Geez, these things are enormous. I’m standing with a group in front of four gargantuan Airbus A380s watching men maneuver a Rolls Royce turbofan into place under one of the wings. The engine is the size of a house. Headquartered here in Toulouse, Airbus Industries offers large group tours around the 1.3 million-sf assembly floor, the third largest contiguous space in the world. That’s followed by a slick video presentation on the 7th floor viewing room, detailing the Shakespearean drama that went into getting this thing in the air.
Building the $350 million A380 required one of the greatest multinational business collaborations in modern industry. The process begins with the manufacturing of individual components in the four countries footing the bill: France, Britain, Spain and Germany. The wings, for example, are built in Bristol; the tail comes from Cadiz. The plane is then bolted together in Toulouse before flying to Hamburg for painting and final delivery.
The So Toulouse! Convention Bureau is leveraging the Airbus network to showcase to meeting and conference planners the city’s technical expertise and logistical infrastructure. Because in 2017, the new Parc des Expositions (PEX) opens with a new convention center designed by celeb architect Rem Koolhaas, with a 165,000-sf event hall and 440,000-sf exhibition space.
“Because of Airbus we have so many companies here active in technological innovation, international economics and engineering research,” says Jean-Francois Renac, director general of So Toulouse. “We also have the second largest university campus in France, and the best ranked in economics and science, so we’re a very aggressive and dynamic city.”
“It’s as if Toulouse represents the ‘New France,’” I suggest.
“Voila!,” exclaims Renac, with a gleam in his eye. “We’re conscious that knowledge and research are important for our future growth. We’re a very young city, unlike many other cities in France, and we realize that culture and beauty are not enough.”
Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, with 73 international incoming flights and 72 daily between Paris. The city’s primary conference venue is Pierre Baudis Congress Center, with its largest hall seating 1,000 pax in rounds, complemented by a wide variety of historic venues and modern meeting facilities.
We’re here for the France MICE tradeshow, “Red, White & Blue Rendezvous,” hosted at the 125-room Hotel Pullman Toulouse Centre. It overlooks the busy Jean-Jaures Boulevard, which Renac says is converting into a pedestrian mall in 2013. That’s convenient for groups because the surrounding streets are plentiful with much of the city’s best restaurants and nightlife.
Presently there are ongoing negotiations for two new, global brand conference hotels in the exposition park. For now, larger groups typically book multiple hotels like the variety of Accor Hotels, who operate Pullman Toulouse Centre.
“We’re putting in place an organized structure to work with larger groups more than we have in the past,” says Alexandre Lohier, residence director at the 104-suite Citadines Wilson Toulouse. “We haven’t typically been viewed as a congress destination but we are working hard in anticipation of the new congress center.”
STREETS OF TOULOUSE
You will immediately be struck by the sense of orderliness and upkeep in the urban center, more typical of smaller towns throughout the Midi-Pyrenees and Provence. The paved and cobblestone streets are lined with designer shops and contemporary fine dining restaurants and wine bars, interspersed with the many expected outdoor cafes. However, there’s a slight sense of the provincial among the urbanity, which is welcoming for a city of 1.2 million people.
All of the romance you would expect from any French program is here in full force. Just off the central Jardin Pierre Goudouli park not far from our hotel, The Flower’s Cafe is bustling with late lunch goers. I order fois gras, delicate confiture d’oignon and a glass of local Bergerac. The square is surrounded by the Pronutopia Paris bridal shop, Aubade Lingerie store and l’artisan parfumeur Stephanie de Saint-Aignan. The waiters are eminently friendly, no one is rushing you, and the feuillantine au chocolat is firm and weighty.
Then it hits me. The biggest surprise about the city, for business travelers who know Paris and the South, is the lack of tourists and themed venues. Admittedly, it’s November but the authenticity is palpable. You feel almost local.
For opening night festivities, we transfer to the Brasserie du Stade football and rugby stadium for cocktails and canapes. Rugby is massively popular here, so groups can take in a game and then meet inside the 150-pax Brewery restaurant located behind the grandstands.
Back by Goudouli park, the 3-level Monsieur Georges is a half chic, half rustic and wholly comfortable restaurant offering an upstairs space for private dinners for 50 pax. Owner Lucie Mascle and her staff are incredible, and the classic French Country menu is solid and satisfying. Simple, I know, but the chiffonnade d’entrecôte & frites maison is served on a chopping board, which fits in well with the bistro chalkboards and grocery store decor. Below, the wine cave would be fun for a group of 40.
UNESCO CANALS & CHURCHES
Following the morning meetings and workshops, everyone walks together around the corner of the hotel to board two river boats waiting for a ride down the 400 year-old Canal du Midi, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a welcome rest to enjoy lunch and wine, while the boats motor below the overhanging tree canopy past medieval buildings. It’s during this leg of the program when everyone starts finding their rhythm.
Back onshore, the convention bureau reps surprise us with a gamified tour of the old city. The bureau has mapped out five walking itineraries that attendees can do either as a group or individually: Must See, Art & History, Alleys & Nice Mansions, Green Toulouse and Garonne River.
With iPhones in hand, we chase down a list of smart codes with cryptic clues scattered around pubs, bookstores and alleyways. Highlights include the World Heritage Saint Sernin Basilica and few private 16th-17th century mansions converted into museums themed around art, history and social innovation.
DINING AT HOTEL DIEU & BEYOND
Overlooking the Garonne River, which winds itself around the old city, the venerable Hotel-Dieu Saint-Jacques was originally a care facility for the weak and infirm dating back to 1554. It kept expanding and eventually developed into a hospital and medical university. Today, it is home to the Museum of the History of Medicine, especially popular with medical groups.
As we pull up for the conference’s gala dinner, we’re greeted with trumpeters in medieval dress before walking below the massive beam ceiling and oil frescos into the grand Salon of Columns, catering comfortably up to 250 diners.
A live band starts off the festivities while waiters serve champagne before we’re seated for the evening’s presentations. Dinner begins with beet carpaccio, scallops and wasabi. The main course salutes the region: roasted duck on spice bread au jus with a croquette of foie gras and celery puree.
It was here in the Midi-Pyrennes of southwest France where foie gras and truffles developed on the culinary scene into the iconic dishes they are today. This is really where the future lies for group travel to Toulouse. Planners can create pre/posts into Gascony to the west and the main river valleys of the Dordogne, the Garonne and the Tarn. There’s goat cheese from Rocamadour, lamb from Quercy and garlic from Lautrec that chefs source daily from farms and markets to create their astonishing cassoulets. Whatever you do, schedule some time to explore the region.