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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, Small Cities

Simon Kuper published an interesting piece in last weekend’s Financial Times magazine (10 / 11 June 2017) that has resonance for the Destination Marketing sector. Entitled “Small cities, big ideas” Kuper’s article channels a plethora of recent reports, surveys and rankings to back up his contention that “the star of the next 25 years could be the smaller city”.

Good news for small cities

This is good news for tier 2 and tier 3 cities that have been looking forlornly at the ICCA rankings over the past few years wondering how in God’s name they might ever breach the Top 20. While there’s been quite a bit of jostling for position amongst tier 1 cities in recent years, the overall composition of the ICCA Top 20 has been pretty much the same for decades. Vienna, Madrid, Paris, Barcelona and Berlin lead a constellation of large cities that conference organisers flock to like students to a happy hour, leaving the rest of us out in the cold, delusions of ever belonging to such an elite club well and cruelly exposed.


According to Kuper, however, all of this may be about to come to an end as a range of factors conspire to make large cities less attractive. As it happens, nearly all of these factors apply as much to the appeal of the city as a destination for meetings and events as they do to the satisfaction levels of locals or leisure visitors. Chief amongst the factors is, of course, price or the cost of living:

Big cities remain perfect places for older people to consume their wealth but not for younger people to generate it.

He refers to research conducted by Joel Kotkin and Michael Shires that found that native-born Americans were moving to smaller places with between 500,000 and a million inhabitants in search of less crowding, less traffic and, crucially, more reasonably priced real estate.

Safety & Security

Concerns around safety, too, are influencing people’s attitudes to big cities. The reality of terrorism has an obvious impact on people’s choice to live, work and visit a mega-city although it’s also true to say the “recovery” period, i.e., the length of time it takes following a terrorist atrocity to revert to normality, is getting shorter all the time. However, the threat of terrorism, perhaps an even more insidious factor, hangs over some big cities like a dark and brooding inevitability, playing havoc with everyday life, disseminating fear and loathing, breeding suspicion, mistrust and paranoia.

Too much of a Good Thing

Kuper also identifies a counterintuitive downside to big cities. With such scale and an “always on” rhythm, there’s actually too much stimulation there. He reflects on how Berlin – a recent ICCA poll topper – has become just like New York:

Today Berlin never sleeps. It’s so packed with creative venues, events and people – each of them armed with an overstimulating smartphone – that hardly anyone has the headspace to think anymore.

He quotes the Stanford philosopher, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht who believes small towns are the best locations for encouraging and developing creativity. Once the town is sufficiently big to attract a coterie of smart people, the smaller scale allows space for reflection, allowing you to “escape back inside your own mind” like Socrates’ Athens, Renaissance Florence or Celtic Twilight Dublin.

Will Salzburg eclipse Vienna?

So does that mean Salzburg will replace Vienna as Austria’s top city for conferences? Will Malaga rise up and crush Madrid and Barcelona? Can Hamburg challenge Berlin’s primary position as Germany’s most successful MICE city? Probably not. But these cities along with others like Bratislava and Belfast and Bordeaux will certainly feature more in the consideration cycle.

Conference organisers select destinations based on some combination of the following criteria – access, infrastructure, value, appeal, technical support, financial support and safety. Kuper’s article touches 3 of these – value, appeal and safety – with safety now higher on the pecking order than heretofore, possibly even challenging access as the top factor influencing destination choice. Small cities, clearly, are at a decided advantage over megacities in this regard as their modest profile as political, economic, social and technological hubs is, frankly, as far less attractive to terrorists and other nefarious agents as it might be to conference organisers.

Money Talks

Despite economic recovery across many regions and countries, the reality of recession has been game changing in terms of the willingness of many corporations, associations and agencies to pay the pre-austerity freight costs associated with big cities. When average hotel prices for city wide conferences pivot north of €250 per room per night then clients get itchy feet and start looking elsewhere.

Kuper’s final point also resonates for meetings business. The sheer size and scale of large city destinations allows them be all things to all people. There’s something there for everyone, an endless choice of excitement, stimulation, appeal across the full spectrum from science to social. In big cities you can probably find knowledge and expertise to match the educational requirements of any scientific conference.


However, MICE practitioners increasingly want customisation, niche experiences, access to high levels of specialisation. They want destinations with legacy and heritage in specific field of endeavour and work – cities renowned for execution like Bratislava or reconstructive surgery like Belfast or oenology like Bordeaux. In ways they want elements of the city brand to resonate with who they are, what they stand for, what they care about.

Dublin or Dubai?

Demographic patterns all over the world still show on-going dramatic migration to big hubs although it’s also true that population growth in Toyko, London and New York is starting to soften a little. The demise of the big city, therefore, to quote Wilde, may be “greatly exaggerated”. That said, there’s a clear preferential trend for smaller cities with unique identities and personalities and this will carry over to the selection of city destinations for conferences with Dublin definitely set to give Dubai a run for its money.

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick M Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training.


2 thoughts on “Will small cities rise on ICCA rankings in the future?

  1. Another beautifully written post Padraic 🙂 Imagine a conference in the superb city of Tarragona and there could even be team building exercises designed around the Castellers (human castles) tradition.

  2. Great article and this is the director of the Monaco Convention Bureau who says it !

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