Even if you’re not an avid basketball fan, the names of some of the famous Lithuanian basketball players – from Zalgiris Arvydas Sabonis or Rimas Kurtinaits to the legendary golden age Olimpija defender Šaurnas Jasikevičius – must have a familiar ring to you, and as you walk through the streets of Vilnius meeting on average a lot of surprisingly tall girls and boys, it makes it easier to understand the enthusiasm for basketball in the country.
The small Baltic state with tall people is otherwise quite similar to Slovenia. The roots of both literary languages date back to 16th century and the Reformation. Due to their small size, both nations often had to fight for their existence. Lithuania had since 1940 been forced to live under the roof of the Soviet Union. The communist regime not only affected everyday life, but also the architectural and cultural life of the country. With its historic and multicultural tones, however, Vilnius pleasantly surprises travellers expecting a typical Eastern European city and it has built for itself the charm of a new convention destination.
Lithuania is a flat country with its highest peak, Aukštasis, at 293 metres above sea level. The city was built at the mouth of the river Vilna, which runs into the larger Neris river. The landscape of lakes and forests reminds one of the Finnish lake area and the city is full of green spaces and parks, which are said to cover as much as 40% of urban areas. The city therefore feels bigger than it actually is.
Near to the city is the geographical centre of Europe and the Old Town centre is one of the largest and best preserved city centres in Europe, which has since 1994 been registered in the UNESCO list of cultural heritage. In its maze of small streets lie an abundance of historical and cultural attractions that make a trip to Vilnius worthwhile. The Soviet era has also left its mark, in particular on the outskirts of town with the residential neighbourhoods and major industrial plants, and the contrast with the old town leaves mixed feelings.
Young metropolis pulse: For the Eastern European standard the road and transport infrastructure is satisfactory and the best among the Baltic States. The city feels like it has the pulse of a young metropolis in a country in transition. Seemingly everything functions without problems, but a keen eye can pick out various deficiencies and a few unforeseen winter potholes in the road. Currently, the biggest problem is air accessibility, which will be greatly improved following the establishment of Air Lituanica, which was announced at a press conference at the Convene trade show by controversial Mayor Arturas Zoukas, controversial as he is known for his specific regulation of parking and tackling improperly parked cars with a tank and driving the traffic out of the baroque city centre. The airport is only 6 km away from the city and offers 29 direct flights across Europe in 2013. Railway connections within the country are solid, although the city is slightly less well linked to the rest of Europe.
Education is the main advantage: On Mercer’s quality of life scale Vilnius is in 79th place, just behind Ljubljana and in the company of other Eastern European capitals. We can certainly rank highly the educated and hospitable meetings professionals as one of its main advantages, as the country has over 15 universities and 49 faculties, with English spoken by virtually everyone in the meetings industry and the service level comparable to the best European destinations.
The tourist infrastructure has been marked by rapid development over the last ten years. An interesting phenomenon showing how fast tourism is developing in the city is the fact that there are over 33 incoming travel agencies. Vilnius is also the tourism capital of Lithuania by the number of hotels, 66 of them with 4,400 rooms, including the most recent acquisition of the Kempinski hotel, more than sufficient for the congress needs of the city. In the four and five stars hotel category Vilnius has a total of 2,133 rooms, six of the highest category being international brands, from Kempinski to Le Meridien, Radisson Blu, Ramada and boutique hotels Relais & Châteaux in the city’s medieval centre. There is also a very wide selection of congress three-star hotels. Among which is the recently opened Comfort hotel, being promoted with the slogan “Pretty Damn Good Hotel”, and offering a very different rock hotel experience. It is a very fresh, innovative and enjoyable hotel experience that not many cities have.
The peak tourist season is in June and through the short summer. The winter period is much more sleepy and dominated by business visits. Last year, tourism in the city saw a 12% growth in the number of guests, the majority of which (82%) were foreigners (mostly Russians, Belarusians, Germans and Scandinavians).
The old historic city centre is where you can find the majority of the restaurants and pubs. The offer is very diverse, from national restaurants that built their cuisine on potato dishes, to some special features originating from Soviet history, like Belarusian, Georgian and Armenian restaurants. Pizzerias and many fusion bistros can be found everywhere. The Užipis artistic quarter on the right bank of the river of Vilnius is particularly interesting, where they declared independence in 1997. Soon after this declaration a monument of rock star Frank Zappa was erected. Such “candies” make Vilnius cute and well worth a visit.
Meetings infrastructure: The Litexpo Fair and congress centre is a leading convention institution in Lithuania. Eleven halls are suitable for congresses, the largest for a maximum of 1,800 participants and with all of the latest equipment required for conferences. Among the congress first class, convention hotels also prevail. In the city centre the largest congress provider is the Radisson Blu Lietuva hotel, with a plenary hall for 600 participants and fourteen smaller halls named after letters of the Greek alphabet. Slightly smaller is the Best Western hotel, with the largest hall holding 420 participants. Approximately the same size is the convention centre at the Crowne Plaza on the edge of the city centre. In this category are also the Carolina Hotel & Conference Centre, with its largest hall for 550 participants and ten smaller meeting rooms. Conti Hotel, Holiday Inn, Artis, Šarunas and Panorama all have medium sized capacities for up to 250 participants, and the Elite Hotels Radisson Blu Astoria, Narutis, Ramada Relais & Châteaux in the very heart of the city have smaller conference rooms. Le Meridien, at 19 km from the city centre, has a large multi-functional hall for 700 participants and a number of smaller session halls. It also has an attractive golf course.
Due to its rich history, the city has no shortage of special venues, from the Town Hall, where the Convene trade show’s reception was held, to the impressive Opera and Ballet building or those of the Vilnius Congress Concert Hall. There are also some special venues at a short distance just outside of the city, such as Trakai castle. Special venues can also be locations for some original incentive programmes, such as amber hunting on the shore of the Baltic Sea, various medieval teambuilding games and cherishing the memories of the Soviet times through different KGB experiences and adventures.
The city is involved in all the key international meetings organisations and over recent years it has been excellently promoted at key international events. The congress support services of the Convention Bureau are excellent, the only drawback at this time being international references, which the city and its suppliers will quickly accumulate. And there is another point of interest: all of the Baltic capitals have been or will be European Capital of Culture – Vilnius in 2009, Tallinn in 2011, and Riga set for next year. The Baltic states do not lack programmes in connection with culture.
The competitive advantage of Vilnius lies in its hotel capacities, its accompanying tourist offer, the compactness of the city and its very good organisation and integration of congress service providers. The great desire for the development of congress tourism by the mayor and the city policy is also praiseworthy. Furthermore, the three Baltic countries are one of the few positive stories in the current European crisis. After a disastrous recession in 2009, they quickly picked up and are now a rare success story. In a simplified way one could say that they are smaller, more flexible and more open than other European countries, and this is also reflected in the meetings industry. The proud Lithuanians prefer to compare themselves with Scandinavia, rather than with Europe, and whilst the country’s competitiveness is hampered for now mainly by inadequate air links and a dampened image of the destination for the industry, I believe that the common investment of the destination in the Convene project will greatly strengthen and improve the city’s competitiveness.
WHAT'S HOT IN 2016
QUALITY MEETINGS DESTINATION
5 – excellent meetings destination
4 – quality meetings destination
3 – reccommendable meetings destination
2 – average meetings destination
1 – so so
|VILNIUS INDIVIDUAL GRADES 2016|
|Natural and cultural factors:||4.01|
|General and transport infrastructure:||4.03|
|Numbeo quality of life Index:||3.70|
|Global Peace Index:||3.47|
BEST INCENTIVE IDEA
COMPARISION WITH THE REGION
Over the last few years Vilnius learned diligently, polished its offer and was preparing for its entry into the international congress scene. In their favour they have the charm of the city, which is cosmopolitan, urban, very European and full of hidden surprises. It’s a city where socialist modernist architecture coexists with the Baroque centre, and unlike some other Eastern European congress destinations this makes it very attractive. By joining the EU the city has become a credible partner of the international meetings industry, making is one of the new, undiscovered convention destinations that appeals because of its freshness. For all three Baltic Congress Tigers – Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn – we predict a sunny congress future.