by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
A week in Europe’s Green Capital 2016
@Supergreybeard and I have just reached the end of a deeply satisfying week in Slovenia. Over the past 5 days we attended the SITE Incentive Summit and participated at Conventa, the boutique meetings industry trade show that highlights the benefits of Central and South East Europe for MICE buyers. Today, as part of a high level SITE delegation, I had the privilege of presenting the benefits of incentive travel to Mr Zoran Janković, Mayor of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia and home to its almost 300,000 inhabitants.
Zoran Janković has a personality larger than a small country and a vision for his city as crystal and transparent as the waters of the Ljubljana River that flow through it. As Mayor of Ljubljana, Janović wants quality of life, a key driver for his initiative, started some years ago, to expel motorized traffic from the city centre. The result, for residents and visitors alike, is an urban environment free from the clank and clatter of cars, air that’s clean and fresh and pure and streets that pulsate with people.
Mayor Janković doesn’t want mass tourism having seen the negative impact on other destinations. He’s targeting 1m annual visitors to Ljubljana, a number that’s half the size of the entire population of Slovenia: by comparison Ireland’s 2020 target for incoming visitors is 10 million, almost two times the population of the entire island. Janković also wants to extend overnight stays in the city beyond the current average of 1.9 nights per visitor.
His vision is crafted around a quality of life principle that subtlety balances profit and loss – the profit garnered in economic terms from inward tourism spend and the loss of identity and authenticity that can happen when destinations become over-focused on tourism. He’s super-prudent about his tourism plans, keenly focused on sustainability and mindful that grandiose tourism numbers could well be a Pandora’s box or, to gloriously mix the metaphors, a ceremonial assassination of the goose that lays the golden egg.
Given Zoran Janković’s concerns, SITE’s value proposition is all the more compelling. SITE is all about the business case for incentive travel and so we proudly shared with Mayor Janković the results from our most recent study, carried out under the auspices of the SITE Foundation and launched this week, during the SITE Incentive Summit, a prequel to Conventa.
SITE Foundation Research 2016
According to our research, conducted with the global tourism practice at J.D.Power, the average destination spend per incentive programme participant is currently more than $3000. Roughly half of this figure is channeled through the hotel and half is deployed through the DMC and then dispersed throughout the destination on transport, guiding services, entrance fees to attractions, restaurants and entertainment.
Irrespective of what metric you use, this figure is a significant multiple of the average destination spend of a leisure visitor – with one incentive visitor, at a very minimum, equal to 5 leisure visitors. For destinations that want a balanced, sustainable approach to inward tourism, therefore, MICE or Congress Tourism or Business Events or whatever name you choose to call it, is surely the secret sauce.
The obstacles to incentive success
We also highlighted for Mayor Janković some of the obstacles we saw to Slovenia’s and Ljubljana’s successes as a successful MICE destination. While air access and the lack of luxury 5 star properties are on-going infrastructural deficiencies for both the country and its capital, the biggest challenge around MICE growth, we felt, was destination profile and awareness.
Having spent 5 outstanding days here all 25 SITE leaders have become zealous ambassadors of the Slovenian spirit. We’re all genuinely astonished by the energy, passion and warmth of the people, the extraordinary service ethos, the exceptional standards in gastronomy, the world class visitor experiences. However, with low awareness in key source markets, either as a leisure or a MICE destination, there’s a definite lack of fertile soil to breath life and substance into our enthusiastic advocacy and, to extend the image, we risk wasting our “sweetness on the desert air”.
What to do?
Our message to Mayor Janković was to invest strategically and judiciously in PR, marketing and communications and address the destination awareness deficit as a first step towards building a truly sustainable product for MICE tourism. Both the Ljubljana and Slovenia Convention Bureaux are doing a remarkable job, we said, but are under-resourced and under-funded for the magnitude of the task they are undertaking. Other European cities are now reaping the rewards of a strong MICE appeal, maintaining their identity and authenticity and not compromising on quality of life for their citizens. But they have achieved this with a well resourced and funded strategy.
The infrastructural limitations of Slovenia and Ljubljana cannot be solved overnight. However, there’s an urgent need now to begin the evangelisation process for Slovenia, announcing the good news in well-chosen source markets and in hand-selected vertical segments. MICE industry leaders from the US, EU, India, China and Latin America have smelled, seen, felt, touched, heard and tasted Slovenia. We are now convinced that Slovenia is an incentive quality destination that can deliver the unforgettable experiences and the motivational moments that lift us beyond the ordinary, taking us to that “transformation” spot that Miha Pogačnik so eloquently spoke about during his presentation to the SITE community.
But let’s build a robust strategy for Slovenia and Ljubljana targeting the incentive sector and putting adequate resources and funding behind it so as to maximise its success.
Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney own SoolNua, a boutique consultancy working with destinations, venues and hotels on marketing, strategy and training in the Business Events sector. Both Pádraic and Patrick are former global presidents of SITE and Pádraic currently serves as a trustee on the SITE Foundation.
The SoolNua Team at Lolita, winner of the inaugural worldICECREAMindex