THE TALE OF THE EAGLE
The ‘land of eagles’ will be a pleasant surprise for many congress organisers – it is a destination that is still waiting to be discovered. For decades it was completely inaccessible for foreigners and tourists, which led to quite a lot of stereotypes that are instantly swept aside by the welcome of the locals. Well, most of the stereotypes are, other than the Albanian traffic, which is chaotic and has roads that vary from modern motorways to a gravel rodeo. Before arriving at Tirana the highway suddenly ends and the speed limit of 110km/h is to be respected, as here you can meet some cows, goats and even horse carriages are not a rarity, so careful driving is mandatory. Another Albanian transport specialty are its petrol stations, which can be found at almost every junction on Albanian roads.
Congress impressions are unusual, as the country itself also unusual – loud and bright, where everything is colourful and somehow a functioning chaos, almost like it is intended to be higgledy-piggledy. Albania was for decades the poorest country in Europe, but now it has lifted itself off the bottom and is now “only” fifth poorest country on the old continent. Despite the stereotypes and the road chaos this not spoil the positive impressions about this new European congress destination, mainly thanks to the many friendly professionals who we met on the way.
The centre of Tirana is nicely stocked and its diverse bars offer a rich gastronomic choice. According to the latest information the city has more than 600,000 inhabitants, which you can appreciate when getting through its traffic from the suburbs to Tirana centre. The nicely arranged city centre is quite different from the construction and urban chaos of the suburbs – they are building a lot! The concrete buildings in all formats and architectural styles intertwine with socialist blocks and multi-dwelling houses that are scattered across the surrounding hills. Tirana is a city of contrasts: roads choked with cars, pavements full of traders, side streets full of children…a city pulse is not lacking in Tirana!
Mercedes rules the roads
Public transport in Tirana is not well provided and transport by car is often the only option, with the consequence that the city is flooded with cars. The old German ships with the star are considered as a status symbol and many people claim that they perform brilliantly on the wild Albanian roads, although they are slowly being displaced by other car brands. Rough terrain jeeps are becoming especially popular and they help to exploit the ‘law of the strongest’ that prevails on the Tirana roads. Traffic lights and traffic signs seem to be there just for a kind of feeling, so pedestrians and cyclists have to fight it alone. After the initial stress you somehow get used to this, as well as the traffic flow ‘in the Albanian way’.
Bunkers as a special venue
After the second world war, the government of the country was taken by the communists under the leadership of Enver Hodža, who built one of the most totalitarian regimes in the world and created Albania as one of the most isolated countries. The result was a constant phobia of enemies, whose legacy is around 700,000 bunkers. Most of them have been left to decay, with a few of them converted into restaurants, so we can quite easily imagine them as a special venue for incentive groups. To get started, you can show your congress guests a typical bunker in the park across from the hotel Rogner.
People in Tirana seem happy, look satisfied and they are much younger that the average European – the average age of male inhabitants of Albania is 29.6 years, while female inhabitants is 32.1, so older people are hardly noticeable. The easiest way to feel the youthful pulse of the city is in the Bllok or Ish-Blokk area, where among the residential blocks can be found some of the best cafes, shops and restaurants of Tirana. Also the villa of the former dictator Enver Hodža is located here. In the time of communism, the area was reserved solely for government officials and only citizens of high functionary status were allowed to move here. The area was opened to the public in 1991 and has become a popular destination for young people from Tirana. At night, the area is full of people, especially at weekends, when most of the nightclubs are full of visitors.
The city’s main avenues have been refurbished and upgraded and today the city streets are full of the kind of providers that illustrate the Albanian openness to the world: travel agencies, for which tours to neighbouring Kosovo dominate, airline offices, foreign banks, mobile and computing technologies stores. Many police officers can be seen amidst the river of people streaming through the avenues and it is these men of the law the reason we don’t find street vendors selling products of rather dubious quality and provenance, with here and there some socks and shoelace sellers having their small space. Just a few steps from the main avenues the less glamorous reality of Tirana can be seen; the markets are awash with plastic products mostly from China and Turkey and the stores are mostly all the same, with some of the slightly bigger ones having products of colourful ceramics, such as statues or ornaments.
The Slovenian member of the European Parliament, Tanja Fajon, has gained a lot of kudos for the liberalisation of the travel regime for Albanian citizens. They have therefore dedicated a bar to her, which is actually a modern restaurant and lounge. Pictures and images – and even coffee cups – of Tanja Fajon decorate the place; they know her everywhere and it seems that the mere mention of her name opens the door to Albanians’ hearts.
In 2004, mayor Edi Rama received an award for the project of changing the city’s façades. The painter and former basketball player ordered the repainting of the gray communist buildings into more vivid colour combinations, defending and promoting the idea that colours raise the spirits and Tirana will become more friendly with colourful buildings. The city’s inhabitants, tired of the grayscale architecture of socialist realism, supported his idea and foreign artists now use the buildings as their canvas for expression.
Albania has just a little more than three million inhabitants, with many more living outside their home country. Most of them live in neighboring Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece and Montenegro, with quite a lot also in Italy and Turkey, but also in Germany, Switzerland, USA and Canada. On Albanian roads you will meet a lot of cars with foreign number plates, even British ones with the steering wheel on the other side. However, in this case it is second hand bought cars either bought in the UK or from Albanians working abroad. Albanians are excellent sportsmen, particularly in football, and football fans know that half of the Swiss national team is originally from Albania.
Albanian cuisine is similar to Italian, except that the prices are affordable. Knowledge of the Italian language comes in handy when reading menus, which are mainly in Albanian, although with basic Italian knowledge you can at least stand a chance about what you might be ordering. With a friendly bartender (if you do not speak Serbian) you can communicate by way of pointing out what you would like to order, smiling and hoping everything will turn out well.
Congress voice of the people
The congress offer is concentrated around the three bigger congress hotels, all of which are located in the city centre. Tirana International Hotel & Conference Centre has 170 rooms and the biggest conference centre in the city, with a total of 13 halls, the largest being for 300 participants. Rogner hotel Tirana is a very nicely furnished hotel with a smaller congress centre for a maximum of 150 participants. This year they are planning to extend the congress centre to be able to host meetings for up to 300 participants. In the vicinity there is also the hotel Sheraton Tirana, with seven congress halls of a capacity for up to 380 participants. All three hotels are of an excellent quality of services at the European level.
For larger events Tirana Expo centre is suitable. Located on the outskirts of the city, the expo centre offers comprehensive, multi-functional conference rooms.
In the city there are a lot of special venues that excite either by their historic story or their special architectural qualities, such as the National History Museum. Unfortunately, however, they have not yet been properly inventoried and therefore when choosing venues you will have to rely on local DMCs, many of whom are young agencies that will surprise you with their creative energy. At this point in time the congress industry is incoherent and the city does not have a convention bureau, which will be urgently needed for the international breakthrough.
WHAT'S HOT IN 2015
The Municipality of Tirana, in collaboration with UNDP, hosts Tirana Smart City Conference 2016-2026, an event that reaches out to the private sector, investors, and donors that can find common interests in this vision.
The conference is intended to support hydro development in Albania, to increase foreign direct investment and aid further privatisation of the hydro power industry.
The fair where you will find everything for hotels, restaurants and cafés.
At TEDxTirana 2016 they aim to deepen the individual and collective sense of the common good through bold and engaging talks from visionary individuals.
The 10th Balkan Congress of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery focuses on all the topics of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery and will appeal to an audience of over 500 attendees from the Balkan countries and beyond.
RECOMMENDABLE MEETINGS DESTINATION
5 – excellent meetings destination
4 – quality meetings destination
3 – reccommendable meetings destination
2 – average meetings destination
1 – so so
BEST INCENTIVE IDEA
COMPARISION WITH THE REGION
Despite the chaotic first impression, you can organise your event in Tirana without any problems and to the satisfaction of your congress participants. Albanians are in fact extremely proud, friendly, calm, excellent hosts, which outweighs any weaknesses in infrastructure. They like to help, are very sociable and stick to their words and promises, expecting the same in return. Tirana has enormous meetings potential, which could be improved with investment in hotel infrastructure. Due to their beautiful nature there are also untapped opportunities for incentive programmes, today marketed by only a few DMCs. For a faster breakthrough they will have to connect and establish a congress bureau.
SKENDERBERG – an Albanian cognac that was named after the national hero who freed Albanians from the Ottoman authorities in the 15th century.