THE IMAGE OF HEAVEN
Bled is among Slovenia’s top tourist icons: the lake with the island, Bled Castle, the legendary cream cakes, traditional pletna boats and the alpine setting are all a part of this truly beautiful Slovenian tourist city. Assessing an icon is not an easy thing to do, as it’s sometimes hard to separate the myth from the reality, especially if some of the old charm has been lost. So let’s see how closely Bled really resembles the romantic photos and nostalgic memories of days past.
Bled is one of the oldest Slovenian tourist destinations – Bled Castle celebrated its millennium birthday last year. In the realm of tourism it went from being a pilgrim destination to a spa to a resort. Officially, the catalyst of Bled’s ‘organised’ tourism is Arnolda Rikli, who started his therapies in 1855 and took Bled to world renown during his time, although resort tourism and pilgrimage to the island church existed long before Rikli. The cosmopolitan period after the First World War, when it became the summer residence for the Karađorđević family, was briefly interrupted by the Second World War, after which Bled became a protocol destination and a city in which Tito liked to visit his new villa. From this golden age of Bled’s tourism stems another gem: the classic golf course, one of the oldest in Europe.
Tourism in Bled started off as a result of its unspoilt nature, pleasant sub-alpine climate and natural thermal springs, all of which offer a genuine alpine experience, supplemented by an incredible cultural and architectural heritage. The picturesque hills of Jelovica, Pokljuka, Mežaklja and Triglav round off the extraordinary setting and beauty of Bled and the lake, regarded as one of the warmest, contributed immensely to the city’s glorious image. Yet water analyses of Lake Bled indicate that not everything is so rosy: the environment needs to be managed more carefully and the lake should not be so heavily burdened, especially given the current obligation and direction towards sustainable development and the city’s location at the edge of the Triglav National Park. Around 36% of the Bled municipal area is protected by the Natura 2000 regime. Bled is the symbolic seat of the Triglav National Park, a symbol and our most recognisable alpine tourist destination.
In terms of accessibility, Bled is relatively well served, albeit somewhat worse off for air access, as is the case in the rest of Slovenia. The Brnik Airport is only 36 kilometres from Bled. More eco-minded tourists can arrive in Bled by rail – the historical driving force of tourism – to both Lesce and Bled stations. Bus connections through regular lines are also very good. Among the transport issues are the traffic jams in high season, which could be addressed by the long expected bypass set to alleviate the noise and pollution that have no place in a tourist resort. The city occasionally experiences a lack of parking spaces during larger events, an issue occurring mostly during the summer. A lot of work still needs to be done in the area of communal infrastructure if Bled really wants to make progress in the area of sustainable tourism. Otherwise Bled is manageable and friendly to congress participants. The safety of Bled is another advantage, since it can host the highest protocol events.
Tourism is the major economic activity of Bled, yet despite the numerous investments in wellness centres and supporting development its character remains seasonal. Bled offers adequate hotel capacity for the meetings industry – 45% of a total of 1389 hotel beds are in 4 to 5 star hotels. A more detailed look at the structure of accommodation capacity indicates that a good half of them are aimed at the middle or budget bracket tourist. Bled’s restaurant scene has advanced greatly, the city becoming the first with at least three leading young Slovenian chefs providing a fantastic culinary offer.
The young Bine Volčič, with a diploma from the Cordon Bleu academy, leads the kitchen of the Promenada restaurant as well as the food provision at the Sava Hotels. Igor Jagodic is the chef at Vila Bled and a member of the Slovenian national cooking team. The innovative Uroš Štefelin takes charge of the kitchen in Hotel Triglav, where congress participants can even take cooking classes with him. These three star chefs make sure that a trip to the hotel restaurants is a necessary schedule slot for visiting food lovers. The remaining restaurant offer is satisfactory and mostly adapted to the current tourist profile. The city does, however, lack the typical Slovenian ‘gostilna’, which should take some inspiration from the Gostilna Slovenia project. For that sort of experience one should visit Lectar in Radovljica or Avsenik in Begunje.
A quick look at the way of life in Bled gives the impression of a sleepy destination. The legendary casino is struggling and is far from its former glory. Only a few bars are open after ten at night and it’s hard to find anything more than a quiet drink with some friends. What is missing is a developed nightlife scene with a comprehensive programme catering for different age groups and with the possibility of live music. For the more demanding congress guests who want to socialise after parties, such events have to be specially arranged. One of Bled’s notable weaknesses is the shopping offer, which is currently targeting the less demanding guest and day tourists – boutiques and high-end shops are notably absent. The stronger part of the tourist infrastructure are the numerous events and international exhibitions at Pristava, which attract many visitors to Bled and nicely round off the tourist offer.
The meetings industry has been a key strategy in mitigating the distinctively high summer season of Bled’s tourist industry. A rich congress history is testament to that. For one of the largest events, the 1961 Chess Olympiad, Bled was honoured with the construction of the Festival Hall, which gave its meetings industry a significant boost. The hall has since played host to a number of important Slovenian events and congresses. Even though it was built in record time and not to the greatest design standards, it quickly became the backbone of Bled’s meetings offer. Since a 1989 renovation, the otherwise well maintained hall has become outdated and out of touch with the needs of the times. The main hall can seat up to 512 participants and the complex includes three smaller halls and an exhibition space in the lobby. The Festival Hall, managed by the municipal Bled Cultural institute, was operating at its peak at the end of the eighties.
During the latest stages of Bled’s destination development, the entry of Sava and Sportina onto the Bled tourism market have seen a large concentration of hotel congress capacities become available. Sava’s congress hotel Golf offers the Jupiter Hall, a comparable size to the Festival Hall, which can host up to 350 participants. The advantage of the hotel is its additional wellness offer, making it currently top-ranked for being the best congress hotel in Bled.
The charismatic Grand Hotel Toplice celebrated 80 years of business last year, during which time it has hosted a number of famous people and events across its offer of five smaller halls with lake views. The hotel, which was completely overhauled in 2002, is a common venue for congress social events or protocol meetings.
Hotel Park is at the bottom end of Sava’s hierarchy and offers eight smaller, multifunctional congress halls. Sava offers over 600 rooms and is effectively self-sufficient in the congress sense.
Best Western has two hotels in Bled – the Hotel Best Western Kompas mostly hosts business events, which take place in its five halls, the largest of which can seat up to 150 delegates. The Best Western Premier Hotel Lovec, the most recent addition to Bled’s hotel scene, has two hall with nice view on lake.
The flagship of Sportina Bled is the Vila Bled hotel, the former residence of Tito. The hotel offers two very special congress halls, both appropriate for protocol receptions, with an even more attractive option available in the nearby Belvedere, with its view of the island.
Smaller meetings capacities are also available at hotels Triglav, Jelovica, Astoria, Krim and Ribno.
The structure of the offer clearly demonstrates that the city desperately needs a better, more flexible and sustainably managed congress centre that can fuel further congress growth for the destination.
The surrounding environment offers numerous possibilities for original and interesting incentive programmes. Bled was among the first batch of meeting destinations to develop sustainable incentive programmes. They offer a number of sports facilities, adrenaline parks and the recently opened Adventure Park Koren. The list of options for the active side of events is very long: from the pletna boat ride and trekking in the local countryside to learning about the beekeeping tradition or organising a golf tournament. Since last year visitors have been able to walk through the Bled maze – a fun, educational park made from a corn, forest and grass maze and lying under Bled castle. The leisure offer is broad but unconnected, and often overlooked by congress decision makers.
The city is full of special events venues. The cream of the crop is Bled Castle, which is a unique place for a reception, especially in the warmer months. The ‘culinary journey’ programme throughout the castle offers a complete experience in terms of content, location and uniqueness, and is based on the so called ‘moving dinners’ idea, where each course is served at a different location while the participants get to learn about the building’s rich cultural heritage. Beyond the castle, with a little luck you can also hire the romantic little island from the Church. The legendary golf course, with the royal golf house, can host golf tournaments and there is the Belvedere pavilion, with its wonderful view of the lake making it appropriate for smaller receptions. Yet another wonderful venue is the renovated rowing centre.
The establishment of the Convention Bureau in Bled in 2011 is a very important milestone, as in the future it will facilitate the marketing of Bled’s meetings industry. Most of all it will ensure coherence and systematic communication, which is currently the weakest link in a place full of attractive congress stories.
The overall personal experience in Bled is a positive one, despite the feeling of low season sleepiness. The ratio of price to quality is mostly good. The low competitiveness level of the destination is influenced by the disconnectedness of both its offer and congress marketing. A different understanding of the quality of congress suppliers and their uncoordinated work are the main reasons Bled’s image has suffered slightly. The solution lies in an excellent congress product, promoted under the destination slogan ‘The Image of Heaven’. Bled is becoming one of the more attractive and world famous Slovenian meeting places with a known brand, which in itself summons quality. In the past it hosted numerous important congresses and other important events. Based on its tradition and profiled offer it can clearly compete with more world-renowned alpine congress destinations. It is important to follow the policy of sustainable development, which needs to be taken into account for any consideration of the renovation of the convention centre and the individual marketing activities of the convention bureau. The natural environment of the destination calls for this, which can become one of Bled’s future competitive advantages. I am certain that Bled will quickly catch up with the competition and regain its former, famous congress identity.
Destination mark: 3.88 – QUALITY MEETINGS DESTINATION
5 excellent meetings destination
4 quality meetings destination
3 recommendable meetings destination
2 average meetings destination
1. Natural and cultural factors 4.4
Bled can thank its environment and rich cultural heritage for the development of tourism. The place is linked with its green hinterland, which offers a variety of additional activities with high experiential value.
2. General and transport infrastructure 4.0
Bled’s location is favourable, being near the central Slovenian airport and having good road and rail connection to other congress markets. This is a big plus for Bled, besides safety and tidiness.
3. Tourism infrastructure 3.6
The hotel infrastructure of Bled is satisfactory, yet not adapted to the needs of demanding congress guests. The entire tourist offer is differentiated by quality and image. Bled is becoming the new culinary capital of Slovenia. Activities and recreation are well developed. The weakest part of the offer is nightlife and entertainment as well as shopping. Tourist infrastructure needs some polish and development of the soft part of the offer.
4. Congress infrastructure 3.6
Bled offers numerous congress halls and venues for smaller congress events. The weakest link is the outdated Festival Hall. Many years of congress tradition are evident in a broad palette of congress suppliers and support services.
5. Subjective assessment 3.8
Bled is definitely among the leading Slovenian meetings destinations. Tidiness, wonderful nature and entire infrastructure are ideal bases for development. Unfortunately, Bled lost some trust of its loyal customers. The newly established Convention Bureau indicates a new era and promises to restore Bled to its former congress glory.
Comparison to the Region:
As a recognisable brand Bled stands out among other congress destinations in the region. It most closely resembles Dubrovnik, which caught up with the pre-war congress tempo by taking the right steps. Currently the biggest disadvantage is the lack of a clear focus towards quality rather than mass tourism. This is most clearly seen in the restaurant, night life and shopping offer. As a result the current perception of quality is lower than with largest competitors. In Bled the saying ‘Less is more’ is very true. The potential for the meetings industry is immense, it just needs to be harnessed in the right way.
On the domestic market Bled lost most ground to Portorož, which on average hosts larger events with higher added value. Its advantages were traditionally built on congresses and conferences of international associations, which can once again fuel its development. It just needs to adapt to change faster.
The legendary Bled Cream Cake is the symbol of Bled’s culinary offer. The Cream Cake, made from pastry and filled with vanilla and whipped cream, became famous after the Second World War. To date more that eleven million have been sold in Bled.