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by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

PG_bwI felt sorry for our hosts. Two years working on an event to bring some of the most powerful Professional Conference Organisers in the world to your city and there’s a deluge that wouldn’t look out of place in the recent Hollywood blockbuster, Noah. What’s generally an idyllic alpine city of baroque towers and gothic spires is today engulfed by a sustained attack of the dreary dismals so the alleged average May temperatures of 19 degrees look like a fanciful fiction.

From the Comfort of Indoors

From the comfort of the warm indoors, however, we are all mightily impressed by Salzburg Congress, an immense government-owned convention centre located in the business area of the city, connecting directly with the Sheraton Salzburg Hotel.  With total floor space of some 15000 sqm, the facility has a total capacity for 2500 persons but is probably best suited to mid sized events of around 1000 persons, to allow for catering and exhibition space. It’s a contemporary steel and glass structure that maximizes access to daylight and brings the magnificent Mirabel gardens and the surrounding period architecture right into the meetings space.

It’s raining … who cares?

Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 23.36.25We gather for a briefing with our hosts Barbara Schwaiger and Klaus Schmidhofer of Salzburg Congress on the beautifully appointed seventh floor of the 166 roomed Sheraton. Through the grey gloom we catch a glimpse of the Hohensalzburg Castle, a magnificent mediaeval fortress perched precariously above the city. Barbara and Klaus are fully intent on proceeding with the walking tour and have equipped us all with nicely ironic branded rainwear. “It’s raining”, it says across the back of these hardy capes “Who cares?”

Professionalism and basic decency prevail over rational thought and expediency and we all set off, manfully, on a 2 hour march around the rain soaked streets of Salzburg, willing participants in the silent conspiracy that this is great fun. Somehow I cannot get Allan Sherman’s hilarious 1963 parody of Amilcare Ponchielli’s Danza delle Ore out of my head:

Hello Muddah,
Hello Fadduh.
Here I am at
Camp Granada.
Camp is very
And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining

Barbara is a great guide!

Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 23.37.30As it happens Barbara is a knowledgeable, engaging and entertaining guide. Naturally much of the commentary pivots around Mozart as, after all, Salzburg is the maestro’s birthplace and the location that provided the inspiration for some of his most beautiful compositions. You’re a little surprised by the EuroSpar Grocery Shop at street level in the building where Mozart was born until Barbara explains the historical significance – there was a grocery shop there in the great man’s time too. You note with approval the toning down of the usual garish branding and appreciate how it’s obliged to match the overall look and feel of this special city.

City of Music

Salzburg has developed much of its destination appeal and value proposition on the back of its unique, robust music and performance tradition. This comes strongly into relief when we reach the Festival area of the city, the annual location, since 1920, of the Salzburg Festival of music and drama. There we’re met by Herr Kerschner who leads us on a very merry dance behind the scenes of the famous festival halls where we’re privileged to witness the rehearsal of Salzburg-native and world famous percussionist, Martin Gubinger.

Herr Kerschner sketches out a brief history of the festival which, in total, generates about €300m for the greater Salzburg economy during its 5 week run in July and August each year. It’s a perfect case study for our industry, clearly demonstrating the power of events to generate economic benefit.  It’s also a perfect case study of exceptional event management. Everyman, or Jedermann, the German adaptation of the mediaeval English morality play is performed outdoors each night of the Festival in Cathedral Square. Even in summer, apparently, sudden rain is possible (imagine that?!) and, if and when it happens, the organisers can re-locate the entire 2500 audience plus cast and support indoors in less than 45 minutes. The record, in fact, stands at 23 minutes. Big respect! PCO people take note!!!

Don’t mention the war!

Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 23.38.52Herr Kerschner concludes his highly engaging tour of the Festival Halls with a visit to the Felsenreitschule or Rocky Riding School, carved into the Mönchsberg rock face. We all immediately recognize it from the final scenes of the Sound of Music when the Von Trapp family perform before a Nazi audience before escaping down a tunnel to emerge, as if by magic, frolicsome and free, in the sun drenched Swiss Alps. Kerschner then explains candidly why most people in Austria care less about the Sound of Music although he admits this is now changing as research indicates as  many as 300,000 visitors per year converge on Salzburg in search of the singing nun and her intensely annoying charges!

The Oldest Restaurant in Europe

Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 23.39.51Our Salzburg immersion concludes at the ancient Benedictine abbey of St Peter where Klaus assumes the role of guide and introduces us to the delectable delights of St Peter Stiftskeller, reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Europe, serving weary and wet travellers since 803! There our buoyant, ebullient party of professional conference organisers rest their weary bones, like hundreds of thousands of pilgrims before them, feasting on an amazing, unusual Duet of Char with Radish Foam followed by Veal Tenderloin with White and Green Asparagus, Sauce Hollandaise and Parsley Potatoes. Set in one of the many private rooms of the warren-like venue, our table is magnificently set with care and attention bringing us together in an atmosphere of supreme conviviality and friendship.

Pádraic Gilligan was in Salzburg as part of the International Association of Professional Conference Organisers (IAPCO) Council Meeting, hosted by Salzburg Congress and destination partners. If you’re a PCO, and if you’re good, you ought to be in IAPCO. It sets the standards for the PCO industry globally and under the benign but firm leadership of Michel Neijmann and his global leadership council generally kicks ass.


One thought on “Salzburg – much more than the Sound of Music

  1. Patrizia says:

    Hi Padraic,
    Great to meet you in Salzburg and spend a nice time together…under the rain but fruitful!
    Looking forward meeting you soon and congratulations for your wonderful blog!
    Ciao a presto

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