The venue for the 21 st AEHT Annual Conference this autumn is the beautiful, tranquil town of Kuressaare, capital of the green unspoiled island of Saaremaa, which juts out into the Baltic Sea on the west coast of Estonia.

Kuressaare Bishop’s Castle
Kuressaare Bishop’s Castle
Kuressaare Bishop’s Castle
The local hero "Suur Tõll" and "Piret"

The spring meeting of the AEHT’s Executive Board is always held at the same venue as the large autumn Annual Conference – this enables the national representatives who make up the Executive Board to learn first hand about the details of the conference programme, and to see the premises planned for the various ceremonies and competitions as well as the hotels where the delegations will be housed. The delegates came from the four corners of Europe, from Portugal in the west to Macedonia in the east, and from Italy in the south to Norway in the north, most of them making their way to the capital, Tallinn, then overland and via the Suup Vain ferry and Muhu island to Kuressaare. The journey from Tallinn airport is about 200 kms, and takes around 3 hours; the bus takes fast roads through pine and birch woods, which on our return journey were embellished with a sprinkling of snow. The transport arrangements worked like clockwork, as you would expect when they are masterminded by our Vice-president Neeme Rand, renowned for his reliability and precision, one of a thrusting new breed of Estonians intent on showing Europe how it’s done!

The island of Saaremaa ( 6.5% of the country’s land area and home to 35,000) is a nature lover’s paradise, boasting a rich variety of flora and fauna; this is partly explained by the island’s cold-war history – throughout the Soviet era Saaremaa was a military zone, an outpost on the edge of the soviet union, and therefore access was restricted to military personnel and to the local farming population. No industry or settlement could take place – to the great delight of the indigenous wildlife! This isolation ended in 1991 with independence from the Soviet Union, though the natural habitat is still jealously protected by the islanders – hence the lively debate about the wisdom of connecting the island to the mainland by a road bridge.

At this point it may be appropriate to say a few words about Estonia, which is one of Europe’s best kept secrets: it is located on the eastern coast of the Baltic, and lies south of Finland, north of Latvia and west of Russia; its 45,000 square kilometers (the highest point is Suur Munamägi or Big Egg Hill, all of 318 meters above sea level) are inhabited by 1.34 million Estonians, 400,000 of whom live in the capital, Tallinn – an ancient town first mentioned in 1154. The population is made up of ethnic Estonians (67.9%) and 25.6% of ethnic Russians, with small groups of Belarussians, Finns and Ukrainians.

Estonia is mentioned as early as 98 AD by the Roman historian Tacitus who mentions the Estonians’ strange customs, clothes and language (no change there then, sorry Neeme!) Since then it has been invaded and marched over by a series of conquerors, including the Teutonic Knights, the Danes, the Swedes, the Poles and, most recently, the Russians; Estonia was independent for 22 years from 1918, but was occupied in 1940 by the Soviet Union, from which the country finally became independent in 1991, although soviet troops didn’t finally moved out until 1994. Remember the Singing Revolution, and the Baltic Chain, when Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians held hands to form a 513 km chain connecting the three Baltic capitals, in protest at the Soviet occupation? Estonia has scarcely looked back since independence, and has passionately embraced technology: 70% of 15-74 year olds are internet users; 79% of those conduct their everyday banking transactions online, 90% make their income tax returns online, all cabinet meetings are paperless, and there are 1158 WiFi covered areas!

The country’s official language is Estonian, which is closely related to Finnish – indeed the Finnish delegates conversed effortlessly with our Estonian hosts, each using their own language. Estonian seems to share the distinctive sing-song intonation of Finnish, as well as its long series of vowels crowned with diacritics! Oh, and 80% of Estonians are Protestant Lutheran, though as you might expect in an oft-invaded country, there are also practising members of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Roman Catholics, Baptists and Methodists.

Hotel Meri
Hotel Meri
Hotel Mardi – Training hotel of Kuressaare Ametikool
Hotel Mardi – Training hotel of Kuressaare Ametikool

So back to our Executive Board meeting: the delegates were divided between two hotels: the Hotel Meri and the Hotel Mardi – the latter is the Kuressaare Ametikool’s own training hotel. The Presidium, lodged in the Mardi hotel, had dinner on Thursday evening at the Nautica Pargi restaurant where they sampled local vodka and wild boar, then they were up early for breakfast on Friday morning, and hard at work in a seminar room by 9.00, preparing for the following day’s executive board meeting. They were joined for much of the day by the AEHT’s webmaster, Ahti, to discuss the structure of the website and of the new online membership list.

Presidium meeting
Presidium meeting

This year’s spring meetings of the Presidium and Executive Board were different in a very important respect – they were combined with the first meetings of the newly formed Council of Elders: members of this elite body are former presidents and vice-presidents of the AEHT who have now retired from their posts as hotel school directors. The AEHT is eager to tap into their considerable knowledge and wisdom, and intends to ask them to undertake specific tasks for the Association – such as fund-raising and preparing for the 25 th anniversary celebrations. At these first meetings the Council’s constitution and objectives were discussed at length by three members who witnessed the AEHT’s foundation in 1989 – Jürgen Clausen, Hans Russegger and Roy Van Sassen. We have very high hopes of them!

AEHT President together with the Council of Elders
AEHT President together with the Council of Elders
Executive Board meeting
Executive Board meeting

After a long day’s meeting, Friday night saw us making our way to the Arensburg restaurant (Arensburg was the old German name for Kuressaare, used until 1919), located in a former law court, now transformed into a boutique hotel. We were joined at dinner by Marta Hubbard, now retired from the Kuressaare Ametikool but once an energetic AEHT enthusiast; after a delicious meal of foie gras and duck, we made our way to the bar of La Perla, an establishment owned by Bill Moschella , a long-standing Kuressaare restaurateur, originally from Chicago and former FBI member sent to Tallinn to track some maffiosi. We drank a delicious grappa, generously provided by Bill.

Boutique Hotel Arensberg
Boutique Hotel Arensberg
A toast to the 21th AEHT Annual Conference at La Perla
A toast to the 21th AEHT Annual Conference at La Perla

The Executive Board meeting occupied most of Saturday morning (the minutes of the meeting may be read elsewhere on this website); then on Saturday afternoon we were taken on a guided tour of the locations planned for the annual conference in October: the cavernous Sports Hall will house the opening ceremony, several of the competitions (food service, hospitality, bar) as well as the prize-giving and closing ceremonies. Then we were shown the various hotels to be used by delegates; all have spacious and bright dining rooms and bars, some even have outdoor heated swimming pools; they are located by the sea and close to the Bishop’s Castle – in fact in Kuressaare nothing is located far from anything else!

venue for the restaurant (capacity 700 pers.)
venue for the restaurant (capacity 700 pers.)
venue for the service and hospitality competitions
venue for the service and hospitality competitions
venue for the bar competition
venue for the bar competition

Then the evening got under way with a reception at Kuressaare Bishop’s Castle, where entertainment was provided by an exquisite early music ensemble. We were the guests of Urve Tiidus, the mayoress of Kuressaare (a former television journalist) who in perfect English welcomed us to her tranquil and stress-free city. ‘Education is not filling a pail, it’s lighting a fire’ she told us while discussing the excellent work done by Neeme at the Kuressaare Ametikool (your interpreter misunderstood this fine epigram at the time, so here it is again). Ms Tiidus presented the AEHT president with a framed picture of Kuressaare, and the present was reciprocated by Louis Robert. Then on came the wine and the delicious amuse-gueules, while the leader of the early music ensemble interspersed the performances with explanations of the instruments and of the music; the AEHT delegates even joined in the performances by singing whoops of joy as directed by the ensemble’s leader!

At the Bishop’s Castle: Presidium in company of Mrs Urve Tiidus, mayoress of Kuressaare
At the Bishop’s Castle: Presidium in company of Mrs Urve Tiidus, mayoress of Kuressaare
The Executive Board in front of the Bishop’s Castle
The Executive Board in front of the Bishop’s Castle

Then came our final banquet at the Ametikool on Saturday night: a long table had been beautifully laid the whole length of the dining room, and the guests (including a number of the school’s teachers) were served a sumptuous dinner; the kitchen and service brigades were loudly applauded, and Neeme (who was accompanied by his delightful wife Ave) made a rousing speech expressing his high hopes for the October conference – sentiments echoed in the President’s response. Next, it seems that some of the less virtuous members of the gathering ventured out the Kuressaare’s night clubs (the Captains Tavern is said to have been their preferred venue) and gave a considerable boost to the island’s vodka sales; it was not difficult to spot the culprits – they were the very quiet ones on the bus to Tallinn the following morning! The General Secretary and the Treasurer remained behind until Tuesday to carry out further work on the membership database.

Dinner at Hotel Mardi
Dinner at Restaurant "Kass"
Leisure time on Sunday in Vilsandi National Park
Leisure time on Sunday in Vilsandi National Park

All the arrangements for our stay in Kuressaare ran like clockwork, which bodes well for the Annual Conference in October: everything in the town is within walking distance; everything was well planned and efficient; all the premises we visited were ideal for a conference – clean, new and well staffed; above all, though, the Kuressaare Ametikool colleagues were highly enthusiastic and well briefed about the conference, and the school’s students will play an important role in the event. The entire school is already hard at work getting ready to welcome you from October 14 th-19 th. Roll up, roll up – the 21 st AEHT Annual Conference will be fantastic!

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