The secrets of the Kočevsko forest


Vid Rotar

Date published

01. December 2020

INN WEB Innsights Kocevsko 1

To put it bluntly, Slovenia is full of outstanding natural features and beauties. On account of its remoteness and being known mostly for its bears, the Kočevsko area was not considered as one of these, and unrightfully so. In 2016, the Kočevje Public Institute for Tourism and Culture started presenting the extraordinary natural beauties of the unspoilt Kočevsko region to the world, putting the region on the map as an exciting tourist destination. The person most familiar with this successful story is Vesna Malnar Memedovič, the caretaker of the Secret Forest of Slovenia and the institute's Director.


Vid Rotar

Date published

01. December 2020

There are more and more people discovering the beauties of the Kočevsko region. What does its transformation as a tourist destination mean to you?

When I was growing up, Kočevsko was a drab region. When I left for Ljubljana to study, I didn't know if I'd ever return, because nothing motivated me to do so. At that time, Kočevje was considered a place in the back of beyond inhabited by nothing but bears. And then I came back because of love, but that's another story for another time. Now I look at it from my children's perspective. I want them to go out into the world, but also see it as place worth coming back to at least for a visit, and to have a positive attitude to it. When it comes to the region's development, it's important for young people to experience it differently than we did. For Kočevsko to become a place known for its beauty.

The idea of developing the Kočevsko region as an attractive tourist destination goes back to 2016. When you started working on it, you were basically breaking new ground, one that's become very 'fertile'. As the director of the at the time newly-established institute, you took up a great challenge. How did the development story begin?

Kočevje didn't work on the strategic development of tourism for a long time. It did, however, start working on it when the municipality of Kočevje decided to establish the Kočevje Public Institute for Tourism and Culture, with a focus on tourism. The institute was established in November 2015, and I joined in April 2016 to start strategic development in the field of tourism. My plan was to start developing a brand and a communication platform, i.e. to start building a cluster of grapes top-down. First, we build the brand and its story, the top of the cluster, before adding individual grapes that fit in. This came up against some unpleasant questions. Some believed we should start with the infrastructure and things to offer, but I insisted on a different approach. We were torn, we didn't know what we wanted to focus on. We needed a common story that everyone could identify with. So it made sense to opt for a public tender, to invite offers from well-established local and other agencies and brand developers.

In line with the Secret Forest of Slovenia destination brand, the destination's main advantage is the abundance of forests and virgin forests. What was arguably Kočevsko's best-known symbol – the bear – was placed in a broader context, amid forests. Decisions about the long-term strategy and communication are anything but easy. How did you make this decision and how did the story come to life?

The selection of interesting proposals involved a team of experts from various fields. We spent a lot of time deciding which proposal was the best and we went with The Secret Forest of Slovenia. We chose a solution created by Innovatif. We had some concerns about the word secret. We wondered if this was the best choice for our destination. We considered alternative words or maybe omitting the adjective and using the Forest of Slovenia, but we found that this option would lack a story. We reworked everything and came to the conclusion that this logo paired with the slogan actually made for a perfect story. A year later, we took over the Škrilj bunker, an underground facility dating back to the time of Yugoslavia, which had been kept hidden from the public for many years. This evolved the secret forest story further. Later, we gave some thought to how we could develop our brand in different areas. Cuisine, activities in and out of the woods… all the things we added fit in nicely with the basic story. It turned out over the years that the decision and all the effort were the way to go.

It takes time for the local service providers and people to catch on to a destination brand. We need to make sure that the brand is present, that people understand it and that they embrace it.

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The slogan combines the experience of living in harmony with nature and the local people's warmth and hospitality.

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Coordinated communication and action by all the parties involved is vital for spreading the story. How did local service providers and people accept the secret forest story? Did they have any concerns?

There are always concerns. It took quite a while for us to discuss all the concerns. The first public dilemma was actually the name Kočevsko as the locals refer to the region as Kočevska, which is not grammatically correct. As for the Secret Forest of Slovenia, no special remarks were made during the public debate, this was only discussed by the relevant experts. It takes time for the local service providers and people to catch on to a destination brand. We need to make sure that the brand is present, that people understand it and that they embrace it. So we presented the story in a very broad context to make sure it would be clear how various products are tied to the forest – from strawberry juice and pickled mushrooms to forest cycling.

The ʽWild. But nice.ʼ communication platform, which we designed with Innovatif and used to advertise the unspoilt nature and local hospitality, turned out to be the right choice.

For a communication story to catch on, it needs to be embraced by local providers. How do you persuade local food and beverage providers to join in?

I really want a 5-star culinary experience and we're already working on it, but we're still trying to motivate the local food and beverage service providers. The problem is that we don’t have enough affluent guests for the providers to see this as a great opportunity. We did make some headway before the coronavirus epidemic and started doing educational workshops and preparing menus through a Ministry of the Economy tender. Luka Košir from the Grič restaurant helped us create various dishes made from forest ingredients, and he'll also do practical training for the providers. The epidemic has done some damage, but has also opened new doors and will encourage a different mindset. Time will tell.

Tourism faced various epidemic-related challenges. Due to its vast forests, Kočevsko sounds like a perfect destination for a holiday with lots of peace and quiet, without much risk, which you advertised with the ʽWild. But nice.ʼ slogan. Have you been successful in convincing people that this is a good choice for a carefree getaway in nature?

We have. We dedicated the entire promotional campaign to presenting the region as a safe, peaceful and friendly destination. Once we had all the promotional videos ready, we made an extra one without any people, as we wanted to emphasise this fact in particular. All the changes posed by the epidemic dictate a new outlook on tourism, and we can offer exactly this. Fresh air, open space, outdoor tourism, which is what modern visitors will look for. We can offer boutique tourism in terms of small numbers of people, activities in nature, enjoying fresh air and clean waters far from the hustle and bustle of big cities. The ʽWild. But nice.ʼ communication platform, which we designed with Innovatif and used to advertise the unspoilt nature and local hospitality, turned out to be the right choice. People obviously embraced this message; in fact, in 2020, we reached the maximum number of visitors in terms of our accommodation capacity. Although lockdown was in place during the high season, we had a great year.

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The printed materials that are part of the destination brand's visual identity invite visitors to come and explore the Kočevsko region.

I take it these were mostly Slovenian visitors. Who were your typical visitors over the past few years?

This is not a destination that attracts more foreign than domestic visitors. 2019 was the first year when there were some more foreign visitors. In part, this was because we hadn't promoted the destinations in foreign markets. In 2020, it turned out to be a good thing that we weren’t so dependent on foreign visitors. Dimensions of a developing destination are at work here, which means that we are not yet a destination that would now face the kind of problems as, for instance, Ljubljana.

What events and activities have proven to be crucial for building your destination brand?

I think it was crucial that when we were developing the destination brand, the municipality decided to invest in infrastructure and build a hostel and camp. The fact that we managed facilities that we had full faith it helped us develop programmes and a range of tourist services and products. Over the years, we figured out what type of visitors come here and we’ve been able to make a summary of all the things on offer. Another important thing was the MTB trail centre for MTB enthusiasts; in fact, cycling is increasingly popular and in 2020 we could barely keep up with demand. This covered the interests of our youngest visitors and families. That being said, most Škrilj bunker visitors are over 50. With this range of various attractions we cover target groups of different ages and interests.

A few years ago, the Krokar virgin forest was inscribed on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List, which makes Kočevsko an even more attractive destination. How important is this for the region?

In a few years' time, when all the UNESCO-related formalities are completed, I hope the main thing people know the destination for is this. That's the goal. People are not allowed to go into the Krokar virgin forest, so we don't want to promote it until we have prepared the necessary infrastructure that will allow us to visit it without causing damage. When everything is ready, the Krokar virgin forest will certainly be the destination's most important site.

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The website as the main communication tool addresses user needs.

Tourism has undergone many changes recently, trends are changing. How does Kočevsko follow the trend towards the tourism industry's digitisation?

We developed our web presentation together with Innovatif and some other collaborators. We have a great website that has room for improvement and upgrades. There is, however, deficit in terms of the use of digital tools in tour guide services, which was obvious while the restrictive measures were in place. For instance, we had to temporarily stop bunker tours as we could not ensure a safe distance. We are thinking of offering digital bunker tours, which would allow us to offer all language options ​​and safe tours for small groups. We are also considering audio cycling tours by means of headphones, i.e. a guide would guide cyclists and provide tour commentary without having to stop so often. Another important new thing are VR experiences, which will allow visitors to get to know the Krokar virgin forest, which cannot be visited, and experience it through a VR headset and see the forest lifecycle. This presentation is a great tool to use at fairs to invite prospective visitors to visit our destination.

What do you think the future of tourism in the Kočevsko region will be like, what will be your next steps?

It's been five years since we started strategic development and experts believe it'll take about 10 years to see whether the project concept and management have been successful. I think even now, after only five years, there are signs that we made the right decision and this was the way to go. We've done a lot, but there's still a long way to go and the real results will be revealed in the future. Our goal for the next five years is to attract investors so we can offer new accommodation facilities, food and beverage options etc. We want to include various providers and help them develop their range of products and services. The goal for the next two years is to waymark the entire destination, i.e. cycling and hiking trails and other activities. And, of course, UNESCO. These are the main things.

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