The Vilnius Model: How to keep people smiling

Vilnius caught the attention of the world with their innovative strategies to support their citizens and businesses throughout the pandemic. After winning the 2020 City Nation Place Award for Best Communication Strategy, we reached out to the Director of Go Vilnius, Inga Romanovskiene, to understand more about their place branding strategy - and to discover the secret to using humour successfully in your marketing.

Thank you for joining us, Inga. We're excited to hear more about your winning campaign, "Vilnius: Amazing Wherever You Think It Is." First though, I was hoping to speak to you about the amazing initiatives Vilnius launched during the pandemic to support residents and businesses alike. Is there a single project that you are particularly proud of?

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown last March inspired the broader community in Vilnius to look for ways to turn challenges into opportunities to help each other and the city survive amid a period of uncertainty. This took on many forms, including a local photographer who exchanged his tripod for a drone to keep taking family portraits during quarantine and Vilnius International Airport transforming one of its aprons to accommodate a drive-in cinema. Then, the municipality of Vilnius approached restaurant owners with an extraordinary proposal to use the entire city as an open-air café to maintain safe distance and keep businesses in the city alive. 

The pandemic impacted everyone around the world, making for an experience that we all had in common. In this sense, we knew that initiatives in Vilnius aimed at responding to the crisis could be relevant, inspirational and helpful to other cities and communities around the world while simultaneously furthering our long-term objective of raising awareness about the city abroad. So, during the height of the first lockdown, we continued doing our job – sharing stories from Vilnius with the world.

The innovative ideas to adapt to the pandemic in Vilnius did not go unnoticed. When most of the world was entering lockdown and wondering how to cope with the new reality, photos of drones flying over the city distributing information leaflets and creative portraits of families during lockdown started circulating around the international media in March and April. Vilnius’ idea of becoming a giant open-air café was shared and discussed by politicians, journalists, urbanists, and restaurant and tourism associations from Israel and the UK, to Canada and the US. International food celebrities took note of a local restaurateur’s idea to feature mannequins in empty café seats to support local designers and maintain physical distance, while the Art Needs No Roof project was featured in the international arts media. 

The Vilnius-born ideas generated more than 2,000 media reports and have since been nicknamed the Vilnius Model, which was seen as a package of innovative ideas about how to restart a city in the new reality of living in a pandemic.  

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Before the pandemic, we had clear and detailed plans about which projects we wanted to implement and which communication tools we would use. We were well-prepared to consistently and purposefully increase the attractiveness and awareness of Vilnius around the world.

However, as the situation changed – or more precisely, turned upside down – our plans became obsolete and we had to come up with a new approach in a very short amount of time. We brought most of our projects to a halt and started new ones, which were born out of the new reality and new needs.

We realised that even within the context of a pandemic, residents of our city continue to innovate and come up with interesting ideas, so we supported them and helped spread the news about them outside Lithuania.

In the summer, we focused on promoting local tourism and implemented a really successful project we called Holidays in Vilnius. Moreover, to present the city to conference organisers, we moved venue presentations to a virtual space and worked closely with the city's tourism industry to identify ways to overcome the crisis.

We prepared and implemented a completely new action plan in a very short time, which helped manage the situation as much as we could.

All of these projects put community engagement at the heart, while also sharing the best of the Vilnius Brand with the world.  Was this more inward focus a new approach for Vilnius? Are there any learnings from the last six months that you’re building into your strategy going forward?

One important lesson from this period is to keep close contact with the local community – artists, activists, businesspeople, event organisers, performers, programmers, volunteers. Feeling the pulse of the city is very important and helps us share the authentic success stories that matter.

Another lesson is to be active and look for solutions, even in the most uncertain of times. Even though our world was turned upside down, we kept doing our job and it made a difference. We kept communicating news from Vilnius, and although our stories could not directly impact tourism at that moment, they helped achieve other important goals. They cheered locals up and encouraged them not to give up. The stories inspired communities and professionals from other cities to use our experience and look for solutions to the situations they were in.

I’ve seen that Vilnius has recently banned cars from the Old Town in order to provide more space for pedestrians. How else have you been using placemaking approaches to transform the city as you prepare for recovery?

Like many other cities around the world, Vilnius has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the crisis has also opened us new opportunities. While chaotic times may shock, they can also strengthen and stimulate creativity to help endure any tribulation.

For example, in the summer, the municipality of Vilnius took advantage of an opportunity offered by quarantine. It decided to implement a plan of freeing the Old Town of transit traffic, as well as freeing some of the streets for pedestrians. The plan was supposed to be implemented in 2021, but the quarantine, which naturally slowed down movement in the city, set the stage to implement it even sooner.

The traffic changes in the Old Town will stay, and it will be one of the long-term positive results of the pandemic.

Another example is turning Vilnius into an open-air café. Compared to the previous year, the number of outdoor cafés has almost doubled – for a few months more than 450 local businesses in over 18 spots, including four streets closed to cars in the Old Town, invited people to go out for a nice dinner while also socialising and supporting the city’s gastronomy industry. Positive initiatives, like opening more public spaces for outdoor cafés and minimising bureaucracy for businesses, are here to stay, even after the pandemic.

Your winning campaign, “Vilnius: Amazing Wherever You Find It,” plays on the fact that only 5% of your target audience  could locate Vilnius on a map. It was amazing to see how you’ve turned a negative on its head to become a real strength, but was it difficult to get  your stakeholders on board with the strategy?

In fact, this was not our first campaign to highlight the fact that Vilnius is still not well known. We have successfully used this strategy before with the previous G-Spot of Europe campaign. By the way, the previous campaign also had the full support of our main stakeholder – the municipality of Vilnius.

Therefore, it was not difficult to sell the strategy to our stakeholders again. We share the same view to the positioning of the city – the idea that we need to be bold and open about who we are.

I'm glad that you mentioned the ‘G-spot of Europe’ campaign, because I think it was absolutely genius. It could have been very controversial, but the tongue in cheek approach generated wide-spread acclaim. What would be your tip for a place who was looking to be humorous in their own marketing?

With the G-spot of Europe campaign, Go Vilnius adopted a playful approach to destination marketing to stand out from its competitors through engaging, attention-grabbing creativity, and ultimately put Vilnius on the map for its target demographic.

It aimed to highlight the fact that, while Vilnius isn’t a well-known city, once visitors discover it they enjoy their experience. The core objective of the campaign is therefore to increase the visibility of Vilnius as an open, vibrant and modern European capital city to potential visitors.

This campaign was quite bold. And it was successful. Bold ideas attract attention. We are open to bold and creative ideas, and we also know what it takes to stand by a bold idea or a non-traditional way to market a destination.

My advice to other cities? First of all, be sincere and creative at the same time. People are tired of sterile images, perfect people and clichés. The winner will be the one who doesn’t try to be something that isn’t there, who isn’t afraid to be different, who is looking for new forms and who is trying to make a real connection with their audience.

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