Zagreb Tourist Board, Missing 45k (and More) and the Abu Dhabi Connection

By 18 February 2019

February 18, 2019 - Croatian media is reporting that Croatian tourism organisations have been defrauded of 45,000 euro, but the real story is a lot more interesting.

(Editor's note - a big thank you to Goran Rihelj from HR Turizam, who first alerted us to the story several days ago. A lot of Goran's research is included, and Croatian language readers can find his text on the subject here - his story will appear tomorrow and the link added). 

It is not the first time in the history of conferences that an organiser has cancelled or disappeared with the money. 

But could it be the first time that an organiser has managed to persuade a tourist board to host an event in Croatia after they already proved their unreliability by cancelling several major international conferences where the most prominent Croatian names were due to attend? 

The Croatian media is today awash with stories of how a British couple organising a tourism conference, CETS Summit (Central European Tourism Summit in Zagreb) have disappeared without trace, taking with them at least 45,000 euro of tourist board money with them. 

After Goran mentioned the fact that the event website had disappeared and exhibitors had been contacting him asking if they knew anything about the conference or how they could get their money back, I decided to take a closer look into the event and its British organisers, Andy and Lu Buchanan. 

The relationship between Andy Buchanan and Croatia goes back a little beyond this failed CETS Summit. Indeed, here is Zlatan Muftic from the Zagreb Convention Bureau speaking in Abu Dhabi at the first (and only) World Halal Travel Summit back in 2015. A successful event organised by Andy Buchanan's company, the same organiser at the proposed CETS Summit in Zagreb.

So far, so good. 

And then things started to go a little wrong. The 2016 World Halal Travel Summit and the inaugural International Travel Week Abu Dhabi (ITW), organised by Buchanan, were both postponed due to regional tensions until 2017 and merged into one.

The confirmed 2017 Croatian attendance for ITW Abu Dhabi 2017 was strong

"For now, participation at ITW Abu Dhabi is confirmed by 12 Croatian representatives: Bagatin Clinic, Specialty Hospital Arithera, Specialty Hospital Akromion, Croatian Tourism Board, Zagreb Tourism Board, Kvarner Tourism County Board, Kvarner Health Cluster, Međimurje Tourism Board, Municipality Krapina-Zagorje, Confutura agency, Terme Sv. Martin, IQ Cure resort, organized by Arabco Projects - official representative of ITW Abu Dhabi for Croatia and Adria region."

The conference was cancelled two weeks before it was due to take place.

And so, after two years of postponed and cancelled conferences, official Croatian confidence in the company to deliver was so high that it was agreed to engage Buchanan's company to hold a VERY ambitious tourism conference in Zagreb called CETS Summit (Central European Tourism Summit). Diamond sponsors of the event were the Croatian National Tourist Board, Zagreb Tourist Board, City of Zagreb and Croatia Airlines. Both tourist boards were well aware of the cancelled events in Abu Dhabi in 2016 and 2017. 

abu-dhabi-Andy Buchanan.jpg

(Andy Buchanan, photo source 

Buchanan was convincing after the success of the 2015 halal summit, even having ITB Berlin announce a partnership with ITW Abu Dhabi in October 2017.  The partnership lasted just a month until ITW Abu Dhabi 2017 was cancelled, as was confirmed in an email to TCN last week by ITB Berlin PR Manager for Corporate Communication, Julia Sonnemann.

"With regard to ITW Abu Dhabi, ITB Berlin occupied the role of marketing and alliance partner, but was not responsible in any way either for planning or staging the event. Over the years medical and halal travel have become increasingly important segments at ITB Berlin. Networking with ITW in Abu Dhabi as marketing partner therefore made sense in order to exploit the synergies of the two fairs. Thus, only the organisers of ITW can comment on the reason it has been cancelled. The partnership ended by the time ITW cancelled the event. So we are not cooperating with them anymore."

As quickly as ITB Berlin distanced itself from Buchanan's company, so Zagreb seemingly embraced it. After two years of non-delivery in Abu Dhabi, Buchanan's Cacti Expo was engaged to deliver "Central Europe's largest travel trade event."


In December. 

During Advent in Zagreb. 

When Zagreb is not exactly empty. 

Or businesses focused on business.

When I questioned the timing with the organisers, I was told that it was a deliberate decision from the tourist boards to hold it at the beginning of Advent to show that Croatia was 'Full of Life' all year round. 

It seemed that the genius idea to hold the inaugural largest travel trade event in December when Zagreb was going to be full did not seem that appealing to conference participants, and Lu Buchanan explained to the media that it had been decided to reschedule the event for May 2019.

Industry experts I have spoken to have expressed their surprise at the size of the project for a first-time exhibition in a new location in December - 12,000m2 is a lot of space to fill. Too much, as it turned out. 

"We believe that there will be more available rooms in the hotels in May, and spring offers opportunities for more sightseeing in both Zagreb and in its surroundings, as well as in other parts of Croatia, which are also in the CETS Zagreb program," Buchanan explained.

It is always reassuring when you have both the Zagreb and national tourist boards involved that nobody is quite sure when might be the best month for available beds for a major international conference. 


And so the event was rescheduled for May 7-8, 2019, with a welcome photo of Zagreb snow to get the delegates into that warm Spring feeling. 

The company behind Cacti is based in Malaga, Spain. While Lu Buchanan stated to the media that Cent Euro Fairs SL has been trading for 25 years, this would appear to be news to the Spanish tax authorities, According to online records, the company is allegedly just one year old (formed on 25 January, 2018, a few days after the CETS team first contacted me), with a start-up capital of 3,000 euro and is yet to file any taxes.

The CETS Summit is due to take place in May. The website has disappeared (it is not totally offline - there was some recent activity after we started looking into the story, as permissions for documents available on the site suddenly changed), the organisers are not contactable, and the tourist boards and other partners have quietly removed all mention of the conference from their websites.

Is it necessary to let people know that the conference has been cancelled? Apparently not. 

News of the failed conference broke in the Croatian media last night, with some 45,000 euro apparently lost. A number which I suspect is the tip of the iceberg, as several other exhibitors have contacted us for information in recent days. 

The 45,000 euro cited in the Croatian media refers only to 16,500 paid by the Croatian National Tourist Board for a 50m2 and 29,100 euro by the Zagreb Tourist Board. There were many other tourist boards, both local and regional, taking part in this event. My understanding is that the Kvarner region was particularly interested in preparation for Rijeka becoming the European City of Culture in 2020. And let's not forget the many non-tourist board businesses taking part. 

Or that it was not just a Croatian event, but a regional one. HINA reports that the national tourist boards of Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Hercegovina were also taking part, as well as presumably some other businesses and tourist boards from those countries. Many will have paid their fees, but will they see them again? It is hardly a glorious advert for Zagreb as a conference centre. Suing a one-year-old company with a start-up capital of 3,000 euro where the owners have disappeared will be a challenge. 

And it is not just the exhibitors who are out of pocket. International and local staff working for CETS Summit were laid off as far back as June last year - they are all owed money. I spoke to one of them today - lots of promises of money coming. Even the expenses of their sales trips were not paid. A feature story on this will be on TCN next week. 

While efforts will no doubt continue to recover the money from a Spanish company with start-up capital of 3,000 euro and uncontactable owners, the larger question remains as to how the biggest official names in Croatian tourism could have proceeded with a conference which made little sense (as was evidenced by the lack of take-up) and with seemingly no due diligence or care that previous conferences by the same organisers had been cancelled. 


There is one more link to the story which has yet to be explained. Arabco Projects, a company based in Zagreb, has been actively trying to engage Croatian businesses in the Middle East since at least January 2015. It is still advertising itself as the certified partner of ITW Abu Dhabi. Perhaps they will have some answers. We have reached out to Arabco Projects and owner Petar Galovic, who has promised an official response to the situation with CETS, an event 'with which he has no connection.' As official partner of ITW Abu Dhabi, however, I understand that he was involved in dealing with and handling payments from Croatian participants for that cancelled event. 

One thing is for sure - this is the latest chapter in the less than glorious chapter of Croatian tourism promotion, with more wasted money. The Kings of Accidental Tourism are back.

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