Exhibition Showcase Talks To Florian Sengstschmid, CEO, Azerbaijan Tourism Board

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Florian Sengstschmid is the CEO of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB) and the Chief Advisor of the State Tourism Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan (STA). An Austrian-born leader that combines multiple perspectives on tourism development with a strategic and operational approach, Florian is instrumental in leading the transformation of brand Azerbaijan and launching the iconic ‘Take another look’ campaign on a global platform. Prior to his current role, Florian was the Chief Operating Officer of Pasha Travel in Baku and the Executive Director of Azerbaijan Convention Bureau.

For more than two decades, Florian held a wide range of leading roles in the international travel and tourism industry, from marketing manager of a luxury hotel, to Commercial Attaché at the Austrian Embassy in Moscow and Representative of the Austrian National Tourism Board in CIS countries. Culminating his diverse career in the tourism industry Florian founded his own consultancy, EUDS Tourism Development and Solutions, in Vienna in 2004.

Florian holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Vienna. He is fond of cooking and loves to travel.

ES. You have had a wide range of leading roles in international travel and tourism for more than two decades, what was your motivation? What made you to fall in love with this industry? Please share with us about your early life and career.

Florian Sengstschmid. I studied tourism and sociology and have been working within the tourism sector for more than 25 years. What brought me to this sector was merely how I valued human interaction and the fact that tourism is all about people. For true travel enthusiasts, it is not just about seeing new places, but exploring new cultures, learning about diverse lifestyles and meeting people from different backgrounds. New experiences enriching our lives are exactly what keep us going and I think travel is one of the best ways to gain them while we reset our body and mind.

I have worked in multiple countries like Austria, Russia, Estonia, Greece, Vietnam, Bhutan, Hungary, Lithuania, Georgia among others and supported a wide range of them in tourism development. I have dedicated the last 10 years of my professional life to the development of the tourism industry in Azerbaijan, and it has been a great pleasure to work in such a country with so much to offer with its rich cultural and historic heritage as well as natural wonders.

ES. India is among the top ten markets of Azerbaijan. Tell us, why Azerbaijan is becoming a popular travel destination among Indian travellers? What should the tourists look for in the region?

Florian Sengstschmid. India is indeed an important market for us. To strengthen your statement, when we reached an all-time record of 3.2 million arrivals in 2019, the most remarkable markets were Central and South Asia with substantial growth of about 67% from Indian travellers, who can obtain e-visas through an easy process as fast as in 3 hours. Travellers from India can find a range of activities here.

They can either choose sightseeing in Baku to feel its stunning fusion of East and West and ancient and modern and find perfect restaurants offering fantastic flavours from both traditional and international cuisine, or opt to get out and go hiking in lush forests and the enchanting Caucasus mountains, take off-road tours to remote villages, ski in the north or visit lemon and tea plantations in the southern tropical part of the country. Azerbaijan is also one of the most preferred destinations for Indian weddings. Numerous Indian weddings have been organised successfully in Azerbaijan so far thanks to its 5-star hotel chains, luxurious amenities and great experience in this sector.

I think the reason for Azerbaijan’s popularity among Indians as a wedding destination is that weddings are a big celebration here too and Azerbaijanis certainly know how to create a festive atmosphere. Therefore, we look forward to hosting more Indian weddings in Azerbaijan as soon as the situation with the pandemic allows again. All in all, the similarity between the culture, history, and traditions of Azerbaijan and India further strengthens our tourism ties. The Ateshgah fire temple in the vicinity of Baku is a perfect example of historical relations and cultural exchanges between India and Azerbaijan. This 18th century monument, built over natural fires previously worshipped by Zoroastrians, is solid proof of the trade links and hospitality that Indian merchants on the Silk Road enjoyed in Azerbaijan.

ES. As we moved into 2021, what will be the top trends in Azerbaijan?

Florian Sengstschmid. The pandemic has certainly introduced new travel patterns. Obviously, one such trend right now is to provide sustainable and responsible travel experiences focusing on the unique features of Azerbaijan. Our advantage is that Azerbaijan has abundant natural resources with 9 out of the world’s 11 climate zones, and this allows us to improve ecotourism here. We have recently developed and marked hiking trails along a 150 km-long route, so travellers in need of a ‘safe haven’ can certainly find it in Azerbaijan as they pass by splendid lakes and waterfalls, through forests and the magnificent Caucasus mountains. In addition to hiking, we are working on rural tourism as well as infrastructure development in remote villages to make them accessible for unforgettable travel experiences.

Another one of our main offerings is birdwatching. Azerbaijan combines regionally special or endemic bird species with amazing views and landscapes for birdwatching enthusiasts in places like Khinalig and Laza in the Guba and Gusar regions in the north as well as the Talish Mountains in the south. I would also like to mention the mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan, whose moonlike landscape makes for a unique stargazing or glamping experience. Quite recently, we had a high-level ceremony to lay the foundation of the Mud Volcanoes Tourism Complex. The complex is located near the UNESCO-listed Gobustan Reserve, where an astonishing collection of over 6,000 ancient petroglyphs depict ways of life dating as far back as 40,000 years, and it will welcome visitors with an exhibition hall, café and workshop. Together with ecotourism, we are also reemphasising the importance of the history and culture that makes any trip unforgettable. There are 3 unique UNESCO Heritage Sites in Azerbaijan. While you can stroll through the labyrinth-like narrow streets of Icherisheher – the Old City where the Shirvanshahs’ Palace, the 15th century residence of Baku’s medieval rulers, as well as ancient Maiden Tower, will allow you to dive into the historic roots of the country.

Travellers can also taste the most delicious meals of Azerbaijani cuisine served here in traditional restaurants. Another UNESCO-protected site is the Gobustan Reserve I mentioned earlier, and the last but definitely not the least is the Historic Centre of Sheki together with the Sheki Khan’s Palace. Sheki is also a part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network because of its rich heritage encompassing 18 craft forms, including embroidery, pottery, weaving and music, among other things. When talking about Azerbaijan, we should also definitely highlight the delicious flavours of the local cuisine, which has been enriched by the different cultures that once travelled along the Great Silk Road. Thanks to the country’s unique climate – which allows an abundance of organic produce to be grown, including mouth-watering fruits and vegetables, nuts, honey and much besides – Azerbaijan can offer travellers the tastiest of dishes and desserts. Therefore, another step we have taken towards sustainability has been to introduce the Slow Food Travel concept via the project COVCHEG (Community-based Value Chain Enhancement in the Greater Caucasus Mountains Area) funded by the European Union. While this project aims at enhancing the local gastronomy and economic regeneration in rural areas, it also helps us provide travellers with first-hand experience of farming and cooking as well as the opportunity to learn about peculiar features of the local cuisine.

ES. How Azerbaijan is connected with the rest of the world? What is the current state of MICE infrastructure in Azerbaijan?

Florian Sengstschmid. Azerbaijan is perfectly connected to the world with more than 50 direct flights to various destinations and over 20 airlines operating in the country, as well as a simplified visa process where dozens of nationalities can obtain e-visas to Azerbaijan within just 3 days, while some can obtain it upon arrival. We have numerous air routes, especially to the CIS, European, Turkish and the Middle Eastern destinations, while direct flights go as far as New York and Beijing. The capital city, Baku, is a well-organised modern-day transport hub that dominates the eastern Caucasus region. Azerbaijan’s great emphasis on developing an excellent domestic and international transport infrastructure is most visible in the Heydar Aliyev International Airport, which was awarded the prestigious Skytrax 5-star rating and is easily accessible just 25 minutes’ drive from the city centre. This airport also received the highest 5-Star COVID-19 Airport Safety Rating following a thorough evaluation of front-line airport facilities and services to determine how effectively and consistently COVID-19 mitigation procedures are being provided.

In addition to the Heydar Aliyev International Airport, there are 5 more international airports in Azerbaijan and 3 more will be constructed. As for business events infrastructure, Azerbaijan boasts ultra-modern business events venues that are well-equipped to accommodate delegates at the highest level. The Baku Convention Centre is the largest such venue in the Caucasus region with a capacity to host up to 3,500 people in its auditorium and 15 conference rooms together with spacious networking areas – and it certainly feels like being in a spaceship that has landed in the centre of Baku. Another iconic venue that is more than suitable for different types of events is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by world-famous architect Zaha Hadid and considered the crown jewel of Baku’s modern architecture. The Baku Expo Centre is another multipurpose events venue designed and constructed in accordance with the highest international standards. It hosts industry exhibitions, conferences, product demonstrations and corporate events for business and entertainment. Event organisers have nothing to worry about when it comes to accommodation too. Azerbaijan offers multiple options ranging from luxury hotels in cutting-edge buildings, international and local hotel chains to family-run establishments and small inns and youth hostels. Famous international chains operating in Azerbaijan include the Four Seasons, JW Marriott Absheron, Fairmont, Hilton and so on. Courtyard by Marriott Baku and IHG were also recently opened, and we are looking forward to the opening of the Ritz-Carlton soon.

ES. What role does Azerbaijan Tourism Board play in facilitating the MICE industry?

Florian Sengstschmid. The Azerbaijan Convention Bureau (AzCB), established under the Azerbaijan Tourism Board in 2018, serves as the leading entity to attract business events to the country. Just as the ATB takes comprehensive measures to promote Azerbaijan as an attractive tourism destination internationally, the AzCB does the same to make sure that Azerbaijan is known as a premium business events destination by showcasing the country’s available infrastructure and services on international platforms, identifying potential events, leading effective communication and lobbying as well as bringing local and international stakeholders together within the industry.

Besides connecting with international partners through FAM trips, site inspections, virtual meetings, exhibitions and B2B calls, the AzCB also ensures that there is a common understanding and effective network among local stakeholders. For this purpose, the Business Events Industry Alliance was established in 2019, which brings together the country’s most influential events venues, hotels, special venues for gatherings, Professional Congress Organisers and Destination Management Companies. The aim of this alliance is to provide a platform for the above-mentioned partners to come together and make sure they cooperate effectively to accommodate the needs and requests of event organisers and delegates.

I would also like to mention that the AzCB provides tailored services for event organisers who select Azerbaijan as their next destination after carefully examining the applications we receive. In order to make this process smoother, we have also been working on establishing a central support foundation that will provide specific support mechanisms for international stakeholders in organising both association and corporate events. Thus, international partners who want to organise an event in Azerbaijan and meet the special criteria to do so will be able to apply to us through this foundation. We are in the final stages of completing its establishment and will present it to the public after approval by the relevant government authorities.

ES. What’s the outlook for tourism and hospitality moving forwards? How is your country responding to the current situation?

Florian Sengstschmid. I think the biggest challenge was to plan ahead. As you mentioned, uncertainty is not something everyone deals with successfully. However, I also think that there is always a way out of any crisis as long as you keep a positive outlook and flexible approach. When the news of the pandemic broke out, we prepared a 4-phased recovery plan, beginning with closed borders and lockdown in phase one and a return to a “new normal” with international travel restrictions lifted in phase four. Immediately after making certain adjustments in our strategy during the lockdown, we needed to ensure the health and safety of both local and foreign travellers. Azerbaijan was actually one of the first countries to launch an initiative like SAHMAN (Sanitation and Hygiene Methods and Norms), a programme designed for local industry players to improve hygiene and sanitation across accommodation, F&B and touristic transportation providers. Until now, more than 15,000 monitoring sessions have been held, and we are witnessing solid progress thanks to this initiative.

We also had to use digital resources to stay connected with the world. With this in mind, the ATB team designed an e-learning platform, Azerbaijan 101, for travel agents and representatives across the global tourism industry to provide in-depth knowledge about Azerbaijan’s offerings across health and wellness, gastronomy, wine tours and cultural heritage. In addition, we developed the website salambaku.travel to offer visitors a virtual tour of places like the UNESCO-listed Old City and Flame Towers, world-class museums, mud volcanoes and other tourist attractions in Baku.

The goal we set for the second phase was to promote domestic tourism. We launched the “Macra Yaxındadır” (“Adventure Is Near”) campaign, which brings together tourism offerings for local residents to rediscover the rich nature, culture and other experiences of the country. In the same period, the ATB team also established the Tourism Training and Certification Centre as a response to another pressing issue brought on by the pandemic – the loss of qualified workers. This centre contributes to the improvement of the quality of services within various sectors of our industry as well as the employment rate. The third phase, where we are now, is the start of regional tourism with the gradual opening of the borders. Currently, citizens and permanent residents of 9 countries, including Turkey, Russia, US, UK, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Hungary and Israel, can travel to Azerbaijan by air. The implementation of unified travel protocols is essential for the final phase, namely the start of global tourism. I think it is not possible for international tourism to return to the pre-pandemic level as long as there are different travel rules that are confusing for travellers. Therefore, the introduction of vaccines at the local and regional level as well as common travel procedures for everyone is essential if we want to revive the global tourism industry.

ES. What has been your biggest challenge in navigating today’s uncertainty? How are you keeping yourself motivated and positive?

Florian Sengstschmid. Like I said, the biggest challenge is that you can’t exactly predict what the future holds due to the pandemic. However, what keeps me motivated is that this period is also an opportunity to learn and adjust to emerging challenges. As long as we take this virus seriously, keep our heads clear and realise that we are in this together, it will be easier to overcome the challenges. Right now, the situation related to the pandemic in Azerbaijan is more stable with low numbers of daily infections, and we hope it will continue this way thanks to the timely measures taken and vaccination procedure facilitated by the Azerbaijani government. I hope it will be the same for the rest of the world soon, and we will get out of this crisis stronger and having learnt the necessary lessons.

ES. In 2020, When the pandemic hit, and the international borders of the country were closed Azerbaijan Tourism Board (ATB) had launched the campaign, “Adventure is Near” — encouraging Azerbaijanis themselves to discover the rich and diverse offerings of their own country. Please tell us, how successful the campaign was and what are your upcoming plans in regards to domestic tourism?

Florian Sengstschmid. The pandemic has indeed made us rediscover the local gems hidden in our own backyard. “Macra Yaxındadır” (“Adventure is Near”) proved to be successful in encouraging citizens and residents of Azerbaijan to rediscover and explore the country’s unique features. And this campaign, bringing tourism offerings together on one platform, also allowed us to keep the tourism industry alive through local stakeholders hit hard by the pandemic. Thanks to this initiative, we saw a flow of local travellers to the country’s regions when domestic travel was finally allowed. This, in turn, led to increased occupancy rates in hotels and other accommodation types and it made a great contribution to the revival of the hospitality sector.

ES. Please share with us your experience for successfully conducting two major events in the recent past, the UEFA Euro 2020 quarter finals and the Formula One race held from June 4th to 6th.

Florian Sengstschmid. Since hosting the Eurovision song contest, Azerbaijan has gained a successful track record of organising international sports and cultural events. Although Azerbaijan, like other destinations, had to postpone many events in 2020, this year it organised both the Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix and the UEFA Euro 2020 in accordance with the conditions required by the ‘new normal’, and once again proved its experience in this field. Organising such big events during the pandemic was a different and quite responsible experience for Azerbaijan. Although the Formula 1 race was held without spectators, we are proud that the organisers did a really great job hosting the racing teams from foreign countries. On the other hand, as you stated, the 3 group matches and quarter-final of the UEFA Euro 2020 were held in the Baku Olympic Stadium. Allowed to hold 50% of its capacity, the stadium hosted up to 30,000 spectators. Although the international borders were still closed at the time the matches started, an exception was made for football fans with tickets to the matches from the countries whose national teams were represented, and they were allowed to enter the country with a negative PCR test. We can say that this process was managed in a very professional way. For international fans travelling to Azerbaijan after such a long time, we placed information points in fan zones promoting special experiences and created a dedicated page on azerbaijan.travel where tourists could find all the information digitally too, as well as special posts on our ‘Experience Azerbaijan’ social media channels. We witnessed a fantastic football feast in the streets of Baku during a month and look forward to more occasions like this.

ES. What is idea behind creating Azerbaijan Convention Bureau’s Ambassadors Programme? How far Azerbaijan Convention Bureau’s Ambassadors been successful?

Florian Sengstschmid. As you know, association events form a great part of the business events industry with their considerable economic, social, cultural as well as scientific impact. Along with providing all the necessary infrastructure and services for this kind of event to be organised in Azerbaijan, we also need to make sure that the very first condition by international associations is met as well – the initiative to host an association event by a local counterpart, meaning the national association. In order to have the right people to motivate these associations to organise an event in Azerbaijan, the Ambassadors’ Programme was established in 2019 at the initiative of the AzCB. This programme brings together renowned Azerbaijani scientists, doctors and other experts. We have quite an extensive database of potential events we can attract and work closely with our ambassadors for each event that we plan to bring to Azerbaijan to design a set of activities, tools and support services in the bidding process. As an example of successful work with ambassadors, the Azerbaijan Convention Bureau recently attracted a congress of the European Association for Cranio-Maxillo-Facial Surgery to be held in 2023 – the same year that we look forward to hosting the International Astronautical Congress, which is expected to bring more than 6,000 delegates to the magnificent capital city of Azerbaijan.

ES. How Middle East countries are a key markets of Azerbaijan Tourism?

Florian Sengstschmid. We have been seeing great interest from Middle Eastern countries towards Azerbaijan’s natural wonders like its majestic mountains, dense forests, splendid waterfalls, rivers and lakes as well as city experiences and local cuisine. Considering this interest, connectivity and easy visa procedures for the Middle Eastern countries, we decided to target UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Israel as our prospective markets. Following the launch of the ‘Take Another Look’ brand in 2018, created to serve as an invitation for travellers to discover hidden gems and curated experiences in Azerbaijan, we opened representative offices in our target markets, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia. We also participated at exhibitions like ATM Dubai and IMTM in Israel. We are resuming our participation in international exhibitions now, and recently attended the ATM Dubai again. A new tourism office will open in Israel soon too. As I stated earlier, travellers from the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Israel can now travel to Azerbaijan by air with a COVID passport and negative PCR test. Through new campaigns and activities, we aim to increase the number of travellers from the Middle East visiting Azerbaijan and welcome them with newly developed travel experiences in the ‘new normal’.

ES. On a personal note, we are curious to know what keeps you busy when you are away from work? Please tell us about your hobbies and other activities that you would love to do at home.

Florian Sengstschmid. Like I said, I have a passion for travelling, discovering new places and meeting new people. Right now, I spend my free time going on road trips and exploring the remote villages of Azerbaijan, through lush forests, waterfalls, rivers and lakes as well as historic parts of the regions of this country. As I travel to different parts of Azerbaijan, I realise that there are still so many things to see and learn. Another one of my hobbies is actually cooking. I like preparing new tastes and thanks to the diverse climate and fertile lands of Azerbaijan, it is quite easy to find organic ingredients and prepare a spectacular fusion of flavours, both from local and international cuisine.

ES. If you would like to share a message and one key advise to the industry, what would be that?

Florian Sengstschmid. My first message for our beloved industry is that we all need to set an example and get vaccinated if we want to revive this sector gradually. We also need to come together and adopt unified travel protocols to restart global tourism. Only common rules and conditions for all nations can lead to the safe and full reopening of the tourism sector, and we strongly support this. These 2 steps can take us back to where we were while we also adjust to the new travel trends and meet the new conditions in the ‘new normal’.