The next time you are on Google Maps, look at Italy in its entirety. You will notice that Florence is equidistant from the country’s two largest cities, Milan and Rome. Then look at the geography of Italy and note that Florence is nestled just inside the great Apennine mountain chain that forms Italy’s backbone. Now examine the country’s major highways and byways: one of only two main routes along either side of Apennines runs directly though Florence, as the entire highway system shifts away further toward the south. The city is also served by three airports (Bologna, Pisa and Florence) and lies on the routes of the Freccia Rossa and Freccia Argento, the high-speed trains that connect Italy’s north and south. For all of these reasons, Florence would appear to be a great location for a major national or international conference and trade fair. With the financial stakes high at this time of economic crisis, and as Florence struggles to define itself as a city that is so much more than a tourist destination, some have suggested that Florence must try to attract big industrial trade fairs of the sort that Milan does.
Most people don’t need to be told that Florence and its environs are highly attractive. The architecture, the art, the food, the wine, the football, the weather, the culture and traditions (the gelato!): these attractions and so much more make Florence a magnet for conference tourism.
The hotel infrastructure is also good. With a multitude of services, ranging from small and intimate rooms to functional business set-ups and high-end glamorous hotels, there is no shortage of places to stay in the city.
Indeed, Florence would seem to be the perfect place to hold a large international trade fair or conference. But there’s a problem: finding a suitable venue for such large-scale events.
Congresses generally end up in either the Palazzo degli Affari, a rather uninspiring 1970s building, or its neighbor, the slightly smaller Palazzo dei Congressi, a nineteenth-century villa-both next door to the Santa Maria Novella train station and contained within a private park. They have no parking facilities.
The only real alternative is the stunning Fortezza da Basso, a small conference park also close to the main train station. Although access to this location has been drastically improved over the past few years, parking still remains a problem as does ever-constant traffic on the viali (which many claim is a result of the new pedestrian zones). The parking available tends to be devoted to the exhibitors and their suppliers, which leaves visitors doing the impossible and searching for street parking, or paying the high rates of the station car park or private garages.
The biggest problem with these venues, however, is that they are in the city centre, and any major events effectively bring the entire city to a grinding halt. Pitti Immagine’s bi-annual fashion trade fairs cause massive traffic disruption, easily adding a couple of hours to a daily commute past the Fortezza da Basso, particularly on the first and last days of the event.
Some interesting smaller locations have opened up recently. The nightclub Otel, for example, also hosts mini-conferences during the daylight hours, and the newly converted Stazione Leopolda now hosts such business-to-consumer events as Taste, the national food fair. These locations are easily accessible, and the conferences draw both residents and tourists, boosting business for local hotels and restaurants, as well.
Florence has what it takes to become a great player in the business-to-consumer trade fair industry. This is true for both Italian and international businesses, because the potential audience here is truly international. But let’s leave the big industrial trade fairs to the big cities with the big facilities, and let’s learn to be truly excellent in a game that is our size.