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Why Benidorm Paid So I Could Attend Benidorm Fest Written by on February 3, 2023

Fifteen journalists from across Europe are on an organised trip to Benidorm Fest this year. Their expenditure? Zero. Let Ben Robertson on this trip explain the justification for this most extravagant of trips in the Eurovision world. 

I’ve been covering Eurovision in all its different ways, shapes and forms for ESC Insight for a little more than a decade. In that time I’ve had the privilege to attend about a dozen Eurovision or Junior Eurovision events and 20 National Finals (I’m quite lucky to live walking distance from the one in Solna).

Whether it be Reykjavik or Ventspils there have been delegations eager to help my needs or add some glamour along the way. Sometimes they have held buses so I can catch transport to the venue or provided legendary press room hot dogs or extended an invitation to the visiting press for the ceremonies and parties that the host city and production organise.

However this year’s Benidorm Fest goes above and beyond the hospitality steps that could be considered par for the course. I am one of fifteen Eurovision journalists on a fully funded trip here to the Spanish coast this week. That includes all flights, full board at a 4 star hotel, private transfers from the airport, sightseeing excursions on e-bikes, in jeeps, to luxury hotels, for cocktails in the most exclusive skybars at sunset, not to say as well a ‘EuroClub’ experience with an extensive artist list, some of which have even been brought from abroad.

The view from the five star Asia Gardens hotel on the outskirts of Benidorm (Photo: Ben Robertson)

The expenditure from the local Valencian government alone for last year’s Benidorm Fest came in at just under one million Euros. That number this year has gone up to 1.5 million Euros. That’s one heavy expenditure for a show that succeeded in bringing in just shy of three million viewers across Spain last year and witnessed a drop around a third of viewers for this year’s first Semi Final compared to the last. As a proportion of funding input to viewers and reach one can easily argue that hosting the Eurovision Song Contest is better value (Liverpool City and Region will combined put in £4m towards the hosting of Eurovision in May) that this splurge.

Sometimes you get times when nations and cities see Eurovision as an opportunity for putting on a show for journalists. I remember sipping wine on a tour of Austrian vineyards in 2015 or enjoying vermouth tasting in Turin fondly. But for a National Final? Never have I witnessed anything close to this scale.

Except for one. In my memory there has been one National Final in modern history that went all out to put on a show for the press, flying them out across the continent to tell stories on the ground from a place many Eurovision fans couldn’t place on the map then, but could now.

Let me take you back to Baku.

Start A Fire

In 2008 the Eurovision Song Contest held in Belgrade saw San Marino and Azerbaijan make their debut. While San Marino held an internal selection for their Eurovision act the Azeri broadcaster decided to choose their artist through a national final, allowing three artists to sing two songs each before a winner was selected. For a first time national final big effort was put into the production as special guests Ruslana, Sertab Erener and Marija Serifovic were all invited to perform to the Azeri public.

And also in front of a group of roughly ten journalists who had made the trip across the continent to join them. One of the chosen journalists in attendance was Luke Fisher, who previously has worked for ESCXtra and we would know as a regular voice on the ESC Insight podcasts. He explains that this all-inclusive tour of Azerbaijan didn’t just include flights and accommodation on the ground but also trips around Baku and to Yanar Dagh, where natural gas keeps the mountain alive with flames.

Reflecting on the purpose of that journey 15 years after the event, Luke’s belief is that the Azeri hospitality was important as a kick start for Azerbaijan’s rapid ascent on the global stage that has followed.

“No one [involved in Eurovision] had been there before when we went, and many people had never heard of the place. At some point Azerbaijan was going to win [the Eurovision Song Contest] and they needed people to speak about being there, to say it was safe, to prove it is a good place to go.”

Azerbaijan took to Eurovision like a duck to water, with an 8th place debut being followed by 3rd and 5th before winning in 2011. Luke saw this media strategy in 2008 as a “longer game for it they won”. When ‘Running Scared’ brought home the trophy from Düsseldorf and most of the press wondered how Azerbaijan could host the event the following year, there were already compatriots within the gaggle of press to ask about their experiences on the eastern fringes of the EBU’s broadcast area.

From hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 Azerbaijan has followed that by hosting numerous F1 races, 2015 European Games and the 2019 Europa League Final. There is no denying that Azerbaijan’s Eurovision Song Contest victory was a catalyst for the nation’s development and as a spot for many on the world map. Those first voices on the ground were a key part of that progress.

So while Azerbaijan’s big spending on their lavish national final we could claim as being part of a bigger strategy of nation branding from being nothing to something, we can’t say the same for Spain.

Spain, and in particular the Spanish coast, and particularly resorts such as Benidorm, are already known across the world already as a tourist destination.

What does Spain have to gain?

The whole package that is Benidorm Fest is a collaboration between Spanish broadcaster RTVE and the local governments in Benidorm locally and the wider Generalitat Valenciana. There are benefits on all sides to this new venture. The Spanish broadcaster for example has found a way of relaunching a Eurovision selection process that has involved “millions of young people” and reached record audience levels and interest.

But the local story is more complex. For a start Benidorm Fest is not entirely a new concept. With Sanremo as its inspiration Benidorm was the host of the Benidorm International Music Festival from 1959 to 2006 (notwithstanding a few years where the show did not take place), and big names like Julio Iglesias and Dyango can be listed amongst former winners. Today overlooking Poniente Beach is a replica of the original trophy with a plaque commemorating former winners of the festival. Benidorm Fest is not a continuation of that same festival, but does take inspiration from it. That led to the decision for a new, more Eurovision-esque trophy to be created and the replica of this sits alongside that of its parental competition. So far the Benidorm Fest plaque only has the name of Chanel engraved.

What does hosting this event do to Benidorm? To delve into this we spoke to Leire Bilbao, the Director of Visit Benidorm.

“Our objective is to show that Benidorm has many faces and is a place for everybody. We are really cosmopolitan here.”

The tourism that comes to Benidorm, 16.4 million nights worth of stays in 2019 (the last full year without a pandemic impact) is dominated by a domestic market and one from the United Kingdom, which combined makes up roughly 90% of all the visitor nights in the city.

The feel of the city changes throughout the year. During the winter months more of the guests come from northern Europe, whereas in the summer it is the southern Europeans who dominate. It’s little surprise though that those northern Europeans also love the heat at the peak of summer, with the city of 70,000 people swelling to over 400,000 in the peak of the high season. Leire explains that this is not the most sustainable model for the city.

Leire Bilbao, Director of Visit Benidorm, at the press conference location in the Benidorm Old Town (Photo: Ben Robertson)

“When we think about sustainability we also want to think about economic and social sustainability. The more tourists we get all year round the more people can work all year round.”

Benidorm Fest adds to this sustainability. This week the hotels are running at 80% capacity, up to 90% within 4 star hotels. Even if the venue itself holds no more than 2,000 people for the live show events around the city mean there is something for Eurovision fans to enjoy no matter their exposure to the TV production.

And Benidorm Fest is far from alone. Just last week the world of cycling was brought here to follow the World Cup of Cyclo-Cross. The winter weather in Benidorm may not be perfect for sunbathing but for sports, concerts and conferences a blast of mild sunshine is a near-certainty here, with Benidorm surrounded by hills which stop lots of rainfall in its tracks. A winter model of sustainable tourism puts increased focus on events and experiences, with Leile making a further comparison to Las Vegas, known now for many tourist activities outside of gambling, for the variety of shows, tributes and nightlife offerings the city.

“The thing is that Benidorm is unknown for many from many other european countries,” continues Leire. “If I could make a dream, I would want to see more international in the types of clients, not dominated by Spain or the UK. To have different clients through winter and summer, golf, cycling, running, sea activities or attending conferences.”

Justifying The Fine Dining

It’s not just that Benidorm wants to host events in the wintertime to fill its hotel capacity, it’s also that it wants to bring in a different clientele of tourist. The activities that we have been treated to have been more about experiences, adventures and quality rather than the full English breakfasts and boozy pubs many of those northern Europeans would mistake Benidorm for exclusively having. It is not just that Benidorm is unknown to many in Europe, for those that do know it, the city believes there are huge misconceptions about it.

Such trips of decadence such might be the exception to the norm in the Eurovision bubble, but it is the norm for Benidorm. Last week a similar bunch of journalists were invited over to cover the Cyclo-Cross event for example. It was Visit Benidorm, not the broadcaster, who asked for the help from the national tourist board to bring in the foreign press, with Leile describing this as “candy” to bring the “press that would never otherwise come to Benidorm without this opportunity.”

“The thing is if we tell the story or we make publicity, we tell the story. If you tell the story you have credibility and we know that what you will see you will like it and you will speak about it. This is a part of the strategy.”

And what story can I say about Benidorm? Yes, from the 14th floor of my hotel I am looking equally upwards and downwards at skyscraper after skyscraper squeezed in this narrow strip of flat land between here and the Mediterranean Sea. I can head out of the hotel and stagger into the types of pubs that show live sports all evening with special offers on buckets of beer.

Maybe if all you see is the beach and the strip behind it then that’s all you would take away from a trip to Benidorm. But I’ll be the first to argue that the scenery around the city is majestic, the vistas breathtaking and the variety of tourism offers on show here far more wide-ranging than society’s misconceptions may lead you to believe.

And if Benidorm and the Valencian government produced publicity for one million Euros about Benidorm many of us would dismiss it because of the misconceptions about this city. Instead the entire strategy is to bring in those who tell the stories to experience what Benidorm has to offer and tell that further. So much is the same experience as Baku had fifteen years ago.

And yes, their actions and expenditure can and should be critiqued. But last year’s Benidorm Fest saw the city claim a 13 million Euro return on that 1 million investment. But it is from being here that I can say that a week here in January can be recommended. Dare I say that Benidorm Fest is likely going to be one of the premier National Finals this coming decade and perhaps thousands of fans will be coming here annually like they do for Melodfestivalen. It’s certainly warmer here than Stockholm. The one missing piece of infrastructure needed to attract those fans would be a larger arena, but don’t be surprised if Benidorm sets out to build a venue to further diversify their event package.

I’ve said a decent chunk positive about being here in Benidorm. Maybe it’s the sunshine. Maybe it’s the exciting competition. Maybe it’s the fact I’ve had two glasses of wine and a cocktail this afternoon from the tourist board before I make this final edit. But whatever the cause I would not have said these kind words about this purpose-build tourist town without being here on the ground witnessing the place all the rest of things one can do here.

I urge you all to think critically about me as a source in reading this, my experience here in Benidorm has been no normal experience. But if you believe my writing, and you come yourself in future years, then the Visit Benidorm strategy has paid off.

Disclaimer: ESC Insight’s coverage of Benidorm Fest is supported by Visit Benidorm.

About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson has attended 23 National Finals in the world of Eurovision. With that experience behind him he writes for ESC Insight with his analysis and opinions about anything and everything Eurovision Song Contest that is worth telling.

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