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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » September 30, 2015
Poland - Meetings Destination
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Bringing Large Conventions to Warsaw
September 30, 2015   
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The Voice talks to Żaneta Berus, CEO of the Expo XXI Warszawa meetings and exhibitions center in Warsaw and a member of the management board of Sapphire Group Poland, the center’s owners.

Large and very large conventions and congresses for thousands of people account for around a third of the meetings industry market internationally. In some European capitals, they could account for more than a third of the market. What’s the situation in Warsaw and what potential does the city have in this field?
When you look at Warsaw’s potential as a destination for major international events, you need to take a few factors into account. On the one hand, the Polish capital has well-developed infrastructure with roads, modern airports, railway stations and a range of hotels, offering comfortable accommodation, transportation and attractions to visitors from Poland and abroad. On the other hand, the promotion of Warsaw as a business destination is very limited at the moment. For all its assets, Warsaw lacks a reputation as a solid, attractive and flexible partner for international events. This is where it differs from other European capitals and as a result, we have to work much harder to convince potential customers that holding an event in Warsaw is worth their while.

A realistic assessment of Warsaw’s ability to draw large trade fairs and conventions is another matter. We know from our experience as an active market player and a member of international organizations that only a handful of events in Europe are attended by more than 10,000 people. The question, then, is whether such events should be of primary interest to us. Warsaw and other Polish convention and exhibition destinations, including Kielce, Poznań, Cracow and Katowice, have professional venues that can accommodate several thousand people. One such venue is the one I manage, Expo XXI Warszawa. This facility offers quality space that can be arranged to suit individual preferences, excellent technical facilities and experienced customer service. We believe this existing potential is what we should present to international audiences.

In 2017, 2018 and 2019, we would like to hold at least several major international congresses with the medical and telecom sectors as our main target group. None of those will be an event for over 10,000 people, but up to 20 conventions with several thousand attendees each will be just as big an achievement and a great promotional opportunity for Warsaw.

But don’t you think that Warsaw lacks one large venue designed specifically to host conventions?
Many popular European capitals, such as London, Paris and Berlin, have professional convention centers. A venue like that could boost Warsaw’s prestige and help draw large, international conventions to the city. This would be an important project as far as Warsaw’s image is concerned, and a promotional and business opportunity for the city. Whether it is profitable would depend on a solid analysis of the market that could then be used to plan the project, adopt a funding model for it and then manage it. A center like that should above all be a multi-purpose venue with a special focus on conventions. A convention-only venue costs three times more to build than one with potential to accommodate other events, such as exhibitions and concerts. Like I said, most large, international events are intended for around 10,000 guests and I believe this should be the maximum capacity of a Warsaw convention center. Otherwise, for most of the time only a part of the facility will be in use. Given the fixed maintenance costs of the whole venue, it would be unable to pay for itself. I agree that projects as important as a convention center should be subsidized by the city authorities. But at the same time, I believe that the new center should operate on free market principles and rather than prices, it should compete for customers on quality and other things it has to offer.

Does Sapphire Group Poland, the owner of Expo XXI Warszawa, have any proposals for the Warsaw authorities regarding a new convention center?
Our proposal for the Warsaw authorities is that they build the convention center and task Expo XXI Warszawa with managing it in a public-private partnership project. This idea is inspired by what we have seen work in the West. Conference centers in London, Paris and Barcelona are owned by the cities, which choose private companies with expertise in managing such projects as the operators. A joint effort of this kind would be an attractive project for each party both financially and in terms of image. It would also serve as a good example for other Polish cities to follow, demonstrating Warsaw’s keenness to work with private businesses. Depending on what plan is adopted, how large the project is and, above all, its future location, Expo XXI Warszawa could contribute both financially and as an operator. We are willing to take on the responsibility of designing the center, helping raise the necessary funds, overseeing the construction and, once the venue is completed, promoting and managing it.

Irrespective of what business model is adopted for a Warsaw convention center, I hope it will be a result of rational evaluation and that the venue will operate on free-market principles.
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