CHINA: Wakened Giant

When I visited Shanghai and Beijing recently, I was floored by the changes China has seen in the last few years. Pudong, on “the other side” of the river from old Shanghai (also called Puxi), was nothing but rice paddies a dozen or so years ago. It's now a sea of high-rises — they say the national bird is the building “crane.” What will be the tallest building in the world is under construction here — the 101-story World Financial Center. Also new in Pudong: the striking Museum of Science and Technology; a beautiful opera house; and the Museum of Urban Planning, with its scale model of the city, present and future. All are available for special events. The Shanghai Museum in Puxi, with its world-class collection of Chinese art, is a must-see for any visitor, and it, too, has elegant space for events.

While in the city, I stayed at The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai, where we took part in a traditional tea ceremony; learned to make dim sum; and enjoyed a Chinese acrobatic performance at Shanghai Centre Theatre, adjacent to the hotel. We also had an unforgettable evening aboard the new Sheng Rong Guo Ji cruise boat (owned by Shanghai Dragon International Cruise Co.), catered by The Ritz-Carlton. Traditional Chinese musicians entertained while the ship cruised the Huangpu River.

For a look at another great Chinese city, we took a short flight to Beijing, the center of much of the country's political history. The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Pearl Market were all on our itinerary, as was the spectacular Great Wall, an easy day trip.

Ritz-Carlton has two hotels in the works here: the 256-room Ritz-Carlton, Beijing, Financial Street will open in fall 2006 in the heart of the city's emerging financial district. And the Ritz-Carlton, Beijing is a 320-room hotel with a planned opening of 2007 in China Central Place. The 591-room JW Marriott, Beijing will also be part of the mixed-use complex, opening in 2007 in plenty of time to host guests for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Barbara L. Brewer

JAPAN: Tokyo's Roppongi Hills

The Roppongi Hills project in Tokyo began, in 1986, as an idea to put culture at the centerpiece of a planned community. After 14 years of planning and three years of construction, the project was completed two years ago.

I visited earlier this year, and found the massive multi-use Roppongi Hills, in the heart of Tokyo, to be forward-looking in every way. Take the rooftops, for example, where gardens and greenery create a “green mass damper” in this so-called “vertical garden city.” The nine-screen Virgin Cinema Complex has a rice paddy on its roof that, in the event of earthquake, reduces building sway.

This arts, culture, and business center is filled with the works of contemporary artists, from fanciful benches in the shopping areas to American artist Louise Bourgeois' giant arachnid sculpture in the plaza.

Within Roppongi Hills' 29 acres, the dominant building is the 54-story Mori Tower, which houses the Mori Art Museum; Tokyo City View (with floor-to-ceiling views of the city); the Urban Institute for the Future, with its giant scale models of New York and Tokyo; and some spectacular meeting space, including a hall that seats 1,000.

Roppongi Hills also features the upscale Grand Hyatt Hotel. (How upscale, you ask? During my stay, I ran into Giorgio Armani and his black-clad entourage in the elevator, and Katie Couric in the Grand Club Lounge.) The Grand Hyatt is a sister property to the Park Hyatt (of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation fame). Opened in April 2003, the property has 389 rooms and suites with Frette linens, 30-inch flat-screen TVs, Sony DVD/CD player and Bose speakers, and touch panel controls for lighting, heating, and blinds.

If you can get your people out of their rooms, the hotel also has a spa, 10 restaurants and bars, and 30,139 square feet of meeting space. The 10,760-square-foot grand ballroom seats 1,200 theater-style.
Barbara L. Brewer

AUSTRIA: Salzburg: Old World, New Technology

Picture this: a small European town — population 140,000 — bisected by a river. On one side, in the Old Town, special-event venues include the mountaintop Hohensalzburg Fortress, dating from 1077, and the Stiftkeller St. Peter, dating from 803, said to be Central Europe's oldest restaurant. There are charming squares with statues and fountains, and the cathedral in which native son Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was baptized.

Across the river is a 3-year-old congress center that's all glass and steel and high-speed connectivity.

These are the two sides of Salzburg, Austria, a European gem that will celebrate it 250th birthday next year.

The five-story Salzburg Congress Center, opened in 2001, has 15 meeting rooms for up to 1,350 people. The ceiling of the exhibit area features spotlights made of Swarovski crystal. There are booths for simultaneous interpretation, and wireless connectivity is available throughout the building.

Within walking distance of the center are 1,200 four- and five-star hotel beds, including those at the 163-room Sheraton Salzburg, which is linked to the facility; the 187-room Crowne Plaza across the street; and the 69-room Hotel Goldener Hirsch, part of Starwood's Luxury Collection, in the Old Town.

Don't miss the Hellbrunn Palace and Trick Fountains, which has several rooms that can be booked by groups. The main attraction are the formal gardens and grottoes, where water power animates the statues, a mechanical theater, and even the sounds of birdsong. A planner can obtain permission to manage the hidden controls for a group. There are also the trick fountains with which 17th-century builder Prince-Archbishop Markus Sittikus — he of the weird sense of humor — drenched unsuspecting guests. Apparently, Salzburg had cutting-edge technology even back then.
Rayna Skolnik

WALES: A Renaissance in Cardiff

Long overshadowed by its U.K. cousins, Wales is emerging as an exciting meeting destination — propelled in large part by the revitalization of Cardiff, once the center of the country's coal industry and now a trendy waterfront city.

A two-hour drive from Heathrow Airport, Cardiff is celebrating a mere 100 years as a city this year, and 50 years as the capital of Wales — despite the ancient history of the area. The opening of the Millennium Centre on Cardiff Bay, new home of the Welsh Opera as well as other arts enterprises, kicked off the anniversary celebrations in November. Evoking the landscape and industrial heritage of Wales, the building is a bold melding of slate, polished steel, and Welsh hardwoods — the latter stunningly displayed in the 1,900-seat theater.

Another venue for functions is the National Museum and Gallery, a neoclassical masterpiece housing one of Europe's finest Impressionist collections.

No trip to this city is complete without a visit to (or small group function at) Cardiff Castle, with its Roman walls, a Norman keep, and 15th-century castle. Another signature experience for groups: a reception or banquet at Fonmon Castle, one of the few medieval castles still used as a private home.

Cardiff has about 4,000 hotel rooms in the downtown area, including the new 165-room Holland House Hotel, a business-oriented property with a spa and 16 meeting rooms. The 129-room Park Plaza Hotel is new in the heart of downtown. The five-star St. David's Hotel and Spa, one of the city's best known hotels, boasts an outstanding spa and 132 guest rooms overlooking Cardiff Bay.

An excursion to Southwest Wales took us to Swansea, birthplace of the country's most famous poet. Here the Dylan Thomas Centre offers a function room as well as memorabilia. Nearby is Morgan's, a lovely five-star hotel in a restored maritime building where each of the 20 guest rooms has a unique theme and design. Another hotel gem is the newly renovated, 31-room Grand Hotel, a city landmark since the 1930s.

Also in the southwest is Slebech Park, the ancestral home of Sir Geoffrey Philipps. He and his wife, Lady Georgina, are turning the 18th-century coach house on the 600-acre estate into a corporate retreat, with 15 two-bedroom apartments. Butler service and conference facilities will be part of this exclusive experience.
Regina McGee

SCOTLAND: Kingly Accommodations

Scotland's castles, historic buildings, and manor houses available for special events or as upscale accommodations set it apart from most other meeting and incentive destinations.

Edinburgh Castle, towering over the city, and Stirling Castle, a 40-minute drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow, can be taken over for evening events. At either venue, groups are greeted by torchbearers, musicians, and costumed jugglers. Edinburgh Castle has four meeting rooms, for up to 185 people; while the castle and grounds can host 1,000.

Stirling Castle is near the site of a major victory by William “Braveheart” Wallace. The 16th-century great hall, which can host 300 people for dinner and a trumpeter's loft perfect for a speaker or musician. From 50 to 500 people can book the entire castle. Both castles have small rooms for daytime meetings.

Two of Edinburgh's five-star hotels are conversions of historic buildings. The Balmoral, opened in 1902 as a railway hotel, was rebuilt to create 188 luxurious guest rooms and 10 conference suites for up to 450 people. The 69-room Scotsman Hotel, built in 1901, has rich architectural details. Highlight of its eight meeting rooms: the tiered presentation theater seating 46 in leather armchairs.

Edinburgh's largest five-star property, the 260-room Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, has 10 meeting rooms.

In Glasgow, the Burrell Collection, a small museum on wooded grounds, showcases Asian art, European paintings, tapestries, and stained glass, and is bookable after hours.

House for an Art Lover, designed by native Charles Rennie Mackintosh, has three meeting rooms for up to 200.

Glasgow's high-tech Radisson SAS hotel has 250 guest rooms and 15 meeting rooms. A more traditional luxury property is the 319-room Glasgow Hilton, the city's largest hotel.

On the shores of Loch Lomond is the serene Cameron House, a 17th-century manor. The 96 richly decorated guest rooms — there will be 130 by year's end — have views of the gardens or the lake. The hotel's yacht can be booked for cruise meetings. An adjacent golf resort opens in 2006.
Rayna Skolnik

CANADA: The Arts Are Alive in Toronto

Vibrant and cosmopolitan Toronto has plenty to keep visitors happy: a lively arts scene, world-class shopping and dining, sports, lively ethnic and historic neighborhoods, and an efficient tourism infrastructure.

While many Americans know Toronto for its lively theater scene, four major cultural developments expected to wrap up in the next two years should get the city even more notice in the art world. The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, under construction in the heart of the city, has a 2,000-seat auditorium designed to showcase productions by the Canadian Royal Opera Company. The Gardiner Museum is closed until the end of 2005 for a renovation that includes additional educational facilities. The Royal Ontario Museum is opening up its original grand spaces to create room for additional collections, with construction scheduled to be complete at the end of 2006. Finally, The Art Gallery of Ontario is being enlarged by 75,000 square feet. The Frank Gehry — designed addition, due to open in 2007, will include new meeting spaces.

The city also offers a healthy inventory of luxury hotel rooms, ranging from hip boutique hotels such as the Soho Metropolitan and Le Germaine to more traditional lodging choices such as the Four Seasons and Fairmont Royal York. Even a convention hotel such as the 1,377-room Sheraton Centre has 320 upgraded rooms on its club-level floors.

Day trips outside Toronto can satisfy a variety of interests. Some 300 golf courses are within an hour's drive, while the nearby Niagara region is popular for golf, spas, and wineries. “What surprises some people is that there are so many things to do in Toronto,” says Charmaine Singh, vice president of convention sales for Tourism Toronto. “Once we show them around, they're usually blown away.”
Megan Rowe

GERMANY: Bavaria: History and High-Tech

Munich, the capital of Bavaria, Germany's southernmost state, skillfully combines tradition and history with 21st-century convenience and technology.

Take, for example, the Haus der Bayerischer Wirtschaft (House of Bavarian Industry) conference center. Outfitted with cutting-edge technology, television and radio studios, and an ultra high-security boardroom, it also has a traditional Bavarian dining room from the 1800s, with authentic furniture and original wood floors and walls. One evening your event could be at the interactive Deutsches Museum, the world's largest museum for science and technology; the next day could find attendees in the 17th-century Nymphenburg Palace. Other event venues include Gasteig cultural center, the Olympic Stadium, and traditional German taverns. The Paulaner Tavern, in the Arabella Sheraton Grand Hotel, Munich, has a private function room and the feel of a traditional German tavern.

In addition to the Arabella, Munich's four- and five-star properties include the Hotel Hilton Munich Park, Hilton Munich City, Munchen Marriott, Maritim Hotel Munchen, and the grand dame Hotel Bayerischer Hof, which offers a two-story, light-filled, art deco ballroom, complete with grand staircase, and marble pillars.
Helena Miele, CITE