International Conferences: A Tourism Market Israel Lets Slip By

Participants are big spenders, high quality tourists, but only recently has Israel made an effort to win the business

Two tourists looking at salt deposits in the Dead Sea shore in Israel.
Daniel Bar-On

The start of May saw no fewer than 15,000 tourists descend on Tel Aviv all in one fell swoop. On average they spent $700 a day, nearly three times what a typical visit to Israel does and generated total revenues from the three days they were in Israel of $31.5 million.

But those tourists weren’t in Israel see the sites or laze on the beaches, although they probably had dome some of that, too. Rather, they had come for the Agritech 2018 International Agricultural Technology Exhibition, an exhibit and conference for industry professionals.

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Unfortunately big conferences like Agritech come only once every so often for Israel. Conference tourism flourished in the 1990s, but the business eventually went in decline. Last, year, the International Congress and Convention Association ranked Israel at No. 59 among 168 countries as a host for international events. It had just 37, up from 34 in 2015 but down from 40 the year before that.

Israel is starting to get its act together, but the effort is small and under budgeted. Jerusalem opened its first convention bureau just three years ago, and three weeks ago Tel Aviv did the same. But the Jerusalem center has an annual budget of just 5 million shekels ($1.4 million) and Tel Aviv’s is less than half of that.

“The intentions are good and the two cities are really motivated, but if they’re really interested in putting Israel on the tourism map, the government has to get involved and provide a much bigger budget,” said an tourism industry executive who asked not ro be identified.

He said that kind of money being spent now was enough for the two bureaus to maintain contacts with the professional association and conference organizing companies they already work with but not enough to drum up new business.

Conferences are big business. The ICCA estimates they generated some $27 billion annually globally from 12,560 events in 2017. The average participant spends four nights in the host city, versus 3.1 for ordinary tourists.

The conferences are usually held under the aegis of a professional organization, with the logistics handled by a private company. Venues are chosen not only for local experts who are likely to attend but also for entertainment and other attractions. As well as listen to lectures and join workshops, participants want to have a good time. They often bring spouses and stay on for a private holiday afterwards.

Israel has more than its fair share of top universities and industry experts, which is one reason Agritech is such a big draw year after year. But it also makes for a good vacation, said Eytan Schwartz, CEO Tel Aviv’s Global & Tourism.

“At the end of the day it’s a vacation for conference participants. They want to travel someplace new. There’s almost no one who doesn’t want to visit,” he said. “We can offer them the winning combination of a quality tourism experience as well as meetings with colleagues who are experts in their fields.”

Tamir Dayan, CEO of the Tel Aviv Exhibition Center, that convention participants are typically high-spending travelers, like doctors, engineers and high-tech executives.

But the tourism executive warned that it wasn’t enough for Israel to rely on its natural assets as a destination, especially when there remain a lot of drawbacks to holding a convention in the country.

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“Why would a conference organizer choose Israel over London, Paris, Barcelona or Vienna? Israel is more expensive there aren’t enough hotels, transportation and infrastructure isn’t good and there’s always the fear that a security crisis will put the whole conference at risk,” he said.

“All this can be solved if the government recognized that it has to offer a lot more incentives and resources and make Israel relevant,” he said.

He pointed to various Middle East countries that realized they didn’t have the tourism attraction Israel has but overcame that problems by offering financial grants.

Israel’s volatile security situation is another obstacle. Conference are typically planned years in advance, which causes organizers to take the simpler option of a European city over the risk of Israel as the host.

In response, Israel’s Tourism Ministry has allocated a 15 million shekel budget for 2017-20 as a safety net for conference that have to be cancelled due to security problems. “It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best there is and helps with marketing,” said Lior Gelfand, CEO of the Tel Aviv-based convention organizer Ortra.

“When we get to the first stage of bidding [for an event] Israel often loses because of the security issue. The moment we tell them you can cancel the conference without absorbing the marketing costs it sends the message that we will be there for them and will support them. It opens a lot of doors.”