by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
The more I travel the more I realise how much a nation’s past constantly informs its present. Some countries more than others – either out of economic necessity, human curiosity, plain colonial greed or evangelical zeal – have tended to look beyond their own borders and set sail for new lands, building connections there, establishing trade relations, putting down roots as missionaries, sometimes seizing power and imposing their own rule of law.
Whatever the primordial causes, these nations today are the ones with amazing air access, with long established routes to all sorts of places far and near. Think Amsterdam (Holland is the trading nation par excellence), think London (Rule Britannia!) even think Dublin (there’s an Irish diaspora numbering maybe 70 million globally and, of course, the Irish re-evangelised Europe after the Dark Ages) This is my dominant thought as I commence the rather convoluted journey back to Dublin from the delightful but detached city of Ljubljana, capital of Europe’s quintessential hidden gem, Slovenia.
If air accessibility is the sine qua non for destination success in MICE then Slovenia has a destination deficit. And certainly this tiny country’s recent past may be visiting its deficiency effect on the present. As part of the larger, former-Yugoslavia, Slovenia’s cities were quiet back waters without strategic importance or a need to connect independently with the rest of Europe. It explains, at least, where we are now. But I wonder whether there are other causes, more deeply imbedded in the national identity and in the wider Slavic ethnicity of Slovenes?
I’ve noticed a certain modesty amongst the Slovenes that I’ve met, a kind of backwardness about coming forward, an unwillingness to engage in vainglorious claims. You won’t hear extravagant, exaggerated trash talk here. There’s a definitive touch of Slavic stoicism, a preference for thoughtful introspection. Other blow-ins with whom I’ve spoken say there’s a tendency here to see the glass half empty rather than half full. Whatever! As recently appointed consultants to the Slovenia Convention Bureau, Patrick and I are now fully immersed in the business of building MICE traffic for the country and finding ways to help her tell her story.
Spring has sprung in Slovenia
It was nice to be back in Slovenia in mid March just as Winter’s grip was loosening and Spring was beginning to get the upper hand. On Tuesday last there was a steely blue sky over Ljubljana of the type that poet Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote “that blue is all in a rush with richness”. I ambled around the old town with Miha Kovačič of the Slovenia Convention Bureau and enjoyed a full urban immersion free from motorised traffic and the usual din of cities.
We visited the city museum, all neat and compact like the city itself, and learned about Emona, Ljubljana’s ancient Roman percursor, through an innovative presentation combining contemporary digital technology and more traditional models and display panels. The beautiful period building that houses the museum can be privatised and used for evening receptions.
Miha also arranged for a visit to Ljubljana Castle, a stunning complex of mediaeval buildings meticulously restored during the past decade and now connected to the city by funicular. It stands guard 70m above the city in permanent, watchful ease, a striking symbol of the city’s past. Your visit to the castle is nicely choreographed with 6 time stations manned by costumed actors who narrate the castle’s story from ancient Rome through the mediaeval period to the modern era. There are various spaces around the castle complex available for rent and the entire complex can accommodate a city-wide conference of 1500 for an evening reception. There are two fine dining restaurants on site too – Strelec, located in the Archers’ Tower and Restaurant Na Gradu with menus designed by the legendary Ana Ros of the highly awarded, Hisa Franko, located in Slovenia’s “restaurant” town, Kobarid.
This time I had a chance to venture beyond Ljubljana and visit Lake Bled, a beautiful former spa town located about 45 minutes to the north west of the capital. Located around the perimeter of a glacial lake and surrounded by the majesty of the Julian Alps, Bled is picture postcard perfect. Leisure tourists and, increasingly, student backpackers have now discovered Bled and account for a busy high season from May to September. Business Tourism, however, is on a strong upward trajectory too, thanks, no doubt, to the destination profile achieved by the Bled Strategic Forum, a wonderful initiative of the Slovenian government to promote dialogue between public and private entities in Europe on key issues facing the continent in the unfolding twenty first century.
I was taken around Bled by the wonderful Elvira Krupić, head of MICE sales at SAVA Hotels and Resorts, Slovenia’s largest hospitality company. Elvira looks after a cluster of three 4 and 5 star MICE properties there with a total of 450 rooms, all lakeside, within walking distance of each other and boasting some of the prettiest meeting spaces I’ve ever seen. The Jupiter Room at Sava’s Hotel Golf, for example, offers meetings facilities for up to 350 attendees with astonishing panoramic views over Lake Bled to the iconic Bled Castle. Before setting off on foot to explore, Elvira ensured I was refreshed with great coffee and kremnšnita, the delicious cream slides for which Bled is renowned.
Besides Bled Festival Hall which can host up to 500 for a conference, there are numerous other facilities supporting MICE activity in Bled. Straza Hill, for example, plays host to an Adventure Park where corporate team building activities including high ropes, zip lining and summer tobogganing can take place. The crowning glory, however, is Bled Castle. Perched 130m above the Lake, the castle complex includes a museum, an ancient print works, a forge and a wine cellar, all of which can be deployed as part of a group activity for over 200 attendees. The restaurant there has recently been taken on by Jure and team at the excellent Jezeršek Creative Culinary Solutions – a leading company in culinary arts in Slovenia and environs. Kristina Jurjevec, Marketing Manager for this family owned and managed company, is thrilled to pair the innovative food offerings of the company with the unmatched location overlooking such an iconic vista.
Whatever the historical reasons for Slovenia’s isolation, it’s about to end now as more and more MICE buyers become aware of the rich hidden treasure still to be found right in the middle of Europe.
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.
We’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 this most recent visit.