Text and photos by John Keeble
Cuenca is building on its rich heritage as a beautiful and sophisticated city to become known, first nationally and then internationally, as a destination for conferences and seminars.
City tourism officials working with organisers planning events in Cuenca, including the steering committee for the 2nd Cuenca International Writers Conference and with university organisations.
Part of its efforts is to offer the free use of the city’s historic buildings to events organisers — an incredible attraction because of their unique architecture, sizes and El Centro locations. Several of the city’s public El Centro buildings can provide facilities for as many as 900 participants, but many choices and versatility within buildings mean good accommodation for even small events and conferences.
In the private sector, Oro Verde Hotel is leading the way but the new Sheraton, due to open soon, will soon be fighting to catch up. Both of the big hotels can offer their own event accommodation, but the city’s plan brings in business to smaller hotels and restaurants in and around the city — a big advantage to the local economy, especially at this time of slower business.
Cynthia Cornejo, who has been appointed by the city to expand its conventions and events sector, said: “We are very interested in events, conferences and congresses that bring visitors to Cuenca and which increase the learning for citizens.
“Cuenca is a great place for events. We have beautiful patrimonial [heritage] buildings and they give added value to event development in the city. They have big, comfortable spaces that have been beautifully restored.”
Cornejo, who is a member of the city tourism board, already liaises with organisers of various events and congresses. These include academic, medical and health congresses and the Cuenca International Writers Conference.
The help being offered by Cornejo’s department spans publicity, provision of souvenirs, and entertainment, though each conference and event is negotiated separately.
Mike Herron, coordinator of the steering group for the writers conference, said it was attractive to have a conference in a patrimonial building within walking distance of hotels where the participants could stay. “That’s not a sterile hotel,” he added. “It involves bringing in people and placing them in the Cuenca culture. That is a real plus to me.”
This year’s writers conference, from 14-17 March, has almost filled its 50 places available for those wanting to attend. It is a conference organised by writers for writers and specialist speakers come from the U.S., Canada, UK, Holland, Ireland, Venezuela as well as successful authors and publishing specialists living in Cuenca.
The city’s development plan is to encourage annual events that attract people from other parts of Ecuador and then expand into attracting international events, which places the international writers conference at the forefront of city hopes. The city plan envisages events attracting, say, 100 in the first year and then growing year on year to much bigger events. The writers conference organisers are already planning the 2018 conference.
“We want to make Cuenca a new destination for events in the country,” said Cornejo.
The city’s ambitions are echoed in the private sector. Hotel Oro Verde is leading the way. It says on its website: “We have modern and versatile lounges, high technology audio-visual art equipment, simultaneous translation, counseling Professional Event Coordinators, extensive experience [in hosting] national and international events.” It adds that they specialize in conferences and conventions, and that the new Lounge Oro Verde, which seats 700 people, can be divided into three rooms.
The new Sheraton, being built near the Mall del Rio, says on its website that it will open on March 1. It has 120 rooms and joins Hotel Oro Verde in offering large events facilities. Since the Sheraton owners also own Mall del Rio, the hotel will have access to conference halls capable of accommodating 2,000. At the time the Sheraton was announced, it drew criticism from smaller hoteliers that it was adding to an over-capacity problem in Cuenca.
In a related Cuenca tourist board programme, the board’s researcher and writer is developing cultural routes to attract visitors as well as those living in the area. Felipe Cardoso commented: “It is very important to offer new experiences. Tourism changes. It is not the same as 20 years ago. Tourists now look for real experiences of culture. They like to mingle with the artisans. It is very important to develop this kind of route.”
He pointed out that Cuenca has a long history of culture and the arts. He has developed a French route to show the French influence that started when the first visitors arrived in Cuenca to ascertain its latitude and longitude in a then-new system being developed. Another route takes visitors around the city’s museums and buildings.
“I am researching our interesting traditions to make them part of our tourism – for example, we have wonderful traditional bakers and people following this route see them and learn about the recipes and ways they bake,” said Cardoso.
Another city route links the chocolate makers and Cardoso is now developing rural routes to show the craft people as well as the landscapes. The first of the routes, available now, is San Joaquín and the Yanuncay river.
The route publications are free at tourist information points in Spanish, English and sometimes French. The tourist board is planning to make all its route publications available in the three languages.
The 2nd Cuenca International Writers Conference is March 14-17. For more information, go to http://cuencawritersconference.com
John Keeble is an international photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He ‘retired’ after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 11 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues. He has had wide coverage for his articles and photographs since moving to Cuenca in February 2016 and he is presenting a session on Writing Articles at the Cuenca International Writers Conference in March.