INTERVIEW: The future doesn't frighten us. It motivates us

Michał Kalarus sat down with Senthil Gopinath, CEO of International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), to discuss ICCA’s upcoming congress in Krakow, post-pandemic events, war in Ukraine, and ways to effectively promote Poland.

The ICCA Congress is one of the most important events in the global meetings industry. What are its main goals? What do you hope to gain from it?
Firstly, we want to relish the opportunity to come together again, face-to-face. It’s something everyone in this industry has missed and yes, we showed ingenuity, creativity and resilience, carrying on during the pandemic – thanks to great technical innovation – and tapping into the genuine desire to find ways to carry on. But nothing beats being in a room together. We are thankful for the opportunity to gather in Krakow. Here, we can share knowledge, learn from experience, meet policy makers and put our commitment to Sustainability, Diversity, Legacy and Inclusion at the heart of every session we run, every workshop we host, and every conversation we have. This is a lifetime opportunity for our industry to lead the global conversation about how business can work better in the 21st century.

The Krakow Congress will mark the first completely onsite event to be staged after the pandemic. However, the times we live in require a slightly different approach to planning any kinds of events. How will the 61st ICCA Congress be different from earlier editions?
The last few years showed us that when things change, they change quickly. The pandemic asked us all, as human beings, to look inwards and evaluate the lives we lead. A big part of our lives is the work we do. It is work that supports our families and drives us on to make something more of ourselves. But what happens when global events – events completely out of our own control – take over? How do we continue to work, especially in an industry like ours? We were hit very hard by COVID, but 2022 has shown promise, and demonstrated our resilience and desire to fight for this industry. We have found smarter ways to keep working. ICCA is leading our industry by asking people to think out-of-the-box about making meetings different and more experiential. Congress reflects this change of impetus. Session format will be different. We are involving more participants and making this a congress set up by members for members. Congress is a celebration of people coming together once more. A celebration of all the things we are capable of. The future doesn't frighten us. It motivates us. The theme of Congress is 'Together We Can’ and it perfectly captures how we can – and will – evolve as an industry.

This is the very first time that Poland hosts the Congress. What major factors proved decisive for choosing Krakow?
What really paid off for Krakow winning this bid was their total unity. Polish members really came together and built a compelling story positioning Krakow as an events capital. They had a full plan in mind. They had a real vision, a narrative, and they all stood behind it.

Hosting the ICCA Congress signifies not only a huge success and a source of pride, but also significant investment for Poland and the city of Krakow. What are the greatest event-generated benefits for the host destination? Why was it worth it to bid for this international event?
Yes, it was worth applying, because events of this nature are magnets for people. Curious, influential, connected people. People tasked with, and always looking for, a destination that will meet their needs. The importance of the right venue and the right city cannot be underestimated to our industry. On the ground amenities, transport links, proximity, friendliness and efficiency of the people, the things to see, places to eat, streets to explore, the practical experience of hosting a smooth-running and well-received event… matters. Congress is a moving caravan, seeking experiential homes for a few days. If a hosting destination leaves an indelible mark on a delegate, it will be shared by that delegate in their own network. And people will remember. We want our members to see Krakow as a place famous for exceeding their expectations. The legacy we leave Krakow is fundamental to the planning – and will define the success – of Congress in Krakow.

Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine has recently affected Poland’s perception as a MICE destination. Have you ever considered changing the Congress destination because of the current events in Ukraine?
The Ukraine situation is very much front of mind. But we felt it important to show solidarity with the region. We are a global community, after all. However, Poland continues to be a safe country to visit, and we feel it vital to honour the strength and resilience of Ukraine, and the loyalty and fortitude of Poland. We can do this by hosting our event here.

Our highest priority is always safety of all those attending our events, including those in the ICCA community. The board has taken on all available guidance and worked extensively with the ICCA team in Poland and the Mayor of Krakow.

We stand for connectedness, community and harmony... and we choose to stand by those who are giving help to, and those who need help, in Ukraine.
It is important we stay united and reject division and implore all members to come and join us in this beautiful, vibrant and safe country.

What actions would you recommend to attract more visitors and showcase Poland as - as you have just described it - beautiful, vibrant and safe?
Legacy building, which forms one of ICCA’s pillars. And takes us to another reason: sustainability. How do we make our meetings and events as sustainable as possible, especially with a new generation of professionals entering our world who have grown seeing the fate of our planet as the single great issue of our lifetime? So, working to offset carbon emissions is key. But also viewing sustainability from a business view. How do we keep this industry alive with all the many challenges we face?

We believe Poland has a terrific future as a meetings destination. It is a lovely and fascinating country with a deep and compelling story, a story being written now in relation to the support Poland is showing their neighbours. From the session work in Congress and the legacy work ICCA people plan in the Krakow community, we hope we shine an international light and inspire people to come back again.

Every year the ICCA Congress brings together about a thousand of MICE industry’s most experienced experts. How many participants do you expect to travel to Krakow? Does the conflict in Ukraine have any real impact on the performance of this year’s congress?  

The conflict in Ukraine will of course have an impact but there are other factors too. Travel expenses are increasing. Staff levels are, in some cases, still low due to the pandemic, which impacts on the availability of those in an organisation able to travel. But – and I really want to emphasise the ‘but’ – there is a hunger; a genuine and real desire to come together in person. We are expecting large numbers from the ICCA community and the registration process is still ongoing.

Find out more about the 61st ICCA Congress: