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Photo Credit: Tina Ramujkić

Exclusive interview for Kongres magazine with Breda Pečovnik, Congress and Commercial Programme Director at CD – Cultural and Congress Centre Ljubljana, on the effects of COVID-19 and how the future of events at Cankarjev Dom will look like.

“We are facing red numbers for the first time in the history of our congress centre”

Q: How badly has COVID-19 affected the meetings industry in your country?

COVID-19 has completely paralyzed the events management and meetings industry. As we know, business meetings and events are one of the key elements of Slovenian tourism, recognized as the product with the greatest added value and numerous multiplier effects. With limitations imposed on public life and institutions closed due to the Coronavirus restrictions, the meetings industry – along with other public and cultural events – was the first to forcibly suspend its activities and is likely to be the last to return to full life. The situation in which we find ourselves has changed the old deep-rooted habits and expectations of the meetings industry organisers. We had to adapt to the difficult situation arising from the COVID-19 crisis.

Q: How much damage has the epidemic caused for your company?

We are facing red numbers for the first time in the history of our congress centre. In the current epidemiological situation, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for this economic sector yet. The reality is that this year we have only been able to achieve 15% of our objectives, which constitutes a total disaster for our activity. It is difficult to predict how and when the meetings industry will get back on track, despite my optimism. I think it will be a very long time before it resurrects. Some major players in the international market estimate that it will take up to five years for the congress area to recover. It will leave deep scars on the congress industry that will take time to heal.

Q: How do measures put in place by regional governments help with exiting the crisis? What do you miss?

Cankarjev dom eagerly welcomes the government’s measures that were urgently needed to revitalize the economy. The next package of measures is expected to include companies involved in the meetings industry, and I am confident that professional congress organisers such as Cankarjev dom will not be forgotten. Any measure designed to alleviate the situation is acceptable, and these government measures certainly are helpful, perhaps not for everyone involved, but at least for the majority. I am of the opinion that Slovenia’s tourist vouchers should also be extended to cultural and congress tourism (attending events, exhibitions, visiting cultural heritage buildings, buying books…) and used for attending professional congresses.

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Photo Credit: Marko Delbello Ocepek

Q: Do you think the situation will get worse before it gets better? Have you prepared any preventive measures in case of a second coronavirus wave?

In my opinion, the situation will get worse before there is any improvement in the industry. All players of the global meetings industry are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a safe Coronavirus vaccine. The realistic prognosis is that it will take up to five years before everyone is immunised. Moreover, it is important to stress the long-term development of Slovenia’s meetings industry that has significantly enhanced over the recent years owing to our special approach – the human factor.

Q: What has the epidemic taught us about the current state of the meetings industry? Will the epidemic also bring something positive?

The biggest challenge for any company is how to survive in these circumstances. The epidemic has brought us together, the meetings industry players work in unison towards a mutual good. Nevertheless, we are all waiting for better times and for the pandemic to die down. We have to face this situation because this is our new reality. For me, it is very positive that the situation has allowed us to focus on each other, to explore what nature has to offer, to better control our environmental footprint. We travel less (or not at all), we do not cause pollution that generates waste in terms of energy, paper, infrastructure. By working less, we work harder towards the planet. That is a certain paradox, right?

Q: Do you think the quarantine period was beneficial for unwinding and gathering new creative ideas for the future?

I quite agree. Over the past six months, Cankarjev dom has faced unexpected problems that have challenged our courage and our ability to solve problems, and demanded we adapt to the new business models. We have now fully recognised the power of the digital age, globalisation and social media. This has become our necessity, our work tool.

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Photo Credit: Tina Ramujkić

“Online events are mere substitutes for live events, not their replacements”

Q: What are some alternatives to live events? Are live events a thing of the past or will we continue to meet in person after the coronavirus?

As a professional congress organizer and a team that finds a solution to every “challenge”, we have approached the implementation of congresses and related events with new technology, and new solutions. We have introduced remote, virtual or hybrid business models, which are a blend of live transmission, video production and super-fast internet connection in the auditorium, and transmission via virtual media to the global network. Of course, this principle follows that of a live congress. It has to be said that online events are mere substitutes for live events, not their replacements. We have tried out so many over these past months that I find the very thought of them unappetizing.

Q: Do you think online events can replace the physical experience of live events?

Nothing will replace genuine, deep interpersonal relationships that we build by shaking hands or in a face-to-face encounter. Technology will never satisfy our basic need to socialize. We need to feel each other – to smell, taste, hear and to see. To experience a person, food, or a destination.

Q: How have you managed to connect the digital and analogue world at your events and in business?

At Cankarjev dom, this option is provided by a professional congress platform called OnAir, which we have been tapping into since the onset of our activities as a congress organizer. We have obtained an international certificate to operate a virtual module and the first meetings were successfully protocoled. Through the OnAir platform, we can organize a congress or similar meetings as if the event were held live at a certain venue, with the difference that we can participate in and follow the congress from home or an office. This tool allows us to organise meetings in full; from plenary lectures, sessions, exhibitions, networking during coffee breaks, lunches, surveys, even live meetings are possible, talks between participants and exhibitors, sponsors and lecturers who reply to the participants’ questions. It is possible to visit a poster exhibition and follow the presentation of an author or choose some other activity on the congress’ agenda. The platform caters for turn-key congress organization, including applications, registrations, submission and processing of speakers’ abstracts. It’s an amazing tool for event management, communicating with and handling of speakers.

Q: In these turbulent times, what separates your company from the competition?

On the global level, the Coronavirus time has never been experienced before and it is difficult to determine our advantages over others. We’re all floating on the same stormy sea, riding the waves to the best of our abilities.

PERSONAL QUESTIONS FOR BREDA

Q: What will we be discussing over coffee at the same time next year?

I hope that we get to meet at cultural and other events that will resemble those held before COVID-19. That we get to engage in a conversation about our travel plans, discussing where to hang out with our personal and business friends, and puzzle over that long-forgotten COVID.

Q: Where do you find inspiration for events in these tough times? Do you have a favourite event agency or role model?

I’m inspired by my energy and optimism that have stuck by me in these difficult times. My motivation is new challenges in business that I have to bring to resolution. I’m the kind of person who works best under pressure, who likes changes and is fuelled by innovation, who makes the impossible possible. It’s an inspiration to meet honest and truthful people who are sincere when they look into your eyes and are real friends in business relationships, being neither deceitful nor hypocritical. All of this motivates me and gives me energy for the future.

Q: What inspires you in your daily life? (music, books, nature…)

I am inspired by the laws of nature, running, playing tennis, golf, a day of skiing, attending a dance performance, seeing a good film, reading a good book, listening to a concert, either classical or other music, visiting a wellness centre and enjoying a massage. Good cuisine and quality wine in a pleasant company also mean a lot to me.