Surprise Me

SWITZERLAND

In December, I traveled to Switzerland to join a small group of meeting and incentive organizers in touring the Lake Geneva region. My husband and I flew from Boston to Zurich aboard Swiss International Air Lines. A small plane then took us on a 35-minute flight to Geneva. (Swiss provided impeccable service throughout, and delicious meals.) We then had an hour's drive to Montreux, at the other end of Lake Geneva.

The surprise of our arrival was to find that Montreux sits in its own microclimate, in what's called “The Swiss Riviera.” The balmy temperatures mean palm trees, kitchen gardens still going strong, and roses blooming in December!

Our hotel, Le Palais Montreux, A Raffles International Hotel, sits close by the shore, with a spectacular view across the waters to the French Alps on the other side. Built in 1906, it's a gem of Belle-Epoque architecture and is within walking distance of Montreux's congress center. It has 235 rooms and some palatial function space, including a meeting and conference center connected by underground access to the hotel that can accommodate as many as 1,200 people. Also connected to the hotel is Amrita Wellness, a spectacular 20,000-square-foot spa facility that opened in October.

Montreux has its own attractions and is also a wonderful base for excursions. One day, we walked from the hotel to the train station and caught a fast train to nearby Lausanne. Our on-foot tour of this very walkable city (home to the International Olympic Committee), included its Gothic cathedral, a site inspection of two hotels, and a stop at the Olympic Museum, perched above the lake with lovely gardens and plenty of function space (it can serve dinner for 180). At the recently renovated Lausanne Palace & Spa we lunched in the bustling brasserie, Le Grand Chêne. The elegant Beau-Rivage Palace, a stone's throw away, is set amidst 10 acres of private gardens. There we enjoyed an amazing afternoon tea in the wine bar.

For our ultimate day trip from Montreux, we were whisked up, up, and away by helicopters to a mountaintop and ski slope atop the Diablerets glacier. We lunched at a new facility at the terminus of two cable cars coming from Gstaad and Les Diablerets, and then took the speedy cable car, along with a polyglot of skiers, to the village of Les Diablerets. Back at our ground transport, we settled in for a relaxing ride to our next stop, Geneva.

Our base in Geneva, the 192-room Mandarin Oriental Hôtel du Rhône, sits on the banks of the Rhône, in the heart of Geneva's business and shopping district. In the morning, we walked from the hotel across the bridge for a fascinating walking tour of the Old Town. Of interest to incentive planners is a hidden gem, the Société de Lecture, a private library founded in 1818, which has several function spaces available for up to 160 people. The charming views from the windows skim the rooftops of the Old Town.

After an afternoon motorcoach tour of the city, the very short ride to the countryside took us to a winery for a tasting and a bit of wine shopping. (If you want to sample Swiss wines, you almost have to go to Switzerland: Only one percent of what the Swiss produce is exported.)

Back in town, we began our final evening with a memorable tram ride aboard Le Tram Bleu, a historic, restored streetcar built in 1901. We were served cocktails and hors d'oeuvres as we passed through the streets of Geneva.

For more information, go to www.MySwitzerland.com/mice, www.montreux-vevey.com, or www.geneva-tourism.ch.
Barbara L. Brewer

Enchanting

SOUTH WALES

When I visited south Wales for the first time late last year, I found a surprisingly accessible country geared up for groups. The Wales Tourist Board has been working to get the word out that Wales is safe, diverse, and has all the necessary infrastructure to host meetings and incentive programs.

The drive from Heathrow airport outside London to Wales took less than two hours. The convenient train from Paddington Station makes the journey even swifter: It's a dependable one and a half hours to Newport, home of The Celtic Manor Resort. The resort sits amid three Robert Trent Jones — designed golf courses. It has been chosen to host the 2003 Wales Open, and — a real feather in its cap — the 2010 Ryder Cup, in Wales for the first time. The hotel has 400 rooms and suites (another 300 will come online before the Ryder Cup), and its own purpose-built convention facility with 40 function rooms that can host 1,500.

It seemed that wherever we went in South Wales, there was a Norman castle around every bend in the road. They pepper the landscape, and a self-guided tour of one or more, or a hike through the hills to one of these ancient ruins, gives one a real sense of the depth of history here.

In nearby Cardiff, I stayed at the 132-room St. David's Hotel & Spa, a striking, contemporary, five-star hotel on Cardiff Bay. Cardiff has awakened after a long period of decline: There's a fantastic arts scene, with a first-rate musical theater festival (I saw a knockout staging of “Ragtime” while there.) And Cardiff Castle is not to be missed. Surrounded by a Roman wall, the 15th-century castle in the heart of the city holds a 12th-century Norman keep at its core, a stunning backdrop for concerts in summer (Sting sang here). The castle itself includes an ornate banqueting hall that holds 150 for a reception.

The Welsh are crazy for rugby, and I visited the training center for the national rugby team while staying at the 143-room Vale Hotel, Golf and Country Club, 20 minutes from Cardiff city center. The hotel has eight conference rooms for up to 300, and a separate indoor sports training facility with the most lush, realistic artificial turf I've ever seen. The Vale staff will help to organize team events here, as well as outdoor events from fishing to falconry.

(To read about another remarkable Welsh conference center, see page 106.)

In Swansea, another seaport on Wales' south shore, Morgan's Hotel opened recently. It is a renovated 19th-century maritime building, close to the waterfront (and to the Dylan Thomas Museum; the poet was born here), with 20 stylish guest rooms. Swansea is close to some of Wales' spectacular beaches, and it has a great indoor farmer's market.

For more information, go to www.meetings.visitwales.com.
Barbara L. Brewer

Historic Venues

AUSTRIA

Vienna's newest incentive venue is the vast Museum Quarter complex. Its central building, the Kunsthalle, was, in the 18th century, the royal stables. Refurbished and expanded, it now presents contemporary art exhibits and cultural festivals, and the new Halls E and G can be used for private functions.

Flanking the Kunsthalle are the new Museum of Modern Art and the Leopold Museum, a collection of more than 5,000 pieces of modern Austrian art. Each museum has an auditorium and can also be fully rented by groups after hours.

An unusual incentive option is the Majestic Imperator, a luxury train offering varied itineraries from Vienna. A candlelight dining excursion ends with a gypsy concert at a Hungarian castle. A day trip goes to Austerlitz, Czech Republic, where more than 100 costumed actors reenact the battle in which Napoleon defeated the Russian and Austrian armies. Small groups — a minimum of eight people — may travel in a car attached to a scheduled train; groups of 100 to 150 can book a private train that operates at their convenience.

The Piaristenkeller, a 300-year-old Baroque monastery, is a special-events venue suitable for welcome or farewell dinners; recipes date from Imperial times. In the gala after-dinner parade, guests model the elaborate hats of the nobility now kept in the Piaristenkeller museum.

In Graz, Vienna's second-largest city, the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage city because of its many fine Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque structures. Graz offers culture and charm without kitsch. There are hidden arcaded courtyards where jazz concerts are held or opera films shown, ancient buildings with colorful painted shutters, and a mountaintop clock tower — the city's symbol — now reached by a modern glass elevator.

An offbeat incentive destination is the spa resort Rogner-Bad Blumau. The buildings, designed by iconoclastic Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, have colorful mosaic-like exteriors; no two windows are identical in size, shape, and color. The interiors feature corridors with undulating floors that flow into the walls, rather than joining at right angles.

Bad Blumau offers extensive spa and holistic health services — including meditation accompanied by gongs and chimes — plus tennis, Europe's largest golf course, and indoor and outdoor thermal pools. The six-room conference center accommodates up to 300 people.

Austrian Airlines service to Vienna includes daily flights from Washington, D.C., and six flights weekly from New York, all with connecting service to Graz.

For more information, go to www.conferenceaustria.com/tourist-board.htm.
Rayna Skolnik

Bavarian Charm

MUNICH

Munich may be best known as the birthplace of Oktoberfest, but the city's attractions go way beyond beer and oompah music. A rich arts community, top-notch hotels, shopping, dining, and authentic Bavarian charm make this German city a memorable destination.

A city of 1.3 million, Munich is home to world-class entertainment, including the Bavarian State Opera, which produces some 350 performances of 60 different productions in an elegant setting; The Munich Philharmonic (which performs at the Gasteig Cultural Center, a complex that includes a large concert hall, a multipurpose hall, several intimate concert halls, and sprawling foyers); the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; the Bavarian State Orchestra; and dozens of museums devoted to everything from art to manufacturing (BMW headquarters in Munich even has its own museum).

One of the more celebrated venues on Munich's distinguished museum scene is the new Pinakothek der Moderne, a museum celebrating art and design of the 20th and 21st centuries, which opened in September. A three-story rotunda in the museum's center and a 330-seat auditorium are available for events.

A number of more intimate venues, many of them in historic settings, are scattered throughout the city. The Palais Schlossrondell, a historic private home on the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace and Park, was reopened for private parties following an extensive restoration in 2001. The home can accommodate as many as 80 guests.

At the other end of the spectrum, six major breweries and more than two dozen sprawling beer gardens help maintain Munich's reputation as a beer metropolis.

Among the more notable incentive-caliber hotels in Munich are The Bayerischer Hof, which is a 351-room family-operated historic property located in the city center, and a very popular gathering spot for locals. The Kempinski Hotel, a 266-room grand hotel that opened in 1858, is located in a neighborhood of upscale boutiques. And the 613-room Arabella Sheraton Grand Hotel has undergone a recent renovation.

For more information, contact the Munich Tourism Office at www.muenchen-tourist.de.
Megan Rowe

Bali Hai

South Pacific Islands

When I recently had the opportunity to take a trip to the French Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora, you can bet I jumped on it!

Tahiti, home of the capital city of French Polynesia, Papeete, is the most developed of the islands and is the home to many museums, including one featuring the life and work of painter Paul Gauguin, who spent his later years in Polynesia. Tahiti is also the youngest of the islands, which means its 7,000-foot-peaks have yet to be eroded by time, making for some spectacular views of cloud-enshrouded monoliths and sunlight-dappled jungle.

To truly appreciate all Tahiti has to offer, you can take a four-wheel drive tour of the inner island or a helicopter tour, or hike some of the many trails. We just had time for a quick spin up the coast, past the bustling market in the downtown area, where you can buy anything from fresh papaya to local crafts to black pearls, or even get a tattoo if you really want to bring home some local color.

Because the island is young and its reefs still developing, instead of white crushed coral beaches you'll find silky black volcanic sand beneath your feet at Venus point, a favorite swimming spot for locals and a great place to watch the outrigger canoes rip by.

Nearby lies the island of Moorea, with its fields of pineapple and vanilla, pastel-colored houses with gardens of hibiscus and birds of paradise, and dramatic vistas of Opunohu and Cook's Bays, all capped by the soaring 3,000-foot summit of Mt. Rotui. The view inspired James Michener to create the mythical Bali Hai for his book, Tales of the South Pacific; who knows what it might inspire in your top performers?

Then there's Bora Bora. Mt. Otemanu thrusts high above the island's 16-mile coastline and is the focal point for the palm-covered motus (small islands) and reefs that encircle the main island. The lagoon is world-famous for a reason — the snorkeling and scuba diving are incredible. A motu picnic, where you're whisked off to a private islet for an authentic Polynesian barbecue, is a must, as are guided tours to see the sting rays and shark feedings.

Almost all of the islands' resorts feature over-water and garden bungalows, swimming pools, and tons of water sport options. And there are lots of resort options for groups. Le Meridien Tahiti Hotel's colorful Matisse ballroom opens to an outdoor reception area, and the Tahiti Beachcomber Inter-Continental Resort's indoor facilities can hold up to 240 theater-style. The over-water bungalows at the Moorea Beachcomber Inter-Continental Resort offer courtyard areas a group could take over for a private function. The Bora Bora Nui Resort and Spa, a Starwood property, opened last October with 120 one-bedroom-suite bungalows.

Most of these resorts say they are willing to work with planners on rates. With the great exchange rate for the country's currency, the French Pacific franc, and Air Tahiti Nui's willingness to work with planners on airfares, you may just find that this exotic destination is more affordable than you expected.

For more information, visit www.gototahiti.com
Sue Pelletier

All-Inclusive

Palace Resorts, Cancun

Eleven insurance industry execs were hosted by Palace Resorts in Cancun in December, and all they could say was: “Is this really included as part of my total cost?” The motto of Palace resorts is “Where Everything Is One Great Price,” and the breadth of the meeting and incentive services offered was impressive.

“It's hard to believe that you can do the same elegant opening reception for 3,000 people that you can do for 10 for the same per-person, all-inclusive price,” said Jack Davito, director of insurance industry sales for Palace Resorts, during the stylish opening dinner held at Moon Palace on a private, palm-lined terrace.

Palace Resorts, a Mexican-owned hotel company, has been around for the better part of 20 years with their three properties in the hotel zone, Cancun Palace, Beach Palace, and Sun Palace, serving the leisure market. Since 1997, Palace Resorts has raised the bar in delivering the all-inclusive concept to meeting and incentive organizers with the addition of three hotels: the 2,031-room Moon Palace Golf Resort on Cancun's south shore, and, further south on the so-called Riviera Maya, the 1,266-room Aventura Spa Palace (an adults-only resort) and the 464-room Xpu-Ha Palace, located in the Xpu-Ha ecological park, with bungalow-style accommodations nestled amid mangroves.

All meals, drinks, entertainment, and non-motorized water sports are part of the all-inclusive package, and a guest at any one resort can enjoy the amenities at all the others. Shuttle transportation among the resorts is provided. Among the guest room amenities at all properties are double Jacuzzi bathtubs.

The Moon Palace offers a high-tech convention center within its Sunrise wing capable of hosting 3,000 theater-style. In addition, an adjacent convention center opened in January with a total of 55,000 square feet of space. A dedicated convention center is scheduled to open at the Aventura Spa Palace in April with 50,000 square feet of space. (Not only is state-of-the-art meeting space included in the all-inclusive rate, but so are banquets, coffee breaks, and theme menus.) A professional in-house event organizer and AV team, J&S Audio Visual, has offices on site at Palace Resorts.

After a morning of meetings, attendees will be thrilled when they hit the links on the brand new Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course recently opened at Moon Palace. It's a beauty and will be a tough act to follow for even the most well-traveled golf enthusiast. For more information, log on to www.palaceresorts.com.
Paula Hill

A Tiny Paradise

SINGAPORE

Even after 9/11 and the October 2002 bombing in Bali, Singapore continues to be at the forefront for meetings and incentives in Southeast Asia. The newest developments there are happening 15 minutes from the city's highrises in the resort island setting of Sentosa. There, a $4.7 billion, 10-year master plan is unfolding to make Sentosa into a major lifestyle destination. The island has three beaches, dozens of tourist attractions, and outdoor public spaces that can be reserved for events for as many as 4,000 persons.

Sentosa also has three resorts — Shangri La's Rasa Sentosa, NTUC Sentosa Beach Resort, and the Sijori Resort — and a hotel/conference center, the Beaufort. The 214-room Beaufort last year refurbished all guest rooms, redesigned its award-winning restaurant; and built a new spa.

Everyone in Singapore speaks English, and the city's infrastructure — including communications — is the envy of the world. And once you're there, everything is nearby.

The Singapore Intelligence Centre is a complex that includes Suntec Singapore Convention Center and seven hotels, all connected via air-conditioned walkways. Among them, Swissôtel The Stamford stands out. A former Westin property, it has 1,200 rooms, including 29 suites. It's connected to the 800-room Raffles The Plaza and the Raffles City Convention Centre. The area has more than 300 restaurants, 900 retail establishments from haute fashion to funky, and the brand new Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay, serving as the focal point for the performing arts. Arts groups will get first priority, but it will be available for private events.

Singapore has also developed public/private event combinations like the cocktail and party facilities outside The Fullerton, a two-year-old hotel that was formerly home to the General Post Office. Working with the hotel, events are held adjacent to The Merlion, Singapore's national icon, on the promontory overlooking Marina Bay.

One unusual venue for smaller groups is a 19th-century Chinese home, occupied by the Japanese during Word War II, and now used by the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. Its formal living room holds 30 for dinner with 100 accommodated in another downstairs room.

For more information, visit www.visitsingapore.com.
Harriet Modler and David Erickson

Close to Home

The New Bermuda

I was impressed with the completion of about $100 million dollars in renovations and expansions at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts' Southampton Princess and Hamilton Princess properties when I attended, along with about 200 planners and their guests, the New Spirit of Bermuda Gala last fall.

Among the many enhancements at the 593-room Southampton resort was the addition of the 23,000-square-foot Willow Stream Spa, which has 15 treatment rooms, a fitness center with expansive ocean views, and a large indoor pool. The spa offers a host of treatments — even one aimed at golfers: They can sign on for a special performance-enhancing package, incorporating massage, stretching, and acupressure.

A renovated, sun-drenched hotel lobby complete with new 148-seat lounge, along with renovated meeting rooms, and a new business center are other improvements at the property.

The 410-room Fairmont Hamilton, just a short ferry ride away, unveiled its Entrée Gold wing, a kind of hotel within a hotel that features private check-in, marble bathrooms, concierge and butler services, a 14-seat boardroom, and the historic Adam's Lounge. With its Wedgwood touches, plaster ceiling details, and floor-to-ceiling windows, the room dates back to the hotel's beginnings in 1885. The “Pink Palace,” as Bermudians call the Fairmont Hamilton, has never looked better.

Fairmont threw out the red carpet for our group of planners, with a spectacular opening night beach banquet and fireworks. We also enjoyed a range of island activities from beachside horseback riding to deep-sea fishing and spa treatments.

The Fairmont gala was tied into a Bermuda Tourism initiative to re-introduce Bermuda as a sophisticated, safe, nearby, foreign-but-familiar island destination with impeccable service. Several planners said they are uncomfortable bringing groups to destinations where there is highly visible poverty. That isn't the case in Bermuda, which looks like a postcard no matter where you go.
Regina McGee