Should proof be needed of Croatia's rising industry status, then last month's C&IT Agency Survey provided it. In the emerging destinations section, the Adriatic territory came second only to China as somewhere UK agencies are seriously considering for 2008. It is deserved recognition for a country that has worked hard to re-establish itself after the unrest of past decades, and unsurprising when you see what it has to offer - walled medieval republics, Habsburg-era cities and 1,250 miles of twinkling coastline - all less than three hours from the UK.
"I think this is the prime time to be pitching Croatia," says The Phoenix Partners director Rachel Hargrave. "It offers something different, a chance for delegates to experience a destination that's a bit more 'real'. There's not so much of the unnecessary fluff and gloss that you might get elsewhere. It's at the turning point - there's some serious investment coming, but at the moment it has a slightly raw feel, which is a really good thing. It's very competitive price-wise too."
Croatia's appeal is far from limited - nowhere with more than 1,000 islands can be accused of lacking options - but for today's C&I planners there are three key areas of the country that draw the lion's share of business. Dubrovnik's remarkable charm remains the top draw, while fellow coastal resort Split and the relaxed inland capital Zagreb also rate highly. Away from the trio of big players, the likes of Pula and Opatija are also rising in industry consciousness. Without fail, all have an absolute wealth of historic appeal.
Year-on-year business growth
As a visitor destination, its upward trajectory is impressive. Since the end of the Balkans conflict, UK travellers have poured back to Croatia in increasing numbers. In 2007 alone, some 257,000 Brits came calling, a record figure and up three per cent on the previous year. From a C&I perspective, the continuing influx is just as apparent. "There's been a steady year-on-year increase for C&I business across the country, particularly over the past five years," says Zagreb Convention Bureau product manager Zlatan Muftic. "This is largely down to an increase in awareness and, naturally, a better product being available."
Access is also a key factor. Zagreb is only two hours and 15 minutes away from the UK, while Dubrovnik is an extra 35 minutes to the south. National carrier Croatia Airlines has increased the number of UK flights in recent years, and this summer introduces two new Heathrow-Zagreb services and a new Heathrow-Pula flight (see box, p83). British Airways flies to Dubrovnik, while seasonal options are available with budget airlines including Easyjet, Flybe, Ryanair and Wizzair.
Dubrovnik is widely considered the jewel in the country's crown, and it's not hard to see why. In its Middle Ages heyday, the port rivalled Venice as the region's key trading power, and the subsequent riches have left a staggeringly beautiful legacy. Today the Old Town is still encircled by more than a mile of thick stone fortifications - up to 25 metres high - and its narrow streets, burnished paving and scarlet roof tiles make it one of the continent's most enduring sights.
Notable chain hotels are stretched along the length of the coastline, while the Old Town itself offers some eye-popping gala-dinner venues, such as the 16th-century surrounds of Ravelin Fortress, or the ornate Franciscan monastery. A string of green islands off shore mean incentive options frequently include sailing trips and 'fish picnics', while excursions to neighbouring Montenegro are also popular.
Groups of all sizes
CMM managing director Eamonn Hamilton first used Dubrovnik two years ago and rates it highly. "We've taken a small incentive for 30 and a large conference for 350 there," he says. "Both worked very well in terms of budget, quality of service and the facilities on offer. It's an established destination but still slightly off the map, so it appeals to people wanting somewhere different. And the old town itself has a real 'wow' factor."
Some 125 miles further up the coast, Split is another town big on aspiration and rich in history. The town centre is dominated by the colossal 1,700 year-old Roman palace, the former home of bloodthirsty emperor Diocletian. The harbour-side promenade offers great potential for dine-arounds, while island-hopping again figures heavily on the incentive front. The launch of Le Meridien Lav Split in late 2006 and the recent opening of the five-star Atrium Hotel have done much to bring fresh attention to the destination.
"I can't speak highly enough of Split," says Lavinia Tomlinson, director of 1 Call Company, which organised an event there for swimwear firm Speedo last May. "There's an amazing coastline with incentive options on the islands, and Le Meridien is a great property with excellent service. The city itself isn't a ritzy, glitzy Monte Carlo but I've only had positive feedback about it from delegates. I'd recommend the destination to anyone."
Meanwhile, and inland, Zagreb feels like another country altogether. More Central Europe than seaside, the city-centre showcases some superb empire-era architecture - the convention bureau's Muftic describes it as "a smaller, cheaper Vienna" - and is characterised by trams, trees and a laid-back cafe culture. It's an unassuming city but one that's rich with sights - Zagreb was originally founded from the merging of two hilltop hamlets, and the centuries since have produced some eye-catching churches and civic buildings. T-Mobile, IBM and Hewlett-Packard are among recent visitors.
Zagreb hotel developments
Hotel stock is largely international standard with a couple of real jewels, while there's a genuinely exciting range of both old and new function spaces. On the traditional side, the Croatian State Archive, Mimara Museum and People's Hall are all sumptuous options, with the stunning main reading room at the State Archive probably the pick. For a more contemporary flavour, Lisinski Concert Hall can welcome up to 1,850 delegates, but it's the newly unveiled Hypo Expo XXI - a sleek glass-and-steel complex for groups of up to 1,500 - that really stands out.
Croatia is adding strings to its bow at a quick rate, a further example being the 2008 opening of the Kempinski Adriatic in Istria, and this momentum is likely to continue. For a small country, it's heavy on appeal, and one thing is clear - it's certainly worth making the effort to beat the inevitable rush.
CASE STUDY - UEFA PICKS ZAGREB FOR CONGRESS
Event: Annual congress
Group size: 300+
Agency: In house
Date: 29 Jan-1 Feb 2008
Venue: Hypo Expo XXI
European football administrator Uefa needed a city destination to host its annual congress in the run-up to this year's Euro 2008 event.
Croatia recently come close to being awarded the 2012 tournament, so the organisation was familiar with Zagreb's infrastructure. Three days of conferencing had to be included in a full week's worth of set-up and events for delegates who were travelling from every corner of the continent.
With two days' worth of meetings prior to the main congress, and more than 300 delegates arriving in Zagreb at various points of the itinerary, organisers needed to source a number of suitable venues within a close radius. Quality accommodation, effective security and strong transport links were all paramount. "The Uefa event was a fantastic endorsement of what the city can offer," says Jadranka Cubric, congress executive at Zagreb Convention Bureau.
The centrally located Sheraton Zagreb was chosen as the main event hotel and it hosted a press office, central information stand and leading delegates, including Uefa president Michel Platini - with further participants accommodated in the nearby Westin Zagreb.
The five-star Regent Esplanade was chosen for the gala dinner, with the recently unveiled Hypo Expo XXI used as the ideal setting for the main congress itself.
Smaller meetings were held in the Sheraton's conference rooms for the first two days of the event, focusing on preparations for both the 2008 and 2012 championships. A celebratory dinner took place in a glass-fronted marquee in the grounds of the Regent Esplanade - overlooking the grand park in front of the city's station - before events moved to the state-of-the-art Hypo Expo XXI the next day.
The main hall was set up classroom-style with a panel of speakers on stage, making the most of the comprehensive on-site technical and translation facilities.
Delegates were taken to the Westin in the evening for cocktails and a round-table dinner in the property's Crystal Ballroom either by coach or limo.
"The working relationship and facilities at the congress centre itself were excellent and, being close to Zagreb city centre, meant those guests that were not involved in the congress were able to enjoy interesting excursions," says UEFA communications director William Gaillard. "All in all, it was a very good destination for our yearly congress."
CASE STUDY - BMW'S X5 COASTAL LAUNCH
Event: Car launch
Group size: 100
Agency: In house
DMC: Adriatic Luxury Services
Date: 25 April 2007
Venue: Dubrovnik Palace Hotel
The event centred on the world premiere of the BMW X5 sport utility vehicle, which would be presented to international attendees, industry media and other invited guests, including a number from the UK. Luxury accommodation and a five-star setting were stipulated. There would also be the chance to test-drive other BMW models on nearby roads.
As with all car launches, one of the principal concerns was showcasing the vehicle itself. Dubrovnik Palace Hotel is alone among the properties on this stretch of coast in providing sufficient internal space for cars to be displayed. There was also the matter of a suitable test-drive route, which needed to be safe but spectacular.
The venue's Sunset Bar - overlooking the Adriatic Sea and Elaphite Islands - was chosen as the location for the presentation. As well as the X5, a 5 Series Convertible and a 1 Series model were also displayed, aimed at highlighting both the variety and the consistency of the brand. Leading delegates were accommodated at the hotel itself, which is located on a stretch of cliff some ten minutes from Dubrovnik's Old Town. Some 7 Series models were provided for coastal drives, and participants also took to the winding hill roads around Dubrovnik.
"We organised a detailed schedule to give the chance for all attendees to get behind the wheel of a BMW on the local roads," says Iris Domazet, general manager of Adriatic Luxury Services (ALS). "They could choose between two tours."
In the hotel's presentation area, a series of widescreen TVs were set up to give a deeper insight into the concept and capabilities of the cars on display. A buffet lunch was laid on for guests, who were able to network over the meal while taking in the sea view. ALS also arranged for a celebratory evening dinner at an external location.
"The world premiere of a new BMW model in Croatia was something spectacular for the automotive world," says BMW sales director for Croatia Goran Pavkovic. "Cars of this pedigree are not presented very often, especially in a country without its own car industry. This was a big success both for us and the hotel."
THE FLIGHT: Croatia Airlines, Heathrow to Zagreb in economy
CHECK-IN: Private check-in is available for groups of up to 50, and it is normal practice to arrange for groups to sit together. As the official carrier for Croatian tourism, the airline also grants discounts to registered participants at key congresses. Croatia Airlines is also a regional Star Alliance member.
WELCOME ABOARD: A smooth check-in was followed by efficient, friendly service on board, with the crew ably switching to English.
KEEPING BUSY: The flights were all short-haul so there was no in-flight entertainment, although the hefty magazine was as chic as they come.
KNIFE AND FORK: A tasty cold meat salad was served with free beer, wine and soft drinks. Vegetarian, vegan, kosher and other options are available if booked more than 24 hours in advance. A separate basket of wrapped 'Pepper Cookies' was handed round with tea and coffee.
TIMEKEEPING: All services were punctual and arrived on schedule.
Croatian Convention & Incentive Bureau
Contact: Nik Racic, +385 14 69 93 33