Ours is a country that already has a great value in the market, but that, with just a few targeted changes, could become a key global level destination. We have asked a panel of professionals in the sector what needs to be done...
Has Italy had difficulty entering the large international even market? If yes, what are the negative aspects that penalize us as a destination, and what are the plusses that should be leveraged? Before responding, or rather, before asking the response of a true “royal panel” of congress-tourism professionals to these questions, we begin with some good news. Just a few days ago, during the General Assembly of the Federalberghi Association, some data was released relating to hotel occupancies during the first quarter of 2016. «From January to March», explained Bernabò Bocca, President of the Italian Hoteliers Association, «our study has revealed a 5.3% rise in hotel occupancies over the same period of 2015, due to an increase of 6.3% of Italians and a 4.3% increase of foreigners. But there’s more: not only has there been a rise in the number of clients, but also in the number of job positions created in the industry, with an increase of 1.9% over the same period of 2015, inverting a negative trend that has lasted for more than five years».
Appreciation from foreign tourists is growing
Does it come from the long wave of tourism exploitation around the Expo? It can’t be said for sure, even if it seems true that international appreciation for Italy as a destination has been a growing trend since the previous year. It’s true that “not everything that glitters is gold”. The country hasn’t magically transformed itself into a flawless location that is able to host grand events in every single one of its destinations. There are still some clear negative points in the international perception, and in the reality, of our destination: just think of the problems connected with accessibility, and to the complex situation of the airports, or to the characteristics of subdivisions in the reception and hospitality sector, not to mention the usual bureaucracy. How can we then understand which direction to take to improve the situation, and consequently, the perception on the international markets of Italy as a destination for world class events? We posed the question to seven authorities on the sector. Their ideas are expressed in the following text in the form of a virtual panel, and provide indications of the steps to take for the touristic future of the country, and the mechanisms to exploit to improve the infrastructure and hospitality service.
Careful management is needed
For Stefania Agostini, Director of the Riviera di Rimini Convention Bureau and Director of the Business and Event Conference Unit of Rimini Fiera spa, Italy suffers from a lack of coordination on a central level. «ENIT», says Agostini, «still fails to act as a guide or give continuity in the planning of promotions. At the same time, the Italian Convention Bureau can’t compensate for that which the public doesn’t guarantee. Notwithstanding these limits, and the lack of an international hub, Italy remains a popular destination. Of course, the main criticisms to face are mostly linked with reachability. For example, Rimini is in a central position with respect to national traffic, it is served by a high-speed train line, and connections with the Bologna Airport are dedicated and frequent. What’s lacking is the connection that allows easier connections with international hubs. Even without this, however, our statistics are interesting: in 2015 we hosted 141 events, with an average of approximately two thousand participants. The types of events are varied, and well represented, with the largest group being association events (48%, of which 26% fall into the medical-scientific category), while 42.53% were company meetings. Speaking of large international events, in 2015 we hosted 8, among which were the International Congress of Multiplex, SCIVAC – The Italian Companion Animal Veterinary Association, and the 26th World Championship of Magic FISM, hosted in Italy for the first time, with 3,500 magicians and illusionists from around the world, with a busy six-day program of competitions and shows. This shows that Rimini is able to present itself to foreign guests as the perfect synthesis of Italian style: history, art, leisure and food and wine. In fact, Rimini is truly a complete destination from the point of view of services, landscape, and historic and cultural heritage. There is also a convention center, which is the diamond in the crown of the Italian panorama, that allows it to compete with other European destinations in every sense. Our story shows that it’s not necessary to have great resources available. The problem is to have clear goals that are shared among the stakeholders, and to find instruments to achieve them with careful management. For example, new technologies and new vehicles of the web and social media offer a great opportunity for communication of our product to extremely precise targets. We are constantly working to improve our position within the segment of medical and scientific events and conferences, and we are ready to do our part for the general relaunch of our country as a destination for business tourism».
Credibility is increasing
«Expo», explains Francesco Conci, Chief Executive Officer of Fiera Milano Congressi, «has undoubtedly comprised, not only for Italy, but for Milan, in particular, a fundamental irreversible moment of the interests that our country enjoys in the international market. With regard to the large event market, I can base my examples on the Fiera Milano Congressi convention center. MiCo presents itself in the international panorama as one of the most advanced and appreciated conference centers, with a credibility that places it among the top ten of Europe. The choice of Portello pavilions for the largest world events, during these years of crisis, is the confirmation of that fact. One of the most prestigious medical conferences of the world, Dermatology, is scheduled for June of 2019, with some 20,000 delegates. Similarly, the European Conference of Respiratory Medicine (ERS), which expects some 23,000 participants, is scheduled for September 2017 in our facility. MiCo is already part of a circuit of great international events. To maintain this position, continual technological updates are crucial, as well as new strategies and protocols of offerings, organization, creativity, imagination, attention to the market and its developing trends. In addition, it is necessary to work in synergy with the various players of the territory, following the example of the Expo. Milan has no reason to envy the other large European capitals, either for number of rooms available, or for the level of its offering. And not only: it offers an urban transport system and enviable connections to airports with a degree of real and perceived security that places it among the top destinations of Europe. Expo has given life to an international process of the discovery of the city, that, once begun, cannot and must not be stopped. Milan is not only a business capital, but also a city of art and culture, a capital of medical and technological research, a capital of architecture and design, of fashion and cuisine. It is an enjoyable place to visit and to live, it sits at the center of a rich and extraordinary territory, and is easy to reach from anywhere in the world. All this can’t help but have a positive effect on business tourism, keeping in mind that the determining factors for the choice of a conference location are the appeal of the city and the ease with which it can be reached».
Institutions and investments are needed
«The conference and event industry», maintains Aldo Sansone, Commercial Director of Bologna Fiere and Operations Director of Bologna Congressi, «is a strategic segment for Italian tourism. It is estimated that large conferences generate economic returns equal to six times the value of their earnings, and contribute to the global diffusion of the visibility and reputation of the cities that host them. The Italian Observatory of conferences and events of Federcongressi (a trade group) estimates that the present annual average of events held exceeds 300,000, with more than 25 million participants. From these numbers comes a positive feeling regarding the positioning of Italy, and its competitiveness in the sector. Of course it’s true, even in these years, that Italy is paying the price for not having a common political policy towards tourism in general, and specifically towards business tourism. It also lacks adequate support from the government, that other nations enjoy. I believe it’s necessary that institutions turn their attention to the industry, creating conditions for the uniform development of the sector. We’re coming out of a period of years during which investments of companies in our sector have been drastically reduced. The greatest challenge will be to exploit niche markets that have great potential, while offering tailor made services that involve local institutions, to present a unique offering that is able to satisfy the needs of new markets. In this regard, a positive signal comes from the constitution of the new Bologna Convention Bureau, with which, I hope, it will be possible to give concrete responses to the needs of this sector. Let’s not forget that in these years, Bologna Congressi has differentiated its business, on one hand consolidating relationships with entities in charge of organizing conferences, with whom it has executed multi-year contracts, and on the other hand, opening itself to the company event market, thanks to the tight relationship with Bologna Fiere (event location) and Bologna’s world renowned territory of excellence. In particular, the double role that I fill at Bologna Fiere and Bologna Congressi has allowed the implementation of cross-selling activities, and an increase of company conferences. The city is responding very well to the need to renew the business tourism offering. The proof is the increase of traffic at the Bologna airport that, thanks to new connections, including those of Turkish and Emirates airlines, registered over 7 million passengers in 2015».
A team effort
«When the Italian system», opens Fabio Camilletti, Commercial Director of Firenze Fiere (Florence’s convention facility), «decides to attain common objectives, as it did in the case of Expo, it shows that it knows how to do it, and do it well. The Expo was a great moment of networking between the operators, and at the same time, an important window for showing our skill in the conference and Mice sector. It is because of this experience that I believe the Italian system can be competitive in the field of large events, provided that it commits to using teamwork in the correct way: I have observed and verified at a personal level that Italy is considered to be, behind only Germany, the number two destination for large events in Europe. With regard to our own experience in Florence, today we are among the top three Italian conference centers in attendance and billings, and we are operating in profit for the second consecutive year. A critical point is that today, although conferences increase their numbers, they have lower budgets, so to stay on their feet, they need to do more. At a national level, however, the real problem is that one conference center alone can’t do anything: it requires a support system of a city or country, that can support the sector with dedication and conviction. This happens in Florence: we easily host 170 conferences per year, with a notable increase especially in international events, thanks to promotions in synergy with the City Convention Bureau. For the next three years, the projections show a 65% level of conference dates already “sold”. But we must remember that we can’t rest on our laurels. Even when using teamwork, it is always important to pay attention to the evolution of the Mice industry. Recently, for example, we invested €350,000 in a new vanguard Wi-Fi connection system. The positive data is that the perception of foreign guests towards our offer is growing. Italy remains a desired destination, even if it doesn’t always have the best price/quality ratio. In conclusion, the expectations for the sector are good, but it remains to be seen whether all the players – ENIT, Convention Bureaus, government and operators – will dedicate themselves to this cause, and use teamwork. I am sure that future generations will know how to push for the globalization of the country, which is still lacking today».
Exploit the Italian qualities
«An important improvement in reputation», explains Mauro Zaniboni, President of MZ Congressi, and conference organizer, «was the first result that Milan, and the entire Italian destination, has had from Expo. I have personally witnessed this in the field, speaking with many foreign guests who visited us on the occasion of that event. But the Expo effect still carries on: the hotels of Milan are still full, because, thanks to Expo, the international public has finally discovered a different Milan, a city with more culture and secrets that have captivated everyone. Another problem, that regards the post-Expo area, is, however, the chronic lack of adequate infrastructure, whose development would create a leap in quality to an international level. There is a lack of large conference centers that can host large numbers, apart from the few examples of MiCo of Milan, and Palazzo dei Congressi in Rimini. There is only one 4,000 person meeting hall in Milan, so to attract certain events, there isn’t a wide choice to propose. We lack what in other countries, like the United States, is considered normal, such as hotels that can accommodate 4,000 guests. Other important points regard connections: not only those between cities and airports, but also those with stopovers, and the intermodality between train and airplane, for example. And then there’s the bureaucracy: I can’t tell you the difficulties on the part of conference organizers just to rent public spaces. Especially if the event in question is postponed for years, as happens when thinking about organizing events on a world scale.
It’s not as if you want the space for free, you’re prepared to pay, but they should, at least, be more easily available. Milan is truly at the vanguard of this, because the local government will shortly present the new “Event Portal”, which, we hope, will help to abbreviate the bureaucratic rigmarole associated with the organization of events. The last thing lacking is the maturity of the system, rather than the maturity and professionality of those already in the market.
This proves the case of the Convention Bureaus: fundamental organizations that create teams and smooth over bumps in the road that impede the organization of events, both large and small. Now, after that national event, we have others, which are better organized, even at the local, city or regional level. Then there are the plusses to exploit, which are innate to Italy, such as art, culture - obviously, as well as the climate and the cuisine. Another plus that distinguishes the country, is a high level of flexibility in the organization. It might be a coincidence, but when international conferences are held in Italy, the number of participating delegates is always higher. Conclusion? We need more teamwork between private entities than between entities and institutions. It’s necessary to finish with “small scale individual realities”, and get together to enhance the many benefits that we already have, finding a way to offer them to the many people who would like to discover them.
The conference at the center
Carlotta Ferrari, President of the Italian Convention Bureau, is convinced that Italy is ready to host, with a high degree of constancy, large events and international conferences. «In the past years, a greater sensibility has developed towards the events sector, and the Expo has contributed to raising the profile of the country and giving it visibility at an international level. Some trial episodes are the recent founding of two important convention bureaus in Bologna and Naples: entities that are able to respond to the needs and requests of large conferences.
On the infrastructure front, which is one of the aspects which has penalized our country in favor of other competitors, there is encouraging news: like the opening of the “La Nuvola” conference center in Rome, or the renovation of the Florence convention center. But large events are won by creating a system, with the coordination of all the involved services, and by maturing the awareness that while an event is surely a good business, it is also an opportunity of visibility to attract new projects. It should be said that the main limitation of the latest years has been the lack of development of an awareness, at a central level, of the importance of the events sector. On this aspect, however, the predictions are positive: the reorganization of ENIT, the reopening of the Conference Coordination Table and, most of all, the presence of Mice, for the first time, at the General State of Sustainable Tourism, and therefore the participation in the definition of the Strategic Tourism Plan. The other significant limitations, now behind us, are the lack of a national convention bureau and of a national observer dedicated to the sector. With the creation of the Italian Convention Bureau, our country finally has a promotions structure dedicated to Mice that speaks the language of all the event organizers who are interested in Italy. Since 2015, Federcongressi&eventi, in collaboration with ASERI- Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, has instituted the Italian Observatory of Conferences and Events (OICE), a fundamental instrument to measure the impact of the sector on the territory. Some operative limitations remain: the necessity to improve accessibility through a reinforcement of our reference vector and the favoring of intermodality; and the general improvement of the infrastructure and of connectivity, nowadays a key element. Another important theme is that of taxation and the reduced VAT tax. It is a fundamental aspect to which we are particularly sensitive, because if we do not align ourselves with the other main European countries, we risk being excluded from the major conference event circuit. There are, however, other aspects of Italy that are undisputed strong points, and on which it is indispensable to focus: our incredible history, art, cuisine and Made in Italy. It is still very important to evolve our communication to keep in line with the latest news and developments. Now, positioning and an online presence have taken on a fundamental importance: the information on web sites must be truthful and easily accessed, targeted to improve its reputation. To promote a country like ours, that in the public image is sometimes penalized, it is essential to be able to evolve by identifying new forms of contact that go beyond the usual fairs and newsletters. It is necessary to be able to exploit all of these instruments to understand our interlocutors and create a global communication strategy that also focuses on individual needs».
Update and improve hospitality
«As far as we are concerned», argues Piero Bonasegale, general manager of Villa Erbe, «we share the opinion that although Italy has a been a much desired destination for some time, Expo has contributed to its increase in visibility. Having said that, I don’t really agree that there is a great difference between perceived pleasure and the actual choice of destination, at least for us. Villa Erba often finds itself in competition with destinations like the French Riviera, Montecarlo and Paris: sometimes we win, as has happened more frequently lately, and sometimes we lose.
If, however, we want to talk about the main problems to face regarding the country system as a whole, I believe that the lengths of time of the judiciary and judgements, and bureaucracy in general, even for the most seemingly banal problems of urban and extra urban processes, are, without a doubt, among the elements that an important country like Italy should govern better. Getting back to us, though, I can say with extreme satisfaction and pride that 2016 has begun very well: on February 15th, we had the honor and pleasure of hosting the world premiere of Ferrari. Pride, for the words of Enrico Galliera, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing of Ferrari, during his opening speech of the event, where he said that «Villa Erba is the ideal location for Ferrari”. I would like to add that the justification for being the ideal location for an event of this type is found in the fact that our meeting center has, among its other qualities, the ability to combine concepts of history and tradition with prestige and elegance, added to innovation and technology. Another reason for our pride is the fact that the event was only the third time in the history of Ferrari where a location other than Maranello, the headquarters, was chosen to present a new model. Concerning the Lake Como area, the strong points are its quality and natural context, of which the operators are highly aware. They seek to make the locations even more beautiful and welcoming by continuing to make investments in their structures. Another positive aspect to mention is the proximity of the Como area to the international hub of Malpensa, and the ease and speed with which it can be reached by the Pedemontana highway. No local problems come to mind, and, to be honest, it would be difficult to imagine anyone, tourist or conference guest, leaving Lake Como dissatisfied. I would be amazed if there were ever more than 2 or 3 people. Jokes aside, we are constantly dedicated to updating and improving our hospitality skills and capacities. We are always aware of the importance of the satisfaction of our clients as our principal commercial goal, as well as the need to keep in mind that we are actors on the natural stage of Lake Como, considered by many to be the most beautiful lake in the world. And, truly with a view towards winning an ever larger slice of the world market, Villa Erba, together with the Consorzio Imprenditori Alberghieri, a hotel association, created the business network “Lake Como Net” in 2013. Villa Erba together with C.I.A. (Consorzio Imprenditori Alberghieri), a consortium which represents all major hotels on the shore of Lake Como, has founded in 2013 “Lake Como Events Net”, an initiative that brings together the key players of Tourism and Mice industry such as Group Villa D’Este, Lario Hotels, Group Meta and DMC and other main protagonists of the Event and Hospitality industry. The goal of Lake Como Net is to coordinate with quality and efficiency the Mice and tourism offer of both the national and international market. The concept is that – and we have been able to verify this through several international business travel appointments – foreign tour operators and event managers appreciate and welcome the opportunity to deal with a single interlocutor during the initial phase of a project. The interlocutor verifies the concrete interest of the client, then sorts through the various subjects according to client needs».
Different opinions, sometimes conflicting, but different points in common are easily traced. Among these are:
–Italy is, intrinsically, a country and a tourism destination of great appeal.
–The art and cultural elements, in all their declinations, are highly appreciated by foreign guests.
–The characteristics of Italian hospitality are much admired, particularly: services, style and method of hospitality.
–Improvements in logistics, infrastructure and transport are absolutely necessary.
–A true simplification of the bureaucracy is urgently needed.
–It is important to be able to focus on the characteristics of our hospitality, to exploit them to their fullest.