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Mixing Business with Pleasure: Conference Tourism

As Bulgaria embraces more commercial Western ideas on how to generate revenue and in turn jobs for its people, it is examining every aspect of tourism in great detail. Tourism is Bulgaria’s lifeline, yet it is so underdeveloped and has been limited to the cheap package holiday market for so long that it has failed to realise the potential of other tourist revenue streams. One area that has come to the fore in recent years thanks to the construction of large, sophisticated new hotels is the aspect of tourism aimed at the business market. This aspect of tourism goes under several different names – business, conference or congress tourism, but essentially they all target the same group of people – businessmen and the companies or organisations they represent.


How Does Conference Tourism Work?

Bulgaria has witnessed significant increases in business tourism and is now gearing up to attract more of this lucrative slice of the tourism pie. The idea behind conference tourism is age old and in the Western world it has been a regular part of the tourist industry for decades. In a bid to motivate, educate and reward its staff or clients many companies organise conferences or corporate events at locations away from the office. Usually they choose to hold the session over a weekend at a chic hotel with good conference facilities.  The weekend consists of free flights for the participants, free accommodation, a series of lectures and a tour of the area where the conference is held. The participants reward for giving up their time is a large expense account to cover their stay. Indeed even large organisations like Interpol and the United Nations hold congresses to discuss certain topics of relevance and they invite dignitaries and high profile speakers from all over the world.

Conference or business tourism attracts clients from the upper income brackets, and some hotels such as Sofia’s Radission Hotel have found that congress tourism in Bulgaria now surpasses traditional tourism in terms of profit. Martin Colb, the hotel manager at the Radisson said, “Congress tourism is 10 times more profitable than the traditional sea and winter tourism and it is important for Bulgaria to attract more international conferences.” With the uncompromising introduction of new technology and conference facilities into many of the country’s leading hotels, congress tourism is set to continue to grow.

Conferences to attract Conferences!

There are an unprecedented amount of conferences being held across the country to educate hoteliers on how to attract large international conferences. Bulgaria is not scheduled to hold any large global congresses over the next 10 years; Martin Colb explains that this is because the country is such an unknown quantity on the conference circuit. Yet, countries like Croatia and Slovenia will host around 30 international conferences a year.  Nevada governor Bob Miller, who co-organised a conference into congress tourism said, “Much money is given for congress tourism worldwide and Bulgaria is an unexploited destination, which can attract part of these sums.” Bulgaria’s MEP Biliana Raeva estimates that the country could earn around 100 million USD annually from congress tourism. She too, encouraged those involved in organizing and attracting conferences should capitalize on this lucrative market. She stressed that serious planning and preparation was essential in developing this stream of tourist revenue. The EU has also put aside money for Bulgaria to develop its tourism at all levels and much debate has been given to how the country should spend this money in attracting business tourism with reference to Berlin who used 3.6 billion Euros to promote and expand its conference facilities in 2006.  

Business Tourist Profile

According to research from the Bulgarian Convention and Visitors Bureau, revenue from congress tourism is up by 25 % and is set to increase with all of the effort going into attracting more businessmen. The reason why business people make such good customers is that their spending levels are high – an estimated 3,000 $ per day, compared to the average hotel guest; their money can be written off against company expenses and this encourages them to eat more, drink more and use more of the hotels extra facilities like spa treatments. On average, business people stay around three days, but their accommodation is always in four or five star hotels. Their preferred conference locations are exotic destinations like Singapore. Bulgaria aims to promote conference tourism in its four largest cities; Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Bourgas. The three largest cities have well developed conference infrastructures; however Bourgas is in need of a congress centre to promote it as a conference destination.

Conference Tourism Leaders

Bulgaria ranks somewhere around 47th place in the world’s list for congress tourism according to Paul Flacket, Executive Director of IMEX the biggest expo for congress tourism. Its aim is to become part of the top ten destinations over the coming years. Currently the most popular venues in ranked order are America, Germany and the UK. The most popular cities for conferences are Vienna, Paris, Singapore and Barcelona.Conference tourism is likely to develop given Bulgaria’s low costs, increased flights and efforts at setting up high tech conference facilities. Additionally the new golf, spa and sports facilities on offer in a number of resorts close to the four major cities will enhance Bulgaria’s success.