Friday, April 29, 2016

When Mallorca Was A Conventions Pioneer

Palma's Palacio de Congresos is almost ready to go, almost being the operative word. There are things missing, such as seats in the auditoriums and anyone to actually manage the convention centre (and hotel). Neither of these is a minor detail. Both of these say much about how the centre's development has been blighted by the small print of tender agreements. The contest for the seats was ruled invalid (by a court) after one of the bidding companies which had been knocked out early on in the process complained. The court upheld the complaint. They're bidding all over again for the right to be the company which installs the seats.

They will also, once the specification has been finalised, be bidding for the management of the complex. There had to be a new bid because someone at the university (not a court therefore) determined that the award which had been made was not sound. The small print pertaining to the value of the hotel had been overlooked. It all got terribly complicated and terribly tedious. Let's pray that this next bid isn't also found to have some irregularity, though who can rule out that we won't have more of the same: an apparent inability to set watertight contractual conditions.

Retracing the tortuous path of how we got to where we are with the Palacio is unnecessary. It's all been explained time and time again. But there is one fairly fundamental issue that does perhaps still need explaining. Why was it ever considered to have been a good idea to build it in the first place?

A simple answer is that the then Balearic president, Jaume Matas, a man who never knowingly undervalued a good vanity project when one presented itself, decreed its building. This was despite advice that it would cost too much and couldn't guarantee a good return. But such were projects in those days. Let's think of others. Palma Arena, the metro, Son Espases. The latter can be excused, albeit that the courts have yet to truly sink their teeth into it.

Although there were those who advised against, there were also plenty who were in favour. Matas was not alone among the politicians. There was widespread, cross-party support for the Palacio. There was also plenty of business backing - if only in spirit rather than cash. Then there was the apparent need for and sense of a project that had been long neglected.

Palma and Mallorca had been left way behind by other convention centres. Madrid and Barcelona between them hoover up significant portions of the global exhibition and conference trade. They were doing so in 2003, the year that Matas became president for the second time. The mainland had other venues, some of them yet to be built. Why did Mallorca need one?

At the end of the 1960s, a time when the global industry for conferences and exhibitions was still in comparative infancy, this industry was barely unheard of in Spain. Facilities which existed were more or less confined to the 1929-built Montjuïc fair in Barcelona. But in 1967 and 1969 along came two facilities that, and it has been described thus, made Mallorca a pioneer at national level for events' facilities: they were the Pueblo Español, with its own palace of congresses, and Palma's auditorium.

The point is that Palma had the wherewithal to have become a major conventions centre. It didn't because, despite the advantages it enjoyed from the end of the 1960s, there was no real further investment. It was already appreciated that the type of tourism that conventions attracted was of a vastly more profitable nature than regular sun-and-beach tourism and that it helped to dilute the impact of seasonality. A spend of some seven times more should have been an element for building on those late 1960s advantages. They were not, unless one includes the comparatively inconsequential contributions of Playa de Palma's auditorium (1984) and the two auditoriums opened in 1999 - Alcudia and Cala Millor.

In the 1970s there were two important developments - there was the ABTA convention in Mallorca in 1973 (at the auditorium) and the Mallorca Tourism Congress of 1979. The latter, it was said, pointed the way towards a "new style of congress". But whatever the successes of these congresses, there was very little advancement of Mallorca's position as a destination for conventions. Not even the creation of the fairs and congresses department when the regional government was formed in 1983 made a great deal of difference.

It has been argued, and rightly so, that conference and exhibition tourism was of marginal concern for an island growing rich on an essentially one-dimensional type of tourism - sun and beach. The opportunities that had existed for Mallorca to have become a major conventions' destination were lost. The Palacio de Congresos was needed, but the idea for it in 2003 was some 25 years too late.

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