Mag. Alexandra Kaszay
© Hofburg Vienna, Foto Mag. Jana Madzigon

"The congress isn't dead"

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing the congress industry to have a radical re-think, having been cornered by the invisible virus like hardly any other. Nevertheless, its sights are still fixed firmly on the future. Ideas are already being floated as to how congresses will be able to function under different conditions. One thing, for example, is clear to the operators of the Hofburg Vienna: congresses on the scale and manner in which we knew them before coronavirus will no longer exist.

Much is currently up in the air, even in such an historic place as Vienna's Imperial Palace. The noblest event location in the city is faced, like the competition, with dozens of requirements and constantly changing stipulations. Managing Director Alexandra Kaszay is convinced that the congress will nevertheless dance again – figuratively and literally: "Meeting one another, communicating face to face, that will come again. The longing for that is huge, that's the message we're getting from many conversations." People will have to adjust to events with fewer guests on site and instead more participants joining in externally. There will also be some simplification. But dead the congress most certainly is not.

Progress in dealing with the crisis

Progress is also being made in dealing with the crisis. "Three or four months ago, there were hardly any rapid tests available, but now you can find out if there's any risk of infection within half an hour to an hour. That's a big glimmer of hope for the entire industry," says Kaszay. She advanced to the top position at the Hofburg Congress Center in December 2013.

It has recently been demonstrated that events can held to everyone's total satisfaction even under coronavirus conditions. Hopes had been dashed of being able to hold some of the events canceled in the spring due to COVID-19 in the summer instead; travel restrictions and limited participant numbers prevented this. On the other hand, there was much praise for holding a conference on migration issues at the Hofburg Vienna, which was attended over two days in the second half of July by interior ministers from 18 European countries. Delegates from Bulgaria and Romania joined in by video stream due to the travel restrictions.

More weight on technology

"The whole industry is now talking about hybrid or virtual meetings. We've been able to offer those for quite some time already. Only it was never as essential as it is now," says Kaszay. This is something that could be built upon. The coronavirus-induced shift towards digitization is enormous and for the long term. It is already clear that the amount and importance of technology in the congress business will continue to grow. The changed spatial situation will lead to a reduction in the turnover that can be generated from the rental of rooms and spaces. The new distancing rules mean that far fewer people will be admitted to congress venues. Before coronavirus, the Hofburg Congress Center had space in its various halls for a total of 3,600 people. Not included in this figure are the Redoutensäle rooms, which have space for a further 4,200 people, but which are currently being used as temporary accommodation by parliament. Under the coronavirus-related, one-meter distancing rules, the festival fall, for example, can now hold 609 people compared to 1,218 before COVID-19.

The costs are therefore distributed among fewer people. "This is a huge issue in the industry and will affect locations as well as organizers," says Kaszay. "Technology costs money. Not everything that's online can be consumed free of charge."

Experience the Vienna feeling virtually too

The Hofburg manager has no worries when it comes to conveying that special Vienna feeling to guests who participate in an event virtually rather than in person. "Our building and its historic, imperial rooms are pretty much predestined for getting these Vienna vibes across. So you can easily let people who participate in the congress from elsewhere in the world by video stream feel like they're really there. We don't have to borrow one of the films about Sissi – with us, it's all real," says Kaszay. Browse to the Congress Center website and you can go on virtual tours through the states rooms of Vienna's Imperial Palace or marvel at the city's sights from a bird's-eye view.

Even for the very many balls that are traditionally held at the Hofburg, Kaszay sees a glimmer of hope. If suitably good tests are available at the start of the ball season then I can see us being able to do something. In that respect, the Salzburg Festival is "a positive lifeline," says Kaszay. "They've found means and ways. The festival is happening in reduced form, but it is happening."

Further information about the HOFBURG Vienna: www.hofburg.com

You can find more information on planning an event at Hofburg Vienna in the Venue Finder on the website of the Vienna Convention Bureau.

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