Paul Revel reports on the historical city at the heart of ‘new’ Europe that is leading the way for MICE events
PRE-COLD WAR THAW, Vienna was often seen as a somewhat staid and sleepy relic, flanked on three sides by the Iron Curtain countries of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. A rather sorry image for a city that for centuries held mighty status as a seat of empire – from Hapsburg to Holy Roman, to Austro-Hungarian.
But times have changed again, and Vienna is riding high as a key meetings destination. In the International Congress and Convention Association’s (ICCA) recently published rankings for international association events, Vienna retained its position as number 1 in the world for the eighth year running, with 195 events, up from 181 in 2011.
May Sollinger-Soucek is UK and Ireland marketing manager for the Vienna Convention Bureau (VCB). She cites several reasons for Vienna’s success in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) sector. “It’s the gateway to Eastern Europe,” she says. “It lies in the centre of the new Europe – the centre of a market of more than 450 million people. Environmentally, Vienna is a model city meeting all the relevant criteria – water management, waste disposal, clean air management… Working with Viennese suppliers, meetings can be certified as ‘green meetings’.”
Sollinger-Soucek says Austria is currently attractive to international investors, with assets including its “highly educated and motivated workforce, state-of-the-art infrastructure, moderate corporate taxation, attractive research incentives and efficient public services”.
Other factors she mentions include Vienna being home to nine universities and 140 life sciences companies. This helps attract major academic and medical events. The European Renal Association has already booked its 10,000-delegate annual congress into the Austria Centre for 2016, and, in the same year and at the same venue, some 2,500 sports scientists will head to the city for the annual congress of the European College of Sport Science. Organiser Professor Arnold Baca, who put together Vienna's application, says: “The outstanding reputation of the University of Vienna’s Centre for Sport Science and University Sport was an important criterion, and one of the reasons why we were able to trump Portoroz [in Slovenia], our main competitor, in the final round.”
Meanwhile, this year sees the World Congress of Neurology (WCN) being held at Vienna’s Messe Wien Exhibition and Congress Centre in September. It is expected to host around 10,000 attendees. The congress president, Professor Eduard Auff, says the Austrian capital is ideal for an international medical congress, with a long tradition of excellent scientific and medical research.
“Vienna is located in the heart of Europe, and is easy to reach by plane, train, car or boat,” he says. If it seems odd to mention boats in a landlocked country, remember the Danube’s various connections include a high-speed river service linking Vienna to Slovakia’s Bratislava – Europe’s two closest capitals – in 75 minutes. “The city offers excellent conference infrastructure and the highly professional services required to organise the WCN 2013,” he says, adding that the city has a track record of successfully hosting very large congresses for up to 30,000 delegates, and that its reputation for safety is also an important factor.
That decisions about the congress are not taken lightly becomes clear when I ask the professor about the aims of the event.“Creating awareness for the enormous burden of neurological diseases, which will increase in the future due to demographic changes,” says Auff. “And creating awareness of the achievements, benefits and capabilities of modernneurology, and the needs and demands in this field.”
Clare Sambrook is event co-ordinator at multinational IT firm Capgemini. She recently organised an incentive event, and explains why Vienna was chosen. “As a weekend trip, we needed a nearby, city break location. Our policy is to split delegates across separate flights, which meant we needed a destination with regular flight times, ideally no more than an hour apart, departing from London.”
She says her agency, Venues Event Management, which is part of Capita Travel and Events, offered three options, including Vienna. “We choose incentive destinations well in advance and before we know the profile of our delegates,” says Sambrook. “The close proximity of venues and potential activities to the city centre made Vienna ideal for a wide age range – and in this case there was a 50-year age gap between the youngest and eldest of our participants.” She adds that the famous Spanish Riding School with its magnificent Lipizzaner horses “offered our employees a memorable experience for one of the organised activities, as did a ride on one of the city’s traditional trams. It’s certainly a destination we’d consider for future incentives and events.”
Capita’s director of meetings and events, Anita Lowe, says: “Vienna has the venues and convention spaces with appeal for large conferences and events, but the city’s small and intimate landscape is a big draw for smaller groups. It’s a popular short-haul incentive destination, and geographical location and accessibility mean it has remained a consistent meeting point in recent years for corporate customers in retail, logistics and professional services, and others with sites throughout Europe.”
She also cites the choice and frequency of flights, and the safety factor – which aligns with corporate duty-of-care requirements. “Eastern Europe is still less expensive on average, but planners should be working with their specialist agency to weigh up the best price and value mix for their MICE spend,” she says.
The VCB says its key markets are Germany, the UK and Ireland, France and Benelux, Italy, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the US and Canada, adding that “also present are China, India and Australia”. This view is echoed by Johannes Walter, sales director at Austrian Airlines, which connects the capital with 130 destinations worldwide. He says primary source markets for inbound corporate meetings and incentives are Germany, the US and the UK, but expects to see future growth from China, Russia and India. “Brazil is developing as a potential market and will be important in the future,” he adds.
Christian Mutschlechner is director of the VCB. He says as well as growth in the number of events held, last year saw a 5 per cent rise in delegate attendance, and overnight stays up 8 per cent. He says part of the reason for this is Vienna’s increasing role as a business travel destination.
“This is largely down to the city’s importance as a hub into the CEE [central and eastern Europe] region,” he says, adding that UK businesses held the third highest number of corporate events in Vienna, and the 12 per cent increase in international congresses was “largely down to an expansion in medical, economic and political, and IT and communication industry events”.
Another draw for major events is the pomp and circumstance of Austria’s imperial heritage. The monumental, grandiose sprawl of the Hofburg Palace has symbolised the seat of power in the region for more than 700 years, encompassing the all-powerful Hapsburg dynasty to the current federal president, and since the International Atomic Energy Agency’s conference in 1958, it has grown in popularity as a convention centre.
The Hofburg Congress Centre has a wide range of facilities, from small meeting spaces to glittering ballrooms. In 2012 the palace recorded a turnover of €10.5 million, and says its events contributed to some €190 million to the Austrian economy. Conference and meetings accounted for 55 per cent of the events mix, generating 60,000 bed nights for the capital, while the famous palace balls accounted for 10 per cent.
Hofburg managing director Renate Danler says the market is characterised by a “demand for increasingly complex event formats, such as hybrid meetings and the integration of new technologies”, with buyers asking about ways to incorporate new interactive communications for their delegates. She adds: “We also recognise a tendency towards shorter lead times, and the decision-making process taking longer. Clients are more cost-conscious and more focused on clear event targets.”
She says the palace, “the only former imperial residence that functions as an international congress and events centre”, is now offering free wifi and investing in faster internet. Danler’s take on the city reflects those of other buyers and suppliers I questioned: “Compact, green, safe and easily accessible.”
Along with several MICE bookers and arrangers, WCN president Professor Auff says Vienna offers an “exceptional range of accommodation, from five-star hotels to more moderately priced establishments and inexpensive overnight stays.” Hotel booking portal HRS lists 262 properties in the destination, while the Vienna Tourist Board earlier this year reported more than 400 accommodation options and over 55,000 beds. Buying Business Travel’s sister publication, Business Traveller, in its ‘100 new business hotels’ round-up, included the new Palais Hansen Kempinski and the Ritz-Carlton as the latest high-profile openings in the city.
We’ll leave the last word to our eminent neurology professor. He talks about the Messe Wien’s 30-minute journey to the airport, good public transport links, flexible spaces and facilities, and 4,300 parking spaces. But he also enthuses about the Vienna State Opera, the Musikverein and Konzerthaus concert halls, jazz clubs and the “Vienna Woods and the world-famous amusement park, the Prater, with its renowned giant Ferris wheel”. Auff asserts: “We are confident the social events and leisure activities we offer reflect the city’s reputation.”
KEY MICE VENUES (ranked by capacity)
MESSE WIEN EXHIBITION AND CONGRESS CENTRE
Meeting spaces: 42-50
Max single capacity: 50,000 exhibition visitors, 30,000 delegates
Meeting spaces: 43
Max single capacity: 4,320
Meeting spaces: 6-7 (there are six halls plus the option to rent the whole Konzerthaus)
Max single capacity: 3,900 (for the whole Konzerthaus)
Max single capacity: 748
HALLE E AND HALLE G
Meeting spaces: 2
Max single capacity: 2,000
Meeting spaces: 2
Max single capacity: 1,600
HOFBURG CONGRESS CENTRE
Meeting spaces: 39
Max single capacity: 1,300
AUSTRIA TREND HOTEL SAVOYEN VIENNA
Meeting spaces: 18
Max single capacity: 1,000
HOTEL ARCOTEL WIMBERGER VIENNA
Meeting spaces: 10
Max single capacity: 970
Meeting spaces: 17
Max single capacity: 840
HOTEL INTERCONTINENTAL WEIN
Meeting spaces: 17
Max single capacity: 800
Max single capacity: 748
GRAND HOTEL WIEN
Meeting spaces: 12
Max single capacity: 500
Vienna Convention Bureau