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Where East and West merge

As large as Austria and boasting a top-class infrastructure: an internationally broadcast TV show in 2012 kick-started the up-and-coming meeting and event industry in the Caucasian Republic.

ardly anybody will recall the singing industrial mechanic Roman Lob, but most of us will remember the city where Lob as Germany's representative performed at the European Song Contest (ESC) in May 2012: Baku, capital city of Azerbaijan. Anybody telling his colleagues that he'll soon fly to a congress being held in this city in the South Caucasus region will almost inadvertently be reminded of the singing contest in Baku. The ESC in Baku was truly a fantastic spectacle, Azerbaijan was a fantastic host. The capital of the Caucasian Republic had invested hundreds of millions of euros in preparation for the world's biggest TV entertainment show. The Crystal Hall directly on the Caspian Sea had been built in only eight months specifically for this show – almost exclusively by German construction companies and architects.

And there it is, this high-tech hall seating 23,000 spectators, which can light up and decorate its outer hull in any country's national colors or with corporate logos as well. It's this mixture of ultra-modernity and historic buildings that makes Azerbaijan such a charming destination. It's a unique blend of Caucasus mixed with Turkey and Persia with a strong dose of Russia added. Eastern Europe and Western Asia come together here. The capital city of Baku is glitzy and rich, also a consequence of the oil boom. The highly-visible Flame Towers are a signature high-riser landmark consisting of three towers with flickering flame-like illumination at nighttime. This modern structure is in scenic contrast to mosques. The walled city of Baku with the Shirvanshah's Palace and the Maiden Tower has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hotels are usually also a feast for the eyes – and they have enormous bed and meeting capacities, which is why the country can now smarten up for planners from Germany. The chateau-like Four Seasons in beaux-art-style has 172 rooms, all of these with marble bath and a view on the Caspian Sea or the historic part of town. The hotel with its eight function rooms is perfectly suited for corporate events with up to 800 participants.

Anybody looking for an exclusive and secluded dining ambiance without interference from other guests will find the Hilton Baku with its modern glass façade to be just the right setting. It has six conference rooms, the largest of which is named Sevda Ballroom with a maximum capacity of 500 participants. Large groups will find all they need at the JW Marriott Absheron Baku; whenever oil corporations invite to exclusive meetings, they make reservations here, because there's room for more than 1,000 guests.
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Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, is architecturally captivating with its mix of old and new buildings.

Hotel and art museum alike: the Fairmont Baku in the Flame Towers with a spectacular view through the floor-to-ceiling glass façade is just simply fabulous. Contemporary art is on display in the hotel's public-access areas and the 318 rooms as well. The value of these exhibits alone has been estimated at around US$750 million. A prime example here is suspended from the lobby ceiling: the 15-by-15-meter chandelier composed of tens of thousands of Swarovski crystals and weighing a total of 1.5 tons carried a price-tag of US$ two million.

The Boulevard Hotel has even more space – its 818 rooms make it the largest in Baku. The Ball Room can accommodate 1,000 delegates seated at round tables and 1,500 in theater setup. Hotel operations managed by German GM Patrick Iserlohe run smoothly and efficiently. There's a cozy bar with outside terrace on the ground floor featuring a view on the Caspian Sea.

From here, it's only a stone's throw from the Baku Convention Center. Its ultra-modern architecture with lots of aluminum and exquisitely-chased bright marble calls to mind the European Central Bank building in Frankfurt or the BMW-Welt in Munich, and that comes as no big surprise. Austrian architect Wolf D. Prix and his Coop Himmelb(l)au architecture office signed responsible for these projects. Costs most probably did not play any major role, Prix was on a long leash and the Convention Center consequently boasts an array of unique features: in the entrance lobby, one of the world's largest LED screens welcomes visitors, the cloakroom is a robot featuring fully automatic storage of coats and jackets. Center manager Nasrin Shamkalova is particularly proud of the 15 break-out rooms, which can be flooded with daylight by way of electronically-adjustable computer-controlled solar panels on the roof. The various levels in the auditorium can be hydraulically retracted; the room can very conveniently be converted into a gigantic ballroom. 2,500 delegates of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee convened here only this summer.
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Fuad Nagiyev (left) and Florian Sengstschmid, an Azerbaijani-Austrian dream team.

Opposite to the Convention Center is a no less impressive complex: the Heydar Aliyev Center. This culture center opened in 2013 is home to the new National Museum, a library as well as concert and conference rooms in various sizes. The largest one of these, the Auditorium Hall, is paneled with Canadian oak, giving it outstanding acoustical characteristics. That's the reason why numerous international symphonic orchestras have felt very much at home in the 120-seat orchestra pit. Incumbent President Ilham Aliyev had the building erected in commemoration of his father, the late former president Heydar Aliyev. The flowing design of the building is a symbol for renewal and modernization of the Azerbaijani society.

This society in Baku is young and well-educated. The largest community of religious followers is made up by Shia Muslims, but convention delegates visiting the former Soviet Republic will hardly notice: most women will not wear veils or headscarves, but instead are clothed in trendy Western fashion. Anybody visiting one of the many good restaurants throughout the city will soon notice specifically the younger generation sipping a glass of beer or wine. Local cuisine might best be compared with contemporary Turkish gastronomy; modern Azerbaijani is historically a Turkic language. However, the streetscape in Baku owing to the country's rich oil and gas deposits is much more prosperous and westerly than in the nearby Turkish Republic; couples holding hands are a common sight. Burkhas are worn only by tourists from neighboring Iran, who flee from the heat in that country in the summer months. While temperatures in Iran around noon can easily reach 50°C, the climate in Baku is milder and more Mediterranean.


Die Gesellschaft in Baku ist jung und gut ausgebildet, ganz wie Sevda Aliyeva.PHOTO: AZERBAIJAN CONVENTION BUREAU
Die Gesellschaft in Baku ist jung und gut ausgebildet, ganz wie Sevda Aliyeva.
Sevda Aliyeva, Director of the Azerbaijan Convention Bureau, about the meeting industry in her country and the International Astronautical Congress 2022 in Baku.

tw: You are a member of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). Why is this membership important for you?
Sevda Aliyeva: We are a member of ICCA since we have been established. So far, using the platform, we have researched 365 potential business events for destination Azerbaijan and currently our team works extremely hard to transform their status from “potential leads” to “won bids”. Last but not least, by being a member of ICCA, we get aquatinted with our peers and colleagues all over the word. ICCA allows us to study and learn international standards and share experiences. There are several annual events held by ICCA that are informative, experiential and educational in nature. As such, we were attending ICCA Congress this year in Houston.

What has been your latest big project?
Currently, we are working on many different association business events. However, the biggest attention was dedicated towards bidding for the International Astronautical Congress with more than 6,000 delegates for 2022 – which we just won! We are working on this project together with the local member of International Astronautical Federation – “AzerCosmos”. A working group has been created and thanks to this enthusiastic and professional team that works extremely hard we will welcome the congress in our beautiful capital city Baku.

What major international congresses did just take place in Azerbaijan or will take place over the next months?
For the last year, we have put a lot of efforts to raise public awareness of Azerbaijan as a destination. As a result, Azerbaijan already became a host country for numerous association business events; International Pediatric Conference, World Custom Organization IT&TI Conference and Exhibition, Union of International Architects Forum, and many others. Over the next months, we will be hosting Association for Computing Machinery Wom Encourage Conference, IEEE Conference on Information Application, IATA Safety and Flight Ops Conference and many others.

Please tell us in a few sentences why international meeting planners should keep Azerbaijan in mind for their meetings.
As a professional in this industry, I know Azerbaijan has everything to become one of the most appealing destinations for both international participants as well as the event owners and organizers. As many other destinations, we definitely offer variety of world-class conference facilities, international and local hotel chains and on-site activities, however what make us a really unique destination are our culture and people! Azerbaijan is an Eastern country, but with a Western outlook – this exceptional combination of antiquity and novelty added by warm hospitality of people invite its guests to get unforgettable experiences. Our rich cultural heritage, welcoming spirit, and modern city life leave a lasting impression…

What are you doing in Germany to make you known as a meeting destination and how is Germany developing as a source country for you?
Firstly, I would like to mention that, currently Azerbaijan Convention Bureau operates under the umbrella of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board, but targets the segment related to business events only. With the help of colleagues from our representative office in Germany, we constantly study the German market and actively promote Azerbaijan by participating in different tradeshows, exhibitions, seminars, workshops, roadshows as well as by organizing our own events, sales calls and missions.

What about your future plans?
We have great abilities and records in organizing world’s major sporting and cultural events and the next step is – Business Events! Azerbaijan is fully equipped and willing to host major business events. We are maybe not be a large country but is one with great ambition, diverse culture, and world-class infrastructure. A little bit more time and Azerbaijan will be transformed to the worlds’ most competitive Business Events Destination.

The area around the Gabala holiday region approximately two-and-a-half hours by car away from the capital city has a lot to offer for planners. The Shamaxi Palace Hotel is owned by a Turkish group of investors; it holds available state-of-the-art conference technology for meeting groups with up to 350 participants and an abundance in scenic nature. Those traveling through the mountains will find numerous simple shelters for staying overnight. More comfy options are available at the Qafqaz Riverside Hotel, where meals are served in open huts on the banks of gushing mountain creeks. A two-minutes ride on the escalator along yellow glass elements will take visitors up to the Gabala Congress Hall with a capacity of up to 1,200 delegates. Because the architecture has distinctly Russian nuances, meeting experts due to its particular Soviet-era atmosphere like to book this venue for ministry officials from all over the world; the tall windows open to spectacular views on the surrounding Caucasus Mountains.

While people with a more pacifist attitude might not be really excited about target practice at a business event, it's something you might nevertheless want to try at the Gabala Shooting Center – it's simply part of Azerbaijani culture. Friends at home will be impressed when they hear reports on the thrill of firing a Kalashnikov at targets. A large variety of pistols and rifles are stored in the gun racks at the shooting range. Visitors from the neighboring Arab states are particularly fond of training with hunting rifles, as they like to go on hunting trips in the Gabala region.

A more “Western” program activity might be a tour and wine-tasting at the Aspi Winery Salavan. Sommelier Gafur Jalilov offers a selection of 21 different wines (insider's tip: the dry Chardonnay). Afterwards, a trip to the mountains by cable-car is double the fun, just the place to enjoy a delicious dinner with a fantastic vista.

And finally, back in Baku, a visit to Florian Sengstschmid is always worthwhile. He is a typical example for how Azerbaijan manages to hire highly-qualified foreign experts to aid and support economic growth and development. Sengstschmid is CEO of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB) and senior consultant to the government for all matters related to tourism and MICE. Experts are delighted with how swiftly the Austrian can get things done in the country when it comes to visitor groups. And of course, it's a significant advantage that the Azerbaijani Fuad Nagiyev has his office next to Sengstschmid's. Nagiyev is the chairman of the country's State Tourism Agency, ranks as a minister and is a member of the cabinet of President Ilham Aliyev.
“Azerbaijan is fully equipped and willing to host major business events.”
Sevda Aliyeva,
Director of the Azerbaijan Convention Bureau