Istanbul's meeting industry
Embarking on her career in 1994 in the communications field, Elif Balcı Fisunoğlu worked at TRT Istanbul Television. In 1997, she began work at Dedeman Holding, operating in the tourism industry. From 2001 to 2014, she served at the Istanbul Convention and Visitors Bureau (ICVB). Playing active roles at international industry organizations, Fisunoğlu also served as the President of the ICCA Med. Chapter and she was also a Board Member at European Cities Marketing (ECM). Fisunoğlu is the President of the Turkish Chapter of Meeting Professionals International (MPI) and General Coordinator of the Kalyon Tourism Group, which owns the Kalyon Hotel Istanbul, the Kalyon Çeşme Hotel, the Reji Event Venue, and the Kalyon Tourism and Travel Agency.
Q: What are MPI Turkey’s highlights this year?
In 2017 we are hosting some specialized events, but as you can probably tell the meetings industry, as well as the tourism industry is going through some tough times right now. When we compare what our tourism sector has achieved in the past 15 years to the current situation you can see that we have some financial issues that need fixing. It’s times like this that we acknowledge the importance of international networks and local communities like MPI, which volunteer and devote their time to such issues. We’ve had many discussions about overcoming the crisis with our colleagues and we believe taking a positive and active approach is the only way to go during this period. MPI has been very active since its very beginnings in 2011 and although we are a young chapter, our team has grown into a strong and capable community. One of our successes was also hosting the European EMEC in 2014.
“Istanbul is a strong destination with great infrastructure, a strong local economy, international associations and multinational companies. People are starting to receive the positive messages and we know the corporate clients and visitors will start coming back very quickly.”
Q: You are organized as a chapter? How many members do you have?
Yes, we are a chapter. At the moment, we have over 20 members, but our team has slimmed down in the last couple of years. MPI is still trying to become more active and more renowned within Europe and that is one of our main missions. The other one is establishing a local community, which I found is very important, when I became a member of MPI.
Q: MPI is not only focused on suppliers, but also meeting friends and colleagues. What about meeting planners?
We are trying to encourage corporate clients to become members of MPI and encourage networking with them. MPI’s educational segment is internationally very strong and our corporate clients have been showing great interest in educational events. Our MPI team is attending this year’s IMEX as a hosted buyer and after it ends we are planning to have a big educational event, where we will host Turkish members of different associations. I believe it will be more sustainable for the suppliers to have the opportunity of coming together with the corporate world. I believe our educational activities are very important for creating a bigger network with different players of the industry while also helping create a better educational platform. The priority for me is to create a platform that will bring together local suppliers and local buyers.
Q: How do you see Istanbul’s meeting industry scene in 2017?
I think 2017 won’t be the best year for Istanbul, as we have had some difficulties and big challenges in the past couple of years. But nevertheless Istanbul is a strong destination with great infrastructure, a strong local economy, international associations and multinational companies. I believe it will get back on its feet soon. People are starting to receive the positive messages and we know the corporate clients and visitors will start coming back very quickly. The association market will, because of its nature, take a little more time but we have to be positive. We need to fight the negative perception with a great amount of positivity.
Q: MPI Global, SITE and ICCA are sending this positive message to the world so you are already part of the solution?
Yes, and we are trying to become closer with SITE. MPI and SITE Global are organizing their event next year together in Rome and it will be a chance for us to work on behalf of our destination with Istanbul Convention Bureau to promote Istanbul. We are already part of MPI’s international network with 17 000 members and the same is with SITE. It’s time for Turkish tourism and meetings industry professionals to create a positive message and start delivering it to the rest world.
Q: What are the biggest opportunities you see for Istanbul’s meetings industry? Do you believe in the importance of creativity in the business world?
Istanbul is a big city, it’s like a whole country in fact. It is home to 20 million and a lot of international and national corporations and associations, so even our local events can have bigger budgets. Because of the budget and the local competition, companies must be more creative. Thus, the creativity in our incentive and meetings market is very high on the agenda. We also have great up to date infrastructure for all kinds of events. We already have all the leading international hotel brands and some newcomers under our wings. We also have to consider Istanbul’s positional advantage and improving financial aspects. One can’t find any reason not to visit Istanbul
Q: How would you impress new meeting planners and “millennials” to come to Istanbul? What is the key to attract them to your destination?
We have discussed this exact question many times in the last seven years. There are so many destinations that can provide the beauty and the infrastructure and when it comes to Europe there are many destinations like ours. But what is becoming increasingly important is content. The question is, are you able to create content and provide more to the meeting planners as a destination or a local industry? The meetings industry is not only about providing logistics as it was in the past. Times have changed and you need to be offering technological support, an appearance on social media and most importantly great content.
I think it is very important not only for us, but for all destinations around the world competing for international events to be aware of new trends and new important factors. In Istanbul we have young talented and internationally educated professionals, so we have the intelligence to fully support meeting planners.
Q: What is the biggest challenge when creating high profile events with big expectations from the guests?
People travel a lot now, so they are all experienced travellers. There is so many beautiful destinations, with great cuisine, new luxuries and comfort. Consequently expectations have been raised, not only for upscale but for all kinds of events and visitors. It is again becoming important how you combine all the advantages your destination has to offer. It doesn’t matter if the tourist package is made for conferences, incentives or leisure you need to add different elements and spice up the whole experience. What makes the difference is how well you can implement those elements. Having good food, doesn’t necessarily mean your guests will have an excellent gourmet experience.
Q: What is MPI’s global focus?
MPI’s number one unique selling point globally is the education, as there is already a really great platform with good content. The researches, the statistics, the articles, the whitepapers … Any member who browses through deep parts of the MPI website, really gets to know the whole new world of the meetings industry. Together with the speaker’s portal it offers a great educational opportunity. Of course, granting the only meetings industry certificate for meeting professionals is also an important part of MPI. We are in talks with the European part of MPI International, as we want to create a new local or European version of the certificate, since the current one relies more on American models. There are many pros and cons of creating a new local certification model and we also know we need to cooperate more with the universities.
In Turkey, we have “tourism education”, which refers to the meetings industry and events, but is really not the best option for future meetings industry experts. On the other hand, part of the needed education is covered by communication and public relation programs. I personally come from the discipline of communication with a masters and Ph.D. degree, but I have been working in tourism for nearly 20 years now. Some countries have dedicated meetings industry education, but unfortunately that is not the case in Turkey even though the industry is so huge. Communication with universities is in this sense very important for MPI. At the end of the day, our goal is to increase our business potential, so any opportunity for education we create on a local and global level is of great importance. Networking and education makes you a more up to date meeting planner and you can impress your clients in a better way.
“Newcomers need to be prepared to work hard. Working in tourism is not just a job, it is a lifestyle. It is also not a nine-to-five job. You work evenings, on weekends, you travel and sooner or later it becomes your lifestyle.”
Q: What attracted you to join the MICE industry?
I started my professional career at a Turkish state TV as an assistant director. I worked there for two years, but I wanted to turn my attention to advertisement and promotion, so I started working in an advertisement agency. I had clients from different sectors, also from tourism and I slowly realised that I wanted to be on the client’s side of this relationship. My next job was as a PR hotel representative for one of the largest hotel chains in Turkey. At that time I came to know the work of our Convention Bureau and decided it would be the perfect match for me considering my education and working experience. I really loved every second I spent working for ICVB. I quickly realised that the tourism and event industry is a demanding working environment, there are no regular working hours and there is quite a lot of stress. There is usually no balance between the effort you put in and the profit you make, because there are so many variables. Working at the Convention Bureau really brought me closer to this line of work. Right now my position as General Coordinator makes me in charge of two hotels, one special venue, a DMC and a travel agency, which currently takes most of our focus.
Q: What advice would you give to our younger colleagues in Europe?
They need to be prepared to work hard. Working in tourism is not just a job, it is a lifestyle. It is also not a nine-to-five job. You work evenings, on weekends, you travel and sooner or later it becomes your lifestyle. It is demanding and hard but if you find a way to enjoy it, it is special.
Q: What is your favourite place/spot in Istanbul and why?
This answer is difficult to answer, but I would have to say it is not one specific place, rather the diversity of two destinations fused into one, just like the old and new parts of the city interweave with the sea. It’s important for me to promote Istanbul as the city of two continents, Europe and Asia, as tourists typically don’t see the Asian side, its greenery, nice mansions and overall beauty.
The old city where our hotel is located, is really one of the nicest places on Earth, with an open air museum making it unique and only one or two other cities in the world can compete with it. Istanbul has so many different aspects and one cannot capture its true essence by just visiting the main tourist attractions. If I get a little more specific, one of my favourite places in Istanbul is the re-established Karaköy district, where I love spending my free time.