I mostly arrive to Sofia through the supermodern airport renovated in 2006, or by road through Serbia passing the border crossing Dimitrovgrad. Even though Bulgaria is a member of the European Union the crossing doesn’t look very European. I often find myself reminiscing about the long gone days of waiting at the border in the times of socialism. The biggest issue of travelling on the roads are potholes and different “exotic” vehicles and horse drawn carriages, so you have to be really careful not to wreck your car. The traffic near the city can get pretty dense so a lot of patience is required to enter the city of wisdom, which is the Greek meaning of Sofia, one of the oldest cities in Europe.
The first impressions are connected with the mighty Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Orthodox Church in a neo-byzantine style, which can hold over 7,000 people and is a testament to the rich history of this area. The second impression, which I always get, is excellent food and hospitality of the people, who you can easily understand with a bit of an ear for Southern Slavic languages. The third impression is connected with conventions, since the centre of the city is dominated by the Palace of Culture, a sort of larger and over dimensional Cankarjev dom from Ljubljana or Sava Centre from Belgrade. Locals call it by the abbreviation NDK. This centre seems a bit grey, gloomy, depressive and tired, like a socialist convention dinosaur. The Palace is the largest regional convention centre with the area of around 123,000 m2. It was opened in 1981 and is in need of a thorough renovation, since it no longer meets the spatial and sustainability standards of today’s meeting industry. Especially interesting are the giant frescos from the era of real-socialism.
Nowadays Sofia with over a million inhabitants is a vibrant and colourful European metropolis. The city has developed a lot through the last decade. At one time common pickpockets of Roma descent have practically disappeared from the city centre. Bulgaria is a member of the EU since 2007, behind it is a long and arduous transition, crippled by corruption and mafia show-downs. It’s a sort of meeting point between east and west, which is evident at every step. I’m sure most congress organizers connect this part of the world with notions such as real-socialism, corruption, poverty and bureaucracy. These are still present, yet the truth is somewhere in between. This kind of image is not the best for the development of the meetings industry, since Sofia is at the same time full of cultural and historical monuments and unspoilt nature just a stone’s throw from the city centre. You can take a city bus to the 1,800m high Vitosha Mountain and you find yourself at a wonderful incentive location.
During transition many hotels of famous hotel chains sprang up in the city. The first one was Kempinski, followed by Hilton, Sheraton, Radisson and others. The city’s flagship is certainly the Grand Hotel Sofia, a wonderful hotel in the city centre. Today Sofia boasts around 20 hotels with good congress capabilities and a number of agencies connected by the Sofia Convention Bureau and the energetic Mr. Christo Drumev, known as one of the most renowned people of Bulgarian meetings industry. Mr. Drumev is also a long time director of the National Palace of Culture.
Restaurants and entertainment are abundant in Sofia. The culture and concert scene is thriving. You will have no trouble organizing accompanying events and tours. The ratio of hotel rooms and congress facilities is adequate. Considering the large natural potentials, incentives might be the weakest link in the city services.
Sofia is technically as well equipped as any great city. Organizing a convention in Sofia should be no trouble. It’s missing the factor x. It lacks the concise and consistent branding, which would position the city among other tourist sites in Bulgaria. The entire communications story of Sofia seems tired and reminiscent of the olden days. The sense of security in the city is not always absolute. You can quickly have a little mishap with currency exchange. The agencies are doing everything to survive, so a true specialisation hasn’t taken place yet. As a consequence Sofia is not yet on the top of regional convention destinations, where it should be considering its capacities. It’s behind all the important cities by ICCA statistics, which means the potential of the destination is enormous.
What is extraordinary about it, are the individuals. Among them the legendary professor Stella Filipova and her young team, who raise hope and optimism about the future of the meetings industry in Sofia and Bulgaria.
Destination mark: 3 – recommendable convention destination
5 excellent convention destination
4 quality convention destination
3 recommendable convention destination
2 average convention destination
Comparison with the Region
Sofia is a typical transition convention destination, which needs some more quality of services and a connection of the meetings industry with creative industries. As a destination to discover Bulgaria Sofia has a lot to offer, yet it will have to internationalize its meetings industry and strengthen marketing. The biggest opportunity is in the added value of the destination unknown to the rest of congress Europe. Sofia needs to get rid of the image of a cheap congress destination of a lesser quality and become an internationally recognized congress brand. Sofia is a congress sleeping beauty caught between east and west.
For more information visit: www.sofiacb.com