The Hofburg Vienna convention center is unparalleled in Europe because it’s located inside what was once the country’s official government palace for the Habsburg Dynasty dating back to the 13th century.

For decades, the Vienna Tourist Board and the Vienna Convention Bureau have positioned Vienna as Europe’s most well-preserved and elegant capital for global meetings and conventions. However, that somewhat obvious destination branding strategy is resonating less and less with the next generation of millennial meeting planners and attendees.

Vienna is a classic case of a mature, iconic destination brand challenged with the need to reinvent its 20th century value proposition (exclusive luxury) for 21st century travel demands (inclusivity, mobility, digital connectivity, lifestyle experiences, personal development).

So last year, the Vienna Tourist Board launched its Tourism Strategy 2020 report based on a 3-part “Global.Smart.Premium.” action plan. The goal is to position Vienna’s destination marketing organization as a “smart tourist board” that promotes smart city initiatives to both leisure and business travelers.

The tourist board actually now has a Smart City page, which you won’t find at too many other destination marketing sites.

The Global Vienna segment of the tourism strategy report focuses on expanding business and transportation networks beyond Europe. The Premium Vienna segment aims to maintain the city’s status as a luxury brand. Those are not entirely unique among first-tier European destinations trying to engage emerging global markets.

The Smart Vienna segment, however, is innovative because the Vienna Tourist Board is repositioning its brand identity and modernizing its marketing in alignment with the city’s leading reputation in sustainable and smart city development.

The City of Vienna launched its own Smart City Vienna 2050 framework strategy and the Vienna Urban Development Plan last year, which included the installation of over 400 Wi-Fi stations around the city, with more on the way. Vienna also ranked #1 globally in the Mercer 2015 Livability Index, and #2 in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 Livability Index.

“The Mercer study and the whole theme of livable cites really added a new aspect to a really mature city brand like Vienna,” says Norbert Kettner, director of the Vienna Tourist Board. “Normally worldwide you wouldn’t combine the Vienna brand with technology, social inclusion, or smart city anything. You would combine it with romantic and cultured travel, or highly cultivated congresses, so this was a perfect track for us to develop a new synonym for the city.”

The Rise of the Smart Tourist Board

The Smart Vienna segment in the Tourism Strategy 2020 report outlines various travel product and destination development initiatives that the Vienna Tourist Board is pushing forward. The overview reads:

“Tourism in ‘smart Vienna’ is characterized by a balance of growth and city compatibility and by making contributions to a high-quality service culture. Against this background, Vienna will become the ‘smart tourism city’ by 2020—a city that draws on innovative services and offerings to convey a relaxed urban experience, ensures positive interactions between tourists and residents, and does not come across as staid or stuffy despite its striving for sustainability and responsibility, but rather maintains its glamorous appeal.”

Earlier this year, the International Federation for IT and Travel & Tourism (IFITTT) awarded the Vienna Tourist Board 1st place at its Innovative Destination Awards. That was based on Vienna’s Open Innovation project last year that crowdsourced smart city solutions from the general public. Altogether, people submitted over 500 ideas from 40 countries.

Sample submissions included plans for an aerial Skywalk to connect key areas of the city for bikers and walkers. Another suggested floating markets along the Danube that stop at popular bars and restaurants lining the river.

“I’m a huge fan of doing things and just not talking about it,” says Kettner. “Every ten years we develop a new strategy, so this time we said let’s not just talk about innovation, let’s do it. Very often it’s more important how you do things than what the outcome actually is. The real outcome here was we got in touch with people in 40 countries that we were not in contact with before because of this innovation process.”

The process also developed new systems and skills that the Vienna Tourist Board is now exporting to commercial interests. Kettner told us, “I know one board member of a major German multinational company who went to his board with our system.”

We asked the director what types of challenges he encountered during the planning and implementation of the Open Innovation process. Kettner responded:

The value is in opening up new communication channels and a new spirit of sharing knowledge, although how to deal with the technology can be a challenge for some people. It was a completely different approach and I would definitely recommend it to anybody. Of course you lose authority and autonomy when you try something like this, which is a very interesting experience for everyone involved. You’re not in control of everything anymore, which was a very interesting experience for me personally.

I think it helps to remind you of certain things, like forgetting about making quick judgments. I tend to make quick judgments. That’s good in one way but bad in another. Sometimes you’ll see something and right away you will say, “That’s completely rubbish.” Then you have a closer look at the person whose idea it is, and suddenly it’s a different situation. So the whole system personally forced me to take a second look at things. It also taught us not to always thing about the consequences. We originally thought this might be a quirky idea and questioned what the stakeholders would think, but we had no complaints from the stakeholders at all.

Growing Partnerships With Academia 

Vienna is the biggest university city in the German-speaking world with a long legacy of academic titans passing through, including Goethe, Einstein, Lenin and Freud.

Kettner says the universities are actively ramping up their participation in global conferences as both creative educational venues and sources for academic speakers and host committee members.

The new Zaha Hadid-designed learning center at the University of Vienna’s School of Economics & Business, for example, has over half a million square feet of space open to the public.

“There’s a changing mindset that conventions do something for the greater good of the city, so the universities are really expanding their facilities and services for professional convention organizers, which wasn’t always the case,” Kettner says. “We are big into scientific congresses. When you want to attract scientific congresses, which are our core business, you need the credibility for science and R&D that we obviously have.”

He adds that more events now take place in the universities than in the three big convention centers.

“We’re constantly working on new formats to bring academia and meeting planners together. Vienna University even has its own professional convention organizer now.”

The Vienna Tourist Board is promoting new tech coming out of the city’s knowledge sector such as SMILE, which is still in beta. The app helps locals and visitors find, schedule and pay for public transportation in advance or on demand in real time.

Travelers enter the destination where they want to go, and then the SMILE app shows the best possible mode of transportation to get there at the specified time, ranging from bike share to public tram, while also taking weather forecasts into consideration.

“Creating the intelligent smart city of tomorrow is definitely a business advantage for us,” sums up Kettner. “We are a content machine in the fields of academia and science, business, medicine, green infrastructure, the arts, etc. So that’s a big competitive advantage for us these days when we promote Vienna to today’s modern traveler.”

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Photo Credit: The new Learning Center at the University of Vienna School of Business & Economics. Wien University