On warm late summer evenings, the air in Kraków's old town is humming. Students and strollers crowd into bars, coffee shops and jazz bars. Workers meet up for an after-work beer, visitors stand and stare. The pastel-coloured façades, the gently rounded towers and ornamented gables frame a unique open-air theatre: Kraków's medieval market square. It is one of the largest in Europe and has been the heart of the cultural metropolis since time immemorial.
Like the rest of the country, this thousand-year-old city with international charisma has gotten into a type of time accelerator since the collapse of the Soviet Union. After a somewhat bumpy transition from a command economy to a market economy, Poland became an EU Member in 2004. Economic growth has been consistently positive in the past years, achieving 3.6 percent in 2015.
Kraków is one of the most economically successful cities in this stable environment. The city owes this solid position predominantly to the targeted establishment of branches of international companies like Motorola and Philip Morris. The tobacco corporation operates offices and factories at four locations in Poland. Its central production and administrative headquarters are in Kraków. Carrefour, Tesco and Ikea were also attracted by Kraków's central location, good infrastructure and its young population who are both well educated and highly motivated.
Kraków stands for a centuries-old tradition of encounter and multinational dialogue. Currently, however, the country is visibly split under the national conservative governing party Law and Justice (PiS). Above all, its supporters fear migration under the banner of the EU. The confederation of states for its part sees its Polish partner's constitutional direction endangered, for example by the attempt to replace politically undesirable constitutional judges.
The conflict between the EU and Poland continues to fester, but that is not doing any harm to Kraków's popularity: With 8 million visitors a year, the city on the Vistula Poland's number 1 city break destination. Recently, it has additionally been establishing itself as a convention location. "Kraków has probably the best cultural activities in Poland," Bogdan Wieczorek, a specialist in business travel at Lufthansa City Center in Warsaw, explains. "Add to this a broad spectrum of modern hotels and conference facilities that are suitable for ambitious events and still don't stretch the budget."
Inspiring backdrop: Post-modernism meets Middle Ages
In 2014, the city invested in several ultra-modern conference centres simultaneously. €85 million was the sum it forked out for the ICE Kraków, a conference and event centre with state-of-the-art technology with a façade designed in wave form that is reminiscent of the nearby Vistula. Its centrepiece is an auditorium with 2,100 seats which is also considered to be one of Poland's best concert halls.
In the same year, it was joined by the International Exhibition and Convention Centre EXPO Kraków with two halls and various conference rooms. The third new addition was the Tauron Arena Kraków, which was launched – also in 2014 – as Poland's largest sports facility and can seat 15,000 people. As well as for sporting events and concerts, it is also used for trade fairs and conventions. Thus this city of 760,000 inhabitants created a broad range of facilities for MICE planners in the shortest possible time.
Further major location advantages include the wealth of culture and the historical ambience of this old university city. "The post-modernist New Age cityscape blends with the old town's historical heritage to create a unique and inspiring backdrop," says Aneta Ksiazek, a conference specialist at the Polish Tourist Office. Kraków was one of the few cities in Poland to survive World War II without any architectural damage. Because of this, Unesco declared the old town with its more than 120 churches and 5,000 historical houses a world heritage site as early as 1978..
Event organisers will find a correspondingly broad choice of original and historic conference locations – from the Kraków Opera and Philharmonic auditoriums right up to the Wieliczka Salt Mine located outside the city. The salt chambers with winding tunnels and bizarre salt caverns are part of the Unesco world heritage site. At the same time, they have rooms with conference facilities of various sizes and all communication technology requirements – underground.
In-between casks filled with wine for purely medicinal purposes, conference participants can debate in the two halls of the Museum of Pharmacy in the Jagiellonian University Medical College. And in the Polish Aviation Museum, historic aircraft provide a backdrop for unusual events.
Expanding range of hotels
The opening of new event locations has also promoted the development of the hotel industry. Currently, Kraków has more than 146 hotels with more than 8,000 rooms. After an initial boost on its selection as "European Capital of Culture" in 2000, the hotel industry in the city has seen rapid development yet again in recent years. Thus it is not just all the international chains that are represented in Kraków today. Alongside 10 five-star hotels, a broad range of modern hotels in the three- and four-star category is attracting tourists and companies from abroad. The fact that the prices in all categories are significantly lower than those in western European cities is certainly more than marginally responsible for their appeal.
In 2014, the Holiday Inn Kraków City Center opened its doors. Last year, two new additions to the Hilton fleet gave significant momentum: The four-star hotel Doubletree by Hilton Hotel & Convention Centre and the three-star hotel Hampton by Hilton are one single architectural entity, which expands the city's portfolio by a total of 400 rooms as well as 20 conference rooms for up to 2,000 people.
And the city has long been able to fulfil the MICE decision-makers' decisive criterion of accessibility. Lufthansa, Eurowings and various low-cost carriers fly to Kraków from several German airports. The city also has intercontinental connections via Frankfurt and London. Aircraft land 11 kilometres to the west of the city centre in Kraków-Balice.
Most recently, Kraków demonstrated its events competence in summer 2016 when the city bore the burden of hosting World Youth Day with an impressive 600,000 participants. However, the city always functioned as a setting for important meetings. In the legendary high-class Restaurant Wierzynek, for example, five kings and nine princes from across Europe banqueted here already when it opened back in 1364 – for 20 days. The centuries flew by, and the Wierzynek continued to attract leading figures, from Fidel Castro to Charles de Gaulle. The food on the menu today is still what Poland's monarchs prized back then. Time can be made to stand still in Kraków too – and sometimes even be turned back.