Europe: Luxurious. Innovative. Affordable.

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Museum of Modern Art Stockholm
Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm

Stockholm, Sweden is a city on the move. It’s restless. Its time has come. There are few cities in the world with such a symbiotic harmony between urban and natural landscapes. The food is fresh, local, innovative and delicious. Contemporary culture and smart design are everywhere, integrated into a preserved city center dating back to the Vikings. And we’ve been to upscale spas that don’t feel as calming as Stockholm International Airport. Seriously.

For pre/post programs, the ICEHOTEL up north above the Arctic Circle just 90 minutes away is the most fun you’ll ever have with five layers of clothes on.

Stockholm is unique among European capitals in that it’s situated on 14 islands where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea. Over 60% of the city consists of waterways and parks. Marcus Östlundh, managing director of Ovation Scandinavia, recommends that all groups should explore one of the thousands of outlying islands for dining and teambuilding.

“Because I think that peace and beauty in these stressful times is the ultimate luxury,” he says. “That is a very Swedish sensibility, to be able to experience life on a private island where you can relax and refocus, and enjoy time with your friends and business colleagues.”

An ideal program is a boat transfer to an island out in the archipelago like Rågskär aboard a modern yacht or traditional steamer. There’s a private home there available for afternoon/ evening events for up to 55 pax, or overnight stays for 14.

As groups arrive, fishermen are already busy catching that day’s meal. Attendees will typically enjoy the outdoor sauna and then a swim in the sea during warmer months.

The boathouse is used as the bar, and chefs are on hand to prepare a meal such as fresh grilled perch with new potatoes and delicate chanterelles.

“It’s a traditional house,” says Östlundh. “The idea is to get inside a private home where you can experience Sweden the way we like to, in touch with nature in beautiful surroundings.”

Another option is Vaxholm Castle, built in 1839 on another island in the archipelago. Again, groups travel here for meals followed by teambuilding activities such as sailing regattas, “seal safaris” and fishing. On a recent program for a Canadian bank, the group also hopped aboard high-powered Navy SEAL-type zodiacs to visit a private home for coffee.

Back in Stockholm, Green Hat Games is a local event company specializing in gamification to accomplish specific business goals. The French brand Pernod, owners of ABSOLUT and Smirnoff, hired the company to create a gamified event in Stockholm for 300 attendees. The objective was brainstorming new ideas for future marketing campaigns.

Green Hat Games brought everyone to the Museum of Modern Art, located on an island in the center of the city. The teams were given iPads and directed to a series of artworks. For three minutes, attendees were told to talk about each piece of art. Then they were asked how they might create branding campaigns using what they had just discussed, and write it down on their tablets.

Was it successful?

“Very much so,” says Niklas Tyllström, sales director. “Because they’re doing their job but they’re doing it from a much different perspective…. Then, because the data is compiled instantly by the device, it’s easy to create a followup workshop to discuss all of the teams’ feedback.”

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK

Ebbe Kiær is director of sales for BDP Event & Incentive in Copenhagen. He doesn’t so much sell the city as much as he sells innovation.

“VisitDenmark has been leading the fight against boring meetings, and now offers different and beneficial meeting concepts that create a better outcome of the time and money spent when bringing people together,” he says. “The concept is called ‘Meetovation,’ ensuring conferences and meetings should be efficient and green. They should engage participants actively and offer a new creative approach to a far more flexible use of conference facilities…. [And] we are always breaking with 1-way communication—it’s a liberating experience for delegates and organizers alike.”

We asked Kiær for some examples.

“We are very proud to present Poverty Walks, which is a short city tour guided by homeless people,” he says. “The idea was in connection with the EU’s Year of Poverty in 2010.

Basically, the project wished to create an experience that could highlight a focus on social exclusion and marginalization.” Kiær explains that these guides know the city’s rhythms, people and soul better than anyone. They will show you the heating grate at the Danish National Bank, and Library Park near the Government at Christiansborg Palace, where they sleep at night. You will come away with a new appreciation of urban living—a new way to look at a city.

“It’s a tour for all of the senses combined with humor and anecdotes,” says Kiær.

BDP has expanded on VisitDenmark’s Meetovation concept by building 15 tours that incorporate the various elements. In June, they hosted a 400-pax group who asked to experience Copenhagen in the most sustainable way possible.

Bella Sky Comwell Hotel
Bella Sky Comwell Hotel

“Even though the group is that big we want to give all guests an individual experience, so we tailor made 15 different tours that the guests can choose between,” says Kiær. “Each of the tours include green ingredients, such as transportation by metro, rickshaw, electric cars, electric boats, a visit to the windmill park, and of course, guided bicycle tours.”

In March, BDP announced a partnership with the Bybi (City Bees) program. Bybi is a non-profit organization designed to teach visitors about the environment, business and society. Together, they have established an urban honey factory, where homeless and unemployed take care of the three million bees.

On the hotel side, Kiær says to check out the new 812- room Bella Sky Comwell Hotel, one of the greenest hotels in the world. Also watch out for the re-opening of 4-star Scandic Copenhagen in June and the 5-star Hotel d’Angleterre.

The 90-room d’Angletterre was built in 1755. Scheduled to reopen in autumn with 90 suites, “It will be Copenhagen’s new symbol of elegance, style and luxury,” says Kiær. “And the Scandic is geared to become one of the most remarkable meeting places in Scandinavia.”

 

THE PRINCIPALITY OF MONACO

In April, we helicoptered from Nice into the insanely glamorous environs of Monaco for a 4-night whirlwind tour covering everything specific to groups. Rarely have we explored a destination where everything is wonderful, everywhere. It’s like there’s a national law requiring 24/7 fabulousness.

Our “On Location” story is scheduled for the fall, but we have to talk about two new restaurants that help debunk the myth that Monaco is out of reach for many groups.

Built in 1863, the Monte-Carlo Casino is a Beaux Arts fairytale designed by architect Charles Garnier who also dreamed up the incomparable Paris Opera House. It was the principality’s raison d’etre when it opened to attract the wealthy elite from France and Italy where gambling was illegal.

Inside the casino, the new Buddha Bar Monte-Carlo feels like it was plucked straight out of the French Concession District in 1929 Shanghai. A giant buddha extends the entire height of the 2-story room with a lounge on the ground floor and 160-seat dining room upstairs. The decor emotes a deeply seductive energy with dark red, purple and gold hues, flickering candles and velvet tassels countered by the 19th century Belle Epoque ceiling friezes.

The sharing menu runs about $85 pp, including taxes/ gratuity, and there’s more than any one person can eat. You’ll spend the whole meal passing plates and talking about the Vietnamese spring rolls, sashimi spicy salmon tartar, Peking duck with fruit compote, wok fried beef with Thai basil, salmon tataki with sesame Thai shrimp, etc.

Cindy Hoddeson, director of meeting/incentive sales for the Monaco Government Tourist Office, raved about the peanut butter chocolate sticks atop four different creme brulees.

“It’s like a fine dining Reese’s Cup,” she said, smiling. “Buddha Bar and places like it are important to Monaco because we want to welcome boomers and millennials.”

Meanwhile, the Explorers Pub is a new gastropub and exhibition gallery directly facing the main marina in Port Hercule. The name is a take on New York’s famous Explorers Club, which highlights man’s greatest achievements traversing the earth and sea. The Pub’s walls are rimmed with photos revolving around sustainable travel across the globe, many on loan from the Prince’s Palace and Oceanographic Museum.

Special focus is given to Prince Albert II of Monaco’s trek to Antarctica in 2009 to promote the fight against global warming. Other photos detail solar powered planes, space travel and men like Paul Watson, star of The Whale Warrior. Here’s the cool thing about the Explorers Pub. While digging into the fine dining bistro fare, our group spent the entire dinner talking about sustainability.

MADRID, SPAIN

Smack in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, Madrid is a blend of history and modernity. Spain’s medieval core at the Plaza Mayor, dating back to the Habsburg Empire, is always bustling with energy, while its hippest new neighborhood, Lavapiés, rises above 14th century cobblestones.

Plaza Mayor Madrid
Plaza Mayor Madrid

“Madrid is a 24-hour action city so offsite entertainment is guaranteed,” says Francisco Esteban of Creatur DMC, a Global Events Partner.

Esteban takes groups tapa hopping under the antique porticoes of Plaza Mayor. “Tapa is any portion of solid food that can accompany a drink,” he says. “The concept is as broad as one wants! This old Spanish custom is a lot like a healthy fast food, but most of all, it’s fun.”

To tapear well, one must know how to pick the tapas restaurants. Enter Esteban. “We bring groups of 10-30 to at least three different mesones (family restaurants). Spend 30 minutes in each, try the house wine, eat a bit and then hop on to the next one.”

“Meson de la Guitarra is a must—it’s loud and exciting any night of the week,” says Esteban. “It’s warm and earthy with terracotta floors, antique brick walls, sangria pitchers clustered above the bar, and faded bullfighting posters.” Esteban freely admits his goal is to turn spectators into participants. So yes, be prepared to sing at la Guitarra! At one of Madrid’s trendiest spots, the San Miguel Market, you’ll enjoy great people watching, shopping and nibbling. For more upscale events, he books Casino de Madrid, a “Members Club,” where the gentry and nobility gathered for business or for social events. Create lavish dinners for 200 pax in the marble and chandelier-rich ballroom.

For hotels in Madrid, one of the most loved is the 167- room Hotel Ritz Madrid, an Orient-Express Landmark built in 1910 according to specs provided by King Alfonzo XIII. Some say the Ritz, set near the inimitable Prado Museum and the massive Retiro Park, made Madrid a European capital. More contemporary, we love the 467-room Westin Palace across the street, also commissioned by King Alfonzo. The Belle Epoque hotel with 15 meeting rooms showcases the city’s most spectacular lobby capped with an enormous stained glass dome that is absolutely unforgettable.

LONDON, ENGLAND

The Olympic Velodrome London
The Olympic Velodrome London

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” quipped Samuel Johnson, and that’s truer now than ever. The most populated city in Europe is on a roll, thanks to a busier economy, trendsetting style and the London Olympic Summer Games. Here from July 27 to September 9, they’re bringing new buildings, parks, hotels and ginormous city artwork, all bound to have a lasting tourism legacy.

Chris FJ Lynn, sales/marketing director at London & Partners, says, “The Olympics are seriously regenerating East London, with 75 pence of every £1 spent being invested in developing the area. Everyone, from residents to visitors, businesses to students, will benefit.”

Lynn says the 6,000-seat Velodrome, built for Track Cycling events, will be a fantastic group venue after the Games. It will work both as a large conference venue with multiple breakouts and as an indoor/outdoor biking facility.

“The upshot will be a full range of corporate properties, from the 700 rooms of the main stadium to dining 262 feet above the city in the ArcelorMittal Orbit.”

The Orbit is Olympic Park’s centerpiece—an Anish Kapoordesigned, 377-ft abstract sculpture. Already a major attraction, its looping lattices resemble DNA, or a squashed roller coaster, but with a restaurant and an observation deck.

Paul Miller, managing director of Spectra DMC, is just as pleased about the Olympics effect. He says, “The 13,300 new hotel rooms increase group capacity, which is good for budgeting, especially in the 4-star bracket.”

When asked about trends in the UK, the meetings veteran cited “lifestyle programs.”

“Incentives and meetings are back in a big way, but it’s no longer acceptable for entire groups to do the same activity,” says Miller. “At Spectra, we let attendees focus on their own interests. Getting together within a program creates camaraderie, but we allow participants to explore bespoke activities.”

Recent groups have enjoyed a champagne orientation tour on the London Eye ferris wheel on the Thames; a behind-the-scenes visit to see the Buckingham Palace guards; a skeet shooting event on a barge on the Thames, for which Tower Bridge was raised in their honor; and a personalized pub tour through several historic pubs.

 

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM

Brussels beer tour
Brussels beer tour

Your grandma knows Brussels for chocolate, beer and castles. Yet Brussels has been totally vitalized by its role as the EU capital, morphing into a cosmopolitan powerhouse.

“Brussels is to Europe what Washington D.C. is to the States,” explains Hugo Slimbrouck of Ovation Global DMC. “It’s become a more open, cosmopolitan city. Last night at dinner, I heard a different language at every table.”

Slimbrouck likes to quote a line he found recently in Harvard Business Review: “Face-to-face contact is the broadest bandwidth communication you can have in professional life.”

Brussels, he says, is uniquely situated for such contact. Besides direct flights from every major city, high-speed trains link you to Paris, London, Frankfurt and Amsterdam in under two hours. And then there’s the perception factor.

“Brussels is not a ‘luxe’ or frivolous destination. It’s got the art and architecture of Europe, yet the more than 2,000 corporations and international associations headquartered here make it a serious locale.”

As for that final price tag, rates here are 10-20% lower than in the nearest capitals. Including the chocolate.

“Our Chocolate Master Chef afternoon is just right in a nation producing 172,000 tons of chocolate a year,” says Brigitte Boone, managing director of @dmire, a Global Events Partner. She brings groups to a busy chocolate factory where they watch candymaking in progress, then receive their aprons, break into teams and make their own.

“We personalize with company logos, and we teach them to make the real Belgian praline, with nuts and sugar. They leave with bellies full and a box of chocolate to take home.”

Brigitte also offers beer safaris, serving a half glass at each stop because Belgian beers are so strong, and 600-pax galas at the 12th century Grand Bigard Castle.

“The best part of my job is watching planners’ jaws drop on a site inspection at this totally unique, historic castle,” she says. “Once they cross the moat, under centuries-old beech trees, they’re sold!”

The Grand Bigard is just five miles from city center. But do try day-tripping further afield in Belgium’s gorgeous, castle-strewn countryside. In one day you can cruise a canal in medieval Bruges, hunt for diamonds in Antwerp, enjoy waffles on the beach in Oostende and get lost in a castle in Namur.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA

No wonder last year’s annual meeting of tourism directors, organized by European Cities Marketing in Vienna, attracted a record number of delegates. As the former seat of the Habsburg Empire, Vienna is rich in imperial ambience yet there’s nothing staid about it. With cozy wine bars, fabulous food and serious eco-initiatives, the annual Mercer survey ranked this city #1 globally for quality of life for the third year running. And it’s more affordable than you might think.

“Compared to other European capitals, one can say that just being here is luxury,” says Michael Schillinger, CEO/ founder of IMS DMC. “Nowhere else are there so many palatial locations for every group size and budget.” He adds that many prices have dropped in the last two years, and under certain conditions, the Vienna Convention Bureau offers financial support for international association meetings in July/August and from November through March.

Albertina Passage, Vienna
Albertina Passage, Vienna

Most of all, Schillinger wants guests to get out. “Touring the city is best done walking,” he urges. “That way you see Vienna’s tremendous variety, from palaces to our new areas for incentives, like Naschmarkt, the ‘belly button’ of Vienna, now buzzing with ethnic restaurants and cool bars.”

Schillinger also recommends the Danube Canal area, with hip restaurants and “beach clubs” offering a twist on traditional dinearounds. A fave rendezvous is 300-pax Albertina Passage, for great food with DJs and live music, all in a former pedestrian underpass just before the magnificent Vienna State Opera. Meanwhile, some groups really get into Old Vienna. May Sollinger-Soucek, marketing manager of the Vienna Convention Bureau, directs them to the 30 classical music concerts and operas a day, Lipizzan equestrian shows in the Imperial Palace, waltz classes, and something called Court School.

“An actress-guide teaches the Habsburg do’s and don’ts, such as how to do a proper hand kiss or a proper bow before the emperor,” says Sollinger-Soucek.

Winemaking is an important art in Vienna, the only city in the world with 1,700 acres of vineyards within city limits. Lots of local restaurants only serve the wine they’ve made, stored in centuries-old heuriges, or wine cellars. Don’t miss touring the 16th century wine cellar at the 5-star Palais Coburg, housing 60,000 bottles of wine and champagne, for 25-pax groups.

ATHENS, GREECE

So much of what’s new in Athens is an easy ability to get to the old, including Hadrian’s Gate, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the truly incomparable Acropolis. As for teambuilding, for the rest of their lives, your attendees will always remember who they accompanied up the ancient steps of the Parthenon.

For the first time ever, the Greek government just announced that it will rent out ruins, including the Acropolis, for commercial advertising and events.

Byron Argiri, president of ConcepTours of Greece, has 35 years experience with a mostly American client base.

“To quote one of our clients: ‘There is no other place on earth than Greece that I want to re-visit more.’ That made me very proud.” Like every Athenian, Byron loves showing groups The Acropolis Museum.

No building in Greece has been more welcomed and applauded than this museum. Its simple, elegant layout delighted design aficionados while showcasing the vitality and power of the ancient artifacts.

ConcepTours’ 5-day group program (deeply discounted for 2012) features the 543-room Intercontinental Athenaeum Athens, with fantastic views of the Acropolis and an awardwinning collection of contemporary art inside.

“The Athenaeum is a showcase for a world famous art collection, which guests love,” says Argiri. The lobby, three excellent restaurants, and even the colorful and recently renovated rooms are all filled with the art collection of billionaire Dakis Joannou, the Cypriot industrialist who owns the hotel.

DUBLIN/BELFAST, IRELAND

Up to 15% of Americans claim Irish heritage, and according to Bernard O’Reilly of Joe O’Reilly Ireland Group, a Global Events Partner, that’s strong motivation to check out the Emerald Isle.

“We find that when a company puts Ireland on its incentive program, employees work harder to come. Last week we thought we had 260 coming to Dublin with an incentive group, but another forty just signed on so we’re hosting 300.”

Genealogy isn’t the only draw. These days, prices are phenomenal. “While European cities are lowering rates by 10-15%, we’re having 30-40% rate drops. We also have the natural beauty and we have the sociability. There are no strangers in Ireland, only friends you haven’t met…. Plus we have the pubs, the music—the fun factor.”

O’Reilly inherited the company from his father who founded it 46 years ago. He always includes in programs an Irish coffee making demo, an Irish dancing class, a lesson on the bodhrán drum, an oyster opening competition, and finally a dinner of fresh oysters with Guinness.

When asked what day trip he likes most for groups, he says, “Wicklowe is an old monastic settlement known as ‘The Garden of Ireland.’ We divide into teams of four for a golf initiation, a fly-fishing lesson and a sheep chasing contest. You don’t know how hilarious it is to see a company president and a secretary falling over themselves as they try to grab a sheep!”

Meanwhile to the north, Marie McKown, manager of business tourism at Tourism Ireland, reminds us of the recently opened $150 million Titanic Belfast Visitors Center. The gleaming new building stands on the slipways of Belfast’s Harland and Wolff Shipyard where the RMS Titanic was built. Its modernist exterior has been compared to the Guggenheims and the Sydney Opera House, but its design refers to the bows of three luxury liners—Titanic, Olympic, Brittanic—all built here.

The visitors center offers five Titanic Suites, including a 16,700-sf ballroom, and a mezzanine with a panoramic view of Belfast’s harbor.

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND

Zurich isn’t just for bankers. This charming river town in the heart of the Alps has a slamming culture scene, fantastic food, and a sense of the great outdoors that combines respect for nature with a drive for adventure.

“Guests are always surprised by the variety of choices and contrasts our country has to offer, and that’s especially true in Zurich,” says Michelle Kunz of Ovation Switzerland. She adds that this major financial hub now has 50 museums and 100 galleries, many on the international hot list.

Planners are tuning in. These days, groups can dine in the Kronenhalle, the restaurant decorated with fine art in a medieval guild hall. And they can shop at the FREITAG Store, built out of stacked shipping containers, that sells the popular recycled heavy duty truck tarp messenger bags.

A couple of serious public space projects are underway. The Sechseläutenplatz is a town square at the south end of Zurich’s exclusive shopping street, known for its annual spring burning of a snowman-effigy.

“By summer 2013, it will enhance the city for pedestrians with more shops, cafes and rendezvous,” says Kunz.

Also under development, The Circle is a new city-withina- city near the airport incorporating three hotels, a wellness center and conference center. Kunz says, “This brilliant development is Switzerland’s most striking gateway to the world, offering the ambience of a small town, the synergies of a big city, and more conference space.”

For price-conscious groups, Kunz says the new Renaissance Zurich Tower Hotel behind the main train station is “a fantastic 5-star where we get very favorable rates.” And the boutique B2 hotel in the old Hürlimann Brewery is getting lots of buzz. Pictures in the rooms and suites tell the tale of its 150-year brewing history. Meetings are strictly boardroom, designed for 12- and 18-pax respectively with an industrial-artsy feel. A 33,000-volume library and wine bar offers breakfast in the morning and snacks and wine all day, as well as, of course, Hurlimann beer.

For private group travel outside the city, we traveled from Fribourg to Zurich aboard the vintage Red Arrow Churchill, an electric train built for the Swiss National Exhibition in 1939. It was used afterward to transport dignitaries, including English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for which the train is named.

Available for daytime and evening meals, the rail cars have been lovingly restored for groups up to 90. The fine china, silverware, and black and white original photography herald the early days of sophisticated train travel and the birth of modern design in the Alps.

We were bowled over when the little red train unexpectedly pulled into the station at Fribourg amid all of the gleaming white high-speed supertrains. It’s a fun surprise that planners can organize to lead off an affordable, highly memorable meal.

For group rates, the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau offers all manner of values. They can arrange for 25% rate reduction on flights and, once you’ve arrived, ensure free transit for groups to Basel, Lausanne and Geneva.

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