These ‘ladies of the castle’ have the hearts of musketeers


Vid Rotar

Date published

01. December 2020

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Despite its walls, the Ljubljana Castle is a welcoming attraction, offering a variety of cultural, historical, and culinary experiences. Life at the castle is created by a fine-tuned team headed by the Director of the Ljubljana Castle Public Institute, Mateja Avbelj Valentan. Simona Kokalj is in charge of marketing and Janja Rozman crafts its PR. That's why we couldn't have imagined doing this interview with anyone else but with these three strong and important ladies over a cup of coffee.


Vid Rotar

Date published

01. December 2020

Whenever I walk around Ljubljana and look towards the castle, it seems to be eyeing me reassuringly as is everything was perfectly fine just because it stands there. What do the three of you think of and feel when you look at it? Pride or a list of all the challenges that come with being responsible for such an important part of the city?

Mateja Now it's mostly just the castle as such. But back when I was starting out, I was mostly thinking about what still needs to be done. All of us feel emotionally attached to the castle, which is normal given the amount of energy we invest in it. And it feels good to look up at it and feel calm because I trust that everything is just fine.

You must have accomplished a lot if a sense of pride is the main feeling now?

Mateja Yes, the castle's been almost completely renovated. Of course, regular maintenance is needed and we think of new things to do every year, but the platform's there. So far we've accomplished all the things we wanted and we're really proud of it.

Simona, what do you think of when looking at the castle?

Simona I'm still most fascinated by the view when I drive up. Before the pandemic, the castle was open 365 days a year and my first thought was always related to our team. And there was also joy at all the visitors and all the things going on. When I was just starting out, what I saw were walls, now I feel the castle's energy. And this makes me smile. There’s probably not a girl who hasn't dreamt of walking down the castle corridors one day. I'm lucky my wish came true in the best possible way.

Janja (smiling about Simona's words) I have a similar experience. My parents once gifted me two watercolours, one of Plečnik's Križanke open-air theatre and one of the Ljubljana Castle. Both paintings really touched me, I was fascinated by the fact that they depicted what I felt was the most iconic Ljubljana thing. And then I was lucky to first get a job working for Križanke, and then for the castle a few years ago. I have both watercolours at home and every time I look at them, I feel incredibly privileged to have been part of Križanke and the castle. But I never see the castle as a work thing, I feel joy and pride.

An important part of any challenge is the people, the business partners with whom we work. We're very lucky that ours are extremely trustworthy and committed.

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Ms Avbelj Valentan, referring back to what you said – that most things have already been accomplished. How to find a new challenge when an important period’s behind you?

Mateja (she smiles and gives it some thought) I'm a person who needs challenges. I have to look ahead, feel that I can do something and achieve it together with the team. And with my team I can do anything. That being said, these are strange times. No one knows what things will be like in the future. Tourism, our industry, is going through a disastrous phase. And yet we have adapted, we're going with the flow. We’ll see how things will turn out. When we are vaccinated, when will tourism be revived. And of course the question is what the new normal will be like. Regardless, there are quite a few of challenges ahead of us. One of them is a parking garage so visitors can park under the castle. Another realistic plan is a second funicular car. And an ever-challenging matter is all the things the castle has to offer. We strive to be better every year, to keep in step with the times and to be innovative. An important part of any challenge is the people, the business partners with whom we work. We're very lucky that ours are extremely trustworthy and committed. We've been working with many of them for years, have developed a relationship of respect, trust and aspiration for progress. It's our shared challenges that have bonded and inspired us.

If you look back to 10 years ago, when you became the director of the newly-established Ljubljana Castle Public Institute, what was your biggest challenge back then? Did you ever think ʽwhy on earth did I get myself into thisʼ?

Mateja No, never.


Mateja Never.  At first, I may have been a bit sceptical about the public institute idea, but it actually turned out to be the right thing to do. We had a good starting point. A team of 28 people, quite a big team. It was time to give the castle content, a soul and complete it on several levels, especially in terms of optimal functionality. We also wanted to fully adapt it for visitors with special needs. The initial big challenge were team members who came from different backgrounds; from the companies in charge of Ljubljana's car parks and the Ljubljana to bond and make sure we have the same vision. At first, there was no complete trust between us, so we had to build it up. And the only way to win trust is through work and tangible results. Fortunately, we became a proper team through shared work relatively quickly. There's nothing I can do on my own.

Janja Rozman, according to the redesigned website, you're the head of the PR department. Does this mean you're a moat defending the castle? Do you ever get burdened with difficult questions? It seems your work consists of one lovely event after another, presentations of all the nice things the castle has to offer?

Janja There are always difficult questions. Even if there's no need for them, it's human nature to turn things around and come up with some. (laughing)

It's essential to work in two parallel worlds, in a digital one and outside of it, and to satisfy consumers in all aspects of both of them.

Can you share any such difficult questions that you still remember?

Janja Hm. The thing that caused quite a furore was the funicular construction. That was quite a few years ago, but there were really many negative reactions from journalists and the public at that time. Now that we have all gotten used to it and can see its merits, it's difficult to believe all the unpleasant questions, criticisms and doubts we received with regard to it. Sometimes it just takes time to get used to some ideas and changes. One of my jobs is to answer any question because it is right to discuss things and consider them from different angles.

Now that the plan is to build a second funicular track, has the response been positive?

Janja Yes, looking at the numbers, that's the only way to respond. The investment plan was for the funicular to transport 200,000 people a year and this has been exceeded three times. Before the epidemic, the number was close to 600,000. The flourishing tourism resulted in a longer funicular queue. Sometimes, it stretched all the way to the Vodnik monument.

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A redesigned and even more user-friendly website.

Simona Kokalj, you're the person in charge of the Ljubljana Castle marketing. People are usually quite familiar with the marketing work in ʽconventionalʼ companies. How about here, what does your work entail?

Simona An important part are all points of sale, physical and online ones. There's also the Friderik Castle Shop, renting out venues to legal entities for various corporate events and to natural persons for private celebrations and weddings. Another large part are tourism-related activities, cooperation with travel agencies, trade fair presentations etc. Apart from marketing in foreign markets, there's also a whole range of marketing communications in Slovenia, new product development, long-term tenants and F&B outlets. These are some of the main areas, but there's a lot more.

The Ljubljana Castle visual identity includes an orange hexagon, which is a stylised castle floor plan and an increasingly distinctive feature. You work on brand identity, brand voice and synergy a lot. What would you say to someone who argued you don’t need to place so much emphasis on advertising because you boast an excellent location and history as it is?

Simona I find it vital to focus on well-thought-out communication. Our strategy development revealed many different perceptions of the castle. For locals and other Slovenians, it has a completely different meaning than for foreigners. In fact, it is still a major challenge how to market the castle to Slovenians, to introduce them to the experiences that are interesting for them and not just foreigners. Tourists see the castle primarily as a tourist attraction, while for the locals it is mostly a place on their walking route and a place to take their guests to. We need to work on making people familiar with the castle's cultural and art offerings, on placing it alongside other local cultural institutions.

As far as I know, before the epidemic, there were many more foreign visitors than domestic ones, but the number of Slovenians was on the increase. The thing that probably helps is the Royal Loyalty Card. Will you now place even more emphasis on it?

Simona The card offers a number of benefits and is important. But currently, our main focus is on the digital content and online sales, so we'll integrate it into this even more. It won't apply only to physical tours and the funicular, but also to our online content. It's essential to work in two parallel worlds, in a digital one and outside of it, and to satisfy consumers in all aspects of both of them.

You have to know yourself well, understand the environment, and have a clear vision. Of course, mutual trust is a must too.

Speaking of the digital world, you have opened an online shop earlier this year, what are your next digital transformation projects?

Simona We're working on a VR programme. We also want to set up guided Zoom tours, do recordings of live cultural and artistic events. We're thinking about Jazz club and puppet show options. It's important for us to make the castle as interesting for visitors as possible and to make it accessible to them no matter what. Another interesting online thing we're working on are individual guided tours, which will take you around the castle by means of a camera.

You mentioned the Friderik Castle Shop earlier. Judging by the results, Friderik, the mischievous rat was the right choice for the castle shop's signature character. It became really popular with visitors. What was your reaction when the Innovatif team first suggested it? Was it love at first sight or were you in two minds, thinking a dragon might be a safer choice?

Simona This was a long process and we spent a lot of time thinking who or what would be the best choice and would also represent the castle's historical identity. We had many discussions whether we should choose a human or an animal form, or maybe some mythological creature. The dragon was one of the contenders, but somehow it wasn't the right choice, despite being connected to Ljubljana. We needed something new, something recognisably ours.

Mateja Friderik was love at second sight. We had to give some careful thought to whether we were 100% sure it was the right choice. But we knew we wanted something special. Of course, we had to really embrace this idea and once we did, there were no problems left. We believed we were on the right track.

Janja If memory serves, I was a bit shocked at first and I immediately started thinking about the possible reactions and how we would present it to people. On the other hand, he was very likeable, especially when he started telling his story. And this idea that the castle has been his home for centuries, that he knows every nook and cranny and is a fun storyteller is a great starting point for a lot of content.


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A handy and environment-friendly reusable tote bag.

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Fine wine from the castle vineyard with a new label.

I have a lot of respect for you, especially because you had the courage and vision to go with Friderik and weren't afraid of the challenge. Often one feels like creating something new, something different, and then gets filled with fear of the unknown and makes decisions that are safe and predictable. Any advice for such situations?

Mateja If the Friderik pitch hadn't been as good as it was, along with all the stories and applications, making it possible for us to really imagine the whole picture of what we are getting into, the decision might have been much more difficult and less sure. We made a joint decision and we did the right thing.

If I'm not mistaken, before the epidemic, the shop's sales revenue was very good compared to the period before Friderik?

Simona Yes. As pointed out by Mateja, the important thing was that we had a vision of how Friderik would be developed in many areas. It was like ʽAha, it fits well with our children's programmes, we can make a new educational guided tour, we'll produce a new picture book etc.ʼ This opened up endless possibilities.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but here's a piece of advice not just for agencies, but also for advertisers to do their homework.

Janja Yes, you have to know yourself well, understand the environment, and have a clear vision. Of course, mutual trust is a must too.

What's the one thing that's important so you can trust your agency or the partner you work with?

Simona It's important for the agency to know how to listen to the client, and vice versa. When the agency believes in its idea, it must promote it with great passion, but must also be able to adapt it to the situation. Being uncompromising is never the way to go. The cornerstone of everything is partnership, i.e. honest conversation, cooperation, the feeling that we're in this together, that the hourly rate is not the main thing. I'm used to having regular meetings, strategic analyses of circumstances, trends ... with all of us striving to create the best thing. The bonding energy is a must.

And speaking of energies, all three of you are strong women, each with their own views. What's vital for such a team being able to work together and complement one another despite or because of different views?

Mateja Mutual respect and regular communication are a must. We're strong because we have the freedom to do things the way we believe is right, because we can be creative and because we have great business partners at all levels. The only real challenge is to find the best way to implement our ideas. And this is like a fairy tale for me.

Janja If you ask me, the main thing is to respect one another. To make sure everyone knows their responsibilities and to have the management's support.

Simona As a team, we do lots of laps, considering things from different angles, so we can be calm and sure we’ve thought things through before making decisions. Discussing pros and cons and the management's trust is what makes us stronger.

And the final question half in earnest half in jest. Do you prefer yourselves described as the castle ladies or the castle musketeers?

Simona ... hmm, musketeers, yes.

Mateja Both … we're a good mix of both of these.

Janja In terms of our work, we're musketeers, but we also know how to be ladies.

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