Genuine excitement about travelling
When Petra Stušek, MSc fixes her piercing gaze on you, you know that even though there's a twinkle in her eyes, she means everything she says. She challenges you to think at least three steps ahead. It's crystal clear why the Ljubljana Tourism destination management organisation has been achieving such impressive results with her at the helm for the second consecutive term. Talking to her inspires you to go the extra mile.
Petra, June 2019 was the first time you were elected the Chair of European Cities Marketing – Association for Tourist Boards, Convention Bureaux and City Marketing Organisations, which consists of over 115 cities from 38 countries. This is a great tribute to your work and the city of Ljubljana as one of Europe's leading tourist destinations. Does Slovenia acknowledge such remarkable achievements of our experts abroad or does this apply only to top athletes?
I had great support from my own team, the mayor and the City of Ljubljana, as for the wider public, there was less understanding of such achievements on an international scale being just as important for Slovenia. Sometimes tourism appears to be like football, everyone seems to be an expert at it, but few people know how this interesting business actually works. In the running for the chair position, we competed with London, which was really eager to win. I think the fact that most people who had a say in the decision were familiar with the work I've done over the years and with Ljubljana's results helped a lot. We didn't lobby much, but in my candidacy speech I emphasised that Europe sticks together, that there's no need for great leaders or proof of who is stronger and who is part of what, and that the essence of tourism is human stories and the people who do the work.
What did being the Chair during the covid-19 epidemic feel like to you – as a bitter pill or an even greater challenge?
Both. The one thing the epidemic teaches you ishow to think outside the box, connect and look for different approaches.
What were the crucial things in tourism during the epidemic and the lockdown? What has Ljubljana been doing?
The first and main thing was to survive, i.e. to make sure we kept the team and the partners. Both out of concern for one another and because it's vital to work alongside trusted people who know what they are doing once things start moving. Various partners
are extremely important for city tourism to work, however, these are difficult times for our partners too. We need to work together on finding ways to survive and to make sure the proposals sent to the government make decision-makers understand the challenges faced by the economy. In terms of communication, it was vital to keep the destination in people's minds. You have to constantly encourage both foreigners and locals to daydream. Humans have always felt the need to move and that's not going to change. We just need to get back to suitable conditions to do so.
The essence of tourism is human stories and the people who do the work.
You've been in tourism since your school years. What has changed as its typical feature over the years?
Hmm. In short, the biggest change was that 20 or 15 years ago we gave a lot of thought to our travels. We travelled somewhere once a year, if that, so it took a lot of advance planning and saving. This also involved a completely different sort of excitement, we were really looking forward to each trip. In recent years, the circumstances and prices have changed a lot and it was nothing unusual for someone to decide on Wednesday to go to London on Friday for a weekend away. The accessibility triggered an almost excessive attitude towards travel.
What's the next stage?
Don't get me wrong, everyone must have the right to travel. But I do think that this next period, while tourism is slipping back to calmer, less hectic ways, is very beneficial to all of us. Both in terms of environmental sustainability and in terms of being genuinely excited about travel and no longer being slave to fast consumption.
During this time, all of us probably felt the lure of nearby nature even more?
Exactly. I've always loved walking in the mountains. But with the lockdown, I discovered a number of wonderful hiking trails close to where I live and I'm very happy about it.
You have to constantly encourage both foreigners and locals to daydream.
Well, let’s get back to discussing city tourism. During the pre-epidemic period, the visitljubljana.si website – the Ljubljana Tourism's official website and the place to come for information about the sights, events, hotel bookings, tours, trips and all other kinds of experiences in the city of Ljubljana and the Central Slovenia region – had 1.3 million visitors. Quite a feat for a single website?
Oh, yes. This is an ever-present challenge. In 2019, we undertook the fourth technical overhaul as we strive to keep up with the latest trends and never let ourselves be at a standstill. But speaking of chalenges, I’m referring mostly to the website content. The volume of pages is growing at an insane rate, and so are the expectations. We have yet to face a few new challenges, i.e. how to improve the content flow so that a story leads to another one and to make the search function even better. Initially we opted for too much content, so it's time to revise it. I really like the visitljubljana.si website, but I don't think it's enough to be one of the best, I want us always to be the best in our category.
One of the reasons for such a large amount of website content is that visitors are very different and look for different things. Sometimes what visitors look at on a website is influenced by the country they are from. Italians, for example, are quick to explore cuisine?
Yeah, this is the crux of the matter. In the past, we lacked opportunities to target individual visitors according to their specific needs. In recent years, however, we have developed ways to effectively use the big data available in Slovenia. We regularly obtain, check and use concrete information on how to target certain guests, guide them and, of course, wow them. And in doing so, it's important to revise all your communication channels, synchronise them and design each message in a targeted and well-thought-out way. We are working on this a lot at the moment and the time is perfect for our website to adopt an even clearer communication.
Personalisation is an important factor in communication. Individual visitors want a personal experience, one that is tailored to their wants and needs. In tourism, this is probably even more vital than elsewhere?
Exactly. In tourism, this is even more complex. You compete for the attention of every potential visitor. You have to get as close to them as possible and also tell them what is so unique about your destination compared to others. And you have to do so in many different languages.
But if all destinations do this, trying to make the most of their data, what's the success formula in such a highly competitive environment? Does it come down to the technique or to content-related differences?
Increasingly often, technology is the bare minimum. The action that eventually tips the scales is knowing how to showcase the thing that no one else has. Or at least present it that way. Most people travel with their eyes first. You attract them with fine visuals, make them wonder why you're unique. You have to attract attention, which is true for marketing in general. When it comes to traveling, the special thing is that you address the entire world and compete with it.
The use of technology is a given. What is the Ljubljana Tourism doing when it comes to digital transformation?
Many things. Years ago, we launched the Nexto app, which features many different virtual experiences and tours. And right now I'm very excited about a new virtual reality project that will be presented in 2021. It's called the Virtual Reality of Plečnik's Dreams. It'll guide us around Ljubljana to see the projects planned by Jože Plečnik using virtual reality, such as his vision of the Butcher’s Bridge, the parliament he envisioned as a pyramid etc. This will be interesting for both Slovenians and foreigners. And technology in this field is so advanced we won't even need another mobile app. We're currently also working on digitising some less accessible sights,
such as the National and University Library of Slovenia. Ljubljana boasts many architectural and cultural treasures that cannot welcome masses of visitors and will thus become accessible to everyone in the virtual world. But we're also working on other kinds of tours; a tour of Ljubljana is already available on Amazon, which is a major achievement. And since it's now late December, a virtual tour of the festive-season Ljubljana, along with the Christmas-lights' designers explaining the idea behind individual light creations, is certainly a must.
Increasingly often, technology is the bare minimum. The thing that eventually tips the scales is knowing how to showcase the one action that no one else has.
Whenever talk turns to destination brands, it is emphasised how very important local people are for successful tourism. How are the people of Ljubljana doing in this respect?
As a local community, we are doing very well. For several years now, we've been doing citizen surveys, whose results differ from media reports, according to which the people of Ljubljana have had it with the masses of tourists. Of course, the local residents, especially those in the city centre, are sometimes fed up with the crowds. But in reality, the local people are well aware that travellers give the city its cosmopolitan vibe, which we are very proud of, and the atmosphere we enjoy. The economic aspect is not to be disregarded either, tourism is a source of livelihood for many. If there were only Slovenian guests, many a tourism provider wouldn't survive. And another interesting thing. The Telekom communications company's data for August 2019 revealed that as many as 80% of the people who were in Ljubljana's city centre in the evenings were Slovenians and only 20% were foreigners. This makes me really happy. We love our city and love hanging out here.
Ljubljana has been working on environmental sustainability, which is becoming an increasingly important trend, for a long time.
The sustainable approach, which we've been swearing by for years, is the one thing that'll help us put Ljubljana on the map as a boutique destination as soon as we can all get back to travelling. All the green initiatives launched in the past and integrated into the structural whole of our sustainable work are what makes us so strong, because we have more than just a marketing ace up our sleeve, we have our way of life, our DNA. We've also successfully paired the rural with the urban. We started setting up green chains with other relevant stakeholders. There are about 800 farms in the vicinity of Ljubljana. We provided a platform, and in the first year and a half alone, 1.7 tons of produce were exchanged between growers and customers, such as hotels and restaurants. Schools and kindergartens joined in too. The next step will be connecting visitors with farmers, who will provide visitors with authentic experiences that involve the land and produce. Visitors will then get to enjoy the produce for dinner at a hotel. In short, we always look for new ideas of how to pair a sustainable experience with new products.
Do people from Maribor, for instance, come to Ljubljana for a weekend away?
To be honest, they do, but they don't sleep in a hotel or any other paid accommodations; they stay with someone they know or they come for a day trip. But in principle, before the covid-19 pandemic, the ‘city break’ tourism was one of the fastest growing tourism products globally and I believe it'll get back to it. And as such it includes the attitude towards cuisine, culture, experiences. Slovenians like visiting Budapest, Vienna, Rome etc., so how about a 'city break' in Ljubljana? Why not stay in a good hotel for a night or two, enjoy a fine breakfast, the view, a spa and all the things Ljubljana has to offer? Our challenge is to make Slovenians see Ljubljana in a different way and convince them that it is a great choice for their next 'city break'.
There are all sorts of other questions to discuss, but let’s leave them for the next interview, let's say for Innovatif's 20th anniversary. In 2021, Innovatif is celebrating its 17th anniversary and visitljubljana.si has played an important part in our history. I think this project – at the time called ljubljana.si – was one of our team's first major projects.
We've been partners with the Innovatif team for years and we've often broken new ground and gone beyond traditional boundaries. For example, visitljubljana.si was one of the first websites with a responsive web design, which may not sound all that special today, but we were proud of it back then. I'm very grateful to the team, because they've always shared knowledge with us, allowing us to maintain a high standard and be competitive in a very demanding environment.