Are you sure?

State hopes lakeside conferences set sail

While the conference tourism has been showing signs of recovery, the upswing for Lake Balaton is yet to come. The state has high hopes for boosting lakeside conferences, but locals have doubts.

The latest statistics show that conference tourism on a national level is recovering strongly. Lake Balaton, with its tourism services built to accommodate holidaymakers, is – on paper – one of the areas of the country that could benefit most from the trend. However, regardless of the high hopes Hungary’s central tourism agency has for the region, a blossoming conference industry on the shores of the lake is still far from being a reality.

The promotion agency Magyar Turizmus (MT) Zrt announced in March that the overall number of international conferences in Hungary increased by 50% in 2010. Unfortunately for operators around Balaton, the lakeside area could not substantially capitalize on the trend, as it accounted for only 2.6% of the national total.

Even in Balatonfüred, the best-known conference and congress location in the Balaton region, the number of events is on the decrease. “The crisis has left a strong mark on the sector meaning that conference attendance fees pose a huge burden for companies,” said Ágnes Dobrossy-Vászolyi, events organizer and deputy chair of the town’s tourism association BTE.

In her experience, in the fewer gatherings that are held, demands are typically aimed at cost reduction, for instance through ordering only moderate catering services. “Competition is very intense,” she added, noting that venues are constantly inclined to offer discounts to their guests rather than risk losing them.

Poised for the upswing

MT on the other hand holds great hopes for rural locations – thus Balaton – to counter the dominance of Budapest on the market. Especially so given the advances made in the region in promoting active tourism and the broad range of gastronomy available to visitors. These and their combination into various packages are where Krisztina Benkő, acting head of MT’s regional marketing division, sees the best opportunities for the area. 

Furthermore, she highlighted the prospects in the air marketing fund (LMA), which allowed MT and Hungarian airport operators to make joint marketing efforts that led to talks starting with 20 airlines. Among the destinations featured on the promo agenda is Sármellék, where the FlyBalaton airport has long been considered a major expected boost to tourism in general in the region.

Benkő likewise stressed that numerous developments were launched in the region in recent years, with new hotels making conference rooms a given in their initial designs. With hospitality businesses having realized the potential in organizing conferences, not only the capacity, but the technologies needed for successful events are also readily available, she added.

Ungrounded expectations

Locally, the situation does not look as promising. For instance, legal changes are set to impact one of the biggest conference customers of Balatonföldvár: the medical profession. The city – for reasons not even Dobrossy-Vászolyi could explain – has become the accepted venue for congresses attended by cardiologists, anesthesiologists, respiratory specialist as well as other practitioners of medicine. However, new regulations affecting the pharmaceutical industry are expected to reduce the number of events, leading the BTE official to see the future as “not bright.”

At the same time, the local tourism group is in the closing stages of hammering out a new strategy, something Dobrossy-Vászolyi declined to discuss until it is completed. She also commended MT for its intense promotion efforts made in the field of conference tourism. Although a campaign launched in April highlights Budapest as opposed to other regional cities, the Balaton area could still benefit from the “trickle-down” effects, she noted.