More women in tourism – Interview with Elif Balci

What is your main goal at ICCA and how you see ICCA development process for the next few years?

ICCA’s European Regional Office represents and advances the interests of over 500 members in the European region, who are spread over six Chapters. ICCA Europe has experienced fast-paced growth, welcoming new countries and companies as members.

In my role, as the European Regional Director of ICCA, I am working with our many member companies and organizations all around Europe to continue to support the vital role that Europe plays in the international meetings market.

Currently, over 50 % of the international association meetings are hosted in the European destinations however the other regions of the world are growing and developing very fast and strong. Europe plays a key role as a leading market and can play also a vital role in the future development of the global meeting industry. I believe creating opportunities by cooperating with the other regions of ICCA all around the world has also great importance for our European members.

In particular, in the new and developing destinations all over in Europe, we work closely with national governments, local convention bureaux and tourism boards to develop regional association market segments. The focus of these partnerships is to improve national strategic approaches to international bidding, create platforms for networking between local ICCA Members and associations, and bring in business for local and national destinations.

As we say ICCA is in time of a change to provide more customized service to its members in all regions by adapting our services in line with ICCA strategic plan and goals.

 How is your background in communication and marketing helping you in this new position and to achieve your goals?

Firstly, I would like to say that I very much love what I have been doing since I started my university education. I studied communication, advertising, and media and always enjoyed being connected with academic life and professional business life. Communication, tourism, and meeting industries are multidisciplinary areas that you connect and work with people, products, and companies from different fields, different cultures, and different minds. My background helps me to think outside of the box. In such a changing world, we have questions, challenge and try to find a better solution and way to all our doings.

How do you see Georgia’s tourism potential, what is the most important assets for a small country with many challenges?

Being a small destination and country has also many advantages such as fast achievement in re-shaping the destination and the local industry. The opportunity for creating awareness and engaging the related stakeholders easily. The local industry can get connected very quickly in smaller countries. Especially under the leadership of strong organizations. The Georgian National Tourism Administration and Georgia Convention & Exhibition Bureau are doing a great job and taking very strong and successful steps to build Georgia’s brand as a fast-developing meetings industry destination. We are

Georgia has a very strategic location being at the crossroads of important destinations and markets and the infrastructure is very fast developing. I was here in October 2018 and came back again in May and the developments, new hotels opened in the period are incredible. Georgia started playing a very active role in the region and may lead the regional development further.

How could Georgia be an interesting spot on the global tourism map?

There is already solid cooperation between ICCA and the Georgia Convention Bureau and Georgia is on the radar of an ever-increasing number of meeting planners in Europe and in the Middle East.  When it comes to tourism growth potential – including growing the meetings industry – Georgia has a number of factors that count in its favours, such as the visa-free agreement with the European Union and the fact that your three international airports are serviced by more than 40 airlines.  Also, the fact that the country is a short-haul destination for the Middle East holds tremendous potential – in fact, I believe the UAE and Saudi Arabia have already become key source markets, thanks to greatly improved air access.

In addition, we are very glad to have 3 leading companies and organizations as ICCA members from Georgia; Georgia Convention & Exhibition Bureau, Premium Events and Grata DMC. The developments and the growing success of the destination are the harbingers of growth in ICCA membership, and we believe ICCA will have a stronger presence in the country very soon.

Georgia is today a fast-growing destination for the international meetings industry and we are so happy to see the enthusiasm and dedication of the private and public sector. And the dedication of the local industry may attract more the international meetings and events to the country.

What are the global trends in tourism and how could Georgia become part of these trends?

ICCA very recently released the 2018 Country and City Rankings which marks yet another successful year for the association meetings market, with the global meetings industry trade association capturing a total of 12,937 rotating association meetings taking place in 2018, at an increase of 379 additional meetings compared to the number recorded at the same time in 2017. The highest annual figure ICCA has ever recorded in its yearly Statistics, these new rankings signal industry growth is continuing on a strong and robust trajectory.

Our research shows that over the past 50 years the number of these meetings doubled every ten years.  In recent years, this exponential growth has transcended into a more mature, but still solid, growth pattern – despite increased disruption and unpredictability in many parts of the world.

Furthermore, more than ever before, we live in a time of revolutionary change in terms of scientific and technological advancements, which are transforming traditional association fields such as healthcare and trade. International associations are more in need of connecting and meeting.  

According to an ICCA-supported study by the German Convention Bureau, of megatrends shaping the meetings and convention industry, it is very likely that interactive events will become more important or even one of the central success factors in the future. 

Could you please speak about 3 the most important directions, Georgia has to improve?

 We also notice that our members are collaborating across national borders to attract more association meetings to their respective countries: We can see an increasing number of our members trying to strengthen their regional collaboration in two ways. Firstly, they use their regional networks of both associations and meeting suppliers to attract more international business to the region and their own countries for the benefit of their national economies. Secondly, they work through their national associations and meeting suppliers to create new regional events.

These strategies in turn help to stimulate the meetings industry as a whole; smaller meetings are more sustainable, as they grow naturally alongside the demand for a bigger supply chain. The recently-held ICCA Scandinavian Chapter Association Expert Seminar and work of the New Europe region are prime examples of the successes of catering to regional needs. Georgia can also start and lead a regional cooperation and collaboration; the region is very fast developing. In 2019, association meetings are set to play a major role in building regional engagement. Create opportunities for members to network, share knowledge, and tackle issues closely together in the regions, not just at your international gatherings.

I don’t want to miss this opportunity and want to ask about your PHD – the role strategic communications play in building a destination’s image, what are your insights and first discoveries.

It is with great pleasure to mention about my continuing PHD thesis on destination marketing. Unfortunately, due to a very busy travel schedule I have, I did not have the opportunity to finish yet. It is in my 2019 planning. My focus is on defining the complexity of the destination product its self and its image. And highlighting the importance of strategic communication in planning and practice. The destination marketing is no longer the solution for the promotion of destinations, it starts with the management and building of the destination. The DMOs are taking more active and leading roles in shaping the destination itself. the branding process is a consensus-building process including the residents, businesses and public sectors.

As this interview is for Forbes Woman, I should ask about women’s role in business and in the tourism sector, women in all over the world need empowerment, you, as a woman, how do you see your personal role in this process? How can we achieve real equality?

We see more women in all positions especially in the senior positions in our industry with growing numbers every day. Our industry requires wise thinking capabilities, strong stance and being multi-task those are the skills that many women have.

Women all around the world are stronger than it is known and accepted. Not only the businesswomen; I very strongly believe that all the women, all around the world; young girls, mothers at home are very strong and they all have the power to change the world. For thousands of years in many cultures, women are kept behind the scenes and their role in the communities, in the businesses were not that much highlighted or appreciated. But I do believe that it is not the women are changing or becoming more stronger, my thinking is all our mothers, grandmothers they all were very strong and were leading the communities where they belong to, but they were not visible and men were getting the appreciation and the achievements. Now with the revival of the women, the success and role of the women is more visible and this is empowering those others.

If I would talk about my personal story; I am Turkish and my family is originally from the Aegean region and ours is a culture that the women are very strong and precious. Fathers always give and show their love and respect to their daughter. I am the only child in the family that I cannot make a comparison on how my father will be behaving to a son. But I always given the rights for my decisions and never had a ban or barrier for my career as being a girl. In the family. The very opposite; they always supported me to be successful in my school and professional career to be able to secure my future. I was married at a very early age in 22 and my husband also since the first day we met, supported me and my career plans. I had my son when I was 26 years old and the same year, I applied for my Master’s program and at the same time, I was working at the convention bureau traveling almost 100 days a year. No one from my or my husband’s family said a negative word one day. I always took advantage of their support, motivation, and appreciation. Every woman may not have the same good story as mine, but the most important factor was since I knew myself, I always wanted to study and work hard. And they saw it and accepted that it is the way I can be happy. When ICCA invited me to join their team and move to Amsterdam, my husband and my family supported me and still, my husband and my son are living in Istanbul and I am working and partially living in Amsterdam.

The support from our families is important but first we need to know and show what we want and what will make us happy. Determination is vital. It is also in the hands of a girl to choose a person who will support and encourage her for her career.  The real equality comes with our decisions.

When I visit Georgia, I see that the Georgian women are also very strong and active with their business and social lives.

ICCA also supports the She Means Business initiative of the meeting industry which is about diversity, gender equality, and female empowerment.

During our congress in Dubai last year, ICCA shined a spotlight on the monumental contributions of women to the meetings industry, ten women from across the association’s global community personally honored with an Inspirational ICCA Women award by ICCA President Nina Freysen-Pretorius.

Freysen-Pretorius, the second female ICCA president, had been in the role for four years and finished her tenure in 2018. She showed her gratitude to her industry partners from across the world for their support during her time as president of the global meetings industry association, Freysen-Pretorius reached out to colleagues in the ICCA leadership for their nominations of women they consider to the “unsung heroes”, leaders, innovators, pioneers and advocates of business events.

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