Jan Herget: “The pandemic has accelerated my main goal – the digitalisation of CzechTourism.”
World tourism is going through perhaps the most difficult times in the past decade. Many countries are trying to minimise losses, support their service providers and are optimistic about the recovery of tourist exchanges.
On this topic, we decided to talk with Jan Herget, Managing Director of CzechTourism, who took the pandemic period as a personal challenge.
An active, highly qualified specialist with extensive experience in various fields of activity, it seems that he knows how to take the ship of the CzechTourism from the stormy sea of the pandemic to a calm harbour for travellers.
It will soon be two years since you returned to CzechTourism as Managing Director. Can you tell us about that period?
JH: These two years have been very dynamic. In the first half, I focused on changing the Agency’s operations to better reflect the requirements of entrepreneurs, regions and professional associations. COVID-19 entered the second part very dynamically, speeding up and turning everything upside down. Where we thought we had a lot of time, we suddenly had to make on the spot changes from one day to the next and vice versa. We worked a bit like a start-up.
COVID-19 also accelerated my main goal – to digitalise. All employees are able to work from anywhere and attend meetings via Microsoft Teams. We organise on-line workshops, seminars and conferences for partners. Last November, we presented our strategy for the next five-year period in the form of a virtual television studio. Several thousand people watched the broadcast on various platforms. We are not just talking about digitisation now, but we have just moved into it.
Of course, we also direct all our advertising or content efforts to the digital environment. Only there are we able to respond to such minute to minute changes, where within one week, borders close and reopen again. If we wanted to plan this out in paper/ brochure form, we would have absolutely no chance.
How do you see the future? What conclusions can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic, what consequences will this have for the development of tourism?
JH: First of all, there are the brutal economic consequences. We have all seen the numbers. In the Czech Republic alone, tourism consumption fell by more than half last year due to COVID-19, and the sector lost about two hundred thousand jobs.
I personally see changes in two areas. Previously very interesting and profitable congress tourism, from which, among other things, Prague, which is one of the ten best MICE destinations in Europe, benefited, has gradually moved to virtual studios and electronic platforms due to epidemic measures. The question is whether it will be possible to kick start it to such dimensions as those in which it had until recently existed. I see the future in hybrid events that will combine both on-line and real forms of meetings. We now offer help to the affected congress sector in the form of on-line workshops and trade fairs on the Eventtia virtual platform. Volunteers doing business in the MICE industry can participate for free. We launched the series last autumn and virtually toured the United States and Canada, Latin America, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, Scandinavia, Austria, Germany, and France.
The second area is us, regular people, who travel for relaxation and entertainment. I suspect that most of us who love to travel have been affected by the current times. We had to cancel tickets and holidays and we no longer want to invest more money in future holidays. That is why I think a huge change will come about in this area as well. We will book last minute tickets and accommodation, we will not plan ahead because it is currently simply not possible. I also think that the security of a country and its health system will be important factors that will become significantly more important in tourism. We will want some certainty that if we go somewhere, we will be taken care of there in case of illness. Here we will direct our help to flexible on-line campaigns and to the visibility of the offer of regional destinations and entrepreneurs in the on-line space at home and abroad. Key aids are our internet portals kudyznudy.cz for nationwide travel, and visitczechrepublic.com for the incoming. At the same time, we will support projects that will help regions with effective destination management. For example, the e-Turista project, which should ensure a unified system of registration of visitors in our country.
In one of the interviews, you mentioned that your goal is to promote the concept of the traveller, not the tourist. Please tell us more.
JH: The idea was based mainly on the pre- COVID-19 period, when most of the attractive destinations, and it does not matter whether it was Prague, Barcelona or Vienna, already suffered under the strain of tourists. The purpose of the concept is to appeal to and attract those tourists who are interested in architecture, for example, are able to distinguish Gothic from Baroque, and appreciate that in our country they have the entire history of modern Europe in a few square kilometres. Those who are interested in depth and are able to appreciate either traditional cuisine, history or beautiful nature. The opposite is true for tourists, who arrive for three hours, get off the bus and take a picture on a selfie stick, and then quickly disappear again.
What are your plans for the further development of active, rural, gastronomic, ecological and other types of tourism?
JH: Together with our partner, the Association of Rural Tourism and Agrotourism, we began to focus intensively on the product of rural tourism and agrotourism last year. From mapping the range of equipment and services on the market, through product development by sharing best practices and inspirations from Austria, for example, to improving the quality of services in cooperation with regional and industry partners. In the second half of the year, we plan marketing support both in the Czech Republic and in selected foreign markets, where this product resonates.
This year, but also in the coming years, we will also focus on the most affected industry of gastronomy. We are focusing on the promotion of traditional Czech and Moravian cuisine, regional specialities and local foods, this tying in with the support of sustainable tourism. At the same time, we want to introduce Czech Republic as a destination for fine dining. Few people know that, in addition to renowned Prague establishments, the gastronomic scene of other cities, such as Brno and Olomouc, can satisfy the most demanding of tastes of guests just as well. We also plan to engage more with the great café culture that Czech cities boast. Another task for us will be to raise awareness of wine tourism, which in some regions, even in connection with folklore and traditions, has great potential, which is still somewhat overshadowed by the more renowned Czech beer.
The current situation also demands greater attention on physical well-being and health. Active holidays associated with hardening the body, nature trips, cycling, cross-country skiing or walking will become increasingly important. Last year, the long-distance route Via Czechia opened in the Czech Republic, which follows the state border of the Czech Republic all around, passes through natural landscapes as much as possible, crosses the highest peaks of most Czech mountains and leads to the main attractions of individual given areas. We will definitely be promoting this.
The Czech Republic is famous for its spa infrastructure, qualified medical staff, mineral springs and therapeutic mud. Do you plan to use these resources to enter the international market to attract visitors to the Czech Republic for rehabilitation and treatment after the COVID-19 pandemic?
JH: Definitely. Here again we come back to the topic of a healthy lifestyle. Spa culture is an integral part of future travel. It will play a significant role in strengthening the immune system, reconditioning and prevention. In addition, Czech spas are surrounded by beautiful nature or mountains and therefore offer a very interesting combination of spa care and an active holiday.
A number of spas in the Czech Republic have also operatively included treatment programmes for patients who have suffered from COVID-19. These are mainly focused on the treatment of respiratory problems, often caused by severe pneumonia accompanying the disease, but also mental problems and musculoskeletal disorders.
Spa culture has long been one of our main marketing products. We are aware of the importance of the sector and how severely it has been hit by the current pandemic. Therefore, this year we will significantly strengthen our foreign marketing activities supporting spa product, especially in Germany, Russia, the Middle East and in neighbouring countries (Slovakia, Austria, Poland, etc.)
For some time now, we have been planning virtual B2B meetings and CzechSpaDay workshops focused on spas, as well as participation in the OTM virtual trade fair, where Russian professionals will also be able to get acquainted with the offer of Czech spas and current post- COVID-19 reconditioning stays.
Prague has approved a new plan for sustainable tourism, the aim of which is to put the city first and achieve a balance with the quality of life of its inhabitants. Can you tell us more about this programme?
JH: We have been cooperating with Prague for a long time now to promote as of yet still undiscovered city districts. Most tourists come to see Prague Castle (Pražský hrad), Charles Bridge (Karlův most) and Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), but we try to find them other interesting parts of the city – such as Karlín with its interesting gastronomic scene, or Prague 7, which excels in modern art. The Vltava Riverside (Pražská náplavka) in Prague along the Vltava River has now also become very attractive. We also have the beautiful Prague Zoo, which is very popular among Russian clients.
Part of the sustainability of tourism is to get tourists out of congested places. It pays to explain to them that the view of Prague Castle from Vítkov Hill, for example, where few tourists come, is very beautiful, as is the view from Petřín Hill, where it is possible to take the cable car.
At the same time, Prague, in cooperation with the government, is preparing rules for the regulation of shared accommodation, where some entrepreneurs circumvent the system, do not pay taxes or tourist fees. The new rules should level the playing field for regular hotels and shared accommodation.
Which of the international tourism markets is currently your priority?
JH: We are very much looking forward to tourists from Russia. They like to go to the spa and, importantly, they are the real travellers, they do not travel through the Czech Republic quickly, but they travel around the regions, discover the most hidden beauties, and above all they can enjoy their stay. They like to go to restaurants, museums, but also to nature.
Promotion in Russia will focus on spa tourism with the possibility of offering treatment programmes for patients after COVID-19 and will not forget Prague. The vast majority of Russian tourists arrive by plane and cannot miss Prague. Our effort is to strive for the fastest possible return of the traditional Russian clientele to Czech spas.
Otherwise, of course, all indications are that domestic tourists will be key for the Czech Republic this year as well. However, we believe that the first foreign tourists will appear here in the summer. First, it could be travellers from neighbouring countries who will be able to come to us by car – Germans, Poles, Slovaks, Austrians, Hungarians, the Dutch…
We will therefore respond to the development of the epidemic situation and launch campaigns in the Czech Republic and abroad, so that we can attract foreign tourists as soon as the situation allows. In distant markets, we want to keep the Czech Republic in mind and up until the time when tourists from these countries can come to us. Even though tourist arrivals from distant markets are not realistic until the second half of the year. Specifically in Russia, we will focus on social networks, bloggers and influencers. With their help, a campaign on social networks will take place in April, aimed at promoting lesser-known Czech regions. In August, we are preparing a project on Russian-language social networks to support healing and reconditioning stays in Czech spas focused on women, and in September the Czech spas will be presented on the Tourister.ru tourist platform.
Can you tell us three facts about the Czech Republic that visitors may not know about?
JH: I’ll try. The Czech Republic has long been one of the safest countries in the world. We regularly rank among the TOP 10 safest countries in the world, which is especially important in today’s times. Today, safety is one of the key factors we use to choose a destination.
Those who have already visited the Czech Republic may know that they are among the countries with the largest number of UNESCO monuments per square kilometre. If you take into account the small area of the Czech Republic, then when travelling around the Czech Republic you have almost no problem encountering something exceptional. Whether it is a historic castle, château, church or beautiful natural landscape, you will enjoy it at almost every step. And if you walk your own way, you can use another world rarity – the Czech system of three coloured tourist signs, which will reliably guide you through the most beautiful corners of the Czech Republic.
What recently surprised me was that, according to the latest survey on the fulfilment of SDG’s global sustainable goals, the Czech Republic is among the TOP 10 European destinations in the field of environmentally responsible behaviour.
Your career is impressive, from a Public Relations Representative in tourism and marketing to a University Professor and running your own business. Do you think that such diversity in your career helps you in your current job?
JH: I believe it does. But at the same time I have to say that the current times are really difficult, everything is changing in the blink of an eye. We cannot determine what will happen in half a year, let alone a year and beyond. Although likely no one was ready for such a dramatic change, I believe experience is a valuable teacher and is of help to us. I can also better empathise with the feelings of small and medium-sized enterprises, who are experiencing the worst time now, and I am looking for ways to help them at least a little.
One of your social media profiles says “Never give up.” Is that your motto?
JH: I think it is, yes. I don’t like to lose, but I don’t mind a partial failure, on the contrary, I always learn something new from it. Basically, I’m trying to see a long-term goal ahead of me, and so far I’m going. I like long-term plans. I have no problem setting a goal for 10 years to come, gradually preparing for it and finally winning. I’m used to it from sports and I try to do it in normal life or work.
You have spent many years abroad during your career. Where do you like to go on holiday and how do you spend your free time in Prague?
JH: From a Russian perspective, the Czech Republic is tiny, but last summer my family and I drove around the country with a motorhome. Compared to previous years, we spent much more time at home and discovered many beautiful places we had never been before. In Eastern Moravia, we discovered beautiful nature, the town of Vizovice, which has a wonderful atmosphere. We found, for example, the “Moravian Sea” in the village of Ostrožská, a beautiful lake with waves. By the way, they also have the largest underwater freshwater tunnel with fish, so it’s extremely fun for children.
At the same time, I was extremely impressed by the smaller, district, so-called royal cities. Litoměřice, Klatovy and Sušice. All have a beautiful historic square and at the same time lie in the middle of nature. At the same time, thanks to the ever-increasing level of gastronomic services in the Czech Republic, you can eat very well for a reasonable price. The city of Litoměřice lies on the Elbe River, around which a beautiful bike path leads from the Giant Mountains (Krkonoše) to the city of Hamburg. The city of Klatovy, on the other hand, lies in the middle of the wild Šumava National Park, also known as the Bohemian Forest National Park. We also used the offer of state spa vouchers, the aim of which is to support spa tourism in the Czech Republic, and we visited the Spa in the city of Karlovy Vary. I enjoyed the spa stay for the very first time in my life and I was ecstatic. If COVID-19 had helped anything, it was certainly that Czechs began to rediscover the beauties of the Czech Republic and enjoy holidays and trips spent on domestic soil.