Monthly Archives: December 2020

Merry Christmas!

I keep meaning to write another blog, but then another day of near normality (here in Spain I mean) goes by and I realise that, even if I make a few things up, I still don’t have a lot to say! Must be the blogging version of ‘hitting the wall’, but hopefully that will soon change. Of course, I could talk about the fact that tomorrow is the deadline for the UK to ‘agree a deal’ with the EU (like that’s going to happen, and as if it will make much difference now, since the UK is fast going down the toilet) or the terrible Covid situation in both the UK and the CR, or how much I hate Boris Johnson and his merry men, but that would all be terribly repetitive and boring of me.

I also thought to talk about how lovely it is down here in Marbella, but then Jan, who loves to tell people every time he gets onto a Zoom call or similar (which is quite a lot at the moment) that he ‘has just come in from the pool’ or that he has to go ‘as we are going to the beach’ reminded me that these comments haven’t always gone down well (imagine my surprise!) so I thought maybe not. I would just say that it is kind of weird to be getting into the Christmas spirit when it is warm and sunny – it’s probably the only time of year that I actually like the cold and snow of Prague – this must be how it feels to be in Australia.

Actually, anyway, we are not really getting into the Christmas spirit that much since, as it is for everyone, it is a very different Christmas this year – for us, it will be just another day, as mentioned before (except for the presents, as also mentioned), no visit to the UK to see family and friends (the first Christmas ever that Jan won’t see his kids), almost as important for him, no carp (unless we can find it here, but I have to say I am not trying too hard!), and an even bigger battle than usual not to drink and eat too much. And then it will be the New Year and everyone will be holding their breath to see what that is going to bring.

For sure, we will all be hoping that the vaccine will be available and used for enough people that we will be able to get back to some normality (and for that to happen, that the vaccine stops those that have had it from still being able to catch the virus (asymptomatically) and give it to others that haven’t) and that enough people that haven’t had the vaccine learn to live with it still being out there (personally, I suspect that mask wearing and keeping our distance will continue for a good while yet).

For us Brits, I suppose that we are all hoping that Brexit won’t be the almighty disaster that it looks like being (and because I, personally, think it will be, that there will be a revolution that ensures that BJ and the others are tried for their sins, and that the new government gets us back into Europe as soon as feasibly possible) and that everyone else in Europe looks at what happened in the UK and supports the EU enough to ensure that there is never a Czexit, Spanxit or any other ‘xit’ for the next forty years. And for everyone else – that we all stay healthy, as wealthy as possible, and as wise as we have learned to be during these pasts nine months.

I’ll be back soon – blogger’s wall permitting. For now, wishing everyone that has read this blog, commented (all my best friends, as well as Roger (you know who you are, who I barely knew before, but who has unfailingly commented on Linkedin and spurred me on after each post!), bought the book, or hasn’t read it but liked the photos on Facebook, a lovely Christmas and let’s look forward to a much better New Year in 2021!

And finally; a nice and cheering, non-Christmas video to wrap up, and that encompasses a lot of my favourite things – music, dancing, lovely clothes, beautiful colours in a sort of ‘bonkers’ way – link below:

https://fb.watch/2sXKbNRRBE/

Going home for Christmas? No chance of that!

This morning started with my usual ‘sand-walking’ training, partly as my legs were tired from playing tennis yesterday and they needed to get moving, and partly to make the most of still being able to walk on the beach, despite it being nearly Christmas! Christmas! It won’t be long before it will be a year since all of this craziness started. God. What a thought!

Anyway, whilst walking (and taking some pics since it was such a gorgeous day), I pondered the fact that I haven’t been blogging as much as usual, and wondered whether I should keep it going, despite the fact that I am already halfway through my second ‘book’, which will, when it is finished, be called ‘Second Wave’. No prizes for guessing what that is about…..

Anyway, you now know that I have had my first lot of blogs published – ‘100 Days in Spain – Diary of a Lockdown’ – and that has actually kept me pretty busy for the last few weeks, plus now that all the marketing is starting, it is getting pretty exciting; actually, according to Facebook this morning, the Amazon link to the book has been viewed something like 200,000 times in the last week (if I believe it.. not really sure that I do!!), although unfortunately not all views have turned into sales (!). Some have, though, (and thank you to those that have bought!), and hopefully a few more will; I will probably give most of the proceeds to charity anyway, since this is not going to be, nor was it planned to be, something that will keep me in the style that I want to be accustomed to forever, but it has all been a lot of fun!

I discussed the second book with my friend Adam the other day, saying that I was finding it a lot more difficult to write entertainingly when life here has become pretty ‘normal’ and there is less ‘excitement’ – OK, not really normal in the old sense of the word, but a lot more than it was earlier in the year. Adam’s view was that I should be less honest (I have tried to write exactly what is happening each day without any ‘artistic license’) and that a few odd exaggerations thrown in might liven things up a bit, but I am still not sure I want to go down that road. Especially as, since we were discussing it, I remembered quite a few snippets of activity over the last couple of weeks that anyone reading this might find interesting (and if you think I have made up any of the following or exaggerated it, do let me know!).

So instead of talking about what is happening on Twitter (my old friend Jan the Elder of the rock-hard bum fame suggested the other day that I read too many ‘activists’ on there, to which I responded that I hardly think that my Sir John, Alastair Campbell et al could hardly be called activists, but I suppose it depends on where you stand on everything), or the politics in the UK (or the CR for that matter), I thought I would give a bit of an update on some of the other things that I have been banging on about lately.

First of all, you may remember that I mentioned earlier in the year (in the days when I could run, sigh) that I was jogging up the mountain track one morning and I heard what I thought was a pack of wild dogs in the near distance – I never found out what/where they were, but I read an article earlier this week about the problem that Spain has with the increasing number of wolves in the mountains, due to (guess?!) the Covid-pandemic. Not that the wolves have brought the virus (before anyone gets excited), but because they are usually controlled and culled, and that is not possible at the moment. So if I had been planning on running up the mountain any time soon (and I am not, sadly), I probably wouldn’t now, although ever since I read a book by Jodi Picoult called ‘Lone Wolf’ I have been slightly fascinated by them; not enough, though, to want to meet a pack of them out strolling one morning.

Next, the cigarette ends and flying mattress. We did believe that that had resolved itself, as, as I think I mentioned at the time, an elderly lady (Czech, of course – we are gradually being surrounded by Czechs who either fled here during Communism (in her case) or who have fled here recently to get away from the Covid that still seems to be raging in the CR) appeared at our gate the afternoon after we found it on our balcony and claimed that it was hers, alluding to the fact that she lives in the house just behind ours (not that that necessarily explains how a large mattress flew out of a window and landed on our balcony about 100 metres away… but….). Anyway, it now transpires that that house is actually empty, and no-one that we have asked has ever met an elderly Czech lady around here (only an elderly lady with a Czech… me!!) – so that remains a mystery, particularly as the fag ends have started appearing again and we are now at a loss to know where they are coming from.

And then there is the situation with the near-kidnapping; I mentioned to one of my friends on the Pueblo that we had been told this story, and her view was that it may have been a bit of a ‘cry for help’ and that it was the girl’s boyfriend that had, in fact, kidnapped her in the first place, and now she is being kept here as some sort of sex slave (now, I know that you think I am exaggerating on this point, but you never know down here in Marbella!!). Anyway, despite the fact that I run very little risk of being sold off to anyone nowadays, I am being a little more wary about walking around in some of the more deserted streets around here, especially now that it is getting a lot darker!

The other intriguing thing is the ongoing search for the tall, blonde man that ran down and killed a young guy in the next town from us. Every time I go to the tennis club at the moment, there is a large police roadblock outside, and the majority of cars are stopped and searched (so far, not mine, but it seems that they are only stopping men). My presumption is that they know that the ‘killer’ is lying low in the mountains up from the tennis club and they expect him to make a run for it at some point, which is kind of thrilling in a nasty sort of way. But you know how it is when you see the police – you always feel guilty, and each time I go past them I wonder if they will pull me over and surprise me by finding someone hiding in my boot or something. I mentioned this to Juan the hairdresser yesterday, whilst having a bit of a chop, and he looked at me sadly and said ‘you know, Jo, this is Marbella and every evening there is something being kidnapped, stolen, brought in or shot at’ – so, really, who knows with any of this!

Other than dodging kidnappers, walking on the sand, avoiding police roadblocks and generally trying not to talk about Covid (or, even worse just now, Brexit), life here has been fairly normal for the last couple of months, although that is not to say that we wouldn’t want to go back to Prague again some time soon (just now we could, of course, but then we might not be able to come back (Spain has been talking about stopping anyone from coming in from outside… so far not, but you never know). I’ve given up on all my weird and wonderful fitness regimes and now go to the gym in the tennis club every other day as well as doing two days a week of tennis training (still not able to move that well, but loving being able to wallop a ball around nonetheless), plus I have found (through the Czech ‘mafia’ here (I wrote that jokingly, but then reflecting on what I have been saying earlier, maybe it is not such a joke…!)) a fantastic new Czech ‘leg doctor’, who has already improved my knee considerably, so that’s good. And, even better, the work is slowly starting to trickle in again (for me, Jan continues to be busy), so I think the days of hysteria may well be over. But who knows.

In the meantime, and for the first time ever, we are preparing for Christmas in Marbella. Usually at this time of year (well, actually, most times of year) there are all sorts of religious processions going on on a more or less daily basis (to coincide with the endless bank holidays they have over here….) but not this year. The Marbella town council has, however, gone all out to make sure people feel Christmassy, with all sorts of expensive decorations all over town (did I say that slightly bitchily? Maybe…. but, you know, with so many people in dire straits down here (as everywhere) I am not sure that spending a blinkin’ fortune on planting row upon row of poinsettias along every road, and lighting up every tree, road sign etc is really the right thing), but maybe I am being a bore. Will try to be less so next time!

Hospitality in Crisis (III)

PRAGUE CONGRESS CENTRE

The Prague Congress Centre (‚PCC‘), or, as it was originally called, the ‚Palace of Culture‘, is one of the best-known large-scale congress venues in Europe.   Originally built in 1981 by the old regime, and used for huge ‚Communist party gatherings‘, once the country opened up, the building remained as an icon of the bad old days, and was viewed with some distaste by the young Czechs that I knew when I first arrived in Czechoslovakia in 1990.

At that time, the PCC was trying to reinvent itself as an international conference venue, and I found it intriguing as it was/is so huge and, at that time, so uninviting.   It also had a very dodgy nightclub on the ground floor that many of us early expats used to visit having first dined or been to the bar in the next door ‚Forum Hotel‘ (now the Corinthia Towers and 5 star luxury, then one of just a handful of hotels in the city, and the venue for many dubious parties and rave-ups!).

The PCC’s location on the main highway into Prague, and its size (it has 13,000 m2 of indoor event space, divided into 20 large halls and 50 meeting rooms of various sizes), plus the Czech Republic’s location in the very centre of Europe, has ensured, however, that even before the whole building was modernised in 2017 it was already becoming host to several high profile events (including the World Monetary Fund Conference in 2000), but in the last few years the PCC has firmly established itself as one of the best and most popular convention centres in Europe.   This is due, in no small part, to the team involved in running it, particularly my good friend Lenka Zlebkova, formerly the Sales & Marketing Director and now the CEO.

Knowing how much work is involved in bringing a big congress to town, and how long it takes to bring such an event to fruition, I have been wondering what the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been on a centre the size of the PCC and on the huge team and complexity involved in keeping the place operational.  To say nothing of the marketing required to ensure that there are events arriving again once we enter into a ‘new normal’ world.    So I got on to Lenka to discuss it all.  Again, this is in the form of an interview as the discussion was held from afar!

JW: So, Lenka, how have you been managing since March?

LZ: Since March, everything has been dependent on governmental restrictions.  So when the situation got better in June, and right through until September, we were able to host a few local events – e.g. the general assembly of CEZ, a women’s conference ‘Všem ženám’ (To All Women) and the ‘Conference of the Institute of Health Information and Statistics of the Czech Republic’.  Other than those, all other events were either cancelled or moved to the following years.

JW:  So have you been doing anything particular in order to keep staff/the space occupied, and, if so, what?

LZ: Yes, we kept open and we continued with several refurbishment projects as well as some new initiatives.   We created a new PCC Live TV studio for virtual and hybrid meetings and during the summer we started a project called ‘Art District Vyšehrad’ with the aim of opening up our northern terrace to a wider public in the beautiful surroundings of the historical and green Prague District – Vyšehrad.   During the summer we held open-air dancing classes and jazz evenings there as the whole area includes a coffee shop and wine shop.  People really enjoyed it, but unfortunately, due to the 2nd wave of COVID and the current governmental restrictions, we had to temporarily stop it.

JW: Have you had to lay many people off and how are you keeping your staff motivated generally? 

LZ: We had to lay off around 25% of our people. Those we kept on are mostly all highly-motivated people that are committed to the PCC’s survival, and passionate about our mission to create a great place where you can enjoy inspirational and magic moments. We mainly communicate online with each other with various different meetings; some formal, some brainstorming sessions and some informal, such as “Coffee with the CEO”. It is really tough for everyone, but we need to keep a positive mindset and look forward to a better tomorrow.

JW: Since most of your events are from outside the CR and are booked well in advancehow are you managing your marketing for next year and future years?

LZ: From a long-term point of view we believe that international meetings will be back, so we continue with some activities as usual (for example, researching potential international meetings, preparing bidding processes etc.).  Only our marketing tools are changing: we are switching to an online world that includes virtual tours of our property, participating in online B-B contracting fairs, etc.  From a short-term point of view though, we have switched our focus to the local market, and that includes expanding our long-term rentals towards start-ups and research & development companies that could, together with our conferences, help to enhance the knowledge economy of the Czech Republic.

JW: How do you feel about the whole situation? Will the Congress Centre actually survive if the lockdown continues well into next year?

LZ: Yes, we will survive thanks to a few different factors. First, we do not depend only on conferences, but 40% of our income is based on long-term commercial rentals and parking.  Second, we had really great results over the last couple of years, so we have quite a big financial reserve. And last, we are modifying our strategy as well as our services so that we can generate some revenue either from online or hybrid conferences. 

JW: Do you ever feel like just closing the doors and giving up?

LZ: Never 😊. There is nothing we can do about the current situation, but we can influence how we approach it. The crisis is also an opportunity to evolve.

JW: What special things do youpersonally, do to keep ‘positive’?

LZ: At work, I try to keep busy with new projects and ideas, so my mind is occupied and I have no time for negative moods.  On a personal level, I am spending more time with my family and in the countryside. I have started gardening around our new house and the gradual transformation fills me with joy.

JW: Can you give any examples of revenue this year, previous years, expected for next year?

LZ: Our standard company revenue for the last couple of years was above 500 mil. CZK (just under Euro 2 million). This year we are expecting a 55% drop in revenue, hopefully going back up next year, but still we are expecting about 30-40% less than in 2019.

JW: How do you think the big event industry will change for the future? 

Well, the meeting industry will certainly change towards new formats of meetings. New health and hygienic protocols will be established, and venues will need to be certified.  A bigger role will be played by hybrid and virtual events but, as I like to say, the personal aspect of an event is irreplaceable, so F-F meetings will certainly be back. It is only a question of time – once we have a vaccination, and once the international flights start again, we are sure these big events will happen just as much, if not more.   People will be so happy to finally get together!

JW:  Do you have any offers you would like to include for readers of the blog?

LZ: We are currently renting out our multifunctional virtual studio – the PCC Live TV Studio – and we are able to arrange hybrid events with live streaming from one or more of our conference halls and meeting rooms. We are fulfilling all the necessary health and safety protocols such as disinfection, ionisation of premises, social distancing, facial masks, temperature measurements, contactless registration so trying to create safe environment for people to meet again.

For sure, many hotels in Prague will take some comfort from the above, since attracting big events back to the Czech Republic is good for everyone in the hospitality industry – we can all remember events such as the World Bank Conference that filled every hotel and restaurant in town for days on end!   Let’s hope Lenka is right, and they will start happening again soon!