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!

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