Deputy Chairman, Corfu Tourism Promotion Board
Members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators of Britain (AITO) left the Greek island of Corfu full of enthusiasm after their highly successful annual overseas conference ITO 2000, which was held between 19 and 23 October 1996.
Surprised by the magical scenery, stunned by the diversity of Corfu's tourism product and staggered by the overwhelming hospitality, the tour operators gained a new insight into what the island has to offer, both as a holiday destination and as a venue for conferences.
AITO Chief Executive Sue Ockwell described the conference as "an outstanding success".
"The Corfiots have been extremely welcoming," she continued, "and the conference delegates have been immensely impressed. They're all saying it's a wonderful island and that they want to come back."
AITO is just one of the increasing number of national and international organisations and companies which are choosing Corfu as a conference venue. So, on an island which is best known as a traditional Mediterranean 'sea and sun' destination what factors attract in parallel high profile events such as AITO 2000?
Despite decades of popularity, tourism has made less of a mark on Corfu than it has on many other destinations. Certainly, AITO members who had not previously visited the island were pleasantly surprised to have their preconceived notions turned upside down by the beauty of unspoilt coast and hinterland.
While lovely scenery, superb climate and hospitable people may not be the major criteria for the choice of a venue - though, of course, they help - Corfu offers other advantages which have placed it at the forefront of conference and business venues.
Its geographical location at the apex of the Central Mediterranean basin, which has made it a crossroads for trade and cultural exchange for thousands of years, put it within easy reach of all European airports, as well as via Athens and cities in the northern and southern hemispheres. Its recently extended international airport is a destination for economic daily flights.
Another practical consideration is accommodation, and the five luxury hotels which provide conference and incentive facilities also offer a very comfortable stay, at prices well below their equivalent in northern European cities.
Add to this a highly trained workforce experienced in hosting conferences and in providing full back-up services.
But most of all conference organisers must appraise congress services. We mentioned facilities at five hotels, the largest of which caters for over 500 delegates, and conference capacity will soon be enormously expanded by the opening of the Corfu Conference Centre, which is approaching completion. Located five minutes from the airport and between ten and 15 minutes from the major hotels, the Centre accommodates 900 delegates in plenary session. An outdoor theatre seating 1,000, an indoor cinema, and a complete complement of workrooms and press rooms are augmented by many other services such as a radio station, a bookbinding studio, a restaurant and an Orthodox church. The Centre is equipped with state-of-the-art technology.
Thus in practical terms, the success of a conference in Corfu is guaranteed.
But the conference organiser is not looking solely for smooth running and business success, the delegate not solely for work and exchange of views. A location where work factors can be combined with enjoyment is bound to attract more delegates, and make for a more memorable and successful conference. This is where Corfu outstrips other venues, as it offers the unique possibility for combining a conference with a vacation atmosphere.
Outside the hours of business sessions, conference participants can choose from activities to suit any taste and interest. At AITO 2000, the more active members enjoyed golf, cricket and yachting, while those less inclined to exertion relaxed around the pool. Corfu's 18-hole golf course is rated for championship events; its six cricket clubs provide good competition for visiting teams; its sheltered water and generally favourable winds are ideal for flotilla and bare-boat sailing.
Delegates interested in culture can visit more than 20 museums and art galleries, including an annexe of the National Gallery, mediaeval castles and Venetian fortresses, stately home and gardens, and fabulously decorated monasteries and churches.
The rich artistic and musical heritage, the philharmonic bands, the symphony orchestra, the choirs, the opera company and contemporary and folkloric dance groups, ensure a full programme of cultural events for evening entertainment, with the enjoyment continuing into the night with all types of diversions. A luxurious casino and many superb and affordable restaurants cater for the most sophisticated taste, while those who wish to sample evening entertainment in local style will be made most welcome.
Corfu is a living, working island, with an infrastructure demanded by its role as a home for 120,000 people and as a tourist destination. Add to this its present and future conference facilities and the diversity and quality of activities and services offered - and no wonder so many companies choose Corfu.