The Slovenia Times

Labour shortages, poor links hold back meetings industry


Slovenia's meetings industry has been recovering well from the pandemic and is expected to trump pre-Covid figures this year. The outlook for the next two years is less certain at the moment. Poor transport links and labour shortages are seen as the main obstacles.

The meetings industry is Slovenia's flagship tourism product. It entails conferences, business meetings and events, incentive travels and team building.

"It is made up of everything to do with business travel," says the Slovenian Convention Bureau, an organisation that serves as a link between the providers of convention tourism capacities and services on the one hand and meeting planners on the other.

Slovenia recorded the highest number of events and visitors in this industry in 2019. Analysis shows the meetings industry accounted for 18.3% or 2.9 million of the total 15.8 million nights spent at the country's accommodation facilities in the year before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Sharing the data with the STA, the bureau pointed to the industry's multiplier effects. "Direct sales revenue from the meetings industry was estimated at €271 million and the multiplier revenue at €891 million," the bureau said.

According to data from the International Congress and Convention Association, international associations hold more than 10,000 conventions around the globe annually. Slovenia hosted 65 of those events in 2019, but in terms of capacity it could have hosted at least as many as Ireland, did 125, the bureau said.

Ljubljana, Portorož and Bled key locations

There are around 60 places with registered convention capacities in Slovenia that have at least 208 venues combined. The capital Ljubljana, Portorož at the seaside and the lakeside town of Bled are the most popular locations. "Ljubljana and Portorož play the main part, chiefly owing to infrastructure," says the Convention Bureau.

The capital city is limited to events featuring up to 2,200 participants with Cankarjev Dom and the Ljubljana Exhibition and Convention Centre (Gospodarsko Razstavišče) as the main venues.

Ljubljana is a well-known destination internationally. "However, we would like to have another major venue that would be available throughout the year and a restaurant sitting let's say 200 people," the local tourism board says.

This year more than 40 major international conferences, business and sports events are planned in Ljubljana, including one in late December featuring 3,000 visitors. Three other events, one of which will be held in June and two in September, will attract more than 1,200 visitors each.

The most important meetings industry event will take place in July when Ljubljana hosts Incentive Summit Europe of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence, one of the biggest associations globally for this type of travel.

The event will only bring 60 visitors to Ljubljana but they will include key agents for incentive travel from all over Europe, the Convention Bureau told the STA.

Apart from the major venues, Ljubljana and its surroundings have some 80 other venues. By far the biggest one is Stožice Arena, which can seat 12,400 people. Smaller capacities are provided by Ljubljana Castle, the Cvetličarna concert venue and the Kržanke open-air theatre, among others.

Portorož can host events with up to 1,100 participants. Most conferences are held at Grand Hotel Bernardin, which features a large convention centre. The seaside town will hold six major convention events this year, the largest of which will see 1,000 visitors in September.

Bled has capacity for events of up to 500 participants, the most prominent of which is the annual Bled Strategic Forum. Brdo pri Kranju, Bohinj and Kranjska Gora are other towns in the north-eastern region that will see a series of events with up to 550 attendees.

The Convention Bureau finds the focus should not be so much on the size of capacities as their quality. "Some convention centres and conference halls are in need of renovation so they can provide the standard that this type of guests expect."

Industry changed by pandemic

The meetings industry ground to a halt as soon as the Covid broke out into a global pandemic, but it was also one of the few to see an instant recovery. "As the events had been put forward to the post-Covid era, Slovenia recorded many visitors last autumn," the bureau says.

As a result, many partners have neared 2019 figures and the bureau believes this year those figures will be surpassed.

"The pandemic has taught us that we don't need to travel around for each meeting, we can have it online. We have introduced the option of hybrid events, which is now a service added to the in-person event. Online-only events are rare now," they say.

More uncertainty ahead

The bureau is less upbeat when making predictions about the next two years. This is a business that is planned three to five years ahead. "We've so far reaped what we sowed before the pandemic, but what happens next? Many capacities for 2024 and 2025 have still not been booked."

At the same time, Slovenia is increasingly attractive as an incentive travel destination. "Such travel now tends to be booked at short notice and we hope to fill the available capacities with these guests," the bureau says.

Poor links a liability

Organizers of large events with more than 1,000 participants are increasingly reluctant to come here. "Slovenia's air connectivity - or lack thereof - and poor rail links play an important role here. We also have problems with connectivity inside Slovenia. We transport guests by car or bus, which is not green or sustainable."

The Ljubljana tourist board finds the challenge is direct air links and aircraft capacity, as much as the speed and comfort of trains.

"International events are held outside the main tourism season, which makes year-round links important for this segment and for the economy as a whole. At the expense of connections, we are losing out when bidding for major international events that Ljubljana could host in the coming years," Tourism Ljubljana said.

They try to make up by using airports in the surrounding area, but this is often not enough. Tourism Ljubljana would also like to see "more train connections within a 500-kilometre radius, as this would allow us to address regional accessibility in a more sustainable way."

Another major challenge for the industry is staff shortages. "During the pandemic, many employees were forced to leave the industry and did not come back. Fewer and fewer young people are opting for hospitality and tourism jobs. If we do not act, we won't be able to provide quality services," the Convention Bureau says.

Being diverse and compact is an asset

Slovenia is known as a green, active and healthy country. "Business visitors like our diversity and compactness. They find it great that they can take a swim in the sea in the morning and a boat trip on Lake Bled in the afternoon before round off the day with a dinner at an urban capital," the bureau says, adding that safety is equally important.

"The authenticity of what we offer and sustainable development often tip the balance in our favour. A particular advantage is that our services provide good value for money. Business guests often return with their families for a holiday or a short break," the bureau adds.

Ljubljana is historically a city of meetings, ever since the 1821 Congress of the Holy Alliance. "We're one of the few cities with two modern convention centres in the city centre, which makes us the region's leading destination," says Tourism Ljubljana.


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