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Varna, Bulgaria (Photo: Shutterstock)

In a nutshell: From cheap destination to MICE capital

There are many reasons why Varna is referred to as the maritime capital of Bulgaria, the most obvious being the fact that it is the largest seaport on the Black Sea. Varna is also the third largest city in Bulgaria. But above all, with its long sandy beaches, it is an important tourist destination.

Varna is also one of the oldest European cities. Its long and turbulent past has left its mark on the city itself, where you can find remains dating back to all eras and blending with social realistic architecture. The result is an eclectic urbanism in which all paths converge in the Sea Garden maritime park and the sea-front esplanade, a sort of extended city centre. So, there are enough reasons why Varna has been an important convention destination for many years.

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Milestones

In terms of the meeting industry, an important milestone was the construction of the Palace of Culture and Sports in 1968. Still serving its purpose, the complex stands out due to its modernist architecture. The structure’s ground-breaking multifunctional design of that time is also compelling. Its construction date could be considered the beginning of meeting tourism in Varna.

The Festival and Congress Centre – Varna was built in 1986. It followed the example of other conference centres built in that period, which had a central hall, and was a dual-purpose facility for hosting meetings and cultural events. Among the many events and festivals held there, the Film Festival and the Varna Summer Festival stand out. Even though the Centre now focuses on cultural events, both investments had a significant influence on the development of meeting tourism.

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Festival and Congress Centre (Photo: Visit Varna)

Four seasons destination

Varna has recently been promoting itself as a four seasons destination. The slogan sounds good but that is not the case in practice. The winter season is truly the off-season and many hotels and tourist facilities, or rather the majority, close their doors. Spring and the high summer season are a whole different story: Varna is in its heyday and it greens up. During the winter season, your choice is more or less limited to the top-class International Hotel Casino & Tower Suites in the Golden Sands resort, and some other meeting hotels. Come spring, though, Varna wakes up and becomes the perfect location for anyone wanting their meeting guests to enjoy the sea, the pools and particularly Bulgarian cuisine, not to mention everything else offered by the holiday resorts.

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Seaside resorts with congress facilities around Varna 

Varna is surrounded by four seaside resorts, the most famous of which is Golden Sands. Its name originates in a legend about pirates that were believed to be hiding their gold there. The resort lies 18 km from Varna and it is where the main meeting venue, the International Hotel, is located. The oldest resort around Varna is the St. Constantine and Helena resort, located only 8 km from Varna. Its most unique feature are its mineral hot springs. Sunny Day is considered by many one of the most beautiful Black Sea resorts. Less focused on meeting tourism, it is specialised as a family resort. In its immediate vicinity lies the Riviera Holiday Club, which has 13 halls at its disposal, the largest of which can seat up to 350 guests. All seaside destinations offer a wide range of hotels, numerous restaurants, and additional tourist services.

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International Hotel – the heart of Varna’s meeting story

The International is one of the few hotels that stay open throughout the year. As a result, most off-season meetings take place there. It is a high-quality hotel whose employees are dedicated to their jobs and are very familiar with the needs of meeting guests. Its additional services, from the casino to the spa and its own mini shopping centre, are an added bonus. Its meeting halls feature top-grade equipment and exceptional technical assistance. It is also thanks to the proactive owners that there is a lot going on in Varna in winter.

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The Black Sea Casino and special venues

There is no shortage of special venues in Varna. Given its rich history, the city has several museums, such as the Archaeological Museum, which are also suitable for hosting events. The Euxinograd residence also merits attention. However, the Black Sea Casino, which, following its renovation, is an excellent reception and after-party venue, is the one that stands out the most. It symbolically connects Varna to the Black Sea. This is but the beginning of the city’s special venues. There is a host of cultural sites and galleries, many of which also rent out their spaces for events. The list is extremely long and your choice of the right option depends on the style of your event. We could even say that Varna is a city of special venues.

Varna Beach 

A visit to the city’s beach, which stretches from the port right to Varna’s outskirts, is a must, at least in summertime. Its centre is next to the Sea Garden city park. The beach is particularly popular with young people, who visit it because of its clear shallow waters, ideal for some fun in the sun, and its numerous clubs creating an atmosphere catering to everyone’s taste. The park also holds a dolphinarium (the only one in the Balkans), a zoo, some museums, and the city esplanade to boot. It seems to be the centre of the city in the warmer months. Yes, Varna is indeed the capital of nightlife, too, and you will certainly not have a dull moment in the city.

The meeting scene 

Varna has a lively meeting scene and it is up to you whether to organise your event in the city centre or in one of the famous seaside resorts. The centre holds the Palace of Culture and Sports, the Festival and Congress Centre – Varna, and numerous hotels with meeting facilities. Standing out for its height is the Hotel Cherno More, a sort of orientation point of the city. There is no shortage of special venues in the city as well as numerous hotels providing smaller convention centres. Should you opt for the seafront, there are many possibilities. The services offered by the four resorts are diverse and more or less tailored to meeting guests. Nonetheless, I have been most fascinated with the International Hotel. Unfortunately, there is no convention bureau in the city which would suitably bind together such a wide selection. That is what we consider the main shortcoming of this destination. Thanks to the Bulgarian Convention Bureau, some progress has been made but there is still much room for improvement.

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By way of conclusion

Varna is the second most important university centre in Bulgaria. With its over 30,000 students, the city appears youthful. At the same time, it opens up the opportunity to organise scientific meetings. Your relationship with Varna will not be love at first sight but rather second or even third. Despite that, it slowly grows on you, especially thanks to the locals, their friendliness and straightforwardness.

DID YOU KNOW?

In Bulgaria, nodding means no, unless you say “no” (we have not had any trouble with that as the locals probably know very well who they are dealing with).

VARNA INDIVIDUAL GRADES 2020

A. Natural and cultural factors: 4.70

Varna’s turbulent past has left many traces in the city and its surroundings, which have become part of today’s rich tourist offer. Even so, tourists visit the city mostly because of its long sandy beaches and sunny weather, which are a key tourist product. It is worth noting that there are 41 protected natural parks, 1466 cultural landmarks, and 44 museums and galleries in Varna’s surroundings, which makes the destination one of the main tourist attractions in Bulgaria.

B. General and transport infrastructure: 4.56

Varna Airport has established strong connections with 35 countries and 101 cities in recent years. Fraport’s ownership has proven to be a positive move and accessibility is solid, particularly in the summer season. Transport infrastructure and sanitation vary from entirely European to “eastern-style” and there is much to be done in this regard. The completion of the Sofia–Varna motorway will make a great change. Their extremely fast internet is particularly exciting.

C. Tourist infrastructure: 4.74

There is no shortage of hotels in Varna: according to the latest data, the city’s 370 hotels have 60,428 hotel beds. There are more than enough in hotels that are suitable for meeting guests. Varna is an exceptional tourist destination with truly diverse tourist services. There are also many new shopping centres, which can be an interesting diversion. Nightlife is particularly lively and the range of restaurants is wide.

D. Meetings infrastructure: 4.88

Contemporary meeting services are concentrated in hotel resorts, while traditional congress centres are in need of thorough renovation and adaptation. The services are scattered and poorly connected. Considering the destination’s tourist infrastructure, incentive travel shows great potential, which is still untapped. Varna faces many challenges in this regard but it is certainly a city with great meeting potential. 

E. Subjective grade: 4.58

Varna’s main attractions are still the sun and the sea. There are many opportunities in meeting tourism but the image of a meeting destination still needs to be created. The main advantage is the city’s value for money and the locals’ friendliness. Moreover, greater support for the sector would certainly help. In this regard, it can follow the example of nearby Burgas. In order to boost the internationalisation of meeting tourism, the hoteliers’ goodwill will not suffice.

F. Marketing Buzz: 3.98

Searching for information about Varna’s meeting services is extremely complicated. Promotional material is lacking in all areas, especially in content and digital marketing. Varna does not have a point of single contact in terms of the meeting industry. Some hotels with truly first-rate marketing are positive exceptions. We can only hope that events such as the recent Black Sea & Balkans Conference World Summit are a sign of positive change in this field.

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MTLG INDEX / 2020 EDITION

L  MEETING DESTINATION

Destinations that can host more up to 2,000 meeting attendees.

DESTINATION CAPACITY

  • The number of 4* and 5* category hotel rooms: 5,600
  • The number of 4* and 5* category hotels: 63
  • Banquet hall maximum capacity: 900
  • The largest hall in the city (in m2): 2,250 m2
  • Destination population: 312,770 
  • Maximum hall capacity in theatre style: 1,014

VARNA OVERALL PERFORMANCE

Natural and cultural factors 4.70
General infrastructure 4.56
Tourist infrastructure 4.74
Meetings infrastructure 4.44
Subjective grade 4.58
Marketing buzz 3.98
ICCA Index 1.20
Numbeo Quality of Life Index 2.87
Numbeo Safety Index 3.83
ACI Airport Connectivity Index 2.53


OVERALL SCORE: 3.74

COMPARISON WITH THE REGION

For a long time, Varna lacked serious competition on the Black Sea Coast. If you wanted to organise a meeting, the obvious choice was Varna. However, it has recently had the increasingly competitive Burgas nipping at its heels. The latter has significantly outpaced Varna in many fields, especially with its new congress centre. If Varna wants to catch up with its competitors, it will have a great deal of work ahead in terms of connecting and particularly marketing the destination. It should beware of resting on its laurels since, as we like to say about meeting tourism, you are only as good as your latest event.

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COOL MEETINGS

Banitza: a Bulgarian-style burek – a baked filled pastry made of filo pastry, is a delicious breakfast option. Besides appetising cheeses, the filling may be pumpkin, cabbage or any other flavour you like. Tasty.

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Photo: Wikipedia

MUST SEE

Located in the Grand Mall of Varna, the Retro Museum enables you to take a stroll through the socialist past of the city. We recommend it to all nostalgics.

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Varna Retro Museum (Photo: Visit Varna)

HOT IN 2020

Large conferences and meetings in 2020:

  • Black Sea & Balkans Conference World Summit / 20–22, February 2020
  • 11th International Sofia Film Fest Varna / 13–20, March 2020
  • International Music Festival “Varna Summer” / June–August, 2020
  • International Theatre Festival “Varna Summer” / 1–6 June 2020
  • International Jazz Festival “Varna Summer” / July 2020

BEST INCENTIVE IDEAS

CASINO TEAM BUILDING
(For groups of 50–200 people)

At first sight, the International Hotel Casino & Suites may be an unusual place for a team-building session, but in fact there is much more below the surface than meets the eye. It’s a venue with levels of experiences and creative activities that bring the best out of teams and individuals alike. Close-knit collaboration between various departments, in problem-solving and risk management challenges, serves as the first step in bond strengthening, new skill acquisition and overall harmonisation between the collective corporate body.

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WHO TO CONTACT

Bulgarian Convention Bureau
1 Bulgaria Sq.
National Palace of Culture
P: +359 899 82 65 02
E: office@bgcb.eu
www.bgcb.eu