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The Malta story

Malta put on its Sunday best to excel as European Capital of Culture 2018 and sent out invitations to the first Association Round Table Malta. The guests were familiarized with the host country and came to know each other as well: are association meetings really all about nice weather?

eter Cauchi was more than satisfied. "Malta as European Capital of Culture 2018 and the presidency of the council of the European Union in the first six months of 2017 really turned the spotlight on us, and we made headlines in the international press, including the BBC," said the Head of Conventions Malta, which is affiliated to Malta Tourist Authority. And that went down well in statistics: 2017 was a record-breaking year with 2.24 million tourists contributing 15 percent to GDP; among them 180,560 business travelers (a plus of 32 percent) and 121,000 attendees at meetings and incentives (+37 percent).

Malta's capital Valletta with its 6,000 inhabitants is the smallest capital city in the EU. Valletta itself is ranked as UNESCO World Heritage Site and the center of all activities in context with the Capital of Culture Year, which is being celebrated by all 422,480 Maltese inhabitants on Malta, Gozo and Comino. The festivities were ceremoniously opened at the Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC). More than 140 culture projects and 400 events ranging from classical opera over performance art and design all the way to contemporary music and film re-enact and revive Valletta's 7,000-year-old history. The Cultural Program is designed to promote a European dimension and encourage citizen participation with four themes: Generations, Routes, Cities and Islands. At the center of the 2018 program are infrastructure projects such as Muza, the new museum of art, or the Valletta Design Cluster centered on the old slaughterhouse.

"Valletta really spruced itself up," said Peter Cramer, MICE Board, and 18 representatives of associations, who met in March for the first Association Round Table Malta. The concept's originator is Peter Cramer, and Peter Cauchi is the event's host. The head of Conventions Malta told his listeners about the foundation of the organization in 2015, with the intent to promote the Maltese island as destination for meetings and incentives. The Association Round Table is to learn about associations' needs and to introduce them to Malta as destination for conferences. Cauchi emphasized: "Many people think of Malta as a tourist and leisure destination, but I promise you: we work! We are a destination for business and for conventions and are now approaching the association market."

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The Maltese hosts want to know: What are the needs of associations when planning their conferences?

This first Association Round Table Malta was a mixture of sight-seeing in Valletta, tasting Maltese cuisine at the Ta Viktor in Marsaxlokk, site inspections, networking and a workshop. For this purpose, guests and hosts, congress centers, hoteliers and agencies were split-up into groups at the Westin Dragonara Hotel in St. Julian’s . The groups consisting of association and service-providers representatives each were set to answer questions such as "Which requirements are needed to plan associations conferences?" One association chairperson started off with: "First you look for a nice place, sunny weather, good food and culture with daily flights and a good value for money." Among the 18 associations were some German associations, but they are open to convening in foreign parts as this is frequently less costly. And yes, more than 300 days of sunshine with uncounted outdoor locations do have great appeal to organizers. Proceeding from this finding, attendees determined two trends among associations: one group emphasizes nice climate, culture and networking and is less focused on content, the other group aiming at knowledge and education is looking for destinations which can contribute to their contents.

Maltese attendees wanted to know how their country is perceived as destination in Germany. "The perception of Malta is a destination for elderly English ladies and language learners," was one group's message, combined with a recommendation: "Storytelling – tell us a (different) story! Make us curious! Show us that Malta is a ‘hot destination’." Said one local hotelier: "Did you know that we are not only an important finance hub, but strong in film industry and gaming? Malta is big in gaming!” According to the Malta Gaming Authority, the Maltese gaming industry contributes 12 percent to the country's GDP. The island country is home to around 270 gaming operators, among these Tipico seated in the Portomaso Business Tower in San Giljan.

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Mdina, one of the former capitals of Malta.

Another question asked by Maltese attendees aimed at the expectations on Conventions Malta. A convention bureau ought to be a one-stop-shop, responded the associations, they're interested in recommendations on venues. "The image I'm taking home is the long table at the Mediterranean Conference Centre," said Uta Goretzky, Executive Director, International Federation of Exhibition and Event Services (IFES). That's what she considers relevant information, and not „all those churches“. The Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC), the spiritual home of the knights of the order of St. John, was used for a long time as hospital and is today a congress center. Goretzky is delighted with the concept of having Maltese cultural properties open to planners; these include Fort St. Angelo and St. Elom, the Villa Bologna and the Pallazo de Piro.

Differing opinions emerged in the course of the discussion on social programs. "We have a social program:We work, our women go shopping“, said one chairman. The female attendee next to him responded: "The focus of our accompanying program is on culture experiences." Goretzky admitted: "I try to avoid accompanying programs, they distract delegates from networking." European associations usually prefer relying on local organizing committees over DMCs. "I am on a charity and I don’t have the money," said one participant. Peter Cauchi referred to financial support in the ‘Local Associations Scheme 2018- 202‘, which is aimed at assisting international meetings which are organized by associations based on the Maltese Islands. The Maltese side acknowledged: "You are all associations, but you are all different. We need to understand what you need from us." The association reps recommended segmenting the association market and emphasizing those themes to which Malta can relate. Immigration issues was something all were agreed on: "Facilitate immigration office, have a person at the foreign office that helps to sort out all the visa issues." Cauchi promised: "We will make sure that we will be a door opener to you and liaise with the respective office."


Peter Cauchi, Head of Conventions Malta

tw: Malta held the European Council Presidency in 2017 and is European Capital of Culture 2018. Will these events affect your business?
Peter Cauchi:
Of course, both events are of great importance to us. Malta’s European Presidency gave us an extra exposure in international press showing that Malta is not only a destination for holidays but for conferences and events. In 2017 we saw a great increase in meetings, not only from the EU but the financial and other sectors. The European Capital of Culture will probably not have the same impact, but we see a healthy increase of conference requests in 2018. Some of them are related to this particular event.

You hosted in March the first Association Round Table 2018. How did it go?
Looking at the feedback from our guests and the local trade I can say that it was a great success which does encourage us to organize another Association Round Table Malta in 2019.

Malta sought the dialogue with 18 associations. Why did you do that?
Through our dialogue with association meeting organizers we understood that they know little about Malta as destination for conferences. Conventions Malta is still at the very beginning and the association business is new to us. We learned a lot and hope that we could present the Maltese Island’s potential for meetings.

Which lesson learnt about association conferences do you take home?
Associations have different organizational set ups, budgets, meeting and service requirements etc. Requests from associations need to be tailor made especially in the initial stages when information is being sourced.

The associations suggested their Maltese hosts to use storytelling. Which story would you like to tell?
I would start with the Knights of St John who started meetings in Malta back in the 16th century. The Order of St John was formed by wealthy European Nobles coming from eight European countries. They met in Malta and planned their strategy including the battle of the Great Siege against the Ottoman Empire. My story would than continue with the evolution of Malta until 2018. I am sure that our clients would be impressed by the long way we came and where we are today. 

That went over well with the associations, as did the fact that the hosts get along with each other and are pulling together, even if they – for example the hotels – are in direct competition to each other. This is exemplified in St. Julian’s "Golden Mile for Meetings", as Mark Vella calls the cluster of five 5-star hotels with altogether 2,500 rooms. He's the Director of Sales at the Hilton Malta Conference Centre with 470 bedrooms and 19 meeting rooms. His colleague Johann Lenhart is the Director of Convention Sales at the Intercontinental Malta Hotel. The Austrian has been living on Malta since December, and he marvels at all the building projects. "All major construction sites are hotels," he said, looking down from the new 18th floor of his hotel. Three new floors with 30 suites each were built at total costs of €54 million, hiking the total number of rooms to 481. The Interconti is the largest hotel operation with 22 function rooms and the 3,600-sqm Convention Centre Arena. During Malta's European Council Presidency, the European People's Party Congress occupied the entire complex on March 29 and 30. "We had more policemen than delegates," said Jesmond Debono, Director of Sales, in explaining the maximum security precautions. Not to forget that the 765 delegates included 66 VIPs, EU heads of states and government such as German chancellor Angela Merkel. Debono: "We can secure safety in hotels, and Malta is a safe destination." These are very important news for organizations such as the association of European journalists (VEJ). Their president Dr. Hendrik Schott looked forward to attending the program to gain an overall impression of the convention and accommodation options as well as local social programs. "The interesting and diversified program of this study trip was able to fulfill both objectives," is how Schott summed up his impressions. "Staff were really interested in feedback from the associations and they also wanted to learn more about planning and staging conferences." He considers Valletta and St. Julian's to be absolutely viable options. "There are good flight connections, an attractive range of meeting venues and hotels as well as numerous nearby opportunities for interesting social programs. Our European conference is usually staged in autumn, and Malta's mild climate is yet another significant asset."

This is the feedback Peter Cramer and Peter Cauchi want to hear, and they consider it a confirmation of their new approach. "Our Association Round Table is a new format which actually reverses the usual orientation of MICE-event communication, which is ‚supplier talks o buyer‘. Here, the suppliers are required to listen and learn. "  KERSTIN WÜNSCH