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Continental Charm

Published: 02/07/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » July/August 2014 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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European cities remain among the world’s most enticing destinations for meetings, incentives, conventions and events. This is borne out in the latest 2013 rankings for countries and cities released by the International Congress and Convention Association. The association counts the number of regularly occurring gatherings that take place each year among international associations; in 2013 the ICCA reports 11,685 events, 535 more than identified a year previously.

The ICCA 2013 Top Rankings reveal that Europe continues to dominate the MICE field, with 14 of the world’s top 20 cities. The ICCA listing is limited to events that are held on a regular basis, have at least 50 attendees and rotate between at least three countries; it doesn’t count the thousands of other meetings and events that take place worldwide. But since this is, after all, a global group of convention planners, it’s as representative a list of destinations as you’ll find anywhere.

Here are the Continent’s most sought-after meetings cities, along with a taste of the highlights that make each unique.

1. Paris

With elegant vistas and a range of hotels, restaurants and venues, Paris offers an appealing palette despite its high prices. 

As corporate meeting planners become more budget conscious, events have become more flexible booking the right Parisian venue at the right price. Thus even for smaller groups, availability can be a problem as venue calendars are filled virtually all year round. 

From historique to moderne, Paris options are perfect for a soirée, banquet or cocktail reception. For example, the Musée Grévin, built as a waxwork museum in 1882, features a main room populated with a cast of wax celebrities. The palatial Le Train Bleu is a station restaurant as famous for its clientele as for its Belle Epoque interiors. And Maxim’s is a Paris institution. While it may no longer be the haute-est of Parisian haute cuisine, the old place still has its own definite caché. 

The chic Mini Palais located in the Grand Palais, just off the Champs Elysées, offers a more contemporary event locale with its wood floors and a majestic 3,200-square-foot terrace. For a rockin’ after-party, product launch or themed night, Club Haussmann  — originally a Swedish bank building – has a dance floor and bar with black walls and blue lighting.

2. Madrid 

A welcoming feel and value for money give Madrid second place on the ICCA’s list. The city is awash with a unique spirit that makes it ideal for holding events. The Spanish way of life, the energy of the people – the tapas and nightlife – make it a great place to mix business and pleasure.

The city is also a great meetings destination value. Event organizers have about 60,000 hotel beds in the city center to choose from, so for what one night in London or Paris costs, Madrid can deliver two nights in a comparable luxury hotel. Centrally located in Spain, Madrid also offers exceptional air and rail links to the rest of the Continent and beyond. 

When the work’s done, there is much for fans of culture and cuisine, more than 90 museums in the city center including the world-famous Prado, more than 5,000 restaurants, and 27 golf courses in the area. Among the diversions that are uniquely Madrid, event attendees might find themselves on a tapas tour – tasting local specialties in the city’s historic center – taking flamenco lessons or striking out to see one of the six UNESCO World Heritage sites within an hour of the city: Avila, Aranjuez, Toledo, Segovia, Alcala de Henares and El Escorial. 

3. Vienna 

Vienna had topped the ICCA list since 2005 as the world’s number one meetings destination. This year, it was beat by Paris and Madrid, but still holds the number three spot, due mainly to its accessibility, infrastructure and value.

From its traditional coffee shops to the architectural legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna retains a strong sense of culture and history. The Austrian capital also presents a wide range of venues large and small, and attractions that offer interesting activities for attendees. 

Most of the key venues and hotels are located in the city’s first district, the central area encircled by the Ring Boulevard and on the south bank of the Danube Canal. The 16th-century Spanish Riding School is a meeting venue that also happens to be home to the snow-white Lipizzaner stallions. Hofburg, another first district venue, is the former winter residence of the Habsburg family, a labyrinthine venue for large-scale events, with 35 spaces overall. 

Art and classical music are the cultural soul of the city, and a number of museums offer magnificent spaces in which to host events. Among them, The Belvedere, a former baroque palace, now split into two museums and the Albertina includes 21 neoclassical Habsburg State Rooms and a collection which spans masters from Monet to Picasso.  

4. Barcelona

The Catalan capital’s sense of fun and iconic sights make for exciting gatherings.

Established as a Roman outpost more than 2,000 years ago, the coastal enclave has remained a travelers’ must-see for its high culture, quirky architecture and laid-back attitude.  

Barcelona’s arsenal of attractions provide impressive settings for all types of business events. The Forum Zone, opened in 2004 in the new Diagonal area, boasts some of the largest convention facilities and hotels in Europe. Medieval and late 19th-century structures have been spruced up and converted into chic post-conference options. For example, in addition to Barcelona’s landmark Sagrada Familia church, Antoni Gaudi also created another masterpiece, the Casa Batllo. This UNESCO World Heritage Site offers 32,000 square feet of adaptable venues. 

The climate and variety of activities have also contributed a great deal to Barcelona’s popularity with the events community. Among the memorable entertainment options, a city tour taking in Las Ramblas, Boqueria Market, the Gothic Quarter and the Picasso Museum, a speedboat tour of the seafront or a visit to the Arab Baths for a range of massage treatments and soaks in hot or cold pools, salt pools and spa baths. A hammam is also available. 

5. Berlin

The German capital’s cool, quirky character extends to its event spaces. The city’s tumultuous past has given it a tangible sense of history and intrigue, a reputation for cutting-edge design and a forward-looking attitude.

Perhaps the most significant MICE development for the city is the opening of Citycube Berlin, which unveiled its 3.4 million square feet of space in May. It’s located a short walk from the venerable ICC – one of the largest convention centers in Europe – which is currently closed for renovations scheduled to last through 2018. When that’s reopened, Berlin will have doubled its conference capacity.

Away from the big spaces, the capital is brimming with unusual event facilities and activities that reflect its unconventional vibe. Tempelhof Airport, Berlin’s historic city-center air hub is perfect for large-scale events. The observation deck of the 1,200-foot-tall Fernsehturm can host a gathering of 120 people, or take a further 21 steps up to the recently refurbished rotating restaurant. Near the iconic Brandenburg Gate, the exterior of the Axica bank belies the Frank Gehry-designed atrium inside, which is instilled with expressionist energy and flooded with natural light.  

6. London

London has benefited from huge amounts of investment in the runup to the 2012 Olympics; infrastructure improvements, hundreds of additional hotel rooms and new attractions, venues and restaurants. It also benefits from being a world city with 2,000 years of history and culture.

London’s five international airports fly direct to 348 destinations, making it the globe’s most connected city. And with its palaces, pomp and circumstances, London enjoys a certain grandeur unmatched by any other city on the planet.

From the sporting to the spectacular, memorable event venues in the capital come with a twist. Wembley Stadium has hosted Olympic events and big concerts, but has room for more modest-sized affairs as well. Epsom Downs, which welcomes royalty at the annual Derby, has meeting spaces with London skyline views from Heathrow T4 to Canary Wharf.

For a bit less strenuous venue, choose the spaces at the Albannach Tavern, a contemporary Scottish restaurant and whisky bar which resides under the gaze of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square. On the up-and-coming East End, the Town Hall Hotel and Apartments is a renovated Edwardian-era council headquarters; meeting space includes the wood-paneled Council Chamber, complete with raised magisterial leather seating.

7. Istanbul

Istanbul has long been popular as a tourist destination, but thanks to significant infrastructure investment and its geographical position on the cusp of Europe and Asia, this ancient metropolis has also emerged as a leading destination for meetings and conferences.

Istanbul is certainly well set-up for large-scale events – it has seven purpose-built convention centers and three exhibition centers, all large enough to accommodate the biggest of international gatherings. But it also has an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary architecture, plus a pastiche of activities and incentives.

Event attendees find out how traditional fare is created at an Ottoman cooking lesson, take a guided trip and learn how traditional ceramics and jewelry are made or melt away tension at one of the city’s Turkish hammams   And no trip to Istanbul is complete without a Bosphorus cruise by day or at sunset.  

8. Lisbon

Portugals has long been a popular haunt for tourists, but more recently has emerged as one of Europe’s top meetings destinations. Ranked eighth in Europe by the ICCA, the MICE industry now accounts for 44 percent of the city’s tourism income.

In the past decade or so, Lisbon has quickly developed its meetings and events space to meet fresh demand, offering event planners nearly a half-million square feet. The hotel scene has blossomed as well, with many of the big names represented. 

The city’s reputation as a resort town also helps. While it has much to offer in culture, cuisine, history and shopping, it is also ideally positioned on the Atlantic coast a short distance from the enclaves of Estoril, Cascais and Guincho.

The Tivoli Theatre was the place to be seen during the Romantic period and is still drawing the crowds today, with room to host up to 1,100 people in the three-level auditorium. Eleven is a striking dining venue opened by 11 friends and is great for exclusive events. In the neighborhood of Madragoa, A Travessa is a captivating restaurant housed in the convent of St Bernardas, which was founded in 1653.  

9. Prague

Prague in summer, with its abundant green spaces, is a popular tourist destination. But has more than enough capacity to accommodate businesses looking to host an al fresco reception or a corporate incentive experience. Its array of five-star hotels with virtually every major chain represented – along with plenty of four- and three-star properties – makes the city a big draw for corporate meeting planners. The city also boasts a varied portfolio of event venues and engaging activities.

The Italianate terraced Palace Gardens are situated on the southern slopes of Prague Castle and make a wonderful setting for al fresco soirées. For a waterside venue, it’s hard to beat Kampa Park; the restaurant stretches along the western side of the Vltava River and looking on to Charles Bridge. The art nouveau Municipal House, originally opened in 1912, provides event planners with a wealth of beautiful spaces of differing sizes. 

The Vltava River plays host to daily dinner and music cruises aboard the Jazz Boat, taking in local landmarks such as the National Theatre, Charles Bridge and a colony of yellow penguins. Or attendees can opt for a bit of refreshment at the the Staropramen Brewery, the second-largest beer producer in the Czech Republic. 

10. Amsterdam

In the past few years Amsterdam has added to its top-end hotel lineup, and its venues old and new include the striking Eye Film Museum, the renovated Het Scheepvaartmuseum and the recently reopened Rijksmuseum.

Add to that a well-connected airport, in Schiphol, good European rail links and impressive infrastructure – not to mention the beautiful historic city center, rich cultural offering and laid back vibe – and it’s unsurprising that it is a top-ten International Congress and Convention Association city. 

Het Scheepvaartmuseum – the National Maritime Museum – is housed in the grand Lands Zeemagazijn (the Arsenal), built in the 17th century. The striking Eye Film Museum with its light-filled central Arena and large terrace can be reserved once a month for events. 

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