Cayman Luxe

It's easy to see why The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, purpose-built for top-tier incentives and meetings, has been a hit with financial and insurance groups since opening in late 2005. The $500 million resort, sited on a choice stretch of the island's Seven Mile Beach, is an elegant but unstuffy enclave of luxury, with both the top-level service for which Ritz-Carlton is known and the infrastructure for upscale meetings. Corporate groups account for about 45 percent of the resort's business, says Roger Ponce, director of meetings and special events, and about 65 percent of those groups are in the financial services niche.

Event space at the resort can accommodate groups of up to 1,000 with 13,000 square feet of indoor meeting space. The 9,000-square-foot Cayman Islands Royal Ballroom — the largest on the island — is divisible into three 3,000-square-foot salons. There are also four meeting rooms ranging in size from 650 square feet to 1,650 square feet, and a 12-seat executive boardroom.

The property feels like a self-contained oasis, with lots of options for attendees to kick back and relax in their free time, or get energized with tennis, golf, or water sports. Among the on-site amenities is the 20,000-square-foot, 17-treatment-room Silver Rain Spa — a crystalline environment that glows in shades of silver, with such elements as sterling fragrance bottles suspended in glass columns and materials like silk, chenille, and silver-leaf creating a singular ambience; a tennis center developed by coach Nick Bollettieri; and a Greg Norman-designed, nine-hole golf course called Blue Tip.

One trend the resort is seeing is more family-friendly meetings, notes vice president and general manager Jean Cohen. A big plus for them is the popular Ambassadors of the Environment eco-educational kids program created by Jean-Michel Cousteau, which offers a program of hands-on activities centered on learning about the marine life, culture, and traditions of the Cayman Islands.

Some of the most popular group events, says Ponce, are outdoor receptions and dinners that take advantage of the resort's beautiful beach, poolside areas, or manicured lawns. Among them: “Low Tide,” which brings participants as close as possible to the ocean. “As the world speeds up, people want to slow down,” notes Ponce. For this reception, the hotel sets up low rectangular tables and oversized cushions about two feet away from the sand. Another reception, “Caymanus,” uses the resort's great lawn to showcase local Cayman artisans such as glassblowers and basketmakers. Attendees sample locally inspired cuisine from rustic-looking cooking stations made of local woods.

For the ultimate dining experience, groups can take over Blue, the resort's signature restaurant developed by Eric Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin in New York and considered one of the best in the U.S. Those who dine there will understand why.
Regina Baraban

The Golden Triangle

A real prize for incentive winners — and one still relatively unfamiliar to most U.S. qualifiers — is a trip through Europe's so-called Golden Triangle: the three cities of Vienna, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; and Prague, Czech Republic. The cities are close enough to make travel among them easy and fast — whether by plane or a more leisurely road trip. All are cities filled with history, cultural attractions, beautiful architecture — not to mention an abundance of stunning meeting and event spaces. And each city is different enough from the others to keep the interest level of attendees and incentive-qualifiers high.

InterContinental Wien, my base in Vienna, is in the heart of the city, opposite the Stadtpark, close by the State Opera, concert halls, and the main shopping area. The hotel has 453 rooms and suites (all with high-speed Internet), and about 20,000 square feet of meeting space in 16 function rooms. Its dedicated conference floor features natural light and 12,000 square feet of space.

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 (www.hofburg.com) glitter with crystal and old marble but are cutting-edge technologically, and simultaneous interpretation equipment is available in every room. 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, patinaed dome of the palace.

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

The next city on my tour was 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 that dual city. It was hard to pull myself away from my Danube-facing room on the Pest side — I had a spectacular view of the Chain Bridge and the Buda Castle towering on the hill beyond. 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. Local regulars can be seen chest-deep in the steaming mineral water playing chess.

Budapest Opera House on the showcase Andrassy Avenue has some stunning rooms available for group events, but it is well worth visiting and taking a guided tour of this architectural jewel. Finished in 1884 in the neo-Renaissance style, it's considered among the most beautiful opera houses in the world.

Third stop: Prague. The InterContinental Praha (372 rooms and suites, 12 flexible meeting rooms, and a ballroom) affords amazing views over the rooftops of the Old City from its elegant rooftop restaurant, Zlatá Praha. The hotel is just steps from the Vlatava River and near the eminently strollable Charles Bridge, built in 1420. 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 back 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 complex's buildings and halls are available for group functions.
Barbara L. Brewer

Friendly Fiji

Everything you need to know about Fiji can be summed up on two hands — literally. The naturally ebullient Fijians often raise both arms in heartfelt salutation (bula!), leaving no doubt that visitors to this exotic island archipelago are truly welcome. Fiji's charms are enhanced by its efficient visitors bureau (www.bulafiji.com) and an extensive collection of excellent hotels. It took only a spellbinding 15-minute flight via Pacific Island Seaplanes from the airport to Vomo Island to effect my transformation from international traveler to solitary beachcomber. The island offers miles of pristine beach and just one hotel. The all-inclusive Vomo Island Resort features 27 spacious bures (villas) with front porches and hammocks, a spa, nine-hole golf course.

Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, offers an excellent variety of hotels. Just 20 minutes from the Nadi International Airport and stylishly chic after an extensive makeover, the 271-room Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa has 271 guest rooms and suites, and an 18-hole golf course.

On Viti Levu's famed Coral Coast, the 436-room Shangri-La Fijian Resort has five meeting rooms (for up to 770 theater-style) and an experienced events staff. There's also a nine-hole golf course.

In the heart of the Coral Coast lies the gracious 250-room Warwick Fiji Resort & Spa. The resort's intimate ambience belies a wealth of facilities including three conference rooms. For a memorable dining experience, stroll down a boardwalk onto the resort's petite private island and enjoy fresh seafood and a Fijian sunset at the Wicked Walu.

Other resorts of interest on Viti Levu: the 123-room Sonaisali Island Resort, accessible only by a three-minute boat ride from Viti Levu; and the sophisticated 296-room Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa.

The JW Marriott Fiji Resort & Spa at Momi Bay will be dressed to impress when it opens in mid-2008. The retreat will offer 250 guest rooms and suites, including Viti Levu's first over-water bungalows, Fiji's first destination spa, an 18-hole championship golf course, and six meeting rooms.
By Lauren Haro