It’s a big world and getting bigger. As more companies go global, more places in the world make sense as a meeting destination, which makes choosing the right ones for your international meetings exponentially harder.
It’s not just about location. It’s also about culture, facilities, tantalizing opportunities, growth, relationships, how business is done, what languages are spoken, what documentation is required and how many flights go in and out each day. The upside to so many options is that with good research, every planner should find a destination that’s the right fit. Here are a few top choices to consider.
Australia offers a dynamic business environment and is a country that continues to invest in exceptional facilities. The $1.1 billion International Convention Center will open in Sydney’s Darling Harbour late 2016. There’s the new West Building at Adelaide Convention Centre and a new space accommodating 700 at Star Event Centre in Sydney. The five-star Mayfair Hotel opened in Adelaide, construction began in January on an onsite hotel at the three-year-old Royal International Convention Centre in Brisbane, and Four Points by Sheraton Sydney embarked on a $200 million redevelopment plan that will add substantial meeting and event space, among other things.
Australia is a top wish-list destination for North Americans, meaning it can boost attendance. And according to Jane Whitehead, vice president, the Americas, at Tourism Australia, the country easily inspires, motivates and rewards. “We understand the importance of excellent service, and our service professionals are warm and friendly while also being adept at handling events of all sizes and will go the extra distance to ensure perfect event execution,” she says. “Australia offers truly inspiring teambuilding experiences, from sailing regattas to surfing lessons to indigenous experiences. Whether you’re looking for active pursuits or cultural discovery, we can tailor unique experiences that will create lasting memories and bonds.”
Australia is so expansive geographically that at any given time of year there’s someplace for corporate and incentive groups to meet, and Australia offers some of the best wine and food in the world. Bottom line: “Australia,” says Whitehead, “has a proven track record of hosting successful business events.”
A decade ago, much of the world knew nothing about Dubai. In 2014, 71 million international passengers passed through the city’s airport — more than went through London’s Heathrow — and today Dubai is an “it” destination for business and leisure travel. As Louise Olson, CMP, president of Zest Events, puts it, “Dubai is beautiful and everyone wants to see it.”
Dubai is a destination with challenges, and with substantial rewards.
In February, Olson helped execute a meeting in Dubai with 80 attendees for UL, the safety consulting and certification company headquartered in Illinois. The meeting was based at The Palace, Downtown Dubai, which Olson says was chosen for its “location, service and beauty.” The challenge, says Olson, is that Dubai is “very expensive to get to and rates for hotel, food and beverage can be high.”
Zabrina Hazeltine, CMP, CMM, president of Hamilton Group Meeting Planners Inc., has brought multiple client groups to Dubai, a destination she likes because it’s new and convenient to Europe. But she also experienced challenges, in one case, maybe too much of a good thing. “So many hotels are coming online each month, inventory is constantly growing and new areas of the city are springing up all the time,” she says. “It’s difficult to narrow down choices.”
“So many hotels are coming online each month, inventory is constantly growing and new areas of (Dubai) are springing up all the time. It’s difficult to narrow down choices.” — Zabrina Hazeltine, CMP, CMM
Additionally, Hazeltine notes, “I could do more business there if they had fewer visa restrictions, and not allowing Israeli passport-holders to get a visa is a deterrent for a lot of our groups.”
But the benefits to meeting in Dubai are many. For one, it’s likely to boost attendance. “It’s an exciting destination and attendance is good because it’s a new destination with new business opportunities,” Hazeltine points out. Moreover, she calls the city “easy to work with,” noting that her contacts were fluent in English, responded quickly and were easy to negotiate with — all attributes that help planners working in international locations.
Looking to the future, Dubai will host the World Expo in 2020, a mega event held every five years that attracts millions of visitors and global leaders. City tourism officials believe it will propel Dubai forward as one of the world’s top destinations for international meetings and events.
Collette is a travel company so it makes sense that it sets its global sales meetings in the destinations it covers. “We sell travel, and we offer unparalleled travel experiences on over 160 tours to every continent,” says Dan Sullivan Jr., Collette’s president and CEO. “Hosting our sales meetings in destinations where we offer tours provides training and knowledge to our sales managers that we can’t provide through a webinar or brochure. When they get to experience a destination firsthand, they have the enthusiasm and personal stories to share with group travel professionals.”
In December 2014, the meeting took place on Fiji’s Denarau Island at Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa, which has the meeting space Collette needed. “The staff was extremely helpful in arranging anything that was needed,” Sullivan says. “The Sofitel is perfectly located a short walk from Port Denarau Shopping Centre, which hosts the Hard Rock Cafe Fiji and a number of shops and restaurants, perfect for downtime or regional team dinners.”
The team also worked closely with Tourism Fiji. “They connected us to all the organizations we needed to plan alongside. Our vendors, especially Rosie Holidays, were extremely willing to help us coordinate activities for the sales team to help them sell this destination in the future. Of course, we could not have hosted this meeting in Fiji without the support from Fiji Airways, who is our key partner to this destination.”
Sullivan has high praise for Fiji as a destination but is aware of its challenges, too. “Fiji is an exciting destination, but we knew it would take a significant amount of planning based on its location.” He also notes, “It’s also important to be familiar with Fiji and its culture/weather, etc. We knew that we needed a backup plan for events in case the weather didn’t cooperate.”
As for highlights, Sullivan says, “Captain Cook Cruises provided us with a full-day excursion out to a private island. It was certainly a highlight of the meeting!” But perhaps the best event of all was taking the sales team to one of the Collette Foundation sites. The entire group volunteered with projects such as painting and gardening to help Koroipita Village with much needed attention (learn more in this video of that day: www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9NYedLEDu4).
Fiji is committed to the international meetings business. In November, Tourism Fiji announced the establishment of the country’s first convention bureau, expected to launch in 2015. Last year, Sheraton Fiji Resort opened a new convention facility, the largest on Denarau Island, which seats 1,700 theater-style; 1,000 for a banquet. Three resorts completed major renovations in March: Vomo Island Resort, Matamanoa Island Resort and Namale Resort & Spa. Captain Cook Cruises Fiji also refurbished its sailing catamaran, Fiji One, popular for private group charters.
A cradle of modern civilization, Greece has strong appeal for conferences attended by people in the arts and sciences. How can attendees not be inspired by art and architecture that still awes after centuries, to say nothing of the sea and terrain that define the Greek isles? The hardest choice for planners may be deciding between the urban riches of Athens and the appealing natural bounty and intimacy of the islands.
According to Visit Greece, the country’s tourism organization, the seas around Greece are also drawing planners to book boats as floating conference centers, offering attendees the chance to moor in multiple harbors. With its mild climate, Greece is a year-round destination and travel is streamlined because no visa is required for Canadian and U. S. citizens.
“From its strategic location to sophisticated infrastructure and leading-edge venues, Hong Kong is one of the world’s leading meeting destinations,” says Bill Flora, U.S. director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. “There’s no better base to connect with mainland China’s high-growth markets. …Every MICE event held in Hong Kong makes engaging with mainland China an efficient and effortless process.”
China has become a coveted destination for meetings, including Hong Kong, which has long experienced international influences and offers facilities, hotels and infrastructure firmly in place. Meetings with thousands of attendees are no problem. Hong Kong Convention Center and AsiaWorld-Expo offer 975,000 and 753,000 sf, respectively, and there are nearly 73,000 hotel rooms. In 2013, Kai Tak Cruise Terminal opened overlooking Victoria Harbour. Built on a former runway of Kai Tak airport, the terminal features four indoor venues that accommodate 3,000 guests each. On the expansive roof, a garden provides an inspiring setting for functions. Other worthy venues include Hong Kong Maritime Museum and PMQ, the historic site of the former Police Married Quarters.
It’s not just about facilities. Hong Kong is a cultural crossroad. Its East-meets-West culture has appeal for conference-goers from both sides of the Pacific, and that multiculturalism extends to the superb cuisine and notable shopping, as well as to diverse cultural attractions. Attendees can learn such skills as traditional lion-dancing and dragon-boat racing, experience a traditional fishing village or take to the seas in a tall ship, among other options.
Iceland is a primary destination for international meetings, drawing attendees from North America and Europe. The tagline for Meet in Reykjavik, the capital city’s convention bureau and go-to resource for planners, puts it this way: Let’s Meet in the Middle. Founded in 2012, a joint venture of the city of Reykjavik, Icelandair Group and Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center, the bureau’s goal is to make Reykjavik one of the top 10 meeting cities in Europe.
Between 2014 and 2017 Reykjavik’s hotel-room inventory is slated to increase from 3,400 to 5,500. Three new hotels will open in the city center this year, including Fosshotel Reykjavik, with 320 rooms and conference facilities. Two new Icelandair hotels will open in 2016, including one near the convention center. And in 2017, a five-star hotel will open at Iceland’s most famous attraction, the Blue Lagoon. The hotel will feature private access to the lagoon, and the plan is to build new conference facilities as well. As for event and reception spaces, Iceland delivers that “wow” factor at such venues as The Whales of Iceland museum; The Pearl, a visually striking dome and revolving restaurant; and Inside the Volcano, open summers, which puts visitors inside an actual volcano.
The reasons meeting planners consistently turn to Ireland for corporate and incentive trips are many. “Ireland offers the complete package and is fortunate to enjoy high satisfactions levels. The combination of world-class infrastructure as it relates to the range of accommodations, meeting space and technology options, and the wide variety of unique and authentic experiences all brought together by Ireland’s renowned brand of hospitality have made Ireland one of the top European incentive travel destinations for North American corporations,” says Alison Metcalfe, executive vice president, U.S. and Canada, Tourism Ireland. “There has also been continued investment in new experiences to excite and delight such as the ‘Game of Thrones’ Tour in Northern Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way, new culinary tours and our championship links golf, which remains as good as ever.
“Ireland offers value and has never been easier to get to, with direct services from 14 gateways across North America. The availability of a U.S. CBP (Customs and Border Protection) pre-clearance facility at Dublin and Shannon airports provides an added benefit for clients traveling from across the country by reducing connecting times.”
Jodi Swailes, senior buyer, geographic specialist with ITA Group, offers a few additional reasons. “Ireland is a great buy, even before the lower exchange rate,” she says. “The size of the country allows you to give participants multiple experiences — city of Dublin combined with the countryside of Killarney and the Cliffs of Mohr — or a less-traveled experience such as Belfast and Northern Ireland.” She adds that guests feel comfortable in part because English is spoken and many North American visitors have ancestors from Ireland. But, Swailes notes, “The people are what really make the destination. They’re extremely friendly, and they enjoy meeting Americans.”
Macao is a compact 11 square miles but offers extraordinary richness of history, culture and experience. Set on a peninsula on China’s south coast 37 miles from Hong Kong, Macao also encompasses the islands of Taipa and Coloane, now connected by a strip of landfill transformed into a neighborhood of high-rise hotels, shops, theaters and casinos. It’s no accident that the Cotai Strip, with 9,000 hotel rooms, evokes Las Vegas. Familiar hospitality brands include the expansive Sands Cotai Central resort, home to the Conrad Macao, Holiday Inn Macao Cotai Central and Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central. Nearby is the Venetian Macao. Macao also has a Wynn and an MGM.
The Sheraton Macao is meeting central with more than 3,000 guest rooms and its Kashgar Grand Ballroom accommodating 5,000. Six other ballrooms accommodate 12 to 2,000. Among the hotel’s interesting options are Fit meetings, based on the integrated approach to training used at Exos (formerly Athletes’ Performance) facilities.
Madrid came in at No. 11 on the Condé Nast Traveler list of best international cities for business travelers. It’s the third largest metro area in Europe and was ranked by Eurostat as the continent’s second safest capital. Madrid is a dynamic city with much to offer groups — year after year. According to the Madrid Convention Bureau, 13 new hotels and 24 new restaurants opened in the city from 2013–2014. Meeting space is diverse and includes such options as the lower level of the mega Apple store, which opened in 2014. Madrid is also home to four major convention and exhibition centers, 89 museums, 14 universities, 27 golf courses and lots of sunshine, making it an alluring meeting and incentive destination on multiple levels.
Mexico is meetings friendly. According to Visit Mexico, the country’s tourism organization, there are 68 major convention and exposition centers across the country and 500,000 hotel rooms in more than 3,000 luxury hotels. It’s also budget-friendly. Meetings and conferences are exempt from the VAT tax, which equates to a 15 percent discount on a range of meeting services. Mexico is culturally rich, with 29,000 archaeological sites and 31 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And U.S. and Canadian citizens with a valid passport don’t need a visa.
In spite of news stories about cartel violence, the fact is that the violence is region-specific, and there are no travel advisories in place for the vast majority of Mexican cities and resorts where meetings take place, including Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, Tulum, Riviera Nyarit, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, San Miguel de Allende, Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa, Mazatlan, Mexico City and Leon.
The ultimate bucket-list destination for lovers of golf has to be in St. Andrews, the Home of Golf. While the immediate area boasts 11 courses, The Old Course Hotel offers corporate golf programs that include 18 holes of play, snacks, a main meal and an awards presentation. Located an hour from Glasgow and Edinburgh, the five-star Gleneagles golf and spa resort offers three championship courses, including the Kings Course dating back to 1919. Gleneagles is converting one of its Activity School equestrian arenas into a nearly 27,000-sf modern, multipurpose event space. Located within the hotel’s 850-acre estate, the venue will have capacity to cater up to 2,000 guests for concerts, launches and brand-experience events.
A city-state of remarkable diversity, Singapore’s native population is made up of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan and Eurasian cultures, which can be seen in the food, art and architecture. 2015 marks Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, its 50th year of independence. The celebration will feature significant events throughout the year, including the opening of the National Gallery of Singapore with its impressive collection of art, and the Jubilee Walk, a designated city walk with trail markers and new public artworks to commemorate Singapore at 50.
Singapore is also business- and meeting-savvy. Among its new programs is My Way in a Day, a digital game that introduces Singapore to the meetings sector to showcase the history, culture, food, heritage, new attractions and more, giving planners substantial information in a fun, easy-to-access way. Also new in the past year or so are eight hotels, giving planners plenty of options. C&IT