Peter Cauchi is Head of Conventions Malta, an arm of the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) tasked with promoting foreign conventions and congresses. He has embraced and is spearheading Malta’s Access All Areas initiative, designed to leverage the fact of Malta’s compact quality, which brings into play a whole nation’s assets. He took some time out from his busy schedule to talk to Invest 2018 about it.
Invest 2018: How did the Access All Areas initiative come about?
Peter Cauchi: Conventions Malta was established in 2015, with ‘Access All Areas’ (AAA) the brainchild of its creative team. We are a small island here in Malta and with the help of all the ministries and institutions, we are looking to open up, while retaining the exclusivity we are famous for. We’re talking top VIP groups, presidents, ambassadors and important MICE business groups. The watchword is ‘special’ rather than ‘unique’, because every country is unique.
What is special is not just the warm welcome, but also the abundance of historic buildings – thanks here to the Knights of St. John who did all the work for us! These, as well as more modern settings can be used for conferences and even though Malta is a small island, we have a good selection of large venues which can take from 300 to 5000 people for dinner.
“Even though Malta is a small island, we have a good selection of large venues.”
Malta’s compact size lends itself perfectly to the standard three day conference duration. What we have is shorter distances to everywhere. So, the journey from the airport to St Julian’s, where the major five star hotels are, takes only 25 minutes. Most other points of interest on the Island are also within a 25 minute range, with the exception of Gozo and Comino. Many modes of transport can be utilised, including vintage buses, speedboats or sailing boats.
What steps have been taken to ensure DMCs, venues and service providers reflect the premium quality expectations surrounding the AAA initiative?
To secure quality assured status, during the licensing process, DMCs must meet a list of criteria from the MTA office concerning the likes of money back guarantees etc. This quality assurance seal and backing from the MTA is considered a big plus and is something we point to when engaging with organisers that are selecting a DMC.
Do you believe Malta is ready and suitably prepared for the increase in business that will come from Valletta’s status as the European Capital of Culture 2018?
I would say, yes, we are prepared and the tour operators will hopefully sell out accordingly. We did our homework and ‘have our ducks in a row!’ The size of the island doesn’t permit millions of people coming over, but with a substantial amount of Airbnbs to add to the hotel accommodation stock, we should be able to cater to all requests.
“Everything is within a 25 minute range.”
One of the latest trends in Malta is boutique hotels, especially in Valletta, where some old palaces that were literally falling apart have been converted into state-of-the-art hotels offering 12 or 15 rooms each. These establishments are very classy and very stylish.
In addition, after a few years of limited nightlife entertainment in Valletta, the capital city has become again one of the most vibrant areas in Malta, as it should be. The remarkable transformation has brought a host of outside entertainment centred around the various bars and restaurants.
Was the transformation of Valletta inspired and catalysed by events, such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the EU Summit?
This was certainly part of it, but it was also due to the suppliers and the trade turning it round in response to visitor feedback that there was nothing to do in the evening in Valletta.
Is Malta in danger of becoming a victim of its own success? For example, are costs starting to creep up?
At the moment, we are very popular and the demand for hotel accommodation is very high. This is in part due to the political situation in other countries around us, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Turkey. The MTA encourages hoteliers and other businesses to think long term and it is true that Malta is still a great value for money destination.
“At the moment, we are very popular.”
What are the current stand-out flagship developments around infrastructure and accommodation in Malta?
Our government came up with an initiative which granted permits to hotels to increase their bed stocks. In this way, the Intercontinental focused on increasing its provision of top-end VIP suites, so creating a hotel within a hotel. There are also plans for a Hard Rock hotel, as well as other exciting developments in connection with the Corinthia and Radisson hotels, not to mention approvals having been given for some other establishments to be rebuilt at higher quality.
Hotel owners are once again investing in refurbishment, so increasing rooms and upgrading services to the benefit of both MICE and leisure clients.
What developments have there been in respect of connectivity and access?
There are a lot of low-cost airlines connecting Malta to various European countries, while our national airline is also expanding, having re-inserted, for example, its regular routes from Frankfurt and Manchester. Growth is also apparent on routes operated by Lufthansa, BA, SAS, Alitalia and others.
The airport has just been refurbished and now offers additional capacity, but I think perhaps we have to grow building-wise both at the airport and the cruise port. Additional pier capacity would allow more cruise liners to be accommodated, which is important, as we are exceeding our expectations on a yearly basis.
For example, we recently had a German investment company which came in on three ships – they had a great evening in Valletta with their clients, which included dinner, a show and entertainment. It was really something quite spectacular.
“We work closely with all the ministries on AAA.”
Also, decision-makers might go for a cruise for their holidays and come into our port, which I believe is one of the nicest in Europe. They fall in love with Malta and decide maybe to have their next conference on the island.
After Brexit, Malta, along with Ireland, will be the only EU members able to point to English – the world’s foremost commercial tongue – as an official language. How important is this – along with Malta’s use of the Euro and the free mobility afforded by the Schengen agreement – to the country’s prospects in the conventions market?
I think that’s a big asset, not only for working with the European countries, but also the non-European ones. English is widely-spoken in the MICE trade and so there is comfort in communicating in this way here in Malta. Having the euro is also a big plus, because it’s a constant currency. We are seeing at the moment an especially good increase in the North American market on the MICE side, with one DMC able to point to three groups coming next year from Canada, numbering some 350 people each. We even have one or two groups a year from Australia!
What do you do to understand the requirements and objectives of your target markets?
What we do is conventions. We attend the major fairs, such as IMEX Frankfurt, IBTM Barcelona, as well as IMEX America, where the request for Malta is becoming quite substantial. This is thanks to the efforts of our MTA office over there and our presentations showing off Malta, which blows them away!
Is Malta’s commitment to sustainability e.g. evidence of greener buildings, cleaner fuels and congestion zones something MICE clients ask about, or is it more of a peripheral consideration?
While it is not something we are generally asked about, our government is taking a very proactive lead on this front. For example, it is already pushing and incentivising the use of electric cars and the separation of garbage. In addition, school buses are to be free for children, meaning less traffic on the roads. By being that one step ahead, we have something to show organisers before they can ask us what we are doing on this front.
What other elements is Conventions Malta working with to ensure AAA is a success?
We work closely with all the ministries on AAA. For example, we need the transport and environment ministers to make everything happen for larger groups, or the foreign ministry to be involved if we have challenges with visas.
In addition, there are regular meetings between the DMC and the MHRA, which is the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, while when we have larger events the ministries and public sectors will get together around one table to see how we can create a safe infrastructure for people. Similarly, when we encounter challenges, or when we have feedback about issues experienced, such as congestion in a particular area, all stakeholders will collect to strike on the right way forward. Meanwhile, for big conventions we will also sit down with the president to establish whether she would like to welcome the group in her president’s colours. So, we do connect very well with all of our different partners to ensure a coordinated thrust around AAA.