It was a sunny day in September. Europe’s heads of state had assembled for the digital summit in Tallinn. French President Emmanuel Macron took advantage of a free hour to have a look at the old town, an outstandingly well preserved medieval city centre and Unesco world heritage site. Macron strolled across the town hall square, admired the pastel-coloured façades, pointed gables and slim town hall tower, chatted to the locals and took selfies. There were no signs of any security guards.
"That kind of thing would probably only happen here," says Anu Metsallik, deputy sales manager at Unique Hotels, which has four branches in Tallinn. "Tallinn is small and very safe. It’s easy to contain risks here." The security staff of heads of state also find this, she says, adding that it’s easy to get talking to people: "Almost everyone speaks English as well as Estonian, while many people also speak Russian and Finnish."
The theme of the EU summit, the digitalisation of Europe, was also typical of Tallinn, the city where Hotmail and Skype were developed. The basic right to free internet access is stipulated in the country’s constitution. The government has been paperless since 2000; parliament votes with a click of a mouse, while the public follows debates live on the internet. In the former fishermen’s quarter Kalamaja – right behind the city wall – start-ups and hipster cafés are burgeoning, providing further evidence that fortress-like medieval buildings and a fresh innovative spirit are not mutually incompatible.
Super-fast internet, even deep in the forest
"Tallinn is THE city for IT," says Kay Peter Bischoff. The hotelier has lived in Estonia since 2002 and ran the five-star Schlössle and St. Petersbourg hotels in Tallinn before opening the boutique hotel The Regent at the end of March. "Estonia has systematically invested in the future since the beginning. Today we have super-fast internet here, even deep in the heart of the forest." Almost eighty per cent of Estonia’s 1.3 million inhabitants use the net for nearly everything in life: to find a recipe, buy a bus ticket, set up a company or submit their tax return.
"It wouldn’t even occur to us to go to an office and sign something," says Kaarel Korjus, Leisure Manager at Unique Hotels, describing the practical realities of life in the digital republic. "Instead we do everything online, with our ID card and an access code." Lightning-fast fibre optic cables take care of the rest.
"Estonia has systematically invested in IT infrastructure since the beginning."
Adapting quickly to new situations is in Estonia’s DNA to some extent. This ability allowed the small country to survive centuries of foreign rule without losing its identity. Most recently, it withstood enforced membership of the Soviet Union, which ended only when it attained independence peacefully in 1991. The country and its capital, which has a population of 430,000, have been living in the fast lane since then. Estonia joined the EU and NATO in 2004. The young country was regarded as a Baltic tiger in economic terms even then, and recovered quickly from the crisis of 2008. NATO’s "Centre of Excellence for Cyber Defence" was established in Tallinn in the same year. Since then, Estonia has constantly expanded its pioneering position in the fields of IT and cybersecurity.
Stated goal: to become a leading destination for international events
Digital themes naturally also dominate the events calendar, from the first international Blockchain and Bitcoin Conference in March to the International Conference on Cyber Conflict (ICCC) in June and the Tallinn Software Conference (TTSC) next January. Medical specialists also meet here often; in June, for example, there will be an international conference on the Zika virus.
The EU was a regular guest in 2017. Estonia took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union six months earlier than scheduled, after the United Kingdom, which was actually due to be next, cancelled because of Brexit. Tallinn hosted 27 political and business events with 27,000 guests, along with a further 270 conferences, ministerial meetings and other meetings. "It was our acid test," says Raigo Triik, General Manager of the Metropol hotel in the Rotermann district, which opened a sister hotel in May. "We had the opportunity to showcase our hosting skills to a top-class clientele, and we used it." Positive feedback has awakened new ambition, Triik says. "We want to get even better and establish ourselves as an international events destination."
The city meets the requirements for this. "With 7,300 hotel rooms and half a dozen new openings this year, we have good capacity," says Riine Tiigi, a marketing manager at the conference office. While small boutique hotels tend to be located mainly in the historic old town, the large conference hotels are in the new part of the city. Radisson, which is strongly represented in all Nordic countries due to its origins as part of the SAS Group, operates the biggest hotels that fall into this category, as well as Swissôtel, Hilton and the Finnish Sokos Group.
Outstanding value for money, top technology and virtually no bureaucracy
But the market is set to expand further, according to Ms Tiigi at the conference office. There will be targeted support for MICE business: "We’re helping Estonian scientists to attract more conferences to Tallinn," she says. "We’re promoting our strengths abroad: outstanding value for money, virtually no bureaucratic constraints, top technology. We also have unique locations."
Like the city itself, they reflect an innovative spirit and historic heritage. In 2015, an old power station was transformed into the "Tallinn Creative Hub". As a prime example of early 20th-century industrial architecture with two gigantic furnaces, it was the main setting for the EU events. The once-derelict seaplane hangar, today the country’s most spectacular museum following an expensive restoration, also offers an extraordinary backdrop with an eighty-year-old submarine and a seaplane suspended below the ceiling. Locations such as this vast hangar, which also includes an ice-breaker in the dock, can only be found in Tallinn. The same applies to the halls of the picture-perfect, 600-year-old former headquarters of the Brotherhood of Blackheads in the old town.
However, Tallinn has not yet achieved its goal. "We’re constantly receiving enquiries about venues for over a thousand guests," Riine Tiigi says, explaining that as the Saku arena, the country’s biggest multi-functional hall, is always heavily booked, plans are currently being drawn up to modernise the municipal hall, which has a high vacancy rate. It was built in 1980 when the Olympic Games were held in Moscow and Tallinn hosted the sailing events. In four to five years it will begin its new life as a conference centre for up to 2,500 guests in a location close to the old town.
"Delegates will be able to walk from their hotel to the conference," Kay Peter Bischoff enthuses. He already sees Tallinn’s compactness and accessibility as its major assets: "The airport is ten minutes from the city, the ferry terminal is right behind the old town." The airport, which offers direct flights between Tallinn and neighbouring countries as well as London, Barcelona, Brussels, Milan, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin and Amsterdam, is experiencing constant growth in passenger numbers – in 2017, it reached a record figure of 2.6 million. The port is also booming, with ferries departing every hour for Helsinki, eighty kilometres away. Yet Tallinn’s dreams go beyond this: it wants a tunnel under the Baltic to connect the two capital cities.