The Culture Capitals

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Culture Capitals

The opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997 was the shot heard around the world by convention and visitor bureaus. The success of architect Frank Gehry’s “crumpled paper” titanium design catapulted the Basque region of Spain into the limelight, and visitation soared. Gehry and his brethren of star architects have been busy ever since as the world’s culture capitals have clamored to recreate the “Bilbao Effect,” introducing punchy design and fine art to the masses.

The rise of art and cultural tourism is everywhere, from Encore and CityCentre’s museum-calibre art in Las Vegas to Chicago’s Millennium Park to Dubai’s Burj Al Arab hotel. Abu Dhabi’s upcoming Cultural District of Saadiyat Island, with both Louvre and Guggenheim museum extensions designed by the cream of today’s architect crop, has been orchestrated to do nothing less than rebrand the Middle East.

By consequence, DMOs and DMCs are putting together an ever-widening array of cultural, educational and life-enriching incentive experiences, while destinations continue to build stunning new venues to attract new meeting business.

Spain, for example, is holding its own. Architect Santiago Calatrava has basically redefined the Mediterranean city of Valencia, while the slick Madrid Convention Centre opening next year resembles a skyward series of stacked film reels standing on end, like the last minutes of a sunrise.

For cultural pursuits, the Spanish capital is unequivocally the best city in the world for teaching groups their Monets from their Manets. The magisterial Prado Museum is the country’s classical art venue, celebrating the best of Goya, Velasquez and El Greco. The Reina Sofia Museum showcases contemporary art, including homeboy Picasso’s Guernica, considered the greatest masterpiece of the 20th century. Our favorite, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is an opus to Art History 101—housing what was the world’s second largest private art collection until the crown bought it in 1992, displayed chronologically from pre-Renaissance to Warhol. The charcoal Degas ballerinas and Gauguin, Monet, Manet, Picasso and Pissaros are the pride of the museum, which offers private event spaces including a rooftop terrace.

The best part for groups is all three museums are within a few blocks of each other along what’s known as Madrid’s Art Walk (or Triangle). Plus, across from The Prado, an 1899 power station was converted last year into the $96 million CaixaForum Madrid—a 168,000-sf bookable exhibition space designed by the elite firm Herzog + de Mueron, who added Europe’s largest living plant wall outside. The opening show was Botticelli and friends from Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.

“It’s really a very special building, the Art Triangle is now the Art Square!” exclaims Estefania Gomez, USA manager for the Madrid Convention Bureau. “Madrid is amazing for meetings but incentive business is quickly growing because of the beautiful new museum expansions and high-speed train to Barcelona.” As of May last year, travel time between the two cities is 2¼ hours, down from over five. For a dual-city incentive, contact the DMC E&TB Group. They have a 1-day Temples of Art package with private tours through the three museums and lunch at Reina Sofia’s Arola restaurant.

For beds, we like: The 486-room Westin Grand Palace with its staggering stain-glass cupola, originally commissioned by King Alfonso XIII in 1912, sits next to Thyssen. For drinks and tapas, the designer crowd congregates at the mod 102-room Hotel Urban a couple blocks away and Sol Meliá’s supersexy 192-room ME Madrid 15 minutes away. For mid-budget groups right in the thick of things, the Spanish Tourism people like the 116-room NH Paseo del Prado.

And look into private dinners at El Botin, open since 1725. The Guinness Book people call it the oldest restaurant in the world. Hemingway called it the best.

GERMANY

GERMANY

In the 1800s, Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV envisioned an “Acropolis” of culture on an island in the heart of Berlin. The collection of five grand museums on Museuminsel (Museum Island) was finished in 1930, but bombed to rubble by the Allies a decade later. Rebuilding began after the fall of the Wall, with completion of all five museums expected by 2015.

Last month, the Neues Museum was the latest venue to open after a $255 million rebuild that put all the pieces back together again. The end result is considered one of Europe’s finest new public spaces marrying modernist architecture to a historic shell—bomb scars included. The New York Times calls it “the world’s biggest-ever Humpty Dumpty project,” which now houses Germany’s renowned collection of Egyptian artifacts, headlined by the priceless bust of Queen Nefertiti.

“I think the Egyptians want that back,” says Clemens von Beust, managing director of v. Beust & Partner Incentives & Events. “Museum Island is one of the most popular sites for groups in Berlin. We have organized large congresses, award dinners, lectures and concerts there many times…. There’s a feeling of important history at those events I think is quite impressive.” Von Beust’s favorite museum for events is the Bode Museum at the island’s prow. “Bode is a beautiful building, completely redone, for exclusive dinners of about 150 people,” he says.

This is an important month for Germany. November 9 marks the 20-year anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s celebrated demise. Many groups do the guided walking tours but von Beust says it’s much better for groups to rent bicycles for up to 100 people in teams of 20. They can see a lot more, including underground tunnels, Checkpoint Charlie and an array of new exhibits. He works with two local elderly men who meet groups by one of the remaining guard towers. They lost family members trying to flee the East, but they’re eager to share what life was like under Stasi rule.

“It’s obviously very emotional and very interesting, you can’t imagine what it’s like to hear these stories from someone who lived behind the Wall,” says von Beust.

Clemens, what do you come to appreciate most after these experiences?

“You appreciate the wall isn’t there. You appreciate what circumstances some people have to live through, and what it’s like to suffer through something and survive.”

In March, the 557-room andel’s Hotel Berlin opened with 47,000 sf of space and a 14th floor sky deck. The 161 upscale exec rooms have access to an indoor/outdoor lounge, and the property is Europe’s first to have elevators designed to transport buses and trucks into the function space.

For post-Berlin thrills, the new Porsche Museum opened this year in Stuttgart. The $130-million facility went 100% over budget due to what turned out to be an almost unbuildable cantilevered design. The end result was deemed worth it, winning as many accolades as the cars housed within.

A permanent collection of 380 dream sports cars covers 60 years from the landmark Porsche 356 to the 2010 4-door Panamera. Driving lessons on the company race track can be customized for groups, or planners can organize weekend trips through the Black Forest in 911 Carrera rentals with overnights in Medieval castles. The same trips can be arranged at the Mercedes Benz Museum, also in Stuttgart, driving classic 450 SL convertible coupes.

CZECH REPUBLIC

Prague is a real-life fairy tale with the largest castle complex and greatest collection of Medieval architecture in the world. Because the city sustained only minor damage during WWII, the amazing wealth of preserved gothic, baroque and romanesque architecture is a big reason why Prague is the sixth most visited city in the EU after the five major western capitals. And why film producers seeking iconic Old World Europe come here, like those for Amadeus, Queen Latifah’s gem Last Holiday and Casino Royale.

“And the communists didn’t go and do anything bad to the city either,” says Michael Schillinger, CEO of multinational DMC Incoming Marketing Services. “Prague is the jewel of Europe, it’s a very romantic and walkable city…. And the city has taken very much care in keeping the buildings original.”

One of Schillinger’s favorite events is a gala dinner at Prague Castle with opera singers supported by the Prague Philharmonic, one of Europe’s most widely recorded orchestras. Groups can also book events with the Czech Boy’s Choir, on par with the Viennese kids, especially fun around Christmas at the Prague State Opera off Wenceslas Square.

Schillinger books groups for operas such as Marriage of Figaro at the Estates Theater, where Mozart himself conducted the orchestra at the world premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787. He also recommends grand feasts for up to about 80 in the Medieval monasteries such as St. Agnes Convent or Strahov. Dinners can be combined with a Little Mozart show, detailing vignettes of the composer’s childhood.

“They’re really very splendid. These Medieval parties are like you would expect with heavy roast pork and duck, and cabbage and beer,” he says. Due to Prague’s significant film business, it’s easy to rent costumes for everyone, and Schillinger will bring in jesters and acting troupes.

Maybe your group is more into learning jousting or practicing swordplay in real armor. A host of castles within an hour of Prague can be rented with a bevy of fun and challenging Medieval games before a big feast inside the grand chambers.

“And it’s not fake,” explains Michaela Palkova-Claudino, director of CzechTourism USA, “because it’s taking place in an authentic castle where exactly these types of events happened hundreds of years ago.” Palkova-Claudino adds that groups often visit historic spa towns like Karlovy Vary within an hour’s drive, and to breweries such as Pilsner Urquell for lunch, tours and tastings.

On the hotel front, the 160-room Sheraton Prague Charles Square Hotel opened in March, within four contiguous 19th century buildings. Meeting space is 3,400 sf.

One of Prague’s most adored properties is the 196-room Hotel Yasmin, with ballroom space for 200. While the outside is Old World Europe, the interior vibe is floral-themed and East Euro avant garde by local design girl Barbora Škorpilová.

And in May, The Augustine, Prague opened for big-budget, high-wow factor incentives/meetings with 101 rooms weaved through nine historic buildings. Book VIPs into the 3-story Tower Suite inside a medieval tower with close-up views of Prague Castle. There’s a 2,100-sf ballroom and the hotel is the only property linked to the baroque Wallenstein Palace & Gardens, perfect for summer cocktail receptions and concerts in the embrace of 17th century Hapsburg finery.

BUENOS AIRES

In August, over 308,000 people attended the 7th annual Tango Festival in Buenos Aires. A heady mix of “love, passion, madness and glamour,” tango is serious business culturally and economically in South America’s most European city. The dance originated in these streets in the late 1800s when male immigrants poured in from across the Atlantic. Not being able to speak the language, they competed for the attentions of local women with fancy footwork and strident determination.

“Tango allowed them to express their feelings of loss and feelings of hope in this country where they were beginning a new life,” says Inés Gowland, director of Argentina Travel Partners. “In Argentina, we see tango as an act of love. That´s why this dance keeps its essence and passion today.”

According to Gowland, most group participants take a 90-minute tango lesson. Her favorite venue is Café Tortoni, one of the most traditional coffee houses in the city where dancing typically starts around lunch time. More formal is Mansion Dandi Royal, where groups up to 200 can practice with numerous instructors.

“We usually begin with a wine tastings at lunch to loosen everyone up, that’s important,” laughs Gowland. She also likes to bring her “dancing professors” to escort the group to a local milonga, a casual-style café where locals congregate. Gowland says her male and female instructors make sure everyone feels comfortable by dancing with them and explaining the local customs.

“For example, you don’t introduce yourself to someone and ask, ‘Do you want to dance?’ That would be strange…. You just walk on the dance floor and start to dance. No need for talking, just tango.”

Gowland explains dinner and a tango show is the trip highlight for most groups at one of the many restored historic theaters. Today’s French deity of modern design, Philippe Starck, designed the Rojo Tango lounge with a red velvet cabaret vibe. It is regarded as the most sensual program in town, detailing the dance’s evolution from its early beginnings. More tempered in tone, the Gala Tango theater also includes folk ballet performances. Both seat groups up to 90.

For groups up to 450, Marc Glatigny, president of DMC Argentina en Colores, suggests Esquina Carlos Gardel.

“It is the best for important groups because the décor is spectacular and this is very fine-dining cuisine,” says the French native. He also recommends Palacio Sans Souci and Palacio San Miguel, two large private residences for elegant catered dinners with orchestral musicians.

Planners can also organize private dancing lessons with Dana Frigoli and her staff at DNI Tango, who led a class of 300 at the Tango Festival.

Meanwhile, Theater Colon reopens after a 3-year refurb for Argentina’s 200th anniversary of independence in 2010. Theater Colon is considered one of the world’s three great opera halls equal to The Met in New York and Milan’s La Scala to best hear the soaring arias of Puccini, Verdi and Bizet.

SINGAPORE

Sentosa Island is a lush swath of land with pretty beaches and tropical foliage just off the entrance to Singapore Harbor and financial district that anchors the ambitious urban city-state. Next spring, the $4.3 billion Resorts World Sentosa opens as its own mini island-state with a grouping of venues designed to update the entire destination’s image.

To begin, six new hotels include the luxury all-suite Maxim Towers, Hotel Michael (by architect Michael Graves) and Hard Rock Singapore. Together, they total 1,800 rooms surrounding 648,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space. The Grand Ballroom alone seats 5,500 attendees.

A short shuttle away, the new Universal Studios Singapore features 24 rides, including the world’s tallest pair of dueling roller coasters. We’re looking forward to the Hollywood stuntman show on a replicated film set from the movie Waterworld. The Maritime Xperiential Museum chronicles the history of the Silk Route in a 360° multi-media theater. And Marine Life Park is set be the world’s largest oceanarium with 20 million gallons of water housing 700,000 sea creatures, including 40-ft whale sharks. Groups will be able to hand-feed tiger sharks from inside a protective cage.

“There is nothing like this in Southeast Asia, which will help attract a new generation of groups,” says Ambrose Tham, area director of Singapore Exhibition/Convention Bureau.

NEW YORK CITY

Book 500 people at The Museum of Natural History for a high-strutting cabaret act with DMC PRA Management New York. President Patrick Sullivan (and 2009 SITE prez) decorates the tables with little candle lights and shimmering linens, while live bands with male and female singers perform medleys from various jazz ages, ranging from Gershwin and Porter to Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt.

“We can really use music from any era with great talent and good lighting in almost any private venue,” says Sullivan. “We can create a really intimate space or a grand tuxedo evening with full orchestra.” PRA has also found success with short Broadway revues for up to 80 people, with song and dance numbers from stage blockbusters like Phantom of the Opera, Jersey Boys and 42nd Street.

Taking inspiration from New York Fashion Week, Sullivan also creates private fashion shows for corporate groups. Pro models strut along the catwalk in threads by garment district up-and-comers such as Elizabeth Gilette, followed by networking events at various fashion designer’s studios.

How do these private shows go over for groups, Patrick?

“They love it because it’s just for them. And then we’ll go behind the scenes at a couple of the fashion houses, and of course, there’s always purchasing.”

At the time of writing, fall fashion season’s top trends were “knockout necklaces and bold handbags,” according to Henri Bendel’s boutique department store. An expert at such things, Carrie Gjermundsen is owner of Style Guide NYC Tours, who can help corporate groups navigate Manhattan’s fashion scene including the “four Bs”—Bendels, Bloomingdales, Barneys and Bergdorf’s—like she did this year for Oracle. However, her most requested tours explore NYC’s sartorial side streets.

“These are not about shopping to the hilt, it’s more about feeling the energy of New York and the different neighborhoods,” says Gjermundsen. “I really give people a lot of fun insider knowledge.” Many of her corporate clients are “middle-of-the-road fashion-wise” and budget conscious, she adds. “So I show where you can find the most value and what’s hip and trendy. I’m like your best friend in New York.”

The Meatpacking District tour is often requested because there are so many stores close together. And the popular French brasserie Pastis and Vongerichten’s Spice Market are perfect for wine and appetizers. She likes taking groups up to 20 at a time into Nolita, NoHo and the Bowery because they’re quiet in the afternoon and there’s a wealth of shops tourists would never discover.

Last year, menswear fashion mogul John Varvatos moved into the Bowery’s recently closed CBGB bar, a NYC landmark where some of America’s edgier rock bands played. Varvatos kept the old look, so the end result is his crisp new $2,000 jackets displayed in a preserved nightclub setting, complete with old band posters, graffiti and vintage stereo equipment. Gjermundsen caters to co-ed groups so Varvatos is good for the men, but not just for fashion tips. She says sales/marketing executives of both sexes tell her they learn a lot about cutting-edge branding from these elite shops.

When big-budget groups do want to shop for big label glitz, Gjermundsen escorts everyone to famous designer digs such as Catherine Malandrino’s shop in SoHo, ending with drinks at the celeb-fave SoHo Grand Hotel.

WASHINGTON DC

Busboys & Poets is one of those coffeeshop restaurants where liberal arts grad students drink too much coffee and read too much existential French Lit, while a slightly unhinged soul reads poetry on stage to a disaffected crowd.

Except this is U Street in Washington DC, and the poets are published in Harvard Review. The grad students are on Fulbrights, and that’s Ralph Nader, Matt Dillon and Al Franken in the crowd sipping properly made, northern Italian espresso.

The U Street corridor is the creative knife edge in the nation’s capital, and The Washington Post proclaims Busboys as the “best bar for flying solo” and the “best restaurant for groups.” The 14th Street establishment offers private spaces for 75, 60, 18 and 150 people.

“Sometimes we’ll say around here, I’m not sure if I’m cool enough to go to U Street because it’s so hip and trendy,” jokes Michelle Mobley, account director of marketing/events for VRS Meetings & Events. “You know, everyone knows the Smithsonian, and it’s great—all the museums are free and there’s an amazing amount to see and do. So in these economic times it’s a great way for groups to save money, but we try to add even more value by doing insider tours, too.”

Mobley points out the year-old Newseum, where she’ll get small groups into This Week with George Stephanopoulos and David Gregory’s Meet the Press. She says her corporate groups enjoy those shows because they’re “exposed to both sides of the aisle.” The Newseum showcases a slew of Pulitzer-prize winning photos and editorial achievements.

She also recommends the International Spy Museum and spy tours traveling down Embassy Row. Retired ex-CIA and KGB secret agents ruminate on their past espionage skullduggery for groups up to 50, showing where they made secret drops and reconnoitered with “assets.” The museum itself hosts private dinners for up to 100.

Other experiences Mobley promotes is lunch at The Capitol Building where groups can sometimes engage the more loquacious senators. Check out The Capitol Visitor Center, which reopened in December following a $60 million renovation. The locals are big on the Corcoran Museum, with fun exhibits like the Jackie O wardrobe collection. And Mobley’s fave venue is the newly refurbished Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was gunned down in 1865. Groups can book private performances of visiting shows like this winter’s Christmas Carol.

Here’s the “get.” If your group is international, check with the foreign divisions to see if they can hook up a private VIP reception at one of their respective embassies, many of which are housed in mansions lining Massachusetts Ave. It doesn’t happen often, but cachet is through the roof when it does.

Anything else, Michelle?

“Well, everyone wants the private docent tours in the Smithsonian, which we do all the time,” she says. “And tea in the Rose Garden, of course.”

No way. Groups can do that?

“Uh, no. Planners can ask all they want but unless you’re a personal friend of Michelle Obama, it’s not happening. And if you are, you should introduce me!”

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