Event organisers are finding exciting new opportunities in the newly independent Baltic states of the former Soviet Union. Estonia is one country that is reaping immense benefit. The increasing flow of business travellers has prompted Estonian Air to switch its London-Tallinn flights from Gatwick to London City from March 2013 in order to offer a three times a week service.
Visitors are amazed at how technically advanced Estonia has now become. Few Western European cities, let alone those in Eastern Europe, have such a sophisticated infrastructure. Meetings organisers can rest assured that everything they need to make a smooth running success is already in place in Tallinn – from first-class hotels and a wide choice of venues to quality catering and expert production and technical support.
You can still find pockets of grim Eastern-Bloc-style poverty, but tiny Estonia has done remarkably well from its Euro zone membership. There’s a boom in construction and general income and living standards have climbed steadily even while neighbouring economies have stagnated or even declined.
A self-proclaimed role as ‘Gateway to the West’ has enabled Tallinn to metamorphose from a sleepy and remote regional capital into a vibrant international hub, where it’s now as easy to find Japanese sushi, a pint of Guinness or an Italian pizza, as it is the potent local Vana Tallin Liköör. It’s a beautiful little city that’s also a key business hub, making it an attractive MICE destination.
With few natural resources, Estonia’s biggest asset is its people. It’s a country of just 1.36m that is closer in language and culture to Finland, just across the Baltic, than it is to its next-door neighbour, Russia.
Billing itself as ‘Where medieval meets modern’, Estonia embraces technology wholeheartedly. Its citizens carry an identity card that they can use to take care of multiple functions. In a country that has never had cheques, they can even use the card to vote, to pay for parking and to settle their income tax: ‘We’ve jumped straight from cash for everything to electronic banking,’ they’ll tell you proudly.
This is the country where Skype was invented; a place that can boast of 120 mobile phones per 100 head of population, while Wi-Fi is even available on buses and trains as well as in nearly every café and bar – yet you don’t have to venture far into the verdant and unspoilt countryside to encounter wolves and bears. With a thousand-year history, Tallinn is a former Hanseatic League port with a strategically important location that led to Estonia being invaded and occupied many times down the centuries.
The current spell, from 1991, is the country’s longest ever period of self-determination. EU membership and NATO protection have brought a long-awaited sense of lasting security.
Tallinn’s prime visitor attraction is its romantic old town, set atop a wall-girdled hilltop overlooking the busy harbour. It’s something of an illusion however, as the area was flattened by a Soviet air raid in 1945 and was later painstakingly rebuilt.
Latest attractions are guided tours of the bastion passages, the superb new Seaplane Harbour museum, which can serve as a venue and is complete with marine and aviation artefacts that include one of the first seaplanes and a full-sized former British submarine. And then there’s a fascinating visit to the old KGB spy listening room atop the famed Sokus Hotel Viru.
Soon to open as a venue next door is a former prison! And then there’s the viewing deck atop the 314m (over 1,000ft) high TV tower, which re-opened in April. It was originally built as part of the infrastructure for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
More conventional are the purpose-built Saku-Suurhalli conference centre, whose imposing main hall can handle events for up to 7,200 theatre-style; the 1,830 capacity Solaris Tallinn which is one of the most modern conference halls in the Nordic countries; and the classic 19th C National Opera and the Estonia Concert Hall. Events for 700 or less work well at such venues as Tallinn University of Technology, the beautiful hall at the Tallinn Spring Song Festival Grounds, the National Library, Tallinn University Conference Centre and the 18thC Teachers House of Tallinn.
Besides the Sokus Hotel Viru, with its 14 meetings spaces, conference orientated hotels in Tallinn include the Meriton Grand Conference & Spa Hotel, Radisson Blu Olümpia, the Swissotel Tallinn and the 267-room Nordic Hotel Forum.
Among major events staged in Tallinn recently have been the World Clean-up Conference, the International Conference on Cyber Conflict, the ETAPS International Conference and the German-Baltic Surgical Conference. It’s a small city, easy to get around, but if you tire of city life, travel an hour out of town to the wonderful Vihula Manor Hotel & Spa, a haven of peace and tranquillity set beside an unspoilt national park. Like Estonia itself, this lovely property is a happy marriage of ancient tradition and cutting edge modernity – and it’s British run.
Roger St Pierre