For such a small island - just 8km by 15km - Malta has a fairly high profile. But while everyone has heard of it, some people's perception of the destination is still that of a holiday resort, with a proliferation of mid-budget hotels and English bars.
In fact, for the corporate buyer, the reality of Malta is quite different. The destination comprises three separate islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino, the latter two of which are unspoilt and peaceful for much of the year.
In the past ten years, Malta has benefited from a huge amount of development, particularly in the five-star hotel market. The quality of local suppliers and the island's infrastructure has improved, and Malta now offers excellent conference facilities and a wide choice of incentive activities.
The island's fascinating heritage takes precedence over the few sandy beaches that appear along its rocky coastline, and incentive programmes and activities reflect this. Malta's C&I business has increased during the past year, with this segment now making up five per cent of the destination's overall tourism revenue. Facilities are in place to service this market, and communicating this to the corporate sector is a priority.
But Eyas managing director Scott Gibbons believes that Malta still has some way to go in terms of really making an impact.
Positive selling points
"Malta has always been a good value destination, but it doesn't have the 'buzz factor' that makes clients sit up and say let's go there," he says. "Despite its new facilities, it has quite a hard battle to fight against more glamorous European destinations, particularly now that the dollar is so low."
But agents who have taken groups to Malta recently are more convinced about the positive selling points of the destination.
Judi Reader, director of Browncroft Events, which organised an event for a pharma-ceutical client at Malta's Westin Dragonara Resort in January, said that her original assumptions about Malta being too leisure-orientated were unfounded: "This was the first time I had used Malta and it was a true revelation. It really was a brilliant destination and I hope to take more groups there."
Manager of C&I travel at the Malta Tourist Office in London Marie Anne Barthet Brown says that perception has always been a problem when marketing the islands.
"We urgently need to challenge buyers' assumptions about Malta, and to show them that we have a cost-effective and exciting product," she says.
"Our marketing communications in 2004 will be 'expect the unexpected', and will highlight Malta's unique selling points as a conference destination.
"Malta's DMCs are also active in promoting their services and are focusing on the UK as a primary market. Overall, we feel that the outlook for 2004 is quite positive," she adds.
Malta's hotels and venues are actively collaborating with this plan of achieving a higher profile in the MICE sector. The Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA), a body that represents all the five-star and 80 per cent of the four-star hotels on the island, is spearheading a campaign to pool marketing resources. MHRA president Winston Zahra says: "We have set up a co-sponsored European marketing fund, through which our members join forces to promote Malta as a destination rather than each property promoting itself individually. Collectively, we get more mileage for our money, and we are able to present a united and focused message."
Joseph Diacono, director of DMC The Best of Malta and founder of the Destination Management Company Association (DMCA), which represents 25 DMCs in Malta, stresses that cooperation, rather than competition, is key to attracting new business.
"We are now starting to attract companies like IBM, Siemens and Hewlett-Packard, but this is a recent development," he says. "It is only now that Malta is starting to emerge as a viable C&I destination, and we need to work together, continuing to focus on communicating our key assets."
The DMCA is collaborating with the Malta Tourist Authority, Air Malta and key hotels to organise a large-scale fam trip - The Knighthood Experience - which will take place at the end of this month to showcase the opportunities in Malta available to European buyers.
While Malta is making a great effort to turn around its image and present itself as a creative, glamorous destination, it has a solid foundation of excellent meeting facilities and accommodation. Private investment in hotels and venues has completely turned around Malta's C&I offering in the past few years.
"Seven years ago, our C&I product was weak," says Zahra of the MHRA. "There were one or two five-star hotels, but no central point for conference activity."
Today, Malta has more than 3,500 five-star rooms in one square mile, including the InterContinental Malta, which opened in January last year, the Westin Dragonara Resort and the Radisson SAS Baypoint Resort. Lining a short stretch of coast known as Golden Bay, all the hotels are within easy walking distance of the Hilton Conference Centre, which opened in May 2003 and has succeeded in attracting the majority of conference groups to this section of the island. Since opening, the centre has pulled in major companies including Land Rover, Nike and Johnson & Johnson for product launches and other events.
This rapid and focused development has been the result of a conscious decision by the Maltese government to tap into the corporate market. For two years, the government had a policy of only allowing five-star development, which served to kick-start Malta's C&I offer. When groups of 400 or more use the island, the hotels cooperate in transferring and accommodating delegates.
Hoteliers work together
"This non-competitive attitude helps enormously when organising events," says, Absolute Corporate Events sales director Brendan Caffrey. "The hoteliers work well with one other to ensure that prices are consistent and that delegates get a common, high standard of accommodation. It makes it a much more attractive place to do business."
Choice Event Management's operations director Sue Turner adds: "In terms of conferences, the whole destination has come up by two or three notches."
Turner, who has placed two large events in Malta, has had positive experiences there but still feels that buyers need to be better educated about the island's facilities: "The quality of the hotel stock has substantially increased in the past few years and accessibility has improved. There is plenty to do and you can achieve good value for money, especially for large conferences. But we occasionally have trouble selling the destination, and this is a perception issue to be addressed."
In addition to the investment in St George's Bay, the island has other properties under construction that will be targeting corporate business. At one end of the scale, the 44-room Hotel Juliani, which opened this January, is the first 'boutique' hotel to open on the island. The property has three stylish restaurants, is situated near the Hilton Conference Centre, and aims to establish a modern, cafe culture that is very different from the atmosphere of the larger convention hotels.
Meanwhile, the Radisson SAS Golden Sands Hotel, which is under construction and due to open next June, will be an all-suite five-star property with its own private beach, naturally lit conference facilities for up to 900 and more than 1,000 sq m of health, beauty and spa facilities. Le Meridien is also investing in Malta, with a five-star, 280-room property due to open in November this year. The Le Meridien St Julians will offer 13 meeting and conference rooms on a dedicated floor, and a restaurant run by a two Michelin-starred chef.
The type of business coming to Malta dovetails nicely with the new hotel stock. According to the Malta Tourism Authority, most conference delegates are accommodated in five-star hotels and stay for an average of three nights. Most conferences take place within the hotels - although the opening of the Hilton Conference Centre last May is likely to influence these figures - and more than 40 per cent of business comes from the medical or pharmaceutical sectors.
In terms of incentives, there are a large number of DMCs operating in Malta given the island's size, and they have been forced to become increasingly creative to secure new business. Consequently, buyers can expect a range of unusual itinerary options, including sea regattas, simulated knighting ceremonies, treasure hunts, cooking challenges and retreats to the quieter islands of Gozo and Comino. Delegates can explore the beautiful fortified town of Valletta or experience an atmospheric torch-lit tour of medieval Mdina, almost unchanged over several centuries.
There is also a range of unusual venues on offer, including the newly opened Razzett l'Antik, an original Maltese flour mill that has been converted into a large restaurant; Palazzo Pariso, a breathtaking palace with impressive rooms for formal events; and the Manoel Theatre, the third-oldest theatre in Europe which can seat up to 600 guests.
A recent initiative from Malta's National Agency for Museums and Cultural Heritage has opened up historic venues previously out of bounds to corporate groups. These include many gems from the 15th-century rule of the Knights of the Order of St John, such as the Inquisitor's Palace, the Vilhena Palace and the National Museum of Archaeology. The Mediterranean Conference Centre, originally built as a hospital by the Knights, also offers a spectacular location for groups.
Fiona Captur, managing director of Unconventional Malta, says: "While new venues and ideas are coming online all the time, the approach of suppliers has changed. There is now a positive approach to making things work, a 'can-do' attitude. There is a realisation that the standard of end-users now coming to Malta demands a certain level of service."
Reader of Browncroft Events adds: "For the UK market, it is a very easy destination for meetings and events. It's easily accessible, everyone speaks English and it is well organised. The mixture of Mediterranean, African and Arabic influences provides groups with a variety of culinary and cultural experiences that they will not have experienced before."
Absolute Corporate Events' Caffrey agrees: "You need to go to Malta to be convinced - it is a rewarding destination. Compared with other European destinations, the quality of the hotels, the standard of the food and the hospitality win hands down. It is a small island, so you can achieve a varied itinerary in a short amount of time, and the local people are incredibly welcoming. I would say that Malta has the resources, the facilities and the creativity to come up with new ideas, all within an affordable budget."
CASE STUDY - PREMIERE CONFERENCING
Company: Premiere Conferencing
Event: European sales kick-off meeting
Agency: TM Group
DMC: EC Meetings
Date: 21-24 January 2004
Group size: 47
Venue: Hilton Malta
At the beginning of each year, conference call technology company Premiere Conferencing holds its kick-off meeting for the entire sales organisation from its offices across Europe. Premiere Conferencing has previously held the meeting in Mallorca, London and Rome, but selected Malta for the 2004 event.
"One of the main reasons for choosing Malta was its cost-effectiveness," says Michele Hayden, managing director, Europe, Middle East and Africa. "We used a fantastic five-star hotel in Malta, while with our other options, we would not have been able to consider five-star accommodation. We also wanted to go somewhere with good weather."
The entire event had a James Bond theme with 'Licence to Sell' as the primary buzz phrase. Based at the Hilton, the group started with two days of presentations and training. "The group was all together on the first morning, but thereafter we needed a number of small break-out rooms for product training," says TM Group senior manager Wendy Cutcliffe. "The hotel's in-house meeting facilities were flexible enough for our needs, and the staff were very efficient."
Actors posing as villains wandered into conference sessions throughout the event. On the third day, managing director Hayden (or 'M' for this session) was kidnapped by the 'villains' halfway through her presentation and the delegates were charged with rescuing her.
The group was split into small teams and followed a trail across the island in Jeeps, following clues and undertaking challenges.
"This is where Malta really came into its own," says Hayden. "The island is small enough to make it easy to find your way around, yet there are great places to visit and the locals are genuinely so pleasant and helpful." HOTEL FACT FILE - MALTA
The past decade has seen an explosion of hotel development in Malta. The small coastal town of St Julians is now the focal point of major conference activity, with no fewer than five five-star hotels within walking distance of each other, all within minutes of the Hilton Malta Conference Centre. A number of properties are also under construction
CORINTHIA SAN GORG AND MARINA HOTEL
The Corinthia San Gorg is sold as a package with its neighbouring hotel, the Corinthia Marina, another five-star property that has 200 rooms. Situated in St Julians, the San Gorg offers 250 guestrooms and a range of meeting rooms, the largest with a capacity of 600 delegates.
Located in St Julians, the five-star Hilton Malta has 294 rooms. Its facilities include a business centre with eight small meeting rooms, and the maximum capacity is 400. Two of the hotel's restaurants can each seat 200 delegates. There are three outdoor pools and one indoor, a spa and a creche.
This five-star hotel is in St George's Bay, and offers 450 guestrooms. There are 17 separate meeting rooms, and an additional 1,700 sq m of meeting space at an adjacent multi-purpose hall. The hotel has six restaurants and three bars.
LE MERIDIEN PHOENICIA
Valetta's five-star Phoenicia has 136 rooms, including eight suites. It offers six separate meeting rooms, and the Grand Ballroom can take up to 300 theatre-style. It is situated in seven acres of gardens.
LE MERIDIEN ST JULIANS
Currently under construction in St Julians, this five-star hotel has 282 rooms, including 58 suites. There is a floor dedicated to conference and meeting space, with capacity for 314 delegates. The hotel will have two restaurants, a spa and an indoor pool.
RADISSON SAS BAYPOINT RESORT
Another five-star hotel in St Julians, the Baypoint has 252 rooms. For meetings, the Grand Ballroom can take up to 700 theatre-style; all meeting rooms have natural light. The hotel has a large amount of flexible outside space for dining, entertaining and special events. A refurbishment programme is currently underway, with all guestrooms to be refitted by May 2004.
RADISSON SAS GOLDEN SANDS RESORT
The first all-suite property on the island, the Golden Sands is due to open in June 2005 with 290 suites. There will be more than 14 syndicate rooms and a main conference room in a dedicated conference centre, with a maximum capacity of 900. The hotel will have its own private beach and four restaurants.
WESTIN DRAGONARA RESORT
The five-star Dragonara in St Julians has 313 rooms, including 27 suites. It has 13 function rooms, including the Dragonara Point Ballroom that seats 650 delegates. The hotel has three restaurants, two snack bars and a fitness and beauty centre.
Malta Tourist Office Unit C, Park House, 14 Northfields, London SW18 1DD
Contact Marie Anne Barthet Brown
Tel 020 8877 6993
Fax 020 8874 9416
Flying time 2 hours 50 minutes