There are few places in the world with the raw beauty of Iceland, from the geothermal wonders of the Blue Lagoon, to the glaciers and geysers throughout the countryside, to the chain of volcanoes across the island. Amazingly, visitors can see all of these natural wonders in a single day trip.
That was one of the selling points for Meghan Schilt, global events manager at Apax Partners, New York City, who visited Iceland on a site inspection last year. But the convenience was equally appealing, with flights from New York taking less than six hours. “It’s so easy from the U.S., especially the East Coast, and if you have people coming from Europe, that’s easy too. We were looking at it for a group that was half from the U.S. and half international, and no one would have been on a plane for too long.”
This past year, Iceland’s incredible landscape played a starring role in movies, with the release of Oblivion with Tom Cruise and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller, among several others. Yet it’s still a destination that few people, even the most experienced travelers, have visited, giving it a built-in “brag factor” for guests.
On the negative side, summers in Iceland never get very warm, with average temperatures in the fifties. It is a rustic, outdoorsy destination, which appeals to a certain kind of group, though Reykjavik is a sophisticated city with several stylish hotels and plenty of shopping.
Schilt is effusive about the destination’s ability to serve incentive groups, calling the site visit she did with Iceland Congress “the best I ever went on. When I travel on site visits, no one ever seems more invested than me, but not this time. ” Within hours, she says, she was convinced that her host, Eggert Thor Olason, “was passionate about making the experience memorable. I found it really refreshing to find someone who was so invested in the success of my program and we had only just met.”
Apax Partners' Meghan Schilt calls Dubrovnik “the next big thing” for a number of reasons, including its history, fabulous location on the Adriatic Sea, and relative anonymity with U.S. groups.
“Whenever I mention it, people get excited,” she says. “Everyone who has been there falls in love.”
One way to acquaint groups is to take them on the cable car ride up Mount Srdj, high above the city, where they can get the lay of the land. “The old city has remained so much like it was originally. You can see the medieval buildings, the old walls, and the narrow streets—it’s almost like looking back in time,” Schilt says.
The Adriatic, which is a dazzling blue in this region, is central to the culture and the tourism in this charming city, and groups often take boats to nearby islands for a leisurely lunch. The city includes all the incentive must-haves, from views of the sea from the old walls, to shopping in the local marketplaces, to wine dinners in the nearby wine region.
What Schilt was not aware of is how much this is a summer destination. Some hotels close in winter and don’t re-open until March. “The low season is very low,” she says. The Radisson Blu Resort & Spa Sun Gardens is fully operational in the shoulder season and even turns its front lot into an ice-skating rink. While there are a variety of boutique hotel options, this property is the most focused on group business and would work for a group of around 200.
What’s most amazing is that Dubrovnik is only 20 years out of a civil war, in which UNESCO heads pleaded with the Yugoslav forces to save the old city, a World Heritage Site and considered by many to be the world’s most perfectly preserved walled Renaissance city. Nonetheless, it was badly damaged, with many historic buildings and the famous cable car destroyed, only to be restored years later.
Travel to Dubrovnik is relatively simple, with many connections throughout Europe, including Frankfurt and London, though Schilt suggests leaving extra time for the return flight, where security can back up.
“For years, some companies avoided international incentive trips, but now they’re returning,” says Chris Lund, senior vice president of sales and marketing at ALTOUR Performance, Minneapolis, “and one of the top destinations as they reconsider Europe is Portugal.
“It just has so much to offer, from the food and beverage to the sights to the many venues for groups.” There’s a mystique associated with Portugal, he says, as one of the newest, hottest places to travel. “And it’s safe, so people don’t feel worried. Once you get there, you see what everyone is talking about.”
Located at the mouth of the River Tagus, where it flows into the Atlantic, Lisbon charms visitors with its fabulous historic buildings, including the Castle of São Jorge, the highest point in the city. Nearby Estoril, which has the flavor of a fishing village, can be used for a day trip or an overnight stay at the lovely 53-room Hotel Albatroz, which was once a royal retreat.
For his group, which will travel to Portugal this fall, Lund is using the 194-room Penha Longa Hotel, Spa & Golf Resort, a Ritz-Carlton property in the Sintra Mountains near Lisbon. “It’s a well-traveled group, and they were looking for a resort setting,” he says. The five-day program will tap into the culture of the region, with folkloric receptions, dinearounds, day trips—and, of course, wine dinners in one of the hotel’s function rooms, which are housed in an adjacent 14th century palace.
Though Mexico has always been a top incentive destination, few groups have traveled to the area of San Jose del Cabo, about 20 miles from Cabo San Lucas. This more peaceful sister city features a historic town center, or Zocolo, with a beautiful central church, as well as many restaurants, galleries, and shops housed in adobe buildings.
The Incentive Research Foundation’s president, Melissa Van Dyke, says the area offers a level of exclusivity that is ideal for guests attending her organization’s Annual Incentive Invitational, many of whom are incentive planners themselves. The event will be held at the just-opened, 500-room Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf Club & Resort May 28 to June 1.
“San Jose del Cabo has the feel of the islands meets Southern California meets Mexico,” she says. “The resort is in an area that has opened up just east of San Jose del Cabo. It used to be completely overgrown but now it is being redeveloped with a new marina, the Puerto Los Cabos Golf Club, the all-inclusive Secrets Puerto Los Cabos, and two additional hotels (including a JW Marriott) going up in the next two years.”
The top attraction in the area is the Puerto Los Cabos Golf Club—with nine holes designed by Jack Nicklaus and the other nine by Greg Norman—overlooking the Sea of Cortez with spectacular ocean views from every hole. IRF attendees will have a chance to golf there on the second day of the Invitational.
Ron Officer, CEO and president of Creative Group, Chicago, is always on the lookout for the next great thing. “Every year I try to visit a place that’s starting to pop up with our customers, and this year that’s going to be Cartagena.” He recalls traveling there years ago, and how much he loved it. “It has the combination of the Spanish colonial architecture and being on the water, and the climate is great—and the food, too.”
There is an infrastructure in place for incentive groups, he says, with destination management companies who understand the market.
Colombia is not for every group, but rather for sophisticated travelers who would be comfortable breaking new ground. For example, right now he is considering it for one of his insurance industry clients. “They were one of the very first to travel to Panama, and they’re always looking for something new and out-of-the-box.”
Other than the 122-room Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena, located in a former convent, and a 341-room beachside Hilton, the accommodations are primarily small boutique hotels, some of them very chic. “It’s just like Costa Rica was 10 years ago,” he says, “when people didn’t even know where it was, and now it has names like Four Seasons and JW Marriott.”
Issues with safety and drug trafficking “have improved a great deal,” he says. “It’s not really an issue in Cartagena; Bogota is the city to stay away from. And like any major city, common sense prevails.” The fact is that this remarkable walled city (often referred to as “Corralito de Piedra, or the “little stone pen”) appears to have been spared the troubles in other parts of the country and remains the spot where Colombia’s middle and upper classes travel on vacation—lovely and almost immune to all that surrounds it.
We asked the industry what's hot in 2014—and these five destinations rose to the top of the list...Here's why. (For a complete version of this story, download the new MeetingsNet app from your App Store, Amazon Markeplace, or Google Play today!)