destination reports: Malta: Jewel of the Mediterranean

Jewel of the Mediterranean

Occupying a land area of just 316 square kilometres – to put it in context, that’s around 13 times smaller than Dubai – Malta is one of the world’s smallest countries. Still, what it lacks in size, it more than compensates for with its raw beauty and eclectic mix of cultures.

 Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese archipelago – consisting of the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino – is a gateway between Europe and North Africa. Steeped in history, it boasts prehistoric temples and archeological treasures dating back 7,000 years, while its subtropical climate continues to tempt travellers looking for sun, sand and sea. With all these charms, it is no surprise that last year the country attracted 1.5 million visitors, more than three times its population of 409,000.

 Recent infrastructure developments and the entry of new hotels have also made the tiny state one of the most sought-after meeting and event destinations in Europe.

 In the Middle East, Malta’s prominence as a destination for corporate meetings and incentives is starting to gain steady ground. Over the past year, 50 percent of the enquiries received by Alshamel Travel from UAE companies were for Malta, according to Claudia Saba, MICE Manager.

 Based in Dubai, Alshamel Travel provides corporate, VIP and leisure travel solutions ranging from air ticketing, travel insurance and hotel booking to corporate travel management and vacation planning. “As a destination, Malta offers diverse activities that groups can explore. In terms of pricing, it is relatively cheaper and good value for money when compared with other destinations in Europe,” says Saba.

 Travel management company SNTTA has organised small- and medium-sized groups from the UAE to Malta. Sai Rattan, Senior General Manager – Corporate Sales and Holidays, believes that as interest and awareness about Malta grows, the company will bring even more meeting and incentive groups to the islands.

 “Malta has the right ingredients to attract the MICE segment from this country. Apart from flight accessibility, it has a number of attractions from scenic beauty and temperate weather to modern hotels and facilities that prove ideal to corporate group travellers,” Rattan said.

 While Malta continues to look at Europe as its main source of tourism business, it is seeking to diversify its client base by exploring other opportunities beyond the Eurozone to include countries across the Middle East. As a result, the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) partners with the Consulate General of Malta in Dubai to promote the country as a meetings and incentives destination to companies within the UAE.

 Josef Formosa Gauci, MTA’s Chief Executive Officer, says they regularly organise sales calls, workshops and other activities to raise awareness about Malta. “We are also keen to further develop the Middle East market and demonstrate that the Maltese islands are always open for business and eager to meet and exceed client expectations.”

 Alpine Sterling, a destination management company (DMC) based in Malta, currently welcomes the majority (around 80 percent) of its clients from Europe, but Managing Director Warren Zahra says the company is keen to explore the Middle East and Dubai in particular – especially as Emirates operates daily flights to the islands.

 “We do not have as much business as we would like from the Middle East, but hopefully this will change as we raise awareness about the islands. The Maltese islands can offer an undiscovered gem to visitors from this region who are looking for something different that is not too far from home,” he says.

 Corinthia Hotels, which launched its first property – the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa – in Malta over 40 years ago and has since expanded its portfolio throughout Europe and Africa, receives a small, but significant, number of guests from the UAE and other Gulf countries. Nicholas Borg, Regional Director of Sales at Corinthia Hotels, believes that the market from the GCC will continue to grow as flight connectivity strengthens through Emirates and Air Malta’s partnership with Etihad Airways.

 ATTRACTING MEETING PLANNERS

 “Over the past five years we have seen a stable and consistent growth in terms of number of delegates attending conference and incentive events being held on the Maltese islands. From just under 65,000 in 2008, it has grown to 80,000 delegates in 2011,” says MTA’s Formosa Gauci.

 Revenues from tourism, including the meetings and incentives sector, represent almost 28 percent or EUR1.8 billion (US$2.3 billion) of the country’s GDP in 2011, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). In addition, tourism supports over 40,000 jobs, which makes it an important pillar of the country’s economy.

 The current economic situation in Europe, Malta’s main source market, is expected to stifle growth in total tourism receipts. Despite this, WTTC predicts that the archipelago will continue to post a minimal hike of three percent annually to reach EUR2.3 billion (US$3 billion) by 2022.

 Leisure travel currently remains the top generator of tourism euros for Malta, accounting for EUR1.1 billion (US$1.4 billion) in 2012. However, WTTC anticipates that business travel spending will post a consistent two percent annual growth from EUR111 million (US$143 million) in 2012 to EUR135 million (US$174 million) within a decade.

 “The meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions segment is very lucrative in terms of the income it generates for the Maltese Islands. It is estimated that meetings and incentives visitors spend three times more than the average leisure tourist. Furthermore, 2011 was a record year for the conference and incentive travel sector in Malta. We received an unprecedented 80,000 delegates, representing 5.5 percent of total inbound travel,” Formosa Gauci explains.

 The European nations of Italy, the UK and Germany remain Malta’s strongest inbound markets, but MTA is looking to expand its reach by promoting the country to emerging markets, including the UAE.

 Formosa Gauci says Malta’s appeal as a meetings destination runs deep in its history. “The prehistoric temples on the islands were utilised for ritualistic meetings by ancient civilisations. Now, Malta, Gozo and Comino are hosts to a number of corporate and association conferences and incentive events.”

 The largest conference hosted in Malta to date was the Swedish cosmetics firm Oriflame’s annual meeting in August 2010, which brought 5,000 sales agents to the islands and generated an economic impact of around EUR8 million (US$10.4 million).

 Among the other major international gatherings that have been held in Malta over the past two years include the Association of British Travel Agents’ convention, the European Tourism Forum, the International Council of Nurses meeting, the 5th European Public Health Conference and the World Health Oganisation’s European Regional Committee conference.

 AN EVOLVING INDUSTRY

 DMCs and hoteliers in Malta share MTA’s confidence in the meetings and convention sector’s continued growth. They also believe that outlook for the industry remains rosy as demand for destinations with diverse incentive offerings remain upbeat.

 Warren Zahra of Alpine Sterling, says while Malta has natural attractions that draw visitors from all over the world, it is also an evolving meetings destination that has kept up with the demands of consumers. “Our company has been in business since the late 1960s and we have seen many changes in the industry during this time. Today, our meetings and events portfolio represents approximately 65 percent of our total turnover, with leisure representing the remaining 35 percent. We believe this will be the pattern for the foreseeable future,” he says.

 According to Davide Cachia, Managing Director of Colours of Malta, the meetings and incentives sector in the country has seen year-on-year growth of about 22 percent in the past three years. He believes the industry has the potential to grow further, but is concerned that certain factors, such as limited air connectivity, may continue to stifle the industry’s development.

 “Most of our corporate business comes from mainland Europe with the UK, Germany, Italy and France as the main contributors, followed by Spain, Eastern Europe and the Scandinavian countries. The North American market is growing at a fast pace, but without direct flights servicing routes between the US and Malta, the number of visitors we receive will be limited,” he says.

 Cachia’s sentiment is reflected in the current lineup of carriers offering flights to and from Malta. The majority of the airlines passing through Malta International Airport are from Europe (Air France, Lufthansa, Air Berlin, Alitalia, SAS, Norwegian and Ryanair) and the Middle East and North Africa (Emirates, Egypt Air, Tunis Air and Libyan Airlines).

 At the time of going to press, no major announcements on non-stop flights between North American destinations and Malta have been announced, but national carrier Air Malta is strengthening its existing market base by expanding its code share agreements with partner airlines such as the Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, Austrian, Italy’s Meridiana fly and Germany’s Lufthansa.

 Following the code share deal in November, Etihad Airways passengers can fly to Malta from Abu Dhabi via London Heathrow, Manchester and Brussels airports. Air Malta will then carry passengers for their connecting flights from these European hubs to Malta.

 One of the 27 European Union (EU) member states, Malta joined the regional bloc in 2004 and began using the euro as its official currency in 2008. It is also a member of the Schengen area since 2007. These developments, says Corinthia Hotel’s Borg, have helped cement Malta’s position as a business tourism destination in Europe.

 “Since Malta joined the EU, many international companies have established a presence on the islands and this also resulted to an ever-increasing number of business travellers to the country. The meetings and transient business traveller segments collectively account for 45 percent of our annual visitors at Corinthia Hotels,” he says.

 HOTELS ON THE RISE

 Inbound visitor arrivals in Malta reached 1.5 million in 2011 and with October figures (the latest released by Malta’s National Statistics Office at the time of going to press) at 1.3 million, industry sources are confident that end of year 2012 will be similarly upbeat. Malta’s hotel market has expanded over the years in response to the islands’ growing prominence as a destination. Currently, there are 15 five-star hotels in the country, offering around 4,000 beds and 40 four-star properties, contributing an additional 14,000 beds.

 “These include a number of international chains, which shows investors’ confidence in Malta. In order to keep up with client demand, hotels on the islands are constantly refurbishing their facilities,” says MTA’s Formosa Gauci. He adds that some hotel developments are in the pipeline, but announcements can be made only when the plans have been finalised. Eurostat, which provides statistical information to EU members, reported in August 2012 that net hotel occupancy rate within Malta stood at almost 83.8 percent, the third highest in the region after Cyprus (83.9 percent) and Bulgaria (94.4 percent).

 Operating three properties in Malta, Corinthia Hotels has taken advantage of the islands’ natural landscape in creating hotels that offer a unique experience for its guests. “The hotel industry in Malta has developed a lot and Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa, Malta, has taken a new dimension. The location of the property right at the centre of the island, away from any distractions, makes the hotel an ideal venue for small- to medium-sized events, particularly high-end events where delegates can discuss intricate subjects, be it medical research, international law, politics, associations meetings or any other form of gatherings that require concentration,” explains Borg.

 The Corinthia Hotel St. George’s Bay and the Marina Hotel at the Corinthia Beach Resort are located in St. Julian’s town, offering stunning sea views and both share a spacious meeting venue that can cater for 1,000 delegates. Borg adds that because Marina Hotel is a four-star property, it lends itself well in attracting the pharmaceutical industry. The hotels’ close proximity to some of the country’s popular bars, restaurants and entertainment districts prove ideal for delegates wishing to unwind after days of meetings.

 Other international hotel brands that have established a presence in Malta include Le Meridien, Radisson Blu, InterContinental, Hilton and Westin.

 “All the five- and four-star hotels are geared towards attracting and exceeding the demands of this specific tourism segment. The hotels, conference centres and DMCs all work closely with the MTA’s MICE Segment Team on a number of joint marketing initiatives. They are also present with MTA at international fairs, including Confex (UK), Meedex (France), IMEX (Germany) and EIBTM (Spain),” says Formosa Gauci.

 WHERE TO MEET

 Hosting international events requires modern facilities and professional expertise to help meeting planners reach their goals. Most five-star hotels in Malta have their own meeting facilities that can cater for mediumsized groups, according to MTA’s Formosa Gauci.

 The main conference centres on the islands include two that are hotel-based, namely the Bay Arena within the InterContinental Malta and the Hilton Malta Conference Centre, which can accommodate 1,700 and 1,400 delegates respectively.

 Located in the town of Ta’ Qali, about 5.9 kilometres from Malta International Airport, the Malta Fairs and Convention Centre is a modern column-free structure. Offering a blank canvas, the venue can be set up according to clients’ specifications and can easily cater for 10,000 delegates, in a theatre style.

 The Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC) in the capital city Valetta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a member of the Historic Conference Centres of Europe (HCCE). Originally built over two centuries ago by the Knights of St John as the Sacra Infermeria – one of Europe’s oldest hospitals – it has been fully restored in 1979 and fitted with the latest technology.

Because of its location and historical significance, MCC is often booked for themed gala dinners and events. It has attracted events by international companies such as AstraZeneca, IBM, General Electric, Glaxo Wellcome, Mazda, McDonalds, Nestlé, Pfizer and Swarovsky, among others.

 Rosette Micallef, Head of Sales and Marketing at MCC, says the centre boasts 10 halls and nine syndicate rooms over an area of 7,000 square metres. “The halls vary in size and are, therefore suitable for a range of events. The largest and most impressive, Republic Hall, seats 1,400 guests in a theatre style, whereas the smallest, La Cassiere, caters for 60 people.” In the last quarter of 2012, MCC hosted the 25th European Film Awards, which was televised to millions of people in over 50 countries.

 The latest convention facility on offer in the Maltese islands is Xara Lodge, which was inaugurated in May 2012. Located in the countryside, it offers breathtaking views of Rabat and Mdina, Malta’s ancient cities.

 In terms of venues for unique events, Malta also has a number of palazzos (palaces) and other historical buildings, which reflect the various civilisations that have influenced the Maltese culture. In addition, its temperate Mediterranean climate also makes for a great outdoor event and dining experience.

 DESTINATION FOR ALL SEASONS

 Because of its natural landscape, Malta can offer activities beyond the four walls of a conference centre or hotel ballroom. Zahra of Alpine Sterling DMC says that during spring and summer, they can organise water-based activities such as cruises, speedboat treasure hunts and other marine sports.

 “Land-based group activities are ideal during winter and autumn – activities such as jeep rallies, treasure hunts around historical sites and culinary tours where delegates can dine at different locations and discover the taste of the islands’ authentic cuisine. We can also prepare bespoke activities depending on the clients,” Zahra adds.

 Cachia from DMC Colours of Malta says the beaches and the islands of Comino and Gozo are also ideal for team-building activities and day excursions, in addition to trips to the historic cities of Valletta and Mdina. Malta has some of the best dive sights in the Mediterranean and water-related activities are a must.

 With pleasant weather all year round, it is a waste not to explore as much as of the islands’ attractions during a visit, says Borg of Corinthia Hotels. “The civilisations that once inhabited the Maltese islands over the centuries have all left a mark. We have a chequered history as we were occupied by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs, Aragons, the Knights of the Order of St John, the French and the British. All of these had an effect on our culture, language and architecture,” he adds.

 With English as the language of business, Malta boasts a solid track record of offering international meeting planners and incentive organisers a quality service, modern facilities and a memorable experience that is good value for money.