by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE
Montenegro – first visit
I first visited Montenegro back in 2005 on a day trip from Dubrovnik. We crossed the border from Croatia and slowly meandered around Boka to the fairytale-like, walled citadel of Kotor. At the time, apart from its supreme, serene scenic beauty, I was astonished that this non-EU region (it was part of Serbia then), somewhat randomly, I thought, used the euro as its unit of currency.
Almost a decade and a half later Montenegro still yields up surprises. Her gentle scenic beauty is still a painterly fusion of greens and blues but these days there’s a business buzz about the place thanks to massive infrastructural investment in upscale hospitality. Luxury marques like One&Only and Chedi will shortly join Aman and Regent along the country’s coastline to build out a truly compelling portfolio for high end incentives while Hilton now guarantees global standards for meetings and associations in Podgoricia, Montenegro’s capital city.
@Supergreybeard and I were privileged to spend 36 hours in Montenegro running a workshop for the local Business Events community while test-driving an exciting, brand new MICE destination, albeit fleetingly. Here’s a flavour of what we discovered.
Day 1 | 12:05 | Dubrovnik
Podgoricia and Tivat both have reasonable service from various EU cities but we opt for the direct Dublin – Dubrovnik flight with Aer Lingus. It takes about 90 minutes to get to Tivat including about 20 minutes getting across the hard border between Croatia (EU) and Montenegro (non-EU).
Our drive to Tivat is all greens and blues – the verdant green of the sloping mountains, the azure blue of the sea and sky. We cross Boka Bay on a ferry, by-passing Kotor in the process and soon Danica is updating us on Portonovi, the latest mega-development along the coastline. Close to Herceg Novi, this mixed use development includes Kerzner International’s One&Only European debut.
Day 1 | 13:30 | Porto Montenegro, Tivat
The Porto Montenegro project for a mixed-use, super-marina dates from 2008 with the initial residential units delivered in 2009 and the Regent-flagged hotel opening in 2014. Now open but still under development, this 6400 hectares former shipyard, will, when complete, contain extensive residential and upscale retail, up to 3 hotels, a yacht club, dedicated event spaces, a nautical museum, re-purposed industrial archaeology. I don’t think we are the first to call this development the Monte Carlo of the Adriatic.
The Regent Montenegro, under the expert stewardship of General Manager Kai Dieckmann, late of Sandy Lane, is in expansion mode. While the core structure offers extensive meetings facilities and 79 luxury guest rooms, the new wing, opening very shortly, will increase inventory to 149 units with another 100 units in the pipeline. This property is a true flagship for the new, emerging Montenegro targeting discerning high net worth individuals and MICE.
We enjoy a spectacular fish lunch on the marina and deep dive immediately into high level discussion with local DMCs and hoteliers on how to best position Montenegro as a new destination for meetings & incentives. We then get a brief glimpse of the exciting, emerging product at Porto Montenegro visiting the yacht club and the intriguing nautical museum.
Day 1 | 18:30 | Tivat to Budva to Podgoricia
The drive from Tivat takes us through Budva and over the mountain to Podgoricia, Montenegro’s capital. It’s a stunning drive that recalls such iconic routes as the Wild Atlantic Way on Ireland’s west coast, the Amalfi coast in Italy and the Pacific Highway from San Diego to San Francisco.
The road climbs to almost 1000m and progress is naturally slow on the serpentine, spiral route. Montenegro’s wild, naked beauty, however, reveals herself on every turn and we’re constantly beguiled by stunning scenes of mountains that appear to cascade into the sea and sunlight that showers kisses on a scintillating ocean.
Podgoricia, population less than 200, ooo, one of Europe’s smallest capitals, suddenly materialises.
Day 1 | 20:00 | Centre Ville, Podgoricia
The city is expanding with a new, contemporary steel and glass Podgoricia emerging to the south of the old city. We visit the wonderful 122 room CentreVille property and discover an uber-cool urban hotel with wonderful local art installations on each floor, great meeting spaces and a “Living Room” lobby where the mood changes as the day unfolds, laptops and tablets during daylight hours, DJ and cocktails after dark.
CentreVille hosts dinner for us with the local MICE community and, again, a wonderful discussion takes place around how to maximise MICE business for the country.
Day 2 | 7:30 | Hilton Podgoricia
The re-opening of Hilton Podgoricia in 2016 has been game-changing for Montenegro’s capital, bringing new global standards to the city, particularly in relation to meetings & incentives. The Crystal Ballroom on the ground floor of the hotel, for example, is a totally flexible space with 5m ceiling and a cocktail capacity of 500 attendees.
The 180 guest rooms range from 35 – 47 square metres and all bathrooms have both bath and shower. There’s an executive lounge with terrace on the 6th floor and a spectacular rooftop bar with views over the city to the surrounding mountains.
Podgoricia’s airport is a mere 15 minutes from the hotel and is experiencing a massive increase in flights with both low cost and full service airlines now programming the city.
Day 2 | 10:00 | Budva – Workshop
At the very dishy Avala hotel we work with over 50 Montenegrin #eventprofs on how to position Montenegro for the MICE marketplace. Using audience engagement platform Slido we get great input from an enthusiastic, well informed audience and create a solid platform upon which to build out the Montenegrin MICE story.
For visitors to the country, Budva is Montenegro’s beating heart combining maritime location, old town appeal and extensive hotel product. For meetings, the Avala, Maestral and Splendid hotels offer facilities to rival any European city along with a geographical setting destined to take any delegate’s breath away.
Day 2 | 16:00 | Budva – Aman Hotel
Budva is also the home of the spectacular Aman resort: 50 ultra-simple guest rooms and 4 restaurants on private, exclusive island supplemented by a villa and spa facility located a short boat-ride away.
Day 2 | 20:00 | Budva – Porto Restaurant
We gather with the Budva MICE cohort at Porto, a traditional seafood restaurant located at the edge of the old town and, again, engage with a highly experienced, aligned MICE community anxious to work together to attract meetings and incentives to Montenegro.
For Montenegro, we conclude, the future is heavily pregnant with potential. The current access deficit will undoubtedly improve as new projects at Porto Novi and Luštica come on stream. Its challenge will be around balancing leisure and MICE access, yield management and seasonality with the summer months already at capacity for leisure visitors. But watch this space – Montenegro is very much open for business and with an aligned and focused local meetings and incentives community will soon be a major force to be reckoned with.
Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum are SoolNua. We work with destinations, venues and hotels on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events sector.