We need to break the myth of the “good and bad” seasons in Croatia
Zrinka Bokulić, CEO of Laguna Novigrad, has much experience in the tourism and hospitality industries, mainly in management positions. She is one of the few women at the head of a hotel company in Croatia. Her career rise is down to hard work, learning new things through a lot of sacrifice and being flexible enough to grasp the opportunity to take the lead.
In the past, guests came to Istria and Novigrad mostly during the summer season in search of a clean sea, but those habits have changed, as numerous sports, gourmet and cultural opportunities of Novigrad and its surrounding areas offer a sufficient number of reasons for paying a visit throughout the whole year. These reasons are in fact why the famous English football team, Manchester City, this year held their preparation for the season once again in Novigrad.
Q: In recent years you have been increasingly positioning yourself in the segment of sports tourism, the breaking news of this being the visit of the Manchester City Youth Academy Team to your hotels. How did you reach out to this popular English football club?
We reached the Manchester City Youth Academy Team through our business partner, with whom we have collaborated for many years in the segment of sports tourism. He believed we have a good quality of sports fields and other facilities, so he offered our hotels Maestral and Novigrad to the Academy’s management board. Manchester City football academy stayed in the Maestral Hotel and trained on the football pitches of Laguna Novigrad in the summer of 2013 and 2014. Cooperation with the Academy gave us a confirmation that we’re going in the right direction and have solidified our position as an ideal destination for the preparation of football players. The mild climate, premium sports infrastructure, excellent organisation and hotel service are only some of the reasons why northwest Istria is increasingly becoming a European football destination. We are proud that we can note the prestigious Academy of Manchester City on our reference list.
Q: Apart from the infrastructure, such as football pitches and sports halls, what does a hotel have to adjust in order to accommodate top athletes?
Good infrastructure is a basic requirement and everything else that is important for athletes is also important to the other guests. Athletes are in some segments looking for adjustments around nutrition and timing. We therefore adjust the schedule and timetable of activities throughout the day. You must be flexible, listen to the expectations and needs of our guests, and strive to meet those expectations. It’s a universal recipe for achieving satisfaction.
Q: This year Istralandia, the first water park in the region of Istria and in Croatia and located close to Novigrad, opened its doors. To what extent does this project and similar activities help in the process of selling the hotel facilities. Did you feel any benefit to your own revenue?
Additional facilities of this type fall into the category of attractors that give a comparative advantage to destinations. The waterpark Istralandia is certainly a good facility that we offered to our guests this year and that was very well accepted. These projects are important, because they allow guests to experience an additional type of entertainment in the Novigrad area. Novigrad is primarily a family destination in the summer months and Istralandia is a big plus for the overall offer. In this context, we should observe a potential revenue, which is cumulative, for the entire destination. Istralandia and other facilities in Novigrad and the surrounding area can be a crucial factor when choosing a destination, and then hoteliers and everybody else in tourism realise the benefits.
Q: Do you think that Croatia offers expensive hospitality services, or put another way, are we too expensive for the services that we offer?
I do not agree that prices in Croatia are excessively high. This is a very bad general remark, which has seeped into the public and is not entirely accurate. Excessive price is just one thing, which doesn’t follow the quality of services and products, whether we are talking about two or five stars hotels.
If, for example you want to drink a coffee in an attractive destination in which a lot of work was invested and which has its own cultural and historical value and is well branded, then you must be prepared to pay the price. We all often complain about the price of coffee on Dubrovnik’s main street, Stradun, but nobody asks for the price of the same service on St. Mark’s Square in Venice. The key to success lies in the fact that you can find places and services with lower prices in destinations that are generally more expensive than the average. Thus, the famous coffee a few streets away from St. Mark’s Square is cheaper, but you don’t have “the” view and experience, which is a very important category in tourism. Location, location, location. Therefore, within the so-called elite destinations there exists an offer for customers with different lifestyles. I think this philosophy has not yet come to life in Croatia, or the majority of the public does not understand it. I believe that we have to deal more with the quality of what we sell and how we sell it, as well as to service culture, kindness, a diverse offer… and then we will be able to sell expensive ice cream to an Eskimo.
Q: You have customised a congress offer for small and medium-sized business meetings – what are your experiences with this segment?
In recent years, we have recorded growth in this segment and we have the best experiences with smaller incentive groups or seminars. The conditions are very good, so we can fully devote resources to our guests, which is affirmed by the repeat visits by our now regular guests. We have concentrated our congress offer at the Hotel Maestral****, which can accommodate small groups up to 180 people. We usually have small corporate meetings, annual meetings, seminars and teambuilding programmes. Part of the business leans on sports groups, which in addition to having fields (football, tennis and indoor sports) also need meeting rooms for the accompanying seminars and conferences. In this context, the nearness of the modern sports hall, football fields, wellness and spa centre to the two large and four smaller meeting rooms completes our offer.
Q: Istria is known for its excellent opportunities for incentives and teambuilding. Which programmes and content would you recommend to business clients in Novigrad and its surroundings?
In addition to the excellent transport connections, one of the reasons for the growing interest in Istria as a congress and incentive destination lies in offering additional facilities that are not limited to a main season. In addition to offering wellness and spa programmes in Hotel Maestral, guests have various options for e.g. afternoon recreation and leisure time – tennis, football, cycling and much more. We individually approach each business group and we try to customise offers directly for their needs. House travel agency offers programmes for shorter trips, but gourmet tours through Istrian agri-tourism are particularly attractive. As we turn to smaller groups, we can offer highly flexible programmes where in addition to a working day guests visit some sites in Istria and finish the day off in the picturesque agri-tourism or a tavern.
Q: You are one of the few women at the head of a tourism company and we have seen a similar trend in other industries in Croatia. What would you advise colleagues who have similar ambitions to manage large projects and tourism companies about how to get there and how to stay at the top?
Whether a manager, supervisor, director, or a person with a control function, to properly define our business today represents one of the biggest challenges. To address the different interests between the stakeholders (owners, employees, local communities) and those of our guests, which are all becoming very defined, is truly not easy and affirmation and recognition in the position comes through hard work and results. Women today, however, are expected to be “superwomen” – successful at work, a patient mother, imaginative cooks and I could go on. It can all be achieved, but requires a lot of sacrifice and quality family management.
The desire for hard work, constant learning and acquiring new experiences through participation in the implementation and management of various projects, as well as readiness to change my city of work and life, was crucial in my career. I believe we constantly need to question and analyse the current situation and question ourselves – Can we do it better? But there is no magic wand or formula, because we live in a time where “ordinary jobs” are challenging and stressful enough, so climbing to the “top” is really not easy. You do not need to despair if by any chance you fail, but just continue in another direction.