Guest blog by Uniplaces – Lisbon, Comeback City: Joint marketing of a new European Knowledge Hub

A rise in collaborative initiatives across Europe shows the growing understanding of “Destination Marketing” as a tool to attract and retain talent.  During a recent partnership workshop in Paris on April 13th-14th, Frank Uffen – Founder of The Class of 2020 – invited participants to share examples of cities working closely with universities and tourism boards in their city marketing efforts. Gabrielle Narcy explains why Lisbon’s fast-growing entrepreneurial community could be a key element to enable the city and national government to attract more international students.

European context

The Class of 2020 had already hosted a discussion of this topic at the ITB Berlin 2016, where various student mobility and marketing experts reminded us of the massive potential that university cities represent. The 6 million international higher education students that will be studying in Europe by 2020 (against 4.5 million currently) will then represent $132bn in terms of economic impact. The link between higher education, destination marketing and the economy is therefore obvious, and the Paris workshop went through a few examples of European cities, such as Copenhagen, Vienna, Glasgow and Rotterdam, that can inspire other cities in terms of best practices. Some partners attending the workshop rightly stated that cities should do everything to attract international students, because they would have a positive impact on tourism growth, infrastructure, social fabric and the overall economy.

Lisbon entrepreneurial scene

Lisbon is another city that has been working hard to establish itself as a knowledge hub through cooperation with the education and business/start-up sectors. As a Lisbon-based marketing manager at Uniplaces, an online student accommodation platform involved in various international mobility research projects, I have witnessed the city’s determination to become one of the rising stars of the European entrepreneurial scene.

Uniplaces offices, insidehistorical Rossio train station, Lisbon

Uniplaces offices, inside historical Rossio train station, Lisbon

The 2011 economic crisis that hit Portugal means that Portuguese people and political stakeholders have needed to adjust, something that the country has been doing brilliantly through a booming entrepreneurial scene. In 2013, the unemployment rate hit nearly 18% (12.6% today), and the answer to this crisis by both Portuguese citizens and policymakers has been to encourage people to create their own job opportunities. Lisbon, the capital city, has been at the center of this revolution, and is now considered one of the most entrepreneurial cities in Europe, a new Silicon Valley. In 2011, whilst the economic crisis was in full swing, Antonio Costa, the very popular mayor of Lisbon from 2007 to 2015 and now the Portuguese Prime Minister since November 2015, created Startup Lisboa, a start-up incubator meant to help the creation and development of start-ups within the city by offering mentoring, strategic partners, access to investment, networking activities and work spaces to entrepreneurs.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, Portuguese Minister of Industry and Lisbon Mayor

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, Portuguese Minister of Industry and Lisbon Mayor

Today, this incubator hosts over 100 entrepreneurs, and successful companies like Uniplaces were born from this program. The international start-up raised a Series A investment last October and today has 130 employees, with its headquarters in the heart of Lisbon, inside the beautiful Rossio Station.

Antonio Costa was here on March 8th to inaugurate the new Uniplaces offices, in front of national TV channels and newspapers. He chose the Uniplaces inauguration to announce the launch of a new governmental program, Startup Portugal, inspired by the success of Startup Lisboa at city level. What Antonio Costa started in Lisbon, he will now spread at country level through a national strategy for entrepreneurship that aims to meet the needs of entrepreneurs from day one: from seeding to incubation and acceleration, even at international level. The program will, indeed, aim at attracting foreign investors and at helping Portuguese start-ups to develop globally.

In this new era of entrepreneurship initiated by Antonio Costa, coworking spaces are opening everywhere in Lisbon and non-profit organisations such as Beta-I are encouraging entrepreneurship by helping start-ups to gain access to investments and development tools. Beta-I is working closely with local Lisbon authorities like the City Hall and the Tourism Board, at European level through the European Commission, and with various corporate partners. It was recognised as the biggest start-up and entrepreneurship promoter in Europe by the European Enterprise Promotion Awards in June 2014.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, inauguration speech of the new Uniplaces offices

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, inauguration speech of the new Uniplaces offices

Connecting the start-up and education hubs to attract foreign students

The city truly received acknowledgement in October 2015, when Lisbon was chosen to host the prestigious Web Summit – the biggest European tech and digital conference – for three years, starting in November 2016. Pedro Santa Clara, Doctor of Economics at the prestigious Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon, told Le Monde newspaper in November 2015 that “the economic crisis made us see that to get out of it, we should not see ourselves as a poor European country. We need to become more international and conquer the rest of the world”. Nova Business School is attracting more and more international students, and has officially partnered with Uniplaces to help both domestic and international students to find accommodation whilst studying there. Nova and dozens of other business schools, universities and entrepreneurial student associations across Europe have invited the Uniplaces founders and members of the start-up’s marketing team for training events about entrepreneurship, where they have given tips to aspiring entrepreneurs on how to create their start-ups, raise an investment, and pilot their expansion or international marketing strategies as part of a network made of higher education institutions, local stakeholders at city level and businesses.  

Startup Lisboa helped Uniplaces to develop into a successful business, which grew from 40 employees in early 2015 to 130 employees today. It is a perfect example of how programs put together at city level can positively impact the growth of entrepreneurial initiatives. Closely working with universities, research centres and educational institutions across Europe, both Startup Lisboa and Uniplaces are now part of a complex and dynamic knowledge hub and network.

Uniplaces offices, inside historical Rossio train station, Lisbon

Uniplaces offices, inside historical Rossio train station, Lisbon

The next challenge, though, will be for Lisbon to achieve its international ambition of attracting foreign students to its higher education system. The Lisbon start-up scene is buzzing but higher education institutions still need to work towards attracting more foreign students, as at the moment only roughly 4% of Portugal’s 390,000 student population comes from abroad*, a low ratio compared to other European countries such as the UK, Belgium or Austria, who have reached nearly 18%. The most international universities in terms of hosted foreign students are currently the Universidade do Coimbra and Universidade do Porto.

One great way for Lisbon to boost its number of foreign students, and particularly attract international student entrepreneurs, would be to use its vibrant entrepreneurial sector and supportive city initiatives to create links with universities. Students in the business sector could be invited to study in Lisbon in a more proactive way, and be informed that organisations like Startup Lisboa or Startup Portugal would help them to create their companies (it is possible to create a start-up in 48 hours in Lisbon!) following their studies in the country, as retention of talented foreign students is always a challenge for university cities.

Low tuition fees (between 950€ and 1250€ a year), an affordable cost of living, easy access to cheap accommodation (around 300€ per month for a furnished bedroom in central Lisbon), beautiful weather and a rich history are other key selling points for the city. It is only a matter of time until these strengths translate into a higher number of international students, if the city can put together the right strategies to compete in the growing, and increasingly international, higher education market. 


Gabrielle Narcy, marketing manager at Uniplaces


*Source: UNESCO 


Posted in News.