Interview with Peter Petrovic, Executive Director for GUARANT International, Slovakia

Peter Peterovič was there when GUARANT International was looking for suitable premises for a branch in Bratislava in 1992. After the split of Czechoslovakia, he moved to Prague. He returned to Bratislava ten years later where he founded the GUARANT International s.r.o. (GI) as an independent Slovak company. GI in Slovakia collaborates with the events management team from Prague. Peter is fluent in several languages. He advocates an employee management style that relies on positive motivation.

What are your memories of the early days of GI?

To many people, this will probably remind stories from the times of His Imperial Majesty. Registration of participants was done on paper. They were called “stepladders” and ordinary pencil was used so that all could be rewritten or changed. They were no mobile phones but pagers–devices that allowed sending text messages. They did not catch on. We had walkie-talkies that covered Prague that were sufficient when holding events. This has lasted for about two seasons. Mobile phones were of a size of a bag and such a phone cost CZK 120,000 while walkie-talkies were more compact. We had a PC from the beginning but the introduction of Dial-up Internet access via a telephone line was a big novelty. We had a colleague who was the only person in charge of checking emails. The Internet was only on one computer. Back then, the fax machine was a novelty. You wrote the text, printed it out and faxed it. The faxes were archived in each event’s stock folders. This technique only helped us in appearance.  It may have sped up communication and gotten more done per unit of time, but client expectations matched that, so all the time savings went to the clients.

 What events do you like to recall?

In 1995, we helped organize 50 years of the liberation of Pilsen. It was a classic case when the client overestimates its capabilities and contacts an agency only when it feels at the that they cannot manage the event. The Pilsen City Council assumed that they could handle it on their own but in January they found out that the task was too overwhelming. The celebrations were supposed to take place in May. We only had three months for the preparation which was an awfully short time. We programmed the meetings in minutes to get everything done. It was a very demanding event, especially in terms of logistics. There were several different activities going on in parallel in several places in the city. We were dealing with the location of the politicians and their programme at the celebrations. There were also many war veterans who came and had their own special program. Another group with their program were members of the military history club with their war equipment. We were also in charge of managing the logistics of almost 150,000 visitors, and also the organisation of public transport in Pilsen.

The meeting of the World Bank and the IMF was the first very important and awaited world event. This event impacted the whole of Prague. The top state officials were present at the event. The event was accompanied by strict security measures, not only for the participants but for example, the raw materials for the preparation of the food were strictly controlled. Anti-globalisation activists protested against the meeting. I remember some kind of skirmish with the police in Na Pankráci Street, near the KCP. In my opinion, it was nothing dramatic, but the media greatly exaggerated it afterwards.

Among the events organized in Slovakia, I like to remember the World Esperanto Congress. The interesting thing about this congress was that the participants were private individuals who paid for the congress themselves. They are very sympathetic pacifists; they want understanding between people. They are positive, they try to take the world from a better side, some clients sometimes have inadequate requirements, here it was the opposite. The congress was held in Nitra and was attended by almost 2,500 participants.

In Slovakia, rather small events are organized because there is no infrastructure, there are no adequate meeting halls. The government does not pay much attention to congress tourism. GI is a pioneer of big events here. These include, for example, EUROTOX with thousands participants, WONCA with seventeen hundred participants or the World Welding Congress with almost one thousand hundred participants. However, we usually organize smaller events for several hundred people. There is not so much experience with congresses in Slovakia, the market is much smaller here.

How did the pandemic affect you?

This period threatened the very existence of GI. The congress sector is experiencing a huge decline. I recently came across an older article of mine that was published in connection with the financial crisis in 2008. At the time, I was of the opinion that no crisis could threaten congresses. Still, in January 2020, no one knew that a health crisis could cause damage on such an enormous scale around the world. It will be a matter of years before these scars heal.

As for the positives that the Covid era gave me personally, aside from existential worries, it was peace, a regular daily routine. Because I was forced to spend my days in a confined space, I liken it to living in a monastery with a monk’s Ora et labora. Instead of praying (ora), it was work at the computer which was combined with manual work (labora). Thanks to this reduction, I came to the conclusion that if one has a place to sleep, something to eat, and hot water, one doesn’t need much else.  

How do you feel about the onset of virtualisation which has replaced live events?

Full virtualization is tiresome. Virtual conferences will certainly continue to exist to a certain extent and for smaller-scale communication. Man is a social being. However, in the first place, people want to have a feeling of personal contact, also because a significant part of communication is extra-verbal. You talk with your body, people want to experience each other in real life. That is what people miss. Videoconferencing is suitable for short meetings. Especially if you have personal experience, then video conferencing is already easier. However, there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting.

What is the motto of your life?
At different stages of my life, I professed various truths of life. Now I go back to the gardening experience a lot, i.e. it is not enough to do a lot at once but to take small steps with perseverance. It is not enough to work intensively for 14 days and then forget about it till the end of the ear. It is necessary to work reasonably, but continuously. The same applies to work. My wife was a foreign language teacher, and she theorized that it was enough to spend 15 minutes a day on a foreign language. At work, when we have a task, it is important not to look at it as an insurmountable mountain but to do a little bit every day. After a while, you will find out that there is nothing left of that mountain, it is all gone. Just do things in small steps. Eventually, you will realise that things that look complicated and hard were not so bad when you start handling them.

How do you relax, how do you relieve stress?

I usually relieve stress by manual work. Manual work is a suitable complement to intellectual work. I’m not an avid gardener, we don’t have a production garden, but an ornamental garden. So, if I do my job then I have the privilege of working in the garden. A great respite and outlet are contemporary art, a concert or a theatre performance. It’s a world of completely different themes and ideas, which allows you to crowd out your normal worries. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to read fiction, as lately I only read what I need for my professional side.

What makes GI unique?

I think it is, among other things, because we have never primarily thought about a quick and big profit. For us it was always more important to invest money in the development of the company, employees, infrastructure, factors that stabilize the company as much as possible. However, not everyone did so. I will give two examples. In the past, we used to meet other agencies under the Confederation of Commerce and Tourism. The owner of one agency kept talking about how she invested the first money she made in a horse farm. That agency no longer exists. Another agency owner bought a Rolls Royce car with the first money he made. I can imagine very well why he went bust. Market economy began when the accumulation of successful people was not so great. Our clients were driving Škoda cars and, all of a sudden there arrives the contractor in a very expensive car.

I also think there’s a good atmosphere in GI based on people’s reactions. All of us who work in GI have to treat each other as partners. Putting one above the other is not going anywhere. In my opinion, a directive approach and forcing people to behave in a certain way under the threat of restrictions do not work.  A system of positive motivation is better and more sustainable in the long term. Collegiality, positive motivation, room for everyone is, in my opinion, the reason why people stay in GI.

How did GI deal with the pandemic?

It is an event you cannot prepare for. Still, in January 2020, no one could imagine that such a thing could happen. How do you prepare for a meteorite crashing onto your house? It is beyond the will and power of the GI people. If some people leave, if an event doesn’t work out as expected, if some regulations change, you can still influence and solve it somehow but you cannot do anything about COVID. It is force majeure. You just have to try to do your best in this situation. You did not cause it and you cannot stop it. You can just try to get away with as few scars as possible.

What development do you foresee?

The model where you finish your education and retire with that education is gone. We’ve had to deal with computers, cell phones, the Internet. It is likely that today’s young generation will change their profession several times in their lives, some professions will disappear. I can’t say which ones, but everything has been accelerating rapidly over the last 30 years. Today’s retirees who are not computer literate are at a great disadvantage. This is, of course, a challenge for GI as well. I’ll help myself to the tourist experience. If one is in the valley one can see the crest of the nearest mountains. It is only when he climbs the ridge that he sees that behind him is another and then another. It is also true for GI that one must see these distant perspectives, go towards them, that is, evolve, bring new solutions and improve.