The challenge of finding profit and success in today’s tough landscape as seen through a unique European lens.
It’s unlikely the ancient Greeks’ legendary Trojan Horse maneuver would have much military currency today, however a battle currently raging in Greece is demanding a similar level of strategic ingenuity to help deliver an outcome that might once again help turn things in their favor. Since the onset of the global financial crisis (GFC), the Greek economy has taken an unprecedented pummeling: economic contraction of almost 15 percent, unemployment creeping toward the 20 percent mark, social unrest, businesses folding daily and business confidence low. Although Greece has dominated media exposure of the Eurozone crisis, the malaise is now widespread, with the beleaguered economies of the peripheral European nations having to battle especially hard to sustain a viable business sector. Often disparagingly referred to as the PIG economies (Portugal, Ireland and Greece) they face their greatest challenge of leveraging business renaissance in the most hostile economic climate imaginable.
Behind today’s economic challenge for these three countries stands also a stern one for the meeting industry, one that will redefine its own parameters for growth: How can it remain not just viable, but also profitable throughout these times? How can it continue to attract attendees despite global economic tumult? In short: What initiatives can be implemented for a surprise offensive on a stifled business climate to help an industry at a crossroads?
Making an arduous situation even more complex is that a one-size-fits-all approach is unviable—the different challenges and their potential solutions have become manifest through each country’s different social and business landscape and response to change.
"In Greece, the main concern nowadays is the effort to ’restart’ the economy and provide all possible provisions for future growth and renewed development," said Konstantinos Zikos, president of the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO). "The other important challenge that we have to face as a country is to deal with the impression that has been created regarding our image and especially our reputation as a meeting destination."
A media-tarnished image has been a special case for Greece’s capital and main meeting destination, with Alexia Panagiotopoulou, the Athens Convention Bureau’s (ACB) marketing and sales director, stating that "the main problem we foresee is the mistrust of conference organizers toward the city, due to all the bad publicity we are getting from the media."
That prominent headline placement on the world stage (as of late and for all the wrong reasons) is one of Greece’s greatest challenges.
Having avoided any scenes of social unrest and the disproportionate media spotlight cast on Athens, the challenges confronting the Irish meeting industry offer a different perspective from the kaleidoscope of current industry pressures.
"MICE buyers around the world are under increasing pressures, trying to maximize their return with tighter budgets," said Keith McCormack, head of business tourism and events at Fáilte Ireland. "This tighter budget management has also reduced the amount of time available to them outside of the office and the number of buyer meetings they can entertain. Customer relationship management and engagement is vital in this industry, and Ireland is very aware it needs to respond to a changing environment—in terms of the product we offer (value for money) and the way we engage with our customers."
This outward-looking perspective is balanced further south by Portugal’s own more introspective focus.
"The problem so far has been greater restrictions as regards credit for companies and access to finance," said Linda Pereira, managing director of Portugal DMC CPL Events. "Sponsorship is also down and this is where creativity comes in. The support that existed for international bids has disappeared, so it has resulted in a lot more risk sharing as regards local suppliers. It is about doing more and better for less."
Buyer pressures, tightened budgets, risk-sharing, social unrest...with the myriad challenges apparent, there needs to be a range of responses, at all levels, on how to develop strategies to best deal with them. Common to each is the need to address challenges via respective strengths, which has forced industry professionals to take an urgent look at what these strengths might be in the current context and how they might best be nurtured and developed.
Greece is also keen to build on Athens’ ability to handle events at each end of the scale in a desirable destination, ACB’s Panagiotopoulou says "it was proved beyond any doubt that Athens has the potential, the resources and the infrastructure to facilitate mega events, such as the Olympic Games in 2004, the Special Olympics in 2011 and other events of such stature."
Clearly unable to join Greece and Portugal in profiteering from the climatic benefits naturally bestowed upon southern European destinations, the Irish meeting industry is concentrating on initiatives that have raised its professional and service offer to a level where it has genuinely competed with longer-established global destinations.
"Over the last number of years, Ireland has been performing well in the business tourism market, performance built on several initiatives now helping us through the challenging time," McCormack said. "There is a Conference Ambassador Program and Conference Alliance (a ’Team Ireland’ approach); there is also a Business Tourism Industry Forum, which discusses the strategic challenges facing Ireland’s business tourism, with stakeholder group agreement on appropriate action plans to overcome the immediate challenges; with Fáilte Ireland’s Conference Research Unit and the city convention bureau we have the ability to respond to our customers’ challenges as a team; and Dublin’s Convention Center, opened in 2010, gave us the ability to ’go for’ new segments of the market, new product development being launched at a very important time."
Having held a mirror to themselves as meeting destinations and identified the idiosyncratic strengths of their respective countries against the current challenges, Ireland, Portugal and Greece have wasted no time embarking on a series of initiatives that have the potential for significant change, not only to the industry nationally, but worldwide. Greece, main European periphery victim of the GFC, is responding to the scale of the task set out to transform its industry through changes that it believes will make an already attractive destination quite possibly an irresistible one.
"Greece and Athens continue to be promising destinations for any kind of events," Zikos said. "Greece is full of places and venues of great historical interest. The Greek state recognizes the importance of sharing this legacy with the international community and, in collaboration with the GNTO, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is preparing a list of historical venues that will be available to organizers for certain social and other functions of their events, with swift procedures in obtaining permits and approval. What we are planning is a kind of ’fast track’ in processing requests to use venues of this kind and character and to handle these requests in a more flexible attitude, always respecting the historical and cultural heritage."
Highlighting more added value for delegates, the ACB is creating a city pass, which will offer visitors access to all archaeological sites, museums and public transport in the city at competitive, fixed rates.
"Furthermore, we are examining the possibility of putting together a delegate daily rate for delegates during their stay," Panagiotopoulou said.
With support beginning to flow more smoothly and a receptivity to synergies from the once notoriously rigid public institutions, Greek meeting organizers are confident that the infrastructure already in place is of a quality and standard to benefit from these initiatives and safeguard the industry’s attractiveness.
Feeling ready to showcase itself is a message that Greece wants to convey and is one with which they have engaged both social media and local volunteers as suitable channels.
"An initiative that has been put in place by the City of Athens - Athens Economic and Tourism Development company is the ‘This is My Athens’ voluntary program," Panagiotopoulou said. "The program is part of the city’s strategy to promote the destination, while involving Athenians who love their city and want visitors to love it too. The locals dedicate a few hours of their time each month to show around visitors and take them to attractive and hidden parts of the city. The service is free and offered to delegates who wish to have an insight of the city from the citizens themselves."
A complementary outside-looking-in social media initiative allows visitors to recount their memories of a trip to Greece on YouTube.
In these economic times, it is telling that the Greek social media campaign was launched with success in Russia—the BRIC economies are notable for bucking the GFC and registering significant economic growth, making them fertile ground for meeting industry marketing efforts. This has also not been lost on Portugal, whose colonial past connects them with Asia and India, but especially so with Brazil.
The cultural and commercial differences between the peripheries is reflected in their options and approach to the challenges, with Ireland, Europe’s most westerly periphery, forced to explore a web of alternative strategies for expanded outreach.
"We’re now much more flexible, that is reflected in the pricing policy models—with us that is shared risk, for example," said Patrick Delaney, managing director of MCI Dublin. "On top of all this, we are a classic, experiential and authentic destination, with a much more important embedded CSR component, too."
The importance of the state sector’s active part of this structure comes through several successful initiatives that have continued the positive momentum of Ireland’s rosier economic days of the turn of the millennium.
"I actually look to the future with a very positive view," Pereira said. "The government is currently restructuring its promotion policies, which I believe will lead to greater involvement of the private sector. This is also one of the best quality/cost destinations in Europe and as such it is more about positioning ourselves more wisely and running ahead of the trends."
"Ireland is implementing the needed measures to turn around our deficit challenges," said Fáilte Ireland’s McCormack. "To date, the tourism product has performed very well and has made the necessary changes. There are no certainties in this climate, but we are very well positioned to continue to deliver the infrastructure that needs to be in place for events."
From Portugal via Ireland, the mood of optimism completes its peripheral loop in Europe’s southeastern corner.
Standing strong, just as the Trojan Horse once did, current initiatives that generate positive outcomes in light of economic adversity will be adding their own touch of mythology to history being made in the meeting industry field. The great pressure on the peripheral countries is producing some exceptional results, and also positioning them favorably to weather the crisis and come through the tumult a stronger and more attractive proposition.
In reversing expectations of the current negative economic climate, those involved in the meeting industry will also be reversing the Trojan horse myth: contrary to what it is known for today, it will have to become a force for good. There is currently an international construction force working on the horse and an international brigade of ideas shaping up for the attack—soldiers include stronger identification of markets, risk-sharing, optimum value and service, access to new facilities, assured short lead-in times, intensified public-private synergies and many other battalions. They are an international force with a common language—successful meetings. Reversal is in the air and this is an opportune moment for the industry to build a new legend for itself. It is also an opportune time to discover the great initiatives that these countries are working on and avail of new levels of service and access to facilities that may set the benchmark for the industry into the 21st century. One+
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