feet of the twelfth century Ljubljana Castle which stands proudly on an outcrop, seventy five metres above the old town. The Old Town has been largely rid of cars thanks to some unusually focused political vision. The result is an extraordinarily pleasant urban environment where you can truly appreciate how Mediaeval, Baroque and Modern architecture combine gracefully. The work of local architect Jože Plečnik, carried out mostly between the two world wars, is particularly gratifying.
I stayed at The Grand Hotel Union, one of the bigger properties in the city (327 guest rooms) with excellent meetings facilities and a magnificently restored Art Nouveau banqueting hall with Gala dinner capacity of 435. Built in 1905 , this is the city’s “Grande Dame”, discreet host to playboy princes, pecunious personalities and powerful pop stars through the decades. I experienced warm, friendly service there and enjoyed sitting in the hotel’s Kavarna or coffee house working on my laptop and eating apple strudel.
By contrast, Hotel Cubo represents the other side of Ljubljana. It’s a small boutique hotel, chic and cool with a strong design ethos. Located close to Congress Square, Hotel Cubo eschews the clinical pretentiousness of many design-led properties in favour of warmth and smiles, an attitude perfectly modelled by gregarious general manager, Sandi Kovačevič.
Besides good meetings space at hotels such as Four Points by Sheraton (600 theatre-style), Hotel Lev (360 theatre style) and Hotel Slon (250 theatre style), Ljubljana boasts two dedicated convention facilities: The Cankarjev dom Congress Centre Ljubljana (CD Congress Centre) and GR – Ljubljana Exhibition and Conference Centre. Both are within walking distance of key city centre properties and offer highly versatile space for large conferences, exhibitions and events. The CD Congress Centre, particularly suitable for conferences, has capacity for up to 2000 delegates with auditorium style seating along with matching breakout and catering space. The GR, on the other hand, has more of an exhibition orientation and seamlessly hosted Conventa 2015 over several of its extensive halls.
Gastronomy and wine feature prominently amongst the USPs of Slovenia and Ljubljana and I had the good fortune to eat at three outstanding restaurants. At the restaurant of the Vander Urbani Resort – another design-led boutique hotel – Miha introduced me to “Štruklji”, a local delicacy which was served with mushroom cream, fried beets with honey and fried buckwheat. It was delicious fusion of traditional and contemporary cuisine. Another day we had lunch at Most, a charming restaurant located alongside the river walk and enjoyed a potato soup infused with black truffles and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. It was stunning.
I was treated to lunch by an old friend, now a resident of Ljubljana, at JB Restavracija which, I discovered afterwards, has been listed on the San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants in the World. It was a perfect meal where a joyous reunion of old friends was complemented by unobtrusive service and wonderful food.
Things to do
I connected on Twitter with Iva Gruden, a local food blogger and tour guide (@LJnjam) who told me about her Food Walks and other food related activities around Ljubljana. Her website (click here ) is charming and exciting, like Ljubljana itself, and provides lots of great information about how you can live and experience Ljubljana like a local.
During our short walk we passed the newly emerging Museum Quarter and visited the adjacent Metelkova alternative Arts Centre, a kind of Slovene version of Copenhagen’s Christiania. It was interesting to see official and unofficial culture sitting side by side in an easy alliance, an indication of the underlying tolerance, acceptance and encouragement of freedom of expression that defines the city.
So, yes, Ljubljana would be the perfect destination for our Irish Association client. And for many other associations and corporations who are eager to discover something new and different, to take the path less travelled, to connect with an authentic, unpretentious destination that delivers way more than you could possibly expect.
Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney run SoolNua, a boutique marketing agency that advises destinations, venues, hotels on their strategies for meetings, incentives, conferences and events.
He’d like to thank Miha, Azra and all the team at Slovenia Convention Bureau along with Petra, Tatjana and all the team at Ljubljana Tourism Convention Bureau for all their help and hospitality during Conventa 2015.