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  • Antony Reeve-Crook

Danube flows in favour of business events

Emerging knowledge economies and EU accession is doing much to improve South East Europe's appeal for private sector organisers

(Article for Conference & Meetings World, November 2017)

With an improving tourism industry, development of knowledge economy in countries previous given over to manufacturing and production, South East Europe is an increasingly tempting home for organisers of large congresses and business events.

The EU accession of Croatia, and to a lesser-extent candidacy pitches from this region, including Albania, Serbia and Montenegro, have helped to flag up South East Europe as an attractive prospect for foreign investors and future infrastructure development, supported by EU money, which is opening fresh conference opportunities for international organisers.

The EU Danube Strategy, for example, will help to connect and integrate 14 countries in Central and SE Europe with a market of more than 100 million people. The development of the successful entrepreneurship in this region needs more innovation, education and internationalisation where the conferences and other similar business events can play a vital role in supporting this goal and further developments.

According to Berislav Cizmek, managing director of the consultancy, broker and EU lobbying company CBBS, the region is renowned for its construction and manufacturing business events, but today we are seeing an expansion in the areas of agriculture, tourism, and renewable energy sources.

Croatia is a good example of a country that has become a natural home for a new breed of events in South East Europe. While tourism continues to rise, key emerging industries including renewable energy, ICT/mobile, smart cities, military, creative, food and agri-business are creating new opportunities for matchmaking and education events.

And these continue to be developed, albeit largely through one- and two-day long conferences with smaller exhibitions attached; the confex or kongress messen concept, says Cizmek.

In most of these cases the organiser is from the business media (newspapers, business portals, associations or chambers), or private companies, developing one or two topics. To really cement the region's appeal for large scale congresses and events, it needs to win the attention of leading private sector organisers such as MCI or Informa.

The issue of privatisation

The same holds true for investment necessary to upgrade the region's largely out of date business events infrastructure.

The majority of companies in this part of the world are still in public ownership, run by cities, chambers, counties and states, and for some time this has been an obstacle to the international investment that crucially brings new business to a region. However, in the past three to five years these owners have been considering the matter of privatisation. Public tenders have taken place in Ljubljana (Slovenia), Novi Sad and Belgrade (Serbia), sadly without success.

Perhaps some of this investment will reach the region from China. Its 'One Belt, One Road' initiative makes it potentially significant in terms of regional investment, with the Chinese Government targeting Central and South East European countries as it seeks to link with industry in the region.

According to Cizmek, Chinese investors and business event companies should be considered as serious potential investors in the continued development of event infrastructure as well as in the development of strategic partnerships with fair organisers from Central and South East Europe.

The One Belt, One Road initiative can be seen in effect at the 6th China-Central Eastern European Summit of Leaders, which will be held in Budapest, Hungary, on 27-30 November. More than 100 Chinese companies and 300 CEE companies are expected to attend the event, organised by the Bank of China.

To further promote the development of China-CEEC investment and trade, and to create a platform for cooperation and exchanges between enterprises, the Bank of China will also co-host the 7th China-CEEC Economic and Trade Forum SME matchmaking event, and the 2017 China-CEE Small and Medium Enterprises Cooperation Matchmaking Meeting. The latter will be jointly organised by the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Affairs of Hungary, aimed at bringing together hundreds of Chinese and Central and Eastern European business customers to discuss cooperation, and business opportunities.

This is the first time SME cross-border matchmaking will be featured as part of the leader summit, and according to Cizmek, will become “a grand event to highlight the economic and trade forum, helping to further tighten Chinese-CEE cooperation”.

But of course China is not the only major Asian market with its eye on the CEE region.

Cizmek recently met with H.E. Ambassador Sandeep Kumar about business opportunities for Indian companies in Croatia in particular. Due to its accession to the EU, the country is of particularly interesting to India as a point of entry for Indian business focused on Europe and the EU single market's 500 million consumers.

Other upcoming Croatian events owe much to the country's EU membership, such as the HEPA Europe Conference on 17-17 November, organized in Zagreb by the Faculty of Kinesiology, University of Zagreb and HEPA Europe (European European network for the promotion of health-enhancing physical activity), and the XVth European Poultry Conference Dubrovnik.

Another significant event takes place in Sofia, Bulgaria, in March. The confex format South East European Exhibition and Conference on Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EE & RE) takes place at the Inter Expo & Congress Center will be attended by delegates and visitors Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, the Netherlands, South Korea and Switzerland, and hopes to capitalise on the growing demand for energy in a region that continues to be dominated by Russian supply.

This development of strategic partnerships, joint venture projects and international development between global players and Central and South East European partners, especially in services/hospitality industries like tourism, ICT, smart and digital technologies, sports and health, would undoubtedly benefit from the creation of regional editions of association endorsed, globally branded events.

“Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegowina, Montenegro, FYROM, Kosovo and Albania, Croatia and Serbia are the right locations to start the development and to run the events that would be significant for the growth of the whole South East European region,” he concludes.

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