Convene 2020 hits the meetings ‘G-spot’
Much has changed in Vilnius and Lithuania since I visited in 2009, a year it became European Capital of Culture and again in 2011 when it hosted the European Basketball Championships.
At that time products and services were paid-for with the Lithuanian Litas.
Today, the currency is the Euro, Lithuania's second city Kaunas is gearing up to become European Capital of Culture 2022 and the country will welcome the FIFA Futsal World Championships 2020, the first time a FIFA official tournament will be hosted in Lithuania. However, two things remain the same, a great urban vibe in Vilnius and a young innovative population, described by the Director of Go Vilnius, Inga Romanovskienė, whom I interviewed at Convene 2020, the Baltic region’s largest meetings industry exhibition as “ambitious, hungry to succeed and industrious, all aiming to do things in the right way”. Vilnius is the 2nd youngest city in Nordic European countries after Copenhagen and the fastest growing capital in the Baltics with the population growing on average by 2.7%.
Vilnius is a modern, interesting and quirky city with a tourism organisation to match; using this quirkiness, especially in their advertising campaigns encapsulates much of this. They are currently promoting 'Vilnius: Amazing Wherever You Think It Is,' which follows the award-winning “Vilnius - the G-spot of Europe” campaign, which claimed that “nobody knows where it is, but when you find it - it's amazing.”
Using a perceived ‘negative’ as a lesser-known European capital and turning it into a tool to boost awareness, helped reach an audience of 600 million and increased tourist numbers by 12%, not to mention picking-up best ad campaign at the International Travel & Tourism Awards by World Travel Market in London last year.
Convene 2020 opening night networking event at the National Library of Lithuania
This out-the-box thinking and innovation has overlapped with Convene 2020, the 8th edition of the meetings event, which positions Vilnius as the ‘window to the whole Baltic region’. This year 90% of the 140 hosted buyers from 30 countries were new to the Convene portfolio; an ideal chance to raise awareness of Vilnius as a meetings city, the country’s MICE credentials and its world-leading specialisms.
These include its laser technology used the world over, Fintech, Bio-tech plus a strong Engineering, Medical and Scientific community. In April, Vilnius will host one of the most important laser industry events, the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EIPC) Annual General Meeting, and the following month the 18th European Conference on Electroanalysis (ESEAC).
“We are bringing two of our client events to Vilnius later this year so were keen to meet as many local contacts and potential suppliers as possible. This is the first time either client has visited Vilnius so, as organisers, we need to ensure we are as familiar with, not only the city, but its quirks, its transport systems, its social venues as much as we are in Vienna or Barcelona” stated Graeme King, Project Executive of Integrity International Events Ltd, attending as hosted buyer.
Bringing relatively ‘new’ destinations to a client brief is a rare commodity for Europe these days; “Since we announced the venue for these meetings, we have had such positive feedback from delegates and sponsors, excited about going to their respective meetings in a new city with some of the best event infrastructure in Europe – from a myriad of local suppliers, plenty of smaller meeting space as well as LITEXPO, to some of the fastest Wi-Fi and 5G in Europe.” King continued.
If preliminary estimates are realised then they suggest there were around 700 international meetings and events in Vilnius in 2019, an increase of 10-15% over the previous year; “Convene plays a role in those statistics by raising awareness of Vilnius as a meeting destination” stated Romanovskienė.
This will be further boosted by the completion of several industry defining developments, which are set to jettison Vilnius, Kaunas and the rest of the country into a strong position as a Baltic hub venue for the European and global meetings industry. In 2023 Vilnius will see the opening of a new and dedicated city centre congress centre, which is walking distance from many major hotels and on the doorstep of the UNESCO listed old town. This will be complimented by the opening of the National Opera Hall, which will facilitate myriad cultural events. Whilst Kaunas will see several expansion projects which will add another 20 conference rooms by 2022.
“Vilnius is booming now, we have a growing number of hotels, with 2 to 3 new hotel openings each year” Romanovskienė added. The capability of the hotel sector can meet many of the demands and briefs for all types of conferences and events, such as Convene exhibitor ‘The Grand Resort Vilnius’ located around 19km from the city-centre within a spectacular ‘green’ setting. It offers 25 meetings rooms spread across 8,000sqm and has just inaugurated ‘The V Spa & Wellness centre’ offering 7,500sqm of pure relaxation, amongst many other facilities which include a championship 18-hole Golf Course: "Vilnius Grand Resort is a leader in the MICE market segment in the Baltic countries, with our convention centre known as one of the finest meeting venues in the Baltic States, as it offers versatility, exclusivity and state-of-the-art facilities to a wide array of events from small executive board meetings to large conferences, business incentive events, expos and gala dinners, all at the best value for price." stated Ben Brahms - 'Owner & Founder of Vilnius Grand Resort Hotel’.
Convene 2020 Professional Academy speaker sessions - Dr. Rob Davidson (MICE Knowledge) interviews Vadim Zelenski (Russian Association of Business Travel)
Knowledge Clusters & Convene Professional Academy
Vilnius is also a rising tech hub; Fintech, Gamedev, Mobility are some of the fastest growing fields: “It is a playground for tech businesses – a city-sized sandbox” mentioned Romanovskienė, meaning it is the ideal ecosystem to develop and test new products. Vilnius has five active sandbox programmes ranging from Fintech to energy.
Kaunas is home to top universities and engineering specialists plus a base for heavy industry; Automotive giant Continental opened its electronic components factory, which will employ more than 1,000 people by 2021 within the Kaunas Free Economic Zone (FEZ) back in October 2019.
Kaunas is also known as the unofficial city of youth and sport another important sector to Lithuania. Prof. Dr. Irena Valentine - European Association for Sport Management board member - cited the impressive sporting infrastructure within Kaunas, which includes the construction of a new National Stadium. She helped attract the ‘European College of Sport Science Congress’ to Lithuania in 2020, which will attract some 3000 participants to the LITEXPO Vilnius (Current site of CONVENE).
Convene is not just a networking opportunity, or the conduit between supplier and buyer, but also a knowledge sharing platform. Integrity’s project executive, Graeme King, was also a panellist for one of the Professional Academy Sessions at Convene which offered the chance for Integrity to offer their expertise, as well as hearing that of others.
This year’s topics heavily focussed on ‘Technology’ and the many challenges and opportunities this is creating. In the opening session of the ‘Professional Academy’ the question raised was: ‘How to embrace the future of DMCs: the clash of technologies and expertise’; the consensus amongst the panel of experts strongly felt that the human element remains critical in providing a quality, personalised service but adaption to new technologies within the meetings sphere was as critical when meeting the demands of ‘Generation Y and Z’.
Maybe one of the most eye-opening sessions fell on the last day and continued the topical thread around ‘Generation Y and Z’, but within the eSports gaming sector. Florian Masuth, Head of ‘GameOn’, the Baltic region’s largest eSports events and Allan Peterson LGND.Agency both presented their insight into the phenomenal growth of eSports and the impact on the meetings industry in Lithuania and globally.
“GameOn was the first major venture into games and eSports events in the Baltic States and exploded onto the scene with 7 000 visitors in its premier year 2015. Since then, we had to leave behind our initial venue and move to the largest expo event space in our region, Litexpo Vilnius, and celebrated our 5th anniversary together with 19 000 visitors last year.” Commented Masuth
There has long been a disconnect between the eSports/ Gaming industry and the MICE sector, but as Petersen says “eSports and gaming events are booming, 20 years ago there was zero and now the industry growth has gone insane” cities, destinations and venues are taking note: “if (as a city) you support the right type (of event), the right game and people to work with, it can attract 5-10,000 people travelling to your city”. These potential numbers have been fuelled by new investments especially for competitors: “prize pools have moved from 1million dollars per year a decade ago to 100million dollars per year today” Petersen added, which reflects the new appetite for eSports and that has created demand for venues, so both industries have much to gain and learn from each other.
Several forward-thinking destinations have invested heavily into eSports infrastructure, however, Masuth believes the eSports family still feels much needs to be done to “have a clear agenda to support large-scale events like ours” especially that “GameOn, with its many initiatives for professionals like B2B meeting area and a conference with over 40 international and local speakers each year, has become the key Baltic event (for eSports) that connects our region to the rest of the world.”
Vilnius Grand Resort - Conference Facility - courtesy of Vilnius Grand Resort
The arrival of the FIFA Futsal World Championships Lithuania later this year reflects the progress of Lithuania’s MICE sector in just under a decade. The tangible ability to now attract major events, exhibitions and festivals has started and will continue as new infrastructure projects come to fruition. Confidence is palpable leading to regional optimism across the MICE industry of the Baltics and Convene remains a key driver.
Vilnius Grand Resort - The V Spa & Wellness - courtesy of Vilnius Grand Resort
Romanovskienė ended the interview by saying “Convene is not just about Vilnius or Lithuania, but a positive for the whole Baltic region.” There is no doubt that increasing visibility of the region is simply good for everyone. I wonder what the next decade has in store for Lithuania, but one thing is for sure, I will be returning much sooner than that!
By Ramy Salameh
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