One week later and I’m still buzzing from a week in Slovenia. @Supergreybeard and I visited the country for two reasons: firstly, to attend the board meetings of the Foundation of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) and secondly, to participate at Conventa, a MICE trade show for South East Europe that is hosted in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital.
Over 250 meetings and events professionals were in Slovenia last week for both events and were treated to 5 perfect January days of steely blue skies and bright sunshine. At the end of our week we had all tasted what Christopher Colombus and his crew must have experienced way back in 1492: the dizzy joy of discovering a brand new country and the giddy excitement of telling the world about it. This year Slovenia celebrates 25 years as a sovereign republic having declared its independence of Yugoslavia in 1993. There’s no better time to bring your meeting or event there. Here are the reasons why:
“Your childhood image of a fairytale city” is how Jennifer Glynn of Meeting Encore, Canada, described Slovenia’s capital and she nailed it! There’s a mediaeval castle on a hill, a winding crystal clear river, broad and narrow cobbled stoned streets and an immensely refreshing lack of global chain stores. There’s also a pulsating boulevard culture that perseveres even in winter. You can have sub-zero temperatures but folks still congregate outside under the protection of heat lamps and warm rugs.
Grand Hotel Union
Every city has its legacy hotels that are an intrinsic part of the city’s very DNA. In Ljubljana that hotel is the Grand Hotel Union. Originally opened in 1905, the Grand Hotel Union was a bold Art Nouveau statement in a city that, until then, was predominantly Baroque. It retains its confident Art Nouveau style today while delivering faultless high touch service and uncompromising high tech infrastructure. And when Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama and Queen Elizabeth 2 visit Ljubljana they stay at the Grand Hotel Union. There’s also a sumptuous, capacious ballroom that’s perfect for all manner of event – and you’re right in the heart of the city!
Majerija – Agri-tourism Restaurant with Rooms
Majerija is a restaurant with rooms located in the Vipava valley, one of Slovenia’s premier wine regions. Owner-managed by Matej and Nataša Tomažič the restaurant is a true labour of love serving sublime food in a remote rustic setting. Having successfully negotiated the narrow, winding roads in a monster motorcoach, the SITE board enjoyed a 6 course feast there with local wine pairings. It was served effortlessly, without fuss or fanfare, in the minimalist simplicity of an ancient wine cellar. My favourite dish was Fižolovka, a creamy bean soup whose recipe has been handed down through the generations. Majerija is that kind of restaurant where traditions, connections with the past, genuineness, sincerity, authenticity are programmed into its raison d’être. Matej and Nataša have just opened the latest chapter in the Majerija story with the launch of 10 bedrooms.
Many countries have “caves” that you can visit but, let’s be honest, unless you’re an super-earnest geologist, forests of stalagmites and stalactites are unlikely to float your boat. That, I admit, was my attitude as we arrived at the Postojna Caves. By the end of a 90 minute visit, however, I was smitten and exited the caves as if I’d just come out of an extraordinary 3D movie theatre. Postojna Caves are as essential a natural attraction in Slovenia as the Grand Canyon in the US or Victoria Falls in Southern Africa. They are in the Top 3 visitor attractions in the country with over 650,000 annual visitors. The visit involves a 2km train ride followed by a 2km walk and the sheer scale of the caves with their cathedral-like interiors is awesome and breathtaking. Sprinkle the experience with the magic dust of true event professionals and the visit is transported to another level – we had surprise performances from a saxophonist and an 8 piece Alpine choir.
Ljubljana Castle is a stunning castellated edifice perched atop a steep rocky outcrop providing stern and silent protection for the city that stretches out below. Linked to the city by a thoroughly modern funicular or, indeed, by a romantic spiral pathway the winds its serpentine way up the hillside, the castle is a complex of buildings dating mainly from the 16th and 17th century. Owned and managed by the city, Ljubljana Castle hosts cultural, artistic and tourism-related events where “the treasures of cultural heritage preservation intertwine with eclectic contemporary art by Slovenian and foreign artists”. There are two stunning restaurants on site, one of which is operated by Dada Jerovšek of The Kaval Group. This one, Strelec, is located in The Archers’ Tower and hosted the SITE Board in regal style to a glorious gastronomic experience involving local Slovenia delicacies. The entire castle complex can be made available for large congresses or meetings.
Some of the local community get a little frustrated by the over-use of Bled as the hero-image for Slovenia. When you land there on a beautiful day, however, it’s like you’ve been teleported into the middle of a perfect picture postcard. The only frustration for you is that your iPhone 6 cannot adequately capture the extraordinary beauty of the scene – a small, azur-blue lake, a tiny island with a spired church, a mediaeval castle overlooking the scene, the snow capped Alps in the background. In Bled we had an incentive experience par excellence: we rowed with an Olympian, were captivated by the haunting sounds of Handel, Gounod and Mozart on the island church, ate a most magnificent repast prepared by caterer-extraordinaire Jezeršek at Bled Castle and participated at a deeply emotional farewell banquet at the Grand Hotel Toplice (owned by Sava Hotels and Resorts) during which new heights in hospitality were reached by our hosts Mojca Krasovec, Hotel Director and Sasa Zor, Director of MICE depart, who entertained us around the intimacy of the Grand Piano.
SITE’s week in Slovenia was choreographed by Miha Kovačič of the Slovenian Convention Bureau with platinum level sponsorship provided by Tomislav Čeh of the Grand Hotel Union and Miro Hribar and Tomaž Krušič of expert DMC, InTours. Special thanks too to Jasna Jašič of the Slovenian Convention Bureau for her beautifully written and conceptualised “Waterful Stories” which were delivered to our bedrooms each day.
Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney run SoolNua, a boutique consultancy offering marketing, strategy and training to hotels, venues and destinations in the MICE sector.