Destination report: Rome

The Italian capital is often viewed primarily as a leisure destination, but it is still an important business travel hub, as well as being an enticing option for meetings and conferences, given its myriad of historic attractions and venues.

While it is true that Milan is Italy’s financial, industrial and commercial centre, Rome remains a vital base for industries such as the service sector, technology and pharmaceuticals. For example, the city is home to three of the world’s largest companies: energy giant Enel, oil and gas conglomerate Eni and Telecom Italia.

But what are the factors likely to affect both the corporate and meetings market to the Italian capital in the next few years? A major development is in the aviation market, where no-frills competition is beginning to bite, while more major hotel companies are also gaining a larger presence in the ‘eternal city’.

Rome Cavalieri, part of Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria group and hosted ACTE’s global conference in 2012

Transport

Rome’s main airport, Fiumicino, is by far Italy’s busiest gateway with 36.2 million passengers in 2013 – well ahead of Milan Malpensa’s annual figure of 18 million.

It has been traditionally dominated by flag-carrier Alitalia. But the airline is now being seriously challenged by no-frills competitors, particularly Easyjet, which is expanding rapidly, while  Vueling is opening a base at Fiumicino this year.

That’s not to mention Alitalia’s ongoing talks with Etihad which may result in the Abu Dhabi-based carrier taking a minority stake in the perpetually-struggling Italian airline, and is likely to spur a major cost-cutting drive within Alitalia at Rome’s airport.

Whether this deal happens or not, competition is likely to keep airfares down on both European and domestic routes from Rome. Easyjet broke Alitalia’s monopoly on the country’s most lucrative domestic route between Fiumicino and Milan Linate in 2013, following the intervention of the Italian competition authority – a development described by Easyjet chief executive Carolyn McCall as a “historic victory”.

Easyjet is continuing to add services this year with 33 routes from Fiumcino, as it aims to increase passengers from last year’s three million to four million. As well as seven new routes this summer, Easyjet is adding five extra weekly departures from Gatwick.

Vueling, now part of British Airways’ parent company IAG, is also to introduce services to 34 destinations from Rome to a variety of European – but not UK – destinations, such as Athens, Munich, Prague, Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin.

Laura Merritt, from Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s (CWT) meeting and events division, says the increased presence of no-frills airlines “will open up the market considerably”. She adds: “Rome has a vast number of flight options from around Europe, which makes it a very attractive conference destination.”

Fiumicino also benefits from a high-speed train link, known as the Leonardo Express, from the airport to the city’s central station, Rome Termini, which takes 30 minutes and operates every half-hour.

HRG Italy’s managing director Claudio Miglio points out that Rome has been a beneficiary of the development of Italy’s high-speed rail network, which has increased domestic connections and given business travellers more transport options to and from the Italian capital. “In the last few years there has been an improvement in high-speed trains – Italo (NTV) and Frecciarossa (Trenitalia) – which easily connect Rome to the main Italian cities faster than before,” he says.

Rome is the fifth most expensive major European city to stay in, with an ADR of €142.6

Accommodation

Rome is not seeing the surge in new properties that other European capitals have benefited from in recent years. Indeed, hotel data firm STR Global estimates that there are only 650 new rooms currently under construction in the city’s hotel pipeline. This has created a “strong and stable” hotel market according to the latest research from business advisor Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PWC), which says that rates have “proven relatively resilient to the global economic downturn”, mainly due to persistently strong leisure demand for rooms in Rome, and its higher proportion of upscale hotels than other regional competitors.

Rome is ranked by PWC as the fifth most expensive major European city in which to stay, with an average daily rate (ADR) of €142.6 in 2013 – only Geneva, Zurich, London and Paris had higher average rates last year. This is unlikely to change over the next few years with so few hotel rooms being added in Rome, and PWC is predicting that daily room rates will rise to €144.3 in 2014 and up to €146.8 in 2015.

A trend likely to continue is the increasing presence of chain hotels – mostly through the takeover of existing properties in Rome. These rebrands include Jumeirah Grand Hotel Via Veneto, Intercontinental Hotels Groups’  Hotel Indigo Rome – St George and Holiday Inn Rome – Pisana, and Hotel Eden, which has joined the Dorchester Collection. The most recent major new-build in Rome was the 116-room Gran Melia Villa Agrippina, which opened in 2012.

HRG’s Miglio says: “International hotel chains consider Rome as a high-impact destination able to combine work with leisure. There is a huge choice of hotels – modern, design or historical palaces – where it is possible to combine accommodation, meetings and meals in the same place.”

Rome ranked 20 in the International Congress Association’s list of most popular cities for meetings

Meetings and Events

There have been some anecdotal reports from meeting organisers suggesting that holding events and conferences in Rome can boost attendance by around 20 per cent compared to other host cities. Many in the MICE sector cite cultural and historic factors to explain the city’s attraction to delegates.

Rome has a host of venues, such as the Palalottomatica, a sport and entertainment complex, and theatres such as Auditorium del Massimo. There is also the Fiera Di Roma exhibition centre, as well as hotel options such as the Rome Marriott Park Hotel, near Fiumicino airport, Sheraton Rome and the Rome Cavalieri, which is part of Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria group and hosted ACTE’s global conference in 2012 (see panel, below).

CWT’s Merritt says: “A lot of the hotels are built in to the old buildings, so they have a lot of character, while providing excellent modern facilities. While Rome can be seen of more of a leisure destination, its world-renowned attractions, such as the Coliseum and the Vatican, are perfect for team building and general activities during business trips.”

Chambers Travel Events says that, while logistically, Milan may be favourite for larger symposium groups or congress events, Rome is the top Italian destination for the mid-range conference market.

Events held in Rome “consistently draw high numbers”, says ACTE’s executive director Greeley Koch. “Rome was, and will continue to be, a business event destination for ACTE. However, it should be noted that Italy – and Europe – has other commercial centres as well, where costs may be more manageable.”

Another development which could help take Rome to another level is the much-delayed new convention centre, known as La Nuvola or  ‘The Cloud’, which is currently set to open in early 2015. The futuristic building, which was first commissioned in the late 1990s, will have capacity for up to 8,000 delegates including an auditorium with seating for 1,850 people.

There is still speculation about whether the building will be finished amid fears about funding for the project. It is being constructed in the Eur district which was first developed in the 1930s for the Universal Exposition that had been scheduled for 1942, but never happened due to the Second World War.

The current plan is for La Nuvola to open in the months leading up to Expo 2015 in Milan, which runs from May 1-October 31. Rome is also hoping to benefit from the holding of this major event in Italy, particularly with the increase in competition on flights between the two cities.

Rome could do with a boost as a meetings venue as it only ranked 20th in the International Congress & Convention Association’s list of the most popular worldwide cities for meetings – a long way behind European competitors such as Vienna, which topped the list, followed by Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Barcelona and London.

Thumbnail source: Tripadvisor

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