Estonia – the great new MICE destinationHosted by Enterprise Estonia, Estonian Tour-ist Board and Estonian Convention Bureau, ITCM escorted a group of UK buyers who were amazed at what they found in Tallinn and Pärnu on the Baltic
We were a group of 9 on the ITCM-Estonian Tourist Board and Estonian Convention Bureau Fam Trip to Estonia. One of us had once passed briefly through the capital, Tallinn, but we were all completely unprejudiced by any previous knowledge of the country and its MICE facilities. There were mixed feelings about what to expect.
However, our 3-days of site inspections and adventures convinced us all that Estonia has what it takes to be a superb MICE destination for small to medium-sized groups. It has an unexpectedly wide choice of quality hotels, ranging from the big modern Swissôtel and Radisson SAS to the funky Tallink and the Nordic to the chic, one-off Telegraaf.
There is still one piece of the jigsaw missing to create the ideal picture of a MICE destination. There are only two direct flights a week by Estonian Air. However, flying out from Gatwick on a Thursday evening, as we did, and returning late Sunday afternoon is perfect for a brief, low cost, totally different incentive experience – of course, flying out on Sunday and returning Thursday at the same times is also a convenient possibility, so flights should not be a major stumbling block. The airline serves a reasonable meal en route and there is no language problem on board.
However, it is significant that when members of our group individually told the Estonian Convention Bureau that it would be an advantage to have more flights, we were informed within three days that a meeting had already been held by the Bureau, the airline, the Minister of Tourism of Estonia and interested suppliers to discuss what could be done to increase the frequency of the connections between London and Tallinn.
Managing Director of the recently formed Estonia Convention Bureau is Riine Tiigi. Riine worked for some years in a tourist office in London and she can be as English as she is Estonian. She can be counted on to support corporate group organisers and she is definitely going to battle for the services that are required to put Estonia well and truly on the MICE map of Europe.
Advantages in an economic downturn
The current economic climate seriously influences the criteria by which planners evaluate a destination and its venues. A discussion with the group of UK buyers after the trip established many important reasons why Estonia is a good choice at the present time.
This is the current buzz word, signifying that fingers can be pointed at UK companies that too ostentatiously spend money on ‘jamborees’ when so many people are struggling financially.
Estonia does not have an image of wanton luxury. In fact, we discovered, it actually is much brighter and more upmarket than we had imagined. It can, therefore, serve the double purpose of not appearing ‘OTT’, whilst at the same time surprising guests and delegates with the high level of comfort and service it can provide.
NoveltySo few business people have actually visited Estonia, that it has that desirable quality of a novel destination. People would be curious, as we were, to discover what it is like and would without doubt be very pleasantly surprised. That can be guaranteed.
Low costFlights and hotel accommodation are better than reasonable. One can say that at present less than £500 per head could cover the 2.5-hour return flight and three nights in the best rooms in good hotels – inclusive of breakfast. On anyone’s budget that should leave cash to embellish the stay with extras that would make it memorable.
Great foodWe experienced meals in several of the hotels and also in independent restaurants in the centre of Tallinn. Guests have a choice of food with which they are familiar or some of the special Estonian dishes. Each meal was like a feast and the gastronomic experience was one of the aspects of the trip that were very favourably mentioned by the group as a whole.
Estonia has a tiny population of less than 1.5m people. It has only recently emerged from the Soviet cocoon and so traffic jams are virtually unknown in our sense of the word. Vehicles are basically not needed in the capital, Tallinn. Most ‘transfers’ were on foot and whenever we asked how far it was, the answer was invariably ’10 minutes’.
But each walk was 10 minutes of delightful strolling through a town that has altered little for several hundred years. Virtually the whole of the centre of Tallinn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one can continuously imagine oneself to be back in the Middle Ages. The market square cannot be much different now from what it was in olden days. The point is, too, that the inhabitants live and breathe the spirit of those times and half of those seen wandering or working in the market area are dressed in folk attire.
Tallinn was a walled city and 2km of the original wall and 26 of the ancient protective towers still remain. From street level or from the battlements, there are constant photogenic views of beautiful tiled roofs and gables.
And Estonia is making intelligent and enjoyable use of these treasures. In one of the towers we met a burly custodian who greeted us with one of Estonia’s fiery liqueurs, showed us round from top to bottom with an explanation of the city’s history and then got each one of us to mint our own souvenir coin which we then proudly wore round our neck. Estonia, a Baltic country immediately across the water from Helsinki and alongside St Petersburg, first announced its independence as recently as 1918 when the Russian Czardom was overthrown, only to become a pawn in Germany’s war and then to be enveloped by the Soviet Union. It re-established its independence in 1991. It is now interesting to see the contrast between the glories of its medieval past, when it was a territory favoured by the emperors of Russia, such as Peter the Great, whose palaces now make phenomenal venues for events, and the impressive architecture that has so quickly been developed in the past 18 years. The dour, expressionless Soviet architectural relics serve only as foils as a contrast to the glories of the very old and the very new.
They know how to have funIf we can be excused for generalising after three days’ experience of a new country, we all felt that Estonia has a great sense of fun. It is a unique country and although it can be placed geographically as ‘Baltic’ or ‘East European’ or a neighbour of Germany or Russia, that tells you nothing of their personality, of their culture or their language. Linguistically, Estonian only has anything in common with Finland, but not at all with German or Russian.
At an early point in our visit, Riine Tiigi gave us a presentation on her country and the sense of fun was immediately apparent and, like the Brits, they can make fun of themselves. Her presentation shows polar bears, which don’t exist in Estonia, it homes in on the Balkan states, but shows that there is no connection other than that people get confused between Balkan and Baltic. It lightheartedly and memorably teaches you about Estonia by dispelling popular misconceptions. Estonians appreciate they are hardly known in the outside world – and they enjoy the opportunity to shed some light on themselves and their country.
The education, the fun and the unexpected continued to literally the very last moments of the visit. We arrived at Tallinn’s airport and checked in our luggage 3 hours before the flight departure. We were then standing at the main entrance waiting for transport, when a burly chap in a gold braided cap and greatcoat spoke to me in Russian. He then decided I was being disrespectful, arrested me and put me in handcuffs.
Martin, one of our group, tried to intervene and he was promptly arrested, too, and a strip of sticky tape was put across his mouth to prevent him from arguing.
All nine of us were then escorted across the road to a bus that displayed gaping rust holes and cracked windows. The driver, also dressed in peaked cap and uniform, was slouched over the driving wheel.
Our suspicion that this was not quite a serious situation was borne out when we read the sign on the side of the bus: ‘Soviet Tours’.
The whole experience from then on, lasting until just before we departed, was typical of Estonia. It was hilariously funny, quite outrageous but also a tragic-comedy, with a deeply significant underlying truth.
The butt of the jokes was the 40-year Soviet repression of Estonia. We were made to sing songs in Russian accompanied by a guitar and we had to drink copious amounts of vodka to Comrades Brezhnev and Stalin. Poor Martin was upbraided for insulting the Soviet Union by not drinking, even though his lips were still sealed with tape.
When the bus ‘broke down’, we were asked to get out to push. ‘No! Not the men’, shouted the officer in charge.’ In the Soviet Union only the women push.!’ He then promptly lifted our Brenda on to the engine and asked her to go under the bonnet to fix it.
We eventually arrived at a vast, dilapidated building with rusted bars at the windows. This had actually been a Soviet prison where untold ill-treatment had been meted out to Estonians. We were even shown the grisly execution chamber.
And then we had an alfresco lunch in the prison grounds, on the shore of the Baltic.
Every kind of hotel facilityEstonia has moved rapidly into the modern MICE market and can now offer a choice of hotels to suit virtually any kind of event at any level. The properties provide value for money and a sophisticated service.
It was obvious that a great deal of hotel capacity had come on stream within a short space of time and, during current lean times and until Estonia makes a bigger splash in the MICE world, there are very good deals to be negotiated.
Estonia has also been quick to identify cultural facilities that are ideal as unusual venues. These lend glamour and a vintage flavour. Our Fam Trip group visited six hotels in Tallinn and two in the Baltic seaside resort of Pärnu. In addition we were able to inspect palaces, concert halls, museums and the premises of old-established institutes that all had a different character to offer to an event.
Estonia is possibly the world’s best-equipped country in terms of Wi-Fi and internet. Visitors can log on virtually anywhere in the country, not only in the hotel rooms and public areas.
Radisson SASWe stayed in Tallinn at the 280-room Radisson SAS (shortly to be renamed Radisson Blu).
The Radisson SAS Hotel has 14 modern, flexible function rooms on the 2nd and 24th floors and one of the largest conference facilities in Tallinn, the Hansa that can cater for 350 people.
The 24th floor provides great views across the city, as we discovered when using the bar at that height.
The Radisson rooms are in a choice of four styles: Scan-dinavian, Oriental, Italian and Maritime.
Swissôtel TallinnOne of the most recent additions to the hotel choice in Tallinn is Swissôtel Tallinn. There are 238 rooms and suites with floor-to-ceiling windows to make the most of the beautiful vistas over Tallinn.
There are 7 function rooms, including the huge Estonia ballroom. The hotel puts great emphasis on natural light and bright décor.
Nordic Hotel ForumThe hotel is a modern, glass-fronted property very conveniently located within sight of the Old Town of Tallinn. It offers 267 well-equipped and comfortable rooms, including 249 twin rooms, 10 Double Deluxe rooms and 8 suites. There are 5 conference rooms and a banqueting hall.
Tallink Spa & Conference Hotel
The 4-star Tallink Spa & Conference Hotel was opened in 2007 and its location in the centre of Tallinn makes it an excellent venue. The hotel has a modern Conference Centre, luxurious Aqua Spa, Hera Salongid Beauty Centre, à la carte restaurant Nero and Cigar Bar Fidel.
There are 275 modern rooms, including 4 suites.
In the heart of the Old Town, the 5-star Hotel Telegraaf dates from 1878, when it was the centre for Estonia’s telegraph communications. It has 86 deluxe rooms, splendid dining facilities and space for meetings of up to 50 guests.
Pärnu propertiesPärnu is a seaside resort of the old style, when gentry used to make the European Grand Tour. We stayed in the Strand Spa & Conference Hotel, which seemed immensely popular with local holiday-makers and we also visited the modern water and leisure centre Tervise Paradiis. It consists of a 244-bed hotel alongside an extensive water park with flumes, diving pool and mountain river.