CZECH REPUBLIC: Prague fights back

Prague is bouncing back from the floods, and as the city gets back to normal, key tourism agencies are joining forces to target the UK C&I market, as Jennifer Creevy discovers

On 13 August this year, the actor Sean Connery was among those who witnessed the floods enveloping the city of Prague. Based at the Four Seasons Hotel, he was filming on location in the Czech Republic's capital and, like thousands of other hotel guests and residents close to the river, was evacuated.

The floods clearly had a devastating effect on the country. The Czech Tourist Authority (CTA) claimed the floods were the worst in central Europe for more than 100 years. And while the total bill for the damage is still being calculated, the government estimates it to be in the region of CZK90bn (£1.87bn), of which CZK30bn (£623m) is in Prague alone.

The impact of this for a country that relies so heavily on tourism can only be severe. Prague has a population of 1.3 million and, in the year 2000, was visited by more than 10 million tourists. As Hotel Inter-Continental Praha spokesman Ivan Gruza explains, this is the second year in a row that tourism has suffered. "Peak periods for C&I groups are always September and October with around 90 per cent occupancy in most hotels but this year, it was curbed by the effects of the floods and last year it was the US terrorist attacks of 11 September, he says.

Three months on from the flooding the clean-up operation in the main areas of the capital is almost complete. Most of the popular tourist attractions are open and the government maintains the Metro will be fully functional again by the NATO Summit on 21-22 November.

Prague Congress Centre will be housing the event with delegates spread across a number of the city's hotels. The congress centre's spokeswoman Tina Behynova is confident the city will be back to normal for the Summit.

"A lot of areas remain affected, particularly in the Karlin region, where there is still no electricity or gas, she says. "But these type of areas are mainly residential and places where C&I groups do not venture. The 11 Metro stations that are still closed are causing traffic problems, but that should be resolved this month."

Most of the affected hotels should also be open in time for the Summit.

Around ten per cent of the city's bed capacity was closed in August; hotels were either affected directly, or they were based in evacuated areas.

Among those damaged were the Inter-Continental, the Hilton and the Four Seasons, all situated on the banks of the River Vltava.

The Inter-Continental had 4m of water at its worst point and Gruza says repairs will run into "hundreds of millions of Czech Korunas". At the time of going to press, the hotel had set its reopening date for 4 November.

The Hilton Prague reopened on 26 September after a five-week closure.

Its occupancy for the end of September was similar to that of most other hotels in that period at 35 per cent. But groups and conventions sales executive Veronika Klimankova says October was fully booked and November also looks healthy. "We had around five big C&I groups cancel in September - we managed to move some but others we lost altogether, she says.

The hotel also suffered an additional stroke of misfortune - its congress hall was refurbished this year and reopened on 10 August, and was flooded just three days later. But Klimankova remains optimistic. "The C&I industry is fairly robust. Leisure tourists are still cautious, but we are finding conference groups are starting to rebook now. The upshot is that our congress hall (which holds up to 1,350 theatre-style) is now brand new and what with other refurbishments we have done this year, we are one of the best conference hotels in the city."

The Four Seasons was badly hit and will remain closed until early 2003.

Suppliers recommend the property highly. DMC Prague International incentive and incoming department supervisor Jana Juzova believes the Four Seasons is one of the top incentive hotels. "We've also been told Boscolo Hotels has earmarked Prague for a five-star hotel so that will be great for the city, she adds.

Other properties singled out as being an option for incentive groups by DMC Motiv Prague include the Hotel Marriott, Renaissance Prague Hotel and the Radisson SAS Alcron Hotel. The Vienna International Hotels & Resorts group has five properties in Prague - the Savoy, Palace, Le Palais, Diplomat and Hotel Andel's. Design Hotels has also invested in Prague with the opening of boutique-style Hotel Josef in June this year.

Motiv Prague's managing director Petr Simek says that while these hotels are all suitable for incentives, conference groups tend to choose properties such as the Hilton, the Corinthia Towers and the Holiday Inn. The Corinthia Towers can hold up to 935 theatre-style and has a sister property, the Panorama, which can hold 280. The Holiday Inn is attached to the Prague Congress Centre and has four meeting spaces.

Rebuilding business

With such C&I facilities in place, all that remains now is to bring back groups. To this end, CSA Czech Airlines is spearheading a major campaign, in conjunction with the CTA and the Czech Embassy. Adverts will run in trade and consumer press with the strapline "Prague is back - come and Czech". The airline will offer special rates, as will participating hotels for groups staging an event this year.

Czech Airlines director for UK Bohuslav Santrucek says: "The floods were shocking and devastating, but the city dealt with the incident so quickly it is hard to see any evidence of it. We are also continuing with our expansion plan to confirm our commitment to the UK market." Czech Airlines is launching a further six flights from Stansted next year - bringing the total weekly flights to 13. There will continue to be a twice-daily service from Heathrow, Birmingham has a daily service and Manchester has nine flights per week. The airline is also looking to introduce a Scottish hub by summer 2003.

The CTA was confident in September that groups could come back. It held an event for the international press on 20 September on the reopened Charles Bridge. A number of hotels sent their chefs for a cooking extravaganza on the bridge. CTA director for UK and Ireland Iveta Schoppova believes the event showed the floods were not the end of the season for Prague.

"The travel industry is extremely vulnerable and everything balances on how quickly we can regain confidence, she says. "We know Prague is functioning as normal but we just need to get people to believe it."

For some UK clients, reassurance is not enough. Prague International had a group from Tesco booked in for this December but the client has postponed until next year. Others are more optimistic. Corinthia Towers had two groups confirm after the floods - for November and January. UK agency Eyas is also taking an incentive group to Prague in February. Its director Michael Leach believes any problems from the floods will have been resolved by then. "Our DMC Motiv Prague has assured us the city is fully functional already and we are confident there will be no problems, he says.

Leach is also adamant Prague is still a motivational destination, despite becoming popular for weekend breaks over the past two years. "The fact that Prague is a popular tourist spot can work to its advantage, he maintains.

"It is clearly a great city to go to if it's popular and anyone who has been before will still be excited because it is a beautiful, interesting place with lots to explore."

The city needs advocates such as Leach to champion it through this difficult time. If every UK agency is as convinced of Prague's potential then it will soon be on the road to repair. Leach would go as far as to say he "can't think of a single disadvantage of the city".

A few more comments like this and Prague will soon have nothing to worry about again.

ALTERNATIVE DESTINATIONS

While Prague is clearly the city of choice in the Czech Republic for UK groups, often day trips elsewhere can make up a pre- or post-tour option.

The Czech Republic is spread across the historic territory of Bohemia, Moravia and part of Silesia. Among its offerings are ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Cesky Krumlov, Telc, Kutna Hora, the Church of St. John of Nepomuk, the Lednice - Valtice Complex, Holasovice, Kromeriz, Litomysl, the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc and Prague.

Cesky Krumlov is an ancient city on the banks of the Vltava River. It is close to the Austrian border and has a Romanesque style. Telc is referred to by the Czechs as "Moravian Venice and houses a number of Renaissance chateaux with English gardens. Kutna Hora is a medieval town.

Meanwhile, The Church of St. John of Nepomuk in Zdar nad Sazavou was built in 1720. It is constructed in the shape of five-sided star. The Lednice - Valtice Complex in southern Moravia spreads across the towns of Lednice and Valtice. It is characterised by chateaux, pavilions, sculptures, forests and ponds. Holasovice is in southern Bohemia and is a 13th century, Baroque-style town. Kromeriz was founded in the 12th century and is an example of a medieval market village. The medieval castle in Litomysl was rebuilt in the 16th century and it takes the same name as the town.

And finally, the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc was erected between 1716 and 1754 and is 35m tall - one of the highest in central Europe.

Spa towns are another option for groups. Ten of the most popular spa towns in the country are Karlovy Vary, Marianske Lazne, Frantiskovy Lazne, Jachymov, Teplica, Janske Lazne, Podebrady, Trebon, Luhacovice and Jesenik.

Hotels are also plentiful in these areas if groups want to stay overnight.

One of the most popular overnight areas is Marianske Lazne. The Danubius Hotels group has several properties here. Its top hotels include Nove Lazne, Hvezda-Skalnik, Centralni lazne, Neapol and Villa Butterfly.

DIRECTORY

Czech Tourist Authority

Suite 29-31, 2nd Floor Morley House

320 Regent Street

London W1B 3BG

Tel: 020 7631 0426

Fax: 020 7631 0419

Contact: Iveta Schoppova

Email: schoppova@

visitczechia.org.uk

Web: www.visit

czechia.cz

Flying time from the UK: 1 hour, 30 mins.

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