Eurovision Puts Israel on the Global Conference Map

The high-profile music competition held in Tel Aviv last May has helped dispel their sponsors’ security worries

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The Eurovision Village while being constructed in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2019.
The Eurovision Village while being constructed in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2019. Credit: CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

More than 200 million shekels ($58 million) was invested by Israel’s Kan public broadcasting company and the city of Tel Aviv in hosting the 2019 Eurovision song competition last May.

The hopes that Eurovision would attract a tsunami of foreign tourists weren’t realized. A mere 7,000 came for the event – but some 200 million people around the world saw the broadcast, and the expectation was that this would lure visitors in its wake, especially for conferences and conventions.

Seven months later, no one can agree on whether Eurovision has delivered the goods. Some in the conference and convention industry say Eurovision has led to an increase in the number of events that are soon scheduled to take place in Israel, but others say Israel has failed to take advantage of the momentum that Eurovision created.

This has been record year in Israel for foreign tourism, but conferences and conventions, which are regarded as the most lucrative end of the tourism business, hasn’t shown the same rate of growth, According to the International Congress and Convention Association, Israel hosted 43 international events in 2018 – 17 in Tel Aviv and 10 in Jerusalem – putting it in a lowly 58th place among 110 countries in the world rankings.

Surprisingly, until this year, Israel was not represented at IBTM, the annual global gathering of the world’s convention industry, which is held in Barcelona. The decision to finally sponsor a booth followed the warm reception for an Israeli Tourism Ministry booth and for Israeli conference organizers at Frankfurt’s IMEX, a business conference industry convention held just two days after Eurovision.

“We thought if we participated in the Frankfurt show, there wouldn’t be any need to be in Barcelona,” said Daniel Garson of the Tourism Ministry, who is responsible for the promotion of conferences and conventions.

“But this year we realized the we had to be there. Our booth was 85 square meters [915 square feet] and was filled with people. Everyone said there had never been so much interest in Israel. After Eurovision, we found that people really appreciated us as a destination – finally not in a negative light.”

He said the Barcelona industry event showed that Tel Aviv could really become a major center for international conferences.

Iris Mazel, vice president of the Expo Tel Aviv convention center, where Eurovision took place, was in Barcelona, too, and agrees that Eurovision 2019 has changed attitudes.

“It used to be that when we came to exhibitions like this, people would talk to us only about politics and security. It was nice to see that this time the discussions were to the point – about direct flights [and] which hotel chains operate in Israel. They didn’t ask us, ‘What will we do if something happens while were in Israel?’

“They talked to us as they would if it were a conference in Berlin or Paris. The fact that people saw that Israel had produced an event like Eurovision opened their minds. Suddenly Europe viewed us in a completely different light,” she said.

When a professional organization is choosing an international conference site, it typically narrows the candidates to a select number of regions from which it is ready to entertain proposals, Mazel explained. “Since Eurovision, people are more open to the option of holding an event in the Middle East. It’s pretty clear that they don’t mean Lebanon or Syria.”

Whether that will translate into an increase in the number of events in Israel, no one will know for awhile. That is because unlike leisure travelers, who can purchase tickets up to the last minute, international conference venues are scheduled two or three years in advance.

“You can’t say that because of Eurovision this or that conference will happen in Israel – but there’s no question that the atmosphere has changed,” said Lior Gelfand, CEO of Ortra, which organizes professional conferences. “People are always telling us that they saw Eurovision. It’s a kind of admission ticket to the club. From now on, the decision [to hold an event in Israel] will be a business and commercial consideration.”

Gelfand wouldn’t provide any exact numbers, but he said Ortra was awarded more contracts in 2019 for conferences than in prior years.

“If we had been used to getting one positive response for every 20 proposals that we sent out, today the ratio is nicer. We can see the difference in the conversations, if, for example, a senior physician’s wife saw Eurovision. That creates a warmer relationship with the person opposite you,” he explained.

Eytan Schwartz, CEO of Tel Aviv Global – an initiative aimed at promoting Tel Aviv as a center for high-tech and tourism – said that until Eurovision, Tel Aviv was off the map for the people who decide on where to hold international conferences and conventions. Now it’s slated to host three in 2022, for which he credits Eurovision. He said the main problem now is the high cost of staging events in Israel.

The other challenge Israel faces is the hard work of cultivating connections with the decision makers at professional organizations. In that respect, said Eyal Halevy, the CEO of conference organizer Paragon Group, Israel has failed to leverage Eurovision.

‘There are thousands of decision makers in the world. It’s no problem bringing 50 or 100 of them to Israel. You just have to decide whom to bring and you can do it easily. All the information is there. We need to work in a more focused way with professional organizations – to bring them here and show them the product we call Israel,” said Halevy.

“We need more aggressive marketing and to work together – the Tourism Ministry, Tel Aviv’s World City initiative and the Jerusalem Development Authority. The atmosphere has improved, but we can’t say we have brought more conferences here because of Eurovision.”

Garson concedes that the Tourism Ministry may not have invited as many decision makers for get-to-know-you tours as it should have, but it’s on the agenda for next year. “I don’t want to bring just anyone, but rather those with the real potential to bring a conference,” he said.

It’s not a moment too soon, warned Gelfand, who said the Eurovision momentum would quickly dissipate if Israel doesn’t act.

“There’s a sell-by date. I don’t think it’s 2020. The Eurovision 2019 event in Tel Aviv is still being talked about. But it will eventually become old news,” he said.

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