Incentive Summit Europe finds love in Slovenia

SITE Incentive Summit Europe (ISE) has just wrapped, with 60 incentive travel professionals falling truly, madly, deeply in love with a country that includes that very word in its name — sLOVEnia!

ISE 2023 finally happened at the end of an extravagantly long engagement period of multiple postponements due to the pandemic. 

However, absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder, and during a four-day sojourn that featured unprecedented torrential rain and double rainbows, the relationship was formally sealed; all of us committingourselves forever to a destination that’s both urbane and rustic, visionary and traditional, laid back and full of energy. 

The greater SITE community first experienced Slovenia back in 2017 when SITE’s International Board of Directors and SITE Foundation’s Board of Trusteescame to this hidden gem of around two million souls for SITE Executive Summit. 

Since then, infrastructure investments have brought two new five-star hotels (including IHG’s InterContinental) to the nation’s capital, Ljubljana, and a host of new destination experiences highlighting the uniqueness of this wonderful country. 

Expecting bright sunshine for our July sojourn in central Europe, we got intense heat (35+ degrees) and torrential rain before settling back to more expected temperatures for a stunning last day at the government-owned Brdo Estate and an unforgettable final night at Ljubljana Castle.

Acquaintances were established during our opening night on the rooftop of the contemporary steel and glass InternContinental Ljubljana. Conversations flowed easily as we scoped out the tiny city below, a mad mix of mediaeval, baroque and art nouveau architecture punctuated by some robust brutalist constructions. 

From there we meandered through the predominantly pedestrianised streets past the famed Triple Bridge to Suklje Wine Bar, located picturesquely on one side of the Ljubljanica River, directly under the medieval castle. 

Zoran Janković, four-term Mayor of Ljubljana, hosted our first education session at the Town Hall and turned up in-person to welcome us. Quite the visionary, Janković has led Ljubljana’s evolution to a national capital on a human scale, with a quality of life that most European citizens can only dream about. 

In the august surroundings of the Council Chamber, IMEX Head of Programme (and SITE’s former Head of Events) Tahira Endean delivered a thought-provoking keynote on happiness and how to capture it, providing the perfect topic of conversation for a wonderful city walk-and-talk, where we split into smaller groups for coffee and chats. 

During lunch at the wonderful As Aperativo, moody skies started to roar and rumble and soon, droplets became a veritable downpour that persisted throughout our highly innovative, edgy, city experiences that, amongst other themes, focused on sustainability, homelessness and feminism. 

Curated by the team at Liberty Adriatic, it was encouraging to encounter a DMC prepared to channel the emerging mood of a place and offer a truly authentic destination experience, warts and all. 

Beata (from Poland) and I were privileged to spend a couple of hours with Nika Gradišek, student activist and slam poetry champion (she will shortly represent Slovenia at the world championship in Brazil) who presented Ljubljana to us through the lens of the invisible women whose names and statues are not present on the capital’s streetscape. A highly engaging communicator (who never spent time in an English-speaking country), we hardly noticed the biblical rain that accompanied our walk.

Rain followed us all the way to Lake Bled, the windshield wipers on the motorcoach, at times, unable to handle its intensity. There was a brief pause in the downpour as we climbed the steep incline to Bled Castle but then it resumed, apparently down for the evening. 

Just as we had settled for a viewless evening of simple conviviality, however, the skies cleared and a double rainbow appeared on the horizon. Suddenly we could see – and photograph – what we had all come for: the peerless, iconic shot of a tiny island with a church, set amidst the bluest of waters, with the Julian Aps majestically in the background. Our evening concluded, magically, on that very island, as darkness fell to the soothing sounds of a string quartet. 

Our day at the Brdo Estate commenced with an educational session, delivered outdoors, on the topic of “Sustainability – possibility or pipe dream?”. A diverse panel comprising SITE’s CEO, Annette Gregg, KongresMagazine’s Gorazd Cad, Jennifer Attersall from Destination Canada, and Carole McKeller, EMEA Director of HelmsBriscoe, fully embraced the topic, acknowledging how, as an industry, we urgently need to re-focus and re- balance our approach.

We were then introduced to two great local success stories around corporate social responsibility and sustainability before embarking on a series of “explorations” in the stunning setting of the estate. I was part of the group that built beehives, availing of an incredible introduction to the fascinating universe of bees. 

If we were industry acquaintances on the rooftop of the InterContinental on our first evening, by the time we gathered on the terrace of Castle, we were firm friends,and it was a truly magical evening. A DJ and live saxophonist played easy listening lounge music as we enjoyed wonderful Slovenian wine and another culinary feast courtesy of Jezersek.

We lingered over Ljubljana as the sun gradually set on the city, bringing Incentive Summit Europe to a close but leaving LOVE in our hearts for this truly astonishing country.

Photos by Francesco Lo Campo


Written by

Pádraic Gilligan

Pádraic Gilligan


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