Cosy Conference Town
What is a conference destination?
Let's first start with the definition of a conference destination. Ljubljana definitely is one, but what characteristics can define it as such? There is actually no one single definition but as Tatjana Radovič, congress manager at the Ljubljana Tourist Board, says there are a couple of rules that define a conference town or destination: "It is an easy accessible and safe place that offers a state of the art (contemporary) and versatile venue for a variety of meetings and a wide selection mostly in the three to five star accommodation, a cultural experience, varied cuisine, easy access - both local and international, experienced conference organizers and destination management companies (DMC's), special event venues, interesting shopping opportunities and good entertainment, all for a good value for money." Ljubljana certainly possesses all these qualities.
A wounded pioneer
Along with Bled and Portorož, Ljubljana is one of the pioneers of Slovenian conference tourism. It was also one of the most important conference centres in the former Yugoslavia in the 70's and 80's - next to Belgrade, Zagreb and Dubrovnik - and used to host some of the largest regional, European and global conferences that could be hosted in our former country. However, the ten-day war of independence and the ensuing regional instability dealt a near fatal blow to the town's aspirations to build on its existing reputation. Ms Radovič recalls that there was one association, who, on cancelling an event, promised to return as soon as possible. "It took them 12 years to come back and organize the European congress in Ljubljana," she said.
But the picture has changed dramatically over the last ten years. The privatization of most of the major hotels gave the industry an opportunity to capitalize on its latent potential and significant investments in conference facilities rapidly followed. This was not restricted to refurbishing existing hotels; several new purpose-built convention centres suiting corporate clients, who prefer their venues to have auditoriums and accommodation in the same complex, have began to appear. With many more direct links between Ljubljana's international airport and major cities across Europe as well as the arrival of low-cost airlines carriers, Slovenia has become a far easier place to access and, therefore, more interesting for conference organizers. Moreover, the level of service provided throughout the local congress industry has improved markedly. It is now seen as world class and the steady influx of young people working in congress industry continues to provide it with fresh impetus and new ideas. According to Ms Radovič, Ljubljana has managed to re-establish itself as a destination for international association meetings and, since 2004, it has been twice ranked in the top 50 cities by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). It currently ranks 48th.
Interpreting the ICCA statistics
As the ICCA relies heavily on its members supplying it with accurate and often complex data, its statistics can not be viewed as completely representative of how a destination is viewed by the congress industry, but they are certainly are an important indicator. "According to these statistics some destination are ranked behind us, although logically they shouldn't be. However, it is nice to see that we are quite close to some designations that most would expect to see much higher on the list. For example, Goeteborg, which I consider as a positive ideal for Ljubljana, is just a little higher on the list than we are, although it is quite a large city with nearly two millions inhabitants and invests far more human and financial resources into its congress promotion and marketing activities than we do," stated Ms Radovič.
What is so special about Ljubljana?
"Our smallness, which is often seen as a burden, can be, on the contrary, seen as an adventure for our congress image, because we can offer so many supplementary activities within a very short distance. If, for example, the main event is organized in Ljubljana, we can add value to it by incorporating a completely different environment, such as Bled or the Postojna Caves, into its social or incentive aspects," Ms Radovič said. She also believes that another plus for Ljubljana and Slovenia as a whole, is a good knowledge of foreign languages and our level of hospitability, which may be a product of our Slavic origins. "Event organizers really appreciate seeing our personnel striving to make every aspect of a conference a success," she added. Of course, being located in the centre of Europe makes Ljubljana an ideal destination for those wanting to travel around Europe; especially those overseas participants, who can, for example, be in Venice in just two and a half hours by car.
Ljubljana may have taken some big strides forward recently, but it is certainly not time to become complacent. For a destination to be truly competitive on the international meeting market it is essential that it can offer a range of accommodation options from three to five stars. Although Ljubljana has a relatively good choice of four- and five-star hotels, there is a need for more three-star hotels close to the centre of town. This standard of accommodation does not just appeal to younger travellers but also to event organizers; especially those from less-developed economies who also look at prices when they organize conferences and meetings. While only two new hotels have been built recently, there are more in the pipeline. The major weakness, however, is that Ljubljana doesn't have an international hotel chain. Conference organizers look to international chains as a guarantee of standardized quality. Those who don't know the conditions, service standards and rates of our hotels are more likely to lean towards competitive destinations further to the east, such as Budapest or Prague, just because they have plenty of hotel chains to choose from.