. Keeping Azerbaijan’s flame ablaze | Meetings & Conventions Asia

Keeping Azerbaijan’s flame ablaze

The nation tackles its first tourism crisis with fortitude and innovation

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Florian Sengstschmid, CEO, Azerbaijan Tourism Board: "Safety, hospitality and cultural diversity are always important factors in selecting a destination, whether it is for leisure or a business event. Azerbaijan has these qualities in abundance, combined with cost efficiency." Credit: ATB

AZERBAIJAN - As the world sees a major shift in habits, it has also given Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB) the opportunity to slow down, reassess priorities, and reflect on how business events will change in the future. Its business events industry and tourism sector have both been hit hard by the pandemic. In March 2020, arrivals dropped by 62%.

M&C Asia spoke to its CEO, Mr Florian Sengstschmid, who has worked in almost every field within the tourism sector over the last 20 years, including as an incoming and incentive operator in Austria. He also worked at the Austrian National Tourist Board as its regional director for Russia and CIS countries.

He said: "We are using this time to rethink our actions in terms of the entire sector going hybrid, adopting new technological solutions, combining live sessions with digital meetups. Until we are back to normal and events are happening physically, convention bureaus will have to think outside the box.

"One thing I consider very important is regional connections. From this perspective, we have been participating in virtual meetings with the Georgian and Russian tourism authorities and CVBs discussing developments and possible solutions. It is also important to focus on product-specific matters, continue raising awareness on the unique selling points of each product to further strengthen the position of Azerbaijan, especially Baku as a meetings and business events destination."

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Azerbaijan is situated in the South Caucasus. Credit: Google Maps

Baku for MICE
Baku has been gaining more popularity globally as a premium events destination with one of the best infrastructures in the entire region. A city where modern lifestyle meets rich historical and cultural heritage, Baku has impressive venues like the Heydar Aliyev Centre and Baku Convention Centre, SKYTRAX international airport, international hotel chains such as Hilton, Marriott, Four Seasons, and Fairmont, and international cuisines and efficient transport services.

Its rich history dates back many centuries. Located in the heart of Baku, within the 12th century walls of Icherisheher (the Old City) are a maze of narrow roads lined with limestone buildings, and Shirvanshahs' Palace and Maiden Tower, two of Azerbaijan's greatest historical landmarks.

Gabala and other regions
About three hours' drive or 30 minutes' flight from Baku to the north-west of the country, Gabala has an international airport and convention centre for up to 1200 delegates and top-quality accommodation. The scenic city is surrounded by world-class resorts and thermal springs.

There are other regions as well, including Guba, Gusar, Sheki and Gakh that have the amenities to provide services for workshops, seminars, festivals, incentive tours, team-building activities, banquets and cocktails.

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Flame Towers soaring in Baku. Credit: ATB

Going digital
ATB has already launched several digital projects, including the following:

•    The relaunch of two websites - Azerbaijan.travel (B2C) and Tourismboard.az (B2B).

•    A health and safety programme, SAHMAN (Sanitation And Hygiene Methods And Norms). This is designed for local industry players to improve their standards of hygiene and sanitation. It will focus on accommodation, F&B and transportation providers. PwC will lead the audit and certification process.

•    Azerbaijan 101 - an e-learning platform designed to aid the training and development of travel agents and representatives across the global tourism industry. The collection of online training and engagement tools has been introduced for those seeking to gain in-depth knowledge about Azerbaijan's offerings. Consisting of six modules, the course will cover products across health and wellness, gastronomy, wine tours, cultural heritage and more. Upon completion, participants will be certified as an 'Azerbaijan Travel Expert'. Click here for more information.

•    Salambaku.travel - visitors can go on a virtual tour of all sightseeing locations of Baku: from its UNESCO-listed Old City , Flame Towers, world-class museums, to mud volcanoes, and more.

•    An emphasis on innovation and technology integration in the tourism industry is spurring the Board to set up a think tank and provide workshops and training to employees via an ATB Innovation Hub.

Working hand-in-hand with associations
Besides working closely with tourism industry associations, ATB is learning about their needs.

Said Mr Sengstschmid: "This is especially important in the current period as the impact of the pandemic on the tourism industry has been immense and we are in continuous dialogue with industry representatives in order to assist them in overcoming any issues, as well as convey the government's support to them.

"We are working on establishing a Tourism Training and Certification Centre for the local industry to meet their training needs and to sustain long-term development of tourism in our country.

"We also run various joint projects with the associations. For example, we have recently launched the National Hotel Star Classification System, which is administered by the Azerbaijan Hotel Association. This system helps to control the maintenance and improvement of international standards in the Azerbaijani hotel industry."

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Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku. Credit: ATB

Asian connections
The Board will focus on increasing destination awareness through market-specific digital means. It is launching a Weibo platform for Azerbaijan in China. "We think that content is a key factor in Asian markets to keep spreading information about the country."

Last year, ATB participated at multiple events, exhibitions, B2B workshops, and sales calls, including SATTE 2019 in India, ITB Asia in Singapore, IMEX Frankfurt, and roadshows in India and China. It also met representatives of India's top corporations and associations by attending business events platforms, EPEX in Delhi and the MILT Congress.

The Azerbaijan Convention Bureau launched initial contacts with AFECA (Asian Federation of Exhibition and Convention Association) and is targeting specific markets, namely India and China.

The country's uniqueness
Mr Sengstschmid is confident of the Azerbaijani government's handling of the pandemic as it has shown through its efforts that the health and safety of both the country's citizens and travellers are of "utmost importance".  The country has a population of almost 10 million people and has reported about 3,518 confirmed cases with 41 deaths at press time.

The SAHMAN programme is one of the crucial measures to ensure health and safety measures continue after the pandemic recedes. This, combined with the country's modern infrastructure and high-level services are drawing factors.  He added: "We can promise that event planners and participants will enjoy the facilities maintained by our partners. As for the other reasons why event planners should look at choosing Azerbaijan as their destination, safety, hospitality and cultural diversity are always important factors in selecting a destination, whether it is for leisure or a business event. Azerbaijan has these qualities in abundance, combined with cost efficiency.

"Delegates can also indulge in delicious Azerbaijani cuisine by tasting unique delicacies specific to the region. Last but definitely not least, being a very special place with a rich variety of resources and having nine climate zones, the country offers both summer and winter activities."

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