As the meeting landscape expands internationally as a result of ongoing globalization, perhaps no other place on earth is generating the kind of enthusiasm among planners that Europe is — especially for incentive programs.
In fact, savvy planners at progressive companies who want to deliver “chance of a lifetime” trips for incentive winners have been loyal to European destinations for decades, knowing they dramatically outperform lesser destinations when it comes to wow factor motivational power.
“I choose Europe for the experience it gives people and the wow factor,” says Jodi Swailes, senior buyer, purchasing and product development, at West Des Moines, IA-based ITA Group. “It’s especially popular when someone wants to do a top-level incentive program and also wants to make sure it’s really special. When that’s the case, we tend to look more toward Europe as opposed to anyplace else in the world.”
For the past 16 years, Swailes has planned incentive programs to major Western European destinations. “The experiences you get in Europe are hard to match anywhere else in the world,” she says.
“And a lot of that has to do with the history and culture you experience in Europe.”
That’s one key reason why so many tried-and-true destinations, such as England, Ireland and Scotland in the United Kingdom, as well as Italy, have always ranked high in the destination pecking order, along with other traditional favorites such as France and Spain.
Today, however, new and even more exotic destinations such as Hungary and Turkey are getting their share of planner attention — and business.
Scotland is among the most beautiful and fascinating places in the world. And especially since the epic Mel Gibson movie “Braveheart,” Scotland has held a special appeal.
“People are also familiar with the history of Scotland, and it has fabulous scenery,” says Swailes, who has several incentive programs headed for Scotland over the next few years. “It also has kind of a romantic appeal.”
For Swailes, a Scotland itinerary usually includes the historic medieval city of Edinburgh and the storied Gleneagles Hotel, located about 90 minutes outside Edinburgh on 850 acres of rolling green hillsides in the Perthshire countryside. The world-renowned, five-star property, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World Collection, is especially prized for its three championship golf courses and spa.
“Gleneagles is really popular with incentive groups,” Swailes says. “It’s just a fantastic hotel.”
Historic Edinburgh also earns high praise from Swailes.
“Edinburgh is a great city,” she says. “And it’s easy to walk around and discover history.”
Although the city offers a wide range of hotel options, Swailes favors The Balmoral and Sheraton Grand Edinburgh — both rich in history, culture and luxury.
“The Balmoral is another great hotel, and it has a very convenient location,” Swailes says. “But if a client has a little more money to spend, we usually recommend the Sheraton Grande. It’s just a fabulous hotel.” The Sheraton Grande completed a major renovation in 2012 that reinforced its distinctly Scottish flavor.
Aside from its gorgeous landscapes and landmark hotels, another thing that draws meetings and incentive programs to Scotland is its golf — which makes sense since the sport was invented there.
And the Holy Grail for golf-oriented groups is fabled St. Andrews, where the Old Course is among the most acclaimed in the world.
Steven Gray, operations analyst, health learning, research and practice for New York-based Wolters Kluwer, an aggregator of content for hospitals and other health care providers, took 198 attendees from 22 countries to St. Andrews in January 2013 for the company’s annual global sales meeting. Wolters Kluwer did a buyout of the intimate and tony Fairmont St. Andrews.
Most attendees flew into Edinburgh and spent several days there before heading off to St. Andrews. “That was a nice way to give people even more of the flavor of Scotland,” Gray says.
Although he knew Scotland would have a lot of appeal for his attendees, Gray says, the value he received had much to do with the company’s decision.
“We also looked at other destinations,” he says. “But based on the responses we got to our RFP, Scotland came in at a really good price point. And the Fairmont St. Andrews just offered us a really wonderful deal on a buyout.”
Among the things that most appealed to Gray about the Fairmont St. Andrews was its meeting space. “It is phenomenal,” he says. “We usually use 10 to 12 breakout rooms. And the breakout rooms at the hotel are just very beautiful. And the staff was very accommodating.”
Wolters Kluwer held its awards ceremony in Kinkell Byre, a renovated 14th century barn. “It’s just an incredible venue,” Gray says. “It’s imbued with so much character. It was just great for our event.”
What was once the home to the farm’s livestock has now been converted to provide a versatile function venue. For dinners, the main dance floor seats between 200 to 300 at round tables.
And because their awards ceremony is always a themed costume event, the company staged this event in medieval costumes that attendees created and brought from home.
The ceremony included a formal presentation of haggis, a Scottish national dish that became a cultural and culinary highlight of the meeting.
“Being in a 14th century venue and doing a traditional haggis ceremony was absolutely magical,” Gray says.
He also planned a dine-around evening in St. Andrews. “We found some wonderful little local restaurants,” Gray says. “I had some of the most amazing food I’ve ever had in my life.”
And to his surprise, there are all kinds of restaurants in St. Andrews, even an Indian restaurant.
The company also hired a local event company to stage a Highland Games competition, a wonderful teambuilding activity. “It was a huge teambuilding activity and a huge success,” Gray says, adding that after the games he hosted a dine-around within the hotel’s multiple restaurants.
After dinner, the group visited a local Scotch distillery and enjoyed the other thing, besides golf, that Scotland is best known for.
And despite some inclement weather, the group played golf in the most famous golf destination in the world. “But it happened to snow the day we were scheduled to play golf,” Gray says. “And the Fairmont St. Andrews pulled out all the stops to find a course that was still open and didn’t have ice on their tees. So our folks got to play golf in Scotland.”
New and Noteworthy
Scotland is currently investing huge sums in public and private projects to improve the country’s tourism infrastructure, according to Visit Scotland, Scotland’s national tourism organization. Some key highlights for 2015–2016:
The new Technology and Innovation Centre at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow opened with four seminar rooms, which can accommodate 70 attendees each. Removable walls will allow for larger events.
Lennox Suite at Edinburgh International Conference Centre is a newly developed expansion exhibition space in Edinburgh, featuring an innovative moving floor system, transforming the space from flat-floor to auditorium, arena and tiered-cabaret modes.
The Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC) recently retained a Gold accreditation from the Green Tourism Program following an extensive audit of the venue’s sustainability practices. Plans for a new AECC have been approved.
SSE Hydro in Glasgow was voted as the second busiest arena in the world by Pollstar in January 2015. The venue accommodates 13,000 for conventions/exhibitions and concerts.
Five-star luxury resort Gleneagles is converting one of its Activity School equestrian arenas into a modern, multipurpose event space. Located within the hotel’s 850-acre estate, the venue will have the capacity to cater up to 2,000 guests for concerts, launches and brand-experience events. Key features will include loading bay access doors, 63 integrated hanging points tested to 500kg, a 200-amp power supply, LED lighting and oil-fired heating.
Edinburg-based Apex Hotels opens in the Glasgow market for the first time with the acquisition of Marks Hotel in Glasgow’s Bath Street. The hotel is expected to re-launch in June 2015 as the four-star Apex City of Glasgow Hotel.
Ireland is yet another stunningly beautiful destination steeped in history.
Swailes took an incentive group with 80 attendees there in 2013 for a five-night program.
“The reason we like Ireland so much is because of the combination of the value and experiences that you get there,” she says.
For example, she says, for another recent program, she was able to deliver a program to Ireland for less cost than a similarly sized program in California.
For the most recent program, Swailes selected Adare Manor Hotel & Golf Resort, which ranks as one of Ireland’s most celebrated five-star castle properties. The vast resort, which is located on 840 acres in County Limerick, offers a range of luxury accommodations from its historic manor house to nearby villas. The resort also features a Robert Trent Jones-designed 18-hole golf course, archery, falconry, clay pigeon shooting and horseback riding.
Swailes chose Adare Manor because her client wanted an intimate property that delivered a high-end experience — but at a reasonable cost.
It surprises a lot of planners, Swailes says, to learn that Ireland delivers some of the best value in all of Europe.
Her program also included three nights at Hotel Europe in Killarney.
“The attendees loved Ireland,” she says. “I think one of the things people love most about Ireland is really getting to know the people there. But you also get fabulous scenery and wonderful food. It’s a great experience. But it’s really the people of Ireland that make it a special experience, because they’re so warm and welcoming.”
She also uses Dublin as a destination. There, her favorite hotels include the Shelbourne Dublin Hotel, a Renaissance property. “It’s a very nice five-star hotel located right in the heart of Dublin,” Swailes says.
New and Noteworthy
According to Tourism Ireland, Aer Lingus will be operating direct flights from Washington Dulles International Airport to Dublin, effective May 1, 2015. Also, there is increased capacity on Aer Lingus flights from Boston, New York, Orlando and San Francisco to Ireland as well as a new trans-Atlantic business class featuring improved service, fine food and entertainment, and a lie-flat bed.
Passengers departing from Dublin and Shannon to the U.S. are pre-cleared by U.S. Customs & Immigration prior to boarding their flights. Plus, luggage for passengers with connecting flights within the U.S. will be checked through to the final destination.
Cork City is set to have a new 6,000-seat convention center as early as 2016.
InterContinental Hotels Group signed InterContinental Dublin on January 1, 2015, located in the former Four Seasons Hotel Dublin. The hotel features 197 rooms inclusive of 58 suites, plus impressive meeting and event space with two ballrooms totalling more than 15,000 sf.
Reopening after a major restoration project, the beautiful Mount Stewart House is a unique event venue. Guests experience the elegance and charm of the house as it was when it was home of the 7th Marchioness Edith, Lady Londonderry and her family in the early 20th century.
The historic Dublin City Hall, designed by Thomas Cooley in the 1700s, is the perfect place to host a special corporate event. With its magnificent circular entrance hall, extraordinary dome and sleek marble floor, the location will wow attendees.
The iconic Ulster Museum, conveniently located in Belfast City, offers a wealth of corporate facilities for 20 to 1,500 attendees. The contemporary Atrium is suited to stylish gala dinners for up to 160 guests, while the Lecture Theatre provides an ideal environment for seminars and meetings.
By definition, London is among the world’s most fascinating cities for American travelers because of its unique role in U.S. and world history.
Swailes uses London at least once a year for an incentive program.
Her hotels of choice include Grosvenor House, a JW Marriott Hotel, and the new Rosewood London.
“One of the reasons some clients like London is that they’re traveling to Europe, but they don’t have to travel too far or for too long,” Swailes says. “It’s a shorter trip. It’s easy to get to. You can also get some very good airfares because London is a major European hub.
“London is also a great choice because there is so much to do. You can just walk out the front door of any hotel and have a great experience wherever you are. And you also get good value in London. For example the museums are free.”
“London is also a great choice because there is so much to do. You can just walk out the front door of any hotel and have a great experience wherever you are.” — Jodi Swailes
New and Noteworthy
In addition, a wave of new hotel development and infrastructure construction that took place in advance of the 2012 Summer Olympics has made London particularly attractive for groups.
And many of the facilities built for the Olympics, such as Olympic Park, are now being re-engineered into ongoing multipurpose venues that are perfectly suited for meetings and conferences.
The Goring, a family-owned luxury Belgravia hotel, reopened in February after an extensive renovation, just in time for its 105th birthday celebrations.
The reopening also saw the arrival of a fleet of handsome footmen, channeling “Downton Abbey” luxury and true-blue aristocratic service. The footmen, in full regalia, will be on hand to fulfill every wish of The Goring’s guests.
The Goring was opened in 1910. In its second century, it is now the only five-star luxury hotel in London that is owned and run by the family who built it.
The hotels of the Dorchester Collection provide novel incentive offers with engaging and memorable experiences across the globe. For example, a private Kitchen Party at the 250-room The Dorchester, for up to 120 guests with a front-row perspective on one of the most highly regarded culinary operations in London. Guests will be personally escorted through staff service doors to the “back of the house” arrayed in color schemes of the client’s choosing. Additional options such as personalized aprons for cooking challenges also can be arranged. Menu highlights include: “sauté gourmand” of lobster and truffled chicken quenelles from Alain Ducasse; a Peking Duck Station from China Tang; a sushi bar from Henry Brosi and more.
At Coworth Park, Dorchester Collection’s 70-room country house hotel in Ascot, active and adventurous guests can engage in a variety of truly entertaining outdoor experiences. Duck Herding is offered for groups of all sizes and begins after guests are given a brief history and introduction of the sport. They are then paired with highly trained Welsh collies to work together and guide lively gangs of Indian runner ducks through an easy obstacle course.
Although 21st century Europe offers an almost endless list of destination options, none is more time-tested or spectacular than Italy. Especially hotels and castles in Tuscany.
For example, Castello di Casole is a restored Italian castle on a country estate in Tuscany, which features 28 restored and reconstructed Tuscan farmhouses and a 41-suite boutique hotel complete with a world-class spa and wellness center, swimming pool, pizzeria, stylish bar and fine-dining restaurant. It’s history dates back to the end of the 10th century.
Unique and memorable gathering spaces are everywhere at Castello di Casole, which was acquired in 2005 by Timbers Resorts.
The property includes indoor and outdoor options for small and large events including the Ampitheater; Casa Del Prete, secluded spaces warmed by a fireplace, an intimate and private setting ideal for small meetings and private dining; Limonaia Terrace, a grand and inviting lawn and cobbled walks that front the restored estate greenhouse; and many more.
Activities include the Ferrari driving experience — a meeting with the Ferrari team and driving through the surrounding regions of Chianti and Siena, visiting unique sites throughout the day or an extreme racetrack experience. Also, the Tosca Culinary Workshop offers hands-on lessons focusing on the distinctive skills of each on-property expert: from charcuterie classes, gelato-making and tastings, cooking with truffles, pizza and pasta-making, olive-oil tastings, etc.
More intriquing incentive options from the Dorchester Collection in Italy include the Truffle Hunting Adventure — a hunt for the “diamonds of the kitchen” in Italy’s picturesque northern region of Piedmont at Milan’s exclusive 301-room Hotel Principe di Savoia. Participants will unearth truffles and explore the medieval castle of Roddi and enjoy a three-course, truffle-themed lunch.
Rome’s 121-room Hotel Eden offers a Retro Car Tour of Rome where participants can be chauffeured in classic cars from the past on scenic routes including an ancient Roman road to lakeside Castelli, with a view of Roman aqueducts and a visit to the catacombs along the way.
Madrid, Spain’s capital city, offers a world-class experience for all types of corporate meeting groups, according to Susan Adams, CPIM, CEP, the director of engagement for Dittman Incentive Marketing in New Jersey. Hotels such as The Westin Palace, Madrid feature uniquely European style and Old World charm but have a clear understanding of the needs and expectations of international business events, with menus designed to appeal to an American palate. And just outside the door, the city offers a world of options for excursions and unforgettable offsite events, from the Prado Museum to the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, home of Real Madrid, she says.
The Westin Palace, Madrid offers the most modern meeting facilities in downtown Madrid. Espacio Palace opened last year and is the largest five-star conference facility in the heart of the Spanish capital. The largest ballroom can accommodate up to 800 guests.
The new meeting rooms overlook Madrid’s renowned Neptune fountain, which inspired the design — an aquatic motif is reflected in the furniture, carpets and lighting, while both neutral and metallic finishes enhance the contemporary look of the function rooms. High ceilings, rooms offering full daylight and an elegant but practical design are features of the complex that reflect the culture of innovation and style of Westin.
Although it was caught up in the regional conflicts in the Balkans that dominated the 1990s, Budapest has emerged as a hot destination for incentive programs because of its unique history and exotic beauty.
“In the past, people tended to think of Budapest as dark and dreary, primarily as a result of the perception that it was a Communist country,” Swailes says. “But once you go there, you realize it’s an incredible city with the Danube River running through the middle of it. It’s also incredibly clean.”
The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace is her go-to hotel in Budapest. “It’s a very beautiful property,” Swailes says. “I’d say it’s one of the top hotels in all of Europe. It also has an excellent location, so you just walk out the front door and there are the restaurants, cafés, and shops.”
Budapest also features world-class wineries and unique offsite venues of all sizes.
“Another nice thing about Budapest is that it’s easy to combine it with Vienna, Austria, another city located along the Danube and one that also offers unique history and culture, like the history of classical music and opera.”
Another destination that is gaining popularity simply because it represents something strikingly new and different when it comes to incentive destinations is Turkey.
Turkey also has made extensive investments in new infrastructure aimed at attracting groups. For example, the country’s first and only mixed-use project, the Zorlu Center in Istanbul, includes a luxury hotel, a major performing arts center and an ultramodern shopping mall.
Istanbul also now enjoys status as one of the best of the best World Heritage centers by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It earned the honor based on its important landmarks such as Topkapi Palace, one of the most important historical sites from the Ottoman Empire.
Major Istanbul hotels include the Hilton Istanbul Bomonti Hotel and Conference Center. JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts will open its second JW Marriott Hotel in Turkey on May 15. The 107-room property is located in the picturesque town of Yalikavak on the Bodrum Peninsula with panoramic views of the Aegean Sea, combining the alluring charm of the Turkish coast with JW Marriott’s contemporary design and intuitive service.
JW Marriott Bodrum will offer exceptional dining experiences in an array of restaurants and bars; the spa will offer an extensive selection of 24 treatment rooms, a salt room and traditional Turkish baths. Additional hotel facilities will include two outdoor pools, one indoor pool, a ballroom and five meeting rooms. JW Marriott Bodrum also will offer a unique space for al fresco events overlooking one of the peninsula’s most beautiful bays. JW Marriott Ankara was the brand’s first hotel in Turkey. JW Marriott Bodrum is the brand’s seventh property in Europe.
The city also offers an astonishing array of unique, smaller local properties that rank as one-of-a kind architectural wonders.
Radisson Blu has opened a new property in the ancient Pera Taksim district, and Wyndham Hotel Group has developed two new properties, including the Wyndham Izmir Ozdilek, which overlooks tranquil Izmir Bay. C&IT