In a place where finance, diplomacy and international business have known no bounds, a city struggles to maintain the benchmark qualities that earned the metropolis its letters patent. For Philippe Vignon at the head of Geneva Tourism & Conventions, promoting the city as a destination, welcoming travelers and organizing events that make the city more attractive to outsiders is Geneva’s way of securing a sustainable future. And it’s all a matter of perception.
Confident and well-dressed, the Lemanic homme d’affaires operates on the cusp of an outward marketing strategy to draw and cater to tourists – transit or otherwise – in the Lake Geneva region. Vignon began his career with L’Oréal after completing a Masters in Political Science at the University of Geneva. His role as General Manager at the international low cost airline company easyJet during its launch in Switzerland contributed to a passenger growth of one million in just two years. The strategist was recently elected President of the Switzerland Convention and Incentive Bureau whose stated mission it is to develop convention and incentive tourism on behalf of its members, notably national organizations, regions and urban areas. His reputation as a team player is not lost on a city with ambitious aspirations.
International Geneva, as it is known, bustles with a cosmopolitan energy. With 42,000 international emissaries and civil servants employed, the landscape is unqualifiedly diplomatic; but some 140 multinationals also have their international headquarters here, including a handful of major corporate behemoths like Hewlett Packard, Procter & Gamble. What’s the attraction? Vignon says it is the tranquility and security the city has traditionally offered, and for transit tourists and expats, those commodities are hard to find.
Tourism is not Geneva’s first industry – finance is. And the way the public understands what Geneva Tourism does is characterized by a startling lack of awareness. Tourism contributes with an annual 2.5% to Geneva’s GDP, generating 2.5 billion Swiss Francs annually and some 18,000 jobs; little fish, big sea compared to top revenue-earning destinations such as Zermatt, Luzern and Verbier. Underpinning its Swiss reputation as host par excellence, revenue from tourism is generated largely by hospitality, transportation, luxury goods and upward of 1,500 restaurants offering worldwide cuisine. “Geneva cannot possibly be compared to cities like Paris or London [where the permanent population is substantial],” maintains Vignon with a cultivated verve. With 43% of its population foreign and only half a million long-term inhabitants, the city experiences a kind of transient flux bolstered by family and friends coming to visit their Geneva-employed loved-ones.
Yet 75% of revenue from overnights is business linked. Geneva has a rock solid reputation for being the political and economic safe haven of the world, and that has produced a meeting industry that flourishes. As opposed to Zurich, which boasts less than 1,000 upscale hotel rooms, Geneva offers an impressive 2,500 five-star rooms in a luxury environment. Business travel represents mid-week revenue primarily – with travelers landing on Monday and leaving before the weekend – and with a fully-intact infrastructure, the potential is staggering.
There is a unique quality of life that permeates the city and attracts people to Lake Léman. A walk along the pillared shore affords a paradisal feel that blends the alpine with the exotic. Not only does Geneva boast a well-preserved downtown and stunning parks, along the lakefront runs the prestigious Rue du Rhône thoroughfare for luxury shopping. One of the world’s principal financial centers is positioned not two hours from opulent alpine ski resorts, and forty-three museums and an opera house dress the city in cultural legitimacy.
In addition, the city hosts the annual Geneva Festival (Fêtes de Genève) with three stages citywide showcasing a gamut of musical genres in typical Genevan diversity. Opening this year on July 18th with DJ Raphy at the Jardin Anglais, the Festival generates an annual 125 million Swiss Francs in its two-week lifespan.
To this landscape Philippe Vignon brings an aggressive, highly-targeted marketing strategy aimed at raising awareness, specifically political. Having been part of the main thrust that propelled easyJet into an impressive multinational enterprise, his business acumen is acute, enthusiastic, seasoned. And he wields that to counter the locally-coined “anesthesia mindset” that characterizes Geneva and begs: why should we roll up our sleeves and get down to business when we’ve been enjoying such amazing economic growth year after year? With a highly-skilled workforce and fabulous quality of life, the Lake Geneva region watches on as prosperity rolls in, but lacks the impetus to till the earth of sustainable success.
Part of Vignon’s activities center on informing politicians and raising awareness that will shape decisions at the long-term. Current Geneva Tourism strategy lightens up on administrative tasks and reduces operational costs; and in this line of work Vignon’s expertise and experience pay off. But where boundaries of responsibility are well-defined in a typical business module, they blur in a field where convincing decision-makers is a core focus. The Director’s no-nonsense strategizing style rights the helm in this area and reaches local leaders with a focused agenda.
Europe is groping for an economic foothold; and all the while Switzerland remains a top destination with low crime rates and an attractive offer for expats. A policy that would cash in on the city’s benchmark reputation of a peaceful environment would go far to maintain the economic landscape – getting there means further investment in an infrastructure that supports just that.
“Tourism is something like the airline industry,” asserts Vignon. “Travelling throughout Europe for easyJet I was able to observe fifty or more different approaches to tourism and how they worked – or didn’t. One destination stood out to me, and that was Bilbao.” An industrial city, Bilbao was a leading steel producer until it fell into economic collapse at the close of the 20th century. Authorities transformed crisis into opportunity, reinventing the city in such a way that would make tourism a key industry. And while easyJet roared into full expansion, creating destinations across Europe, Bilbao got onboard and facilitated their arrival. Today, the city counts as many bed nights as Geneva, 75% of which are leisure-related.
“There was a huge willingness to collaborate with us – and that willingness flounders in Geneva.”
Vignon says that cities such as Singapore and Dubai are major competitors, and that the preconceived idea that Geneva needs to compete with national tourist hot spots such as Luzern is off track. His 10 million Swiss Franc budget pales in comparison to Singapore’s 120 million US Dollar tourism wallet for promotion alone. “I can’t work miracles on that,” explains the Director of Geneva Tourism, “but I try to focus on activities that bring a good return on investment, hire people with skill sets, invest in a dynamic website – things that contribute tangibly to putting Geneva on the map.”
The potential is massive, and the Genevan intends to harness every aspect of the industry in an aspiration to city greatness. With his track record and the commitment of city policy makers, Geneva’s future is a go.
Article by Allison Zurfluh