International conferences are key to a city’s development

And Jerusalem is anxious to get back on the circuit.

Jerusalem ICC 311 (photo credit: Mical Patal)
Jerusalem ICC 311
(photo credit: Mical Patal)
Just over a decade ago Jerusalem was ranked fourth in the world in the number of international conferences it hosted, but the outbreak of the second intifada, and the years of regional instability that followed, plummeted it down the rankings.
Today Israel is in 58th place, hosting 23 international conferences, roughly a third of the number it hosted at its peak.
In an interview for The Jerusalem Post, on Tuesday, Mira Altman, director general of the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) and former director general of the tourism ministry, explained what caused the plummet and what needed to be done to put Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, back on the conference map.
“Until 2000, Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, was a highly coveted place to hold international conferences.
The city has all the characteristics required of a conference host, from its luxurious hotels, to its world famous attractions and, of course, a world class convention center,” said Altman. “The last really big conference we hosted, was a diabetes conference attended by 10,000 participants. A decade later we no longer have events on that scale. After the outbreak of the Intifada, Israel was erased from the conference circuit map almost overnight. Conference organizers simply stayed away.”
Altman said that returning to the circuit was a Herculean task and one that took years to achieve. “Big international conferences are scheduled years in advance, sometimes as long as a decade before they take place. The location of the conference is usually decided by a committee and when the committee members see that there is risk in holding a conference in a particular place, they automatically pass it over.
Only in 2004, when things started calming down, did we see bookings for 2014,” said Altman.
“If in the past what kept conference organizers away was the security threat, today it is Israel’s geo-political situation and the boycott atmosphere. I think that if Israel is seen to be willing to enter peace talks and a change in the general atmosphere, we will see the large international conferences return,” said Altman.
Altman said that despite the cold shoulder that Israel received, the ICC continued to take part in international conference organizers’ events and retained its membership in the International Congress and Convention Association and the International Association of Congress Centres, two leading industry organization.
“Throughout the years we continued to put ourselves out there and present our product to the world, even though it meant investing a lot of money, with little payback. Just for example, it costs 12,000 Euro to place a full-page ad in the industry’s leading journals,” said Altman. “We sincerely believe that the investment will pay off and that, as we are already beginning to see, there will be a reversal of the trend. The past three years have seen an improvement, but we are still not back to the record numbers. If back then we hosted conferences with 10,000 participants, today the numbers stand at 2,000-2,500 participants for the largest events.”
According to Altman the benefits of hosting international conferences are not just to places like the ICC, but to the city and the country at large.
Tourism Ministry figures show that the main beneficiaries of conferences are local hotels, with lodging making up 39% of the average expenses of conference goers. Transportation and tour services come in second with 19%, food and beverage expenses make up 11% and shopping makes up 17%. The conventions centers themselves make up only 6% of the overall expenses of the visit.
“Hosting conferences is a driving force for the whole city. We have created a model that shows that if the city hosts 80 international conferences a year it will make the city NIS 460 million,” said Altman. “Conference participants tend to earn above average incomes and have the spending power to infuse the city and its businesses with money.”
LOOKING AT figures for other cities gives an idea of what could be in store for Jerusalem. In 2008 Glasgow hosted 37 international conferences with a total of 20,000 participants that made it NIS 180 million.
Prague, hosting 74 international conferences, made NIS 194 million. Istanbul, hosting 53,000 people in 72 conferences made the city NIS 473 million and industry leader Paris made NIS 660 million from 139 conferences.
Those numbers are not lost on tourism professionals and both the Jerusalem municipal tourism department and the Tourism Ministry have plans in place to market the capital as a prime conference destination.
According to Altman, what’s needed is more cooperation between the different sections of the tourism industry – hotels, convention centers, airlines and conference organizers. “Instead of pooling our resources, it’s each man for himself. Everybody believes they can get the people to come to them and don’t realize that by working together everyone will benefit.”
According to Tourism Ministry Director General Noaz Bar Nir, the ministry is looking at two main tracks to promote conference tourism. One is setting up an insurance fund that would be used to reimburse conference organizers in the case of conference cancellations due to security issues, and the other, the creation of a conference promotion board, drawing all the industry forces together to attract conference organizers.
“We are aware of the financial potential of hosting conferences and would like to see more of them held in Israel. We plan to hold meetings with hoteliers, tour operators, travel agents and conference organizers to find ways to bring Israel back to it’s former levels,” said Bar Nir.
In January the ICC will be holding its 60th anniversary.
The center plans to host a gala event and display a museum exhibit presenting the rich history of the institution and the landmark events that it has hosted over the years, from the first Zionist Congress in Israel to the Demjanjuk trial to the Eurovision song contest.