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Photo Credit: Wien Tourismus/Martina Siebenhandl

Interview with Christian Woronka, the director of the Vienna Convention Bureau at the Vienna Tourist Board. Additionally, he also manages the market management team, uniting both B2B-departments in the Vienna Tourist Board under his leadership. It is his concern to develop the destination in a holistic and sustainable way and to continuously optimize the destination’s offerings. Vienna’s Visitor Economy Strategy 2025 aims to increasingly use the meetings industry to drive Vienna’s development as a business and research location and to increase its international visibility. Before his relocation to Vienna, Christian Woronka studied geography with a special emphasis on tourism and worked for the Cologne Convention Bureau for 10 years, 6 of which as the director of the CCB.

“the meeting industry will remain a central element in Vienna’s Visitor Economy Strategy”

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

After starting the year 2020 with a record forecast of international association meetings, the pandemic and its consequences have severely affected Vienna’s meeting industry. Due to the cancellation of events, we are currently losing a monthly added value of about 80 million euro, and about 22 million euro in tax revenues. Vienna’s hotel industry is losing about 120,000 overnight stays per month.

During good times, Vienna’s meeting industry generates an added value of approximately one billion euros for Austria and generates about ten percent of the total number of overnight stays. A congress metropolis like Vienna, where every 10th overnight stay is generated by a conference, is hit particularly hard by the current crisis.

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

First and foremost, I am glad to say that the entire team at the Vienna Convention Bureau is well. What’s more, we consider ourselves lucky to have been able to continue our work and remain available for our key accounts around the globe. We regularly host dedicated webinars, designed to encourage and maintain conversations.

Then again, the lockdown has forced us to close all Vienna Tourist Information points – it is painful to see empty counters where we would usually welcome and advise visitors and delegates coming to our city. Nonetheless, we maintain a forward-looking perspective, keeping an eye on events set to take place in the future and working towards our continued success once we have made it through the Corona situation.

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Photo Credit: Wien Tourismus/Christian Stemper

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

Any kind of support for the meeting industry is much needed and appreciated. The 300-million-euro support package announced by the Austrian government has been welcomed by Vienna’s meeting sector and is seen as an important signal. That being said, all eyes will be on further details regarding the initiative expected in the weeks to come. The overall goal is to re-establish planning certainty for events, minimise risks and create confidence in the industry.

Further crucial support to the industry includes the refund of up to 80% of turnover lost during the November lockdown as well as a 15-million-euro hotel funding initiative granted by the City of Vienna through the Vienna Business Agency. It is of utmost importance to see support measures in place for all directly and indirectly affected organisations along the meeting supply chain. The tourism and meeting sectors need help now, so we can be part of the solution once we reach the stage of an actual recovery.

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Photo Credit: Wien Tourismus/Paul Bauer

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 the middle of the second coronavirus wave seen across Europe, Austria has gone into a second lockdown in November, bringing all event activity to a complete halt. It is our sincere hope that the aforementioned funding and financial support will help our industry partners overcome this situation.
As for future prospects, we expect difficult winter months, with a certain improvement starting in the second quarter of 2021 and hope for an actual recovery during the second half of next year. In the longer term, the meeting industry will remain a central element in Vienna’s Visitor Economy Strategy 2025 which aligns with the City of Vienna’s 2030 Strategy for Economy & Innovation. All of our city’s key players will work together in order to continue the success of Vienna as a meeting destination.

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

We have been reminded of just how much the meeting industry is integrated with our overall ecosystem. Worsening infection numbers lead to travel restrictions and limited connectivity, bringing international meetings to a halt. Then again, attempts to fight the pandemic demonstrate just how important a globally functioning science community is and fluid exchange through international congresses is an integral part of that community. There can be no isolated perspective of our industry – we depend on a number of factors on the one hand and contribute to progress on the other hand. We are part of the bigger picture. Many areas of our industry have been turned upside down, encouraging all of us to look for new solutions which best fit our clients’ needs. The pandemic’s further development is unpredictable, so it is more important than ever to focus on collaboration with our local and international partners which unites us in our search for a way forward.

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

With little time to actually unwind, we have intensified our efforts to support creative input, for example with the European Association for Nuclear Medicine (EANM) congress, we developed exclusive virtual Vienna tours in October 2020. While working with hybrid events is nothing new per se, we have seen accelerated developments in the virtual field which we pass on to our partners and stakeholders through a recently launched online section dedicated to hybrid events.

Our efforts have been bolstered by continued innovation pushed for by our industry partners, e.g. the introduction of WIFI6 at Messe Wien Exhibition & Congress Centre or the re-opening of an all renewed Hilton Vienna Park, Austria’s biggest congress hotel. Austria Center Vienna’s latest addition comes with an added 4,000 sqm of event space and Austrian Airlines have greatly advanced their pilot project to implement pre-flight Covid-19 tests. These are but a few recent examples of how our local partners never cease to innovate even under the most trying circumstances. We are confident that all of these measures will pay off in the near future, inspiring organisations and delegates to come back to Vienna.

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Photo Credit: Wien Tourismus/David Payr

“a collaborative approach will help us return to a path of growth”

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?

For the time being, hybrid meetings and digital communication channels are essential tools in order to keep up our work and we expect them to play a vital role throughout 2021. However, we do not believe that they will replace live events in the long run. On the contrary, after weeks or maybe even months of physical distancing people will be very eager to meet again and exchange ideas and knowledge in real-life conversations. This could apply all the more for industries which might hopefully make it through the pandemic somewhat less affected. They could be the first ones to consider physical meetings again and put the necessary means in place to make them happen.

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

Absolutely not, as live events involve so much more than pure knowledge exchange. This becomes even more evident when looking at specific types of gatherings such as team building events which are hard to imagine as virtual formats. Whereas it is impossible to generalise and propose any given format for any given meeting, it can be said that through personal meetings, trust and understanding are gained. This is essential when it comes to tackling global challenges and agreeing on collective actions and innovations.

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

While virtual communication with our key-stakeholders locally and globally has intensified to share information and insights, we have continuously maintained our ambition to encourage physical events. This has ranged from providing up-to-date information on event regulations on our website vienna.convention.at to the development of a set of guidelines in cooperation with MedUni Vienna which will provide organisational support during the Corona pandemic. Together with the Vienna Tourist Board, Vienna’s Economic Chamber has created the Safe Stay label of quality which is designed to support accommodation providers in upholding stringent safety and quality standards.

With its 2020 Tourism Conference, the Vienna Tourist Board proved just how much is possible, even in these difficult times. The successful staging of the 2020 edition of the annual event at Hofburg Vienna conference centre sent out an important signal for Vienna as a destination for meetings. Strict safety precautions and the use of innovative measures mean that it is possible to host meetings where participants are physically present, even in the current difficult circumstances.

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

Vienna will continue to be one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the world, representing an international, cosmopolitan, diverse hub for international encounters. Vienna will continue to stand for sustainable, meaningful tourism in the future. The two Cs – congresses and culture – will continue to be among the city’s key success factors, even if these two areas are particularly hard hit by the restrictions.

However, this is not a time to highlight competition in our industry. More than ever we engage in mutual exchange and knowledge sharing with fellow convention bureaus around the globe which has helped all of us embrace new challenges and will continue to do so. We truly believe that together, we are stronger which reflects the Vienna Convention Bureau’s ongoing commitment to international collaboration, even in times when meeting in person is difficult. We are absolutely convinced that a collaborative approach will help us return to a path of growth.

PERSONAL QUESTIONS FOR CHRISTIAN

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

While we all hope for the best, no one can predict what exactly lies ahead of us and everything will depend on the epidemiologic developments. I dare say though that we will definitely talk about an ever dynamic, ever-innovative, ever resilient meeting industry a year from now.

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

Time spent with my family is what gives me energy. Preferably enjoying outdoor activities and sports – Vienna luckily offers a huge variety of stunningly beautiful spots to enjoy nature. What inspires me is a vivid exchange with friends around the globe. Even if conversations are limited to virtual channels at this point, hearing from different cultures never ceases to fascinate me. It helps me maintain a cosmopolitan approach and a fresh perspective on things. It also continues to stimulate my curiosity towards new cultures and eventually travel again! For me, that is the base for global connections.