Two event pros travel to Turkmenistan to teach and end up getting an education in international events
Turkmenistan quickly is on its way to becoming a destination country in the meeting and tourism industries, with intentions similar to Dubai. The country is focused on attracting events with the opening of 5-star hotels, new high-rise buildings, and a resort in the works.
Recently two event professionals — Kevin White, XPL, and president of ISES, and Brandt Krueger, Consultant — also both professors of EduCause Learning Initiative’s (ELI), went to Turkmenistan to teach event management. Participants represented various government ministers from Cultural Affairs, Tourism and Finance, as well as members of parliament, along with a few academics from the university where the instruction was administered. The seminar was specifically designed around the planning and execution of “large-scale” events, such as conventions and sporting events.
The Language Barriers and Translators
Although they were going there to teach, the trip was a learning experience for White and Krueger as they coped with the language barriers, worked with translators and experienced cultural differences.
Turkmenistan has two languages: Turkmen and Russian. This meant the interpreters really needed to work in Turkmen to English. Unfortunately, Turkmen is about three times the length of English. This made it difficult for the presenters not to race ahead of the interpreters. It was simultaneous-ish! According to Krueger, the trick was to keep their sentences short and sweet, but the temptation was to just talk slower. Since most languages don’t have the same sentence structure as English, it’s better to complete an entire thought and then wait for the translator to reorganize it and catch up. Because Krueger was concerned about the technical nature of his portions of the agenda, the translators received advanced outlines of the material and clearly studied up on it to alleviate any difficulties.
“They actually hounded us for the presentations days before so that they could look up elements, understand them and describe them if there wasn’t a term for it in the native tongue,” White said.
Krueger went on to say: “Because the majority of the audience was government officials, it was unlikely they would have anything to do with the actual planning of events. So it wasn’t all that necessary for us to go into great detail, only to give the broad strokes of what goes into planning large scale events, and all the various pieces of the puzzle that go into them, for their general knowledge.”
Top: Kevin White speaking to the crowd. Bottom Left: Turkmenistan audience. Bottom Right: Brandt Krueger speaking to the crowd.
Intel for American industry colleagues producing an event in Turkmenistan
• Start in Turkey for suppliers.
• This is a very traditional culture, a closed society until 30 years ago. Learn about it before planning.
• Media is hyper-controlled, and people don’t offer their opinions much in mixed company.
• Men always wear suits; women dress in long skirts and headwraps. Some modern dress, but the traditional culture, especially among students and the government, is very prevalent.
• This has potential to be a great place for an event, but like other places in the world, you have to know what you’re getting into.
• It makes a great central meeting point between Europe, Russia, China, Japan and other APAC countries.
• It’s one of the most stable countries in the region, with a strong military and no allegiance to any of the other troubled countries in the neighborhood. (The border with Iran is only 20 miles away from Ashgabat).
• They clearly want to join Dubai in being a destination for the world’s meeting and tourism industry and have been putting billions of dollars into infrastructure, including new five star hotels and conference centers, and reconstructing the Ashgabat airport.
• They’ve building a multi-billion dollar resort city on the Caspian Sea, which has already opened some of its resort hotels.
• The exchange rates are currently extremely favorable to Euros and Dollars right now, making it a very inexpensive destination compared to many.
• The city of Ashgabat itself is simply beautiful, with the majority of the new sections of the city being built out of white marble and polished brass as its “brand.”
• At night, the city is reminiscent of another city in a desert: Las Vegas. Everything is lit up at night and left on almost all night, in bright, sometimes changing colors.
• Most of the potential downsides depend upon your point of view. For example, it’s a highly regulated society, with large amounts of police and military personnel everywhere. Intimidating for some, but at the same time a safety factor for others.
• The city of Ashgabat basically closes at 11pm. For some, that might actually be a benefit for their meeting, ensuring nobody’s going to get in to any late night trouble.
• Alcohol is available at most restaurants, and there are bars and pubs, but it’s made fairly clear that public drunkenness is unacceptable.
• Not everything is allowed to be photographed, and it’s not always clear what can and can’t be taken. Always ask respectfully and politely whether or not a photo is allowed.
Barriers for Events
Turkmenistan is going to have to make major decisions if it wants to attract more international visitors. For example, much like China, there are restrictions as to what Websites can and can’t be accessed on the Internet. For a tech savvy audience, or a heavily social media engaged crowd, this could be a deal-breaker, but that hasn’t stop China from becoming a major player in the tourism industry, so it is possible.
In addition, it can be very difficult to obtain visas to visit the country, something with which White and Krueger experienced some difficulty. That must be addressed if Turkmenistan wants to have more tourism, meetings, and conferences.
Positive Elements and Attractions
• Kabobs, grilled meats and various fried dumpling-style dishes – Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food – are amazing in Turkmenistan.
• Surreal scenery, embanked in fog until sunrise, which revealed large plains.
• The Palace of Happiness (pictured above), a $2 billion building, covered in LED lights, where people get registered to marry. The rest of the city is just white marble buildings trying to be as majestic as possible.
• Abundant monuments and statues.
This is a society and culture that has been smothered by the Soviet Union and is now finding its way. Its first post-Soviet ruler had eight statues of gold built honoring himself. The second ruler is a bit more democratic, but not much more. This is a country trying to find itself. It is a country that is half-authentic, half-Soviet paranoid, trying to bring in the world through events. They see the ultimate power of live experiences. Tradeshows for business. Conferences for learning. Events for marketing and community building.
Turkmenistan will be a country to watch in the coming years to see if it can succeed in its desire to become a worldwide destination. It’s smart to want to enter the multibillion-dollar meetings and tourism industries, but, as with all destinations, it is going to have to find a balance between its own cultural and societal norms, and the desires, wants, and needs of a global audience. For the right group, Turkmenistan has the makings of a world class destination.
This article was based on Howard Givner’s interview with Kevin White and Brandt Krueger.