Budapest, Vienna, Prague: The Golden Triangle

A real prize for incentive winners is a trip through Europe's so-called Golden Triangle: the three cities of Vienna, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; and Prague, Czech Republic. All are filled with history, cultural attractions, beautiful architecture, and each is different enough from the others to keep the interest level of incentive qualifiers high.

InterContinental Wien, is in the heart of Vienna, opposite the Stadtpark, close by the State Opera, concert halls, and the main shopping area. The hotel has 453 rooms and suites, and about 20,000 square feet of meeting space, including a dedicated conference floor.

InterContinental Wien is one of the main shareholders of the conference center at the Hofburg Palace, former Imperial Palace of the Habsburg dynasty. The imperial state rooms of the Hofburg Congress Center & Redoutensaele Vienna glitter with crystal and old marble but are on the cutting edge technologically. The 35 meeting rooms cover 182,000 square feet to accommodate 50 to 3,500 attendees. The Hofburg Gallery and Forum is a sleek and modern meeting space within the center; its soaring glass wall overlooks a historic inner courtyard and the baroque dome of the palace.

Vienna's central shopping district, a stroll away from both the conference center and the InterContinental, is full of interesting shops and coffeehouses. The center city also holds other little gems for events, like Palais Ferstell, which formerly served as a stock exchange, and Palais Niederosterreich, which hosts functions for up to 800 in the beautifully restored former Lower Austrian Parliament Building.

Next stop, Budapest — “the pearl of the Danube” — 150 miles away. The InterContinental, Budapest (398 rooms and suites, an 8,310-square-foot ballroom, and nine breakout rooms) is perfectly sited on the shore of the river to drink in the beauty of the dual city. This former Communist country is awakening from a long, grey period; its beautiful architecture is being cleaned and restored, and the city is vibrant and exciting. Continental Europe's oldest subway system is kept so clean — with original, ornate wood and metalwork — that banquets are sometimes held on the platforms of the historic stations. The city has more than 80 thermal springs, and if you spend a few days here, a trip to one of the city's bathhouses is de rigueur.

Budapest Opera House on the showcase Andrassy Avenue has some stunning rooms available for group events, and it is well worth taking a guided tour of this architectural jewel, considered among the most beautiful opera houses in the world.

Third stop: Prague. The InterContinental Praha (372 rooms and suites, 12 meeting rooms, and a ballroom) affords amazing views over the Old City from its elegant rooftop restaurant. The hotel is just steps from the Vlatava River and near the eminently strollable Charles Bridge. The 13th-century Old-New Synagogue is a block away from the hotel, and the Old Town Square, with its famous astrological clock, is a 5-minute walk past some of the city's most upscale shops.

Across the river, Prague Castle complex lends itself to at least a half day of exploration. Dating to the 880s, it was for centuries the residence of Czech kings. Within its fortified walls, the soaring, gothic St. Vitus Cathedral is today a repository of the country's art and history. Many of the castle buildings and halls are available for group functions.

Grand Cayman and Jamaica: Caribbean Luxe

Two Caribbean Ritz-Carlton resorts are teaming up to bring incentive or high-end meeting groups a unique double-island adventure. Groups can experience both Jamaica and Grand Cayman with a multi-day program based at the 365-room Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, and the 427-room Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall, Jamaica. Make the hop between islands via a Cayman Air flight or a private jet service arranged through Ritz-Carlton. In Grand Cayman, attendees can swim with the stingrays next to a coral reef in the morning (unless they prefer a Nick Bollettieri tennis program or perhaps golf at the Blue Tip) and in the afternoon have their sore muscles kneaded into blissful relaxation at the resort's spectacular Silver Rain, a La Prairie Spa (with 17 treatment rooms).

Flying on to Jamaica the next day, the one-hour trip leaves plenty of time for a round of golf at the gloriously sited White Witch Golf Course (16 of the 18 holes on this breezy mountainside course have stunning views of the Caribbean).

Both resorts are cozied right up to the Caribbean — Grand Cayman has Seven Mile Beach, and Rose Hall has 1,500 feet of beachfront only 15 minutes from Jamaica's Montego Bay airport.

Mid-April through fall is low season in the Caribbean (summer and winter temps vary surprisingly little) when room rates can be less than half of high-season prices.

Halifax: Maritime Heritage

Canada's easternmost city crams a lot into its relatively small package. This city of about 350,000 historically has played two major roles: as a gateway for immigrants and as a military outpost. While those roles are no longer the focus, their heritage remains an important part of the culture of this charming community.

Halifax is the capital of Nova Scotia (Latin for New Scotland), which is virtually surrounded by water. The city itself faces the Atlantic Ocean, and various activities (a maritime museum, harbor tours on historic vessels and sailboats, kayaking, amphibious tours) take advantage of the setting.

Along the waterfront, shipping and naval warehouses have been converted into block after block of boutiques, restaurants, and pubs. The Halifax Citadel National Historic Site is now open to the public and available for participatory group events, along with Pier 21, a national historic site and stepping-off point until 1971 for some 1.5 million immigrants to Canada, and the adjacent new Cunard Centre.

With the naval influence, it's perhaps no surprise that Haligonians are serious about their drinking. Concrete evidence of that is the prominence of Alexander Keith's Brewery, reportedly the oldest working brewery in North America. The facility schedules group beer tastings and tours, complete with entertaining guides in 1863-era dress.

Halifax also is home to a number of hotels that are all within relatively easy walking distance of one another and the convention center. Several of them, including the Halifax Marriott Harbourfront Hotel, Westin Nova Scotian Hotel, and Prince George Hotel, are in the process of upgrading both guestrooms and public spaces.

Weather in Halifax is mild year-round, but the area does see an above-average share of fog — which can close the airport. Flights from New York are just over two hours.

Up-and-Coming on the Incentive Scene

The Yukon

Take a 2.5-hour flight from Vancouver and land in the historic town of Whitehorse, on the Yukon River, in the midst of stunning mountain scenery. Then head a bit farther north and you'll find Dawson City, heart of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, a World Heritage Site with a “Go for the Gold” incentive theme built right into its history. “The best part,” says Michele Saran, director, incentive sales development for the Canadian Tourism Commission, is that “nothing in that area is contrived. You've got wooden boardwalks and ice streets.” Get the whole story at www.latitudeyukon.com.

Wales

Book your program at Celtic Manor outside Cardiff, Wales, right now because the 2010 Ryder Cup is about to put the luxury resort — and the “forgotten” country of Wales — squarely on the upscale map. For now, capital city Cardiff remains the most cost-effective city in the U.K., two hours' car or train journey from London or a direct flight from major European gateways such as Amsterdam, Paris, and Brussels.

English is primarily spoken, but you'll hear Welsh everywhere, giving attendees a feeling of being somewhere truly different. Add to that three national parks, more than 600 castles, and a charming bay area with pubs, restaurants, and boutiques, and you have your incentive elements covered.

And then there's Celtic Manor — 400 rooms set amid 1,400 acres, and featuring the new Twenty-Ten Golf Course and Clubhouse, both built specifically for The Ryder Cup. Other highlights include the Forum Spa (above) with 16 treatment rooms; and a purpose-built conference center with ballroom, exhibition hall, and 46 breakout rooms.

Oresund

The Oresund region, an area encompassing Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmo in Sweden, sets the standard for green living. In Copenhagen, which will host the United Nations Conference on Climate Change next year, every third person bikes to work and 10 percent of the city's power is supplied by windmills. Get all the green details at www.visitden mark.com. Incentive-quality properties in Copenhagen include the completely renovated and renamed Le Méridien Palace Hotel, now part of the Starwood family. With 161 rooms, the hotel is set in the heart of the city, within walking distance of Tivoli Gardens and Strøget, the city's famous pedestrian shopping street. Other top-notch options are the Hotel D'Angleterre, with 123 rooms; the super-trendy Front, with 133 rooms; and the Kong Frederick, with 111 rooms, all NP Hotels.

Amsterdam: Truly Charmed

During a four-day trip, I explored the streets and canals, the shops and museums, the cafes and nightspots of the “Venice of the North.” I had the good fortune to stay at The InterContinental Amstel, which opened in 1867 and has continued to hold claim as Amsterdam's grand dame. Known popularly as “The Amstel,” the hotel has 79 rooms, including 24 suites. The Amstel Lounge (see photo) is a light-filled conservatory for casual lunches; it is also where one can indulge in Amsterdam's most famous afternoon tea. (Locals often spend an entire leisurely weekend afternoon communing over the six courses of tea and assorted delectables.)

The hotel also features a wood-paneled Bar & Brasserie filled with light streaming in through floor-to-ceiling windows. In fine weather, the outdoor riverside terraces are the place to dine, just inches above water level, and watch boats passing a few feet away.

The Amstel's six banquet and meeting rooms, including a 2,000-square-foot ballroom with windows on three sides, can accommodate a meeting for 180, or a reception for 350. All meeting spaces have natural daylight.

When the meeting is over, all of Amsterdam is waiting for exploration, and much of it is within walking distance through charming streets and across the many canals. The world-famous Concertgebouw is home to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the city's 37 museums include the Rijksmuseum, filled with the works of such Dutch masters as Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Vermeer. One could easily spend an afternoon strolling through the “Nine Little Streets,” a shopping district filled with tiny shops, boutiques, and cafes.

The InterContinental Amstel also operates three century-old “classic salon boats,” the smallest of which accommodates 12 guests, the largest 24. The boats can be fully catered, so groups can enjoy anything from snacks and beverages, to a champagne reception, to a full dinner on board. It's a wonderful way to see the city, and a blissful end to the day.

London & Paris: A Tale of Two Cities

I recently crossed the pond (and then the Channel) to explore two cities and stay at two grand European hotels: InterContinental Paris Le Grand and InterContinental London Park Lane. Both cities, of course, are renowned for their world-class attractions, and both the hotels are perfectly located as launch pads for urban exploration. Both also offer spectacular meeting and event space.

InterContinental Paris Le Grand's stunning site, across the street from Opéra Garnier, represents the hub of Parisian life. An 18-month renovation, completed at the end of 2003, has left all 398 guest rooms and 72 suites, and all public, meeting, and event space positively opulent. The hotel's 24,326 square feet of conference space in 21 rooms, all with Wi-Fi, can accommodate meetings for 20 to 600 people.

Hotel amenities include the two-level Club Lounge, a VIP salon overlooking the Opéra, and I-Spa by Algotherm (featuring “Deep Blue Massage,” using mineral salts from the Pacific Ocean).

A superb 8,611-square-foot, glass-roofed winter garden offers lunch service and serves cocktails until 12:30 a.m. And the intimate Café de la Paix, at the corner of Place de l'Opéra, with outdoor covered seating for 70, can be accessed either from the hotel or from the street. There's a luxurious reception lobby leading to paneled salons; an oyster counter; and two private spaces for groups from 12 to 40.

For off-site meals, try lunch or dinner at Restaurant Georges at the Centre Pompidou, Europe's biggest modern art museum. Dine al fresco on contemporary cuisine, with stunning views over the rooftops of Paris to the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral.

At La Gare, a trendy new restaurant on Chaussée de la Muette, you can dine, weather permitting, outside on flooring set up on the tracks between ivy-covered walls of an old train platform. There's also plenty of indoor space, and private groups are welcome.

Long before I'd tired of Paris, it was time to hop on the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord. You should have your passports ready for a customs check, then board the train to London for the relaxing, two-hour-and-20-minute ride to London's new St. Pancras Station.

At Number One Park Lane in Mayfair, InterContinental London Park Lane occupies another prime spot. Fresh from a $150 million refurbishment, the hotel sparkles with modern elegance. With 447 guest rooms and suites (including the Cinema Suite, with its own private viewing room for six people; the two-level London suite, with views of Buckingham Palace; and the Wellington Suite, overlooking the home of the Duke of Wellington, next door), the hotel is just across the road from Hyde Park. (You can rent one of the hotel's bikes for some bipedal exploration of this 350-acre green space.)

The hotel's 3,230-square-foot spa is an urban oasis, with black glass-wall panels, slate flooring, and leather seating. It sports a double VIP suite, a therapeutic steam “temple,” and five treatment rooms.

Two restaurants — Theo Randall at the InterContinental, opened November 2006, featuring regional Italian cuisine; and the casual Cookbook Café with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to Hyde Park — attract hotel guests and Londoners alike. Groups can hire out the whole of the Cookbook Café, or just a section (for 40 to 200 guests). Interactive cooking sessions for groups are also popular.

If you have time for an off-site meal or two, consider lunch at Zuma in Knightsbridge, offering a sophisticated twist on traditional Japanese izakaya style of informal eating and drinking. The fantastic food and the stylish setting have garnered rave reviews. Or, for a more traditional experience, head for Michelin-starred The Ledbury, Notting Hill, close by Portobello Market.

A small group can also do some gallery-hopping with Georgie Grandy of Grandy Art. The “Insider Culture package” takes you to local art galleries and ends with a whirlwind look through the Royal Academy of Arts.

Or the elegant Aston Martin package might be more to your qualifiers' liking. Your driver will customize your route — ending, perhaps, with a hair-raising demonstration of this powerful car's full-throttle performance. Fasten your seatbelts!