Glamorous Monaco It's midnight on an early December evening in Monaco. Our small group of journalists is at the storied Hôtel de Paris, sipping farewell cocktails and watching French actress Audrey Tautou (star of the movie Amelie and the upcoming The Da Vinci Code) film a scene for a movie. Even in the quiet off-season, a visit to the tiny principality offers a glimpse of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Add to that a stunning setting on the Mediterranean Sea, minutes away from picturesque spots on the French and Italian Riviera, and you can see why Monaco is a top destination for international incentives.

In recent years, Monaco has significantly spruced up its infrastructure with major hotel renovations; an extensive restoration of the Monte-Carlo Opera House designed by Charles Garnier and opened in 1875; and the opening of Grimaldi Forum Monaco, a technological and architectural tour de force with three auditoriums, two exhibition halls, 23 breakout rooms, and two restaurants. As well, Monaco's “US Dollar Guaranteed” program allows planners to lock in upscale hotel accommodations and various amenities at surprisingly affordable rates: Five-night programs start at $825 per person through 2006, for example.

Our group stayed at two properties positioned for group business: the 334-room Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort, Monaco's first newly built hotel to open in 75 years; and the 619-room Fairmont Monte Carlo, reflagged a year ago and the principality's largest hotel.

What I liked best about the Monte-Carlo Bay was its modern European flair and stylish, art-deco inspired architecture and design that takes full advantage of a wonderful location on 10 seaside acres. More than 75 percent of the guest rooms have water views and private balconies that resemble chic outdoor living rooms. I loved curling up with a cup of tea on the upholstered sofa on the balcony, listening to the water slapping onto the rocky coastline below. The $260 million property has wireless Internet access, a flexible conference room that can accommodate up to 250 people; 10 meeting rooms that range in size from 290 to 961 square feet; and a 4,320-square-foot banquet hall. Among the public spaces is one of the few Western-style spas in Monaco, with 12 treatment rooms. The hotel is owned and operated by Société des Bains de Mer, whose Monte Carlo Hotels, Spas, and Casinos division encompasses 5 hotels, 30 restaurants, and several cultural, nightlife, and gaming venues including the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Guests at any one of the SBM hotels have free access to the casino and free shuttle transportation to all of the hotels.

Another property that hugs Monaco's coastline (a portion of its foundation is embedded directly into the seabed) the immaculate Fairmont Monte Carlo impressed me with its attentive and gracious service. Throughout my stay, whenever I stopped by the front desk, I was greeted by name. I enjoyed getting work done during home-time business hours at the 24-hour business center, a plus for any traveler from the U.S. All the staff I talked to, from front desk to housekeeping, spoke fluent English. The property is embarking on a head-to-toe makeover, scheduled for completion in late 2007. The approximately $50 million project, to be accomplished in phases that do not disrupt the operation of the hotel, will reinterpret the property's original 1975 design, inspired by a sleek ocean liner. Guest room designs — including those on a new Fairmont Gold, concierge-level floor — will reflect the feeling of an opulent European yacht. The lobby, rooftop pool, fitness room, and meeting rooms will also be redecorated. Meeting facilities at the Fairmont Monte Carlo include 23 rooms that can accommodate 1,450 people theater-style or 1,180 for a banquet.

No report on Monaco would be complete without mention of the fresh and delicious cuisine. From earthy Monegasque food at a local restaurant to exquisite French-inspired gourmet fare at Michelin-starred hotel restaurants, every dish we sampled was fabulous.
Regina Baraban

Bonnie Scotland

What sets Scotland apart from other meeting and incentive destinations are the castles, historic buildings, and manor houses available for special events or as upscale accommodations.

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

Stirling Castle is near the site of a major victory by “Braveheart” William Wallace. The 16th-century Great Hall, complete with two throne chairs and a trumpeter's loft, can host 300 for dinner.

Two of Edinburgh's five-star hotels are conversions from historic buildings. The Balmoral, opened in 1902 as a railway hotel, was gutted and rebuilt to create 188 luxurious guest rooms and 10 conference suites for up to 450 people. Guests here are truly pampered by the personal service.

The 69-room Scotsman Hotel was built in 1901 as newspaper offices; many rich architectural details remain. Eight meeting rooms accommodate up to 200 people. Highlight: 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, for two to 450 people. The six-story spa has 11 treatment rooms that groups can book for one or two days.

In Glasgow, The Burrell Collection, a small, stunning museum on wooded grounds, is bookable after hours for up to 180. House for an Art Lover, designed by native son Charles Rennie Mackintosh — though not completed till 1996 — has three meeting rooms that can accommodate 36 to 200 people.

Glasgow hotels include the high-tech, business-oriented Radisson SAS, with 250 guest rooms and 15 meeting rooms for as many as 800 people. A more traditional luxury property is the 319-room Glasgow Hilton, the city's largest hotel. It has 17 meeting rooms, including a column-free, divisible ballroom that can accommodate 1,000 people.

On the shores of Loch Lomond is the serene Cameron House, a 17th-century manor. The 130 richly decorated guest rooms have views of the gardens or the lake. An adjacent golf resort, opening this year, will have an 18-hole course, club house, spa, and restaurant.
Rayna Skolnik

Germany: Small-Town Gems

Germany is touting its wide variety of offerings for meetings and incentives in small and mid-sized cities through a marketing campaign launched by the German Convention Bureau last year. According to Lutz Vogt, managing director of the GCB, Germany offers good value for money and quality service across the board.

New venues are coming on line, like Autostadt in Wolfsburg, the car theme park operated by the Volkswagen Group. In addition, many castles and palaces are opening their doors for the first time to groups. In Dresden, the Church of Our Lady, the Frauenkirche has been rebuilt from rubble left when it was destroyed in 1945. The church has meeting rooms, and provides tours and lectures. The restoration was completed in time for Dresden's 800th anniversary celebration this year.

The Maritim Hotel Dresden, with 328 guest rooms and suites, opens this spring in the former Erlweinspeicher warehouse, a historic building that sits on the bank of the River Elbe. The 125-foot-high atrium at its center will flood the building with light. The hotel is next to the International Congress Center Dresden, which opened in May 2004 and is managed by Maritim. Its largest space accommodates 4,200 theater-style and 5,000 for a reception.

Nuremberg, “gingerbread capital of the world,” offers small-town charm, centuries of history, and big-city functionality for groups. The Imperial Palace, which once housed rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, is available for medieval banquets. The home of painter Albrecht Dürer is now a museum open to the public and also available for private hire. Dürer's work is on display in the National Museum of Germany, another excellent event venue. The Maritim Hotel Nuremberg connects to the Old Town via an underground walkway and has eight multi-use function rooms.
Helena Miele

Olympic Gold: Vancouver & Whistler, B.C.

Jump ahead a few years; it's 2010 and your group is heading out of Vancouver, B.C., after a splendid evening at the Winter Olympics' ice dancing trials. You're riding the Whistler Mountaineer Express, one of the luxury trains the Great Canadian Railtour will launch on the Vancouver to Whistler route in May. Glaciers loom as you leave the temperate climate of Vancouver for the snowy slopes of Whistler and the ski jumping competition, about an hour away. Lunch will be served on tablecloths as snowy as the oncoming slopes. Could there be a better way to thank your incentive qualifiers?

Vancouver and Whistler are humming with delight at hosting the 2010 Winter Games. Recently Canadian Outback, Tourism Whistler (the Whistler convention and visitors bureau), and Fairmont Hotels hosted journalists to show off their “Amazing Race Whistler” challenge and teambuilding activities for groups. The levels of excitement and participation in these events, which can be tailored to the client group, are far above and beyond most teambuilding activities. Here's a tip: The concierge at the Whistler Fairmont can give directions to some of the most obscure race checkpoints.

The trip also focused on the infrastructure for group meetings happening in the next few years in Vancouver, such as the expanded Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre, expected to be completed in 2008, and $1.4 billion of improvements at the Vancouver International Airport, including nine more international terminal gates.
Kay Carstens

Eye on London

London's newest hotel, the Riverbank Park Plaza, opened last April on the south bank of the River Thames, opposite the Tate Britain art gallery. It has 394 well-designed guest rooms. The highlight of the meeting space is the Thames Room, with its window wall overlooking the river and the Houses of Parliament, that accommodates 450 for receptions. The hotel's main restaurant, Chino Latino Brasserie, hosted our group of journalists at an Asian and Mediterranean lunch that was one of the best meals I've ever experienced.

London offers many great meeting venues. Two offbeat choices are the famed Tower Bridge, whose “crossbar,” nearly 150 feet above the Thames, is actually two glass-enclosed, fully accessible walkways bookable for groups of up to 250 after hours; and The London Zoo, with six meeting rooms for up to 250 people and a 200-seat tiered auditorium. Then there's The Energy Clinic, a meeting facility designed according to Chinese feng shui principles, with five individually decorated “energy zones” — aka meeting rooms — for up to 160 for receptions.

Just 30 minutes from central London or Heathrow, 227 luxurious guest rooms and suites are available at The Grove, a country resort on a 300-acre estate. Two private entrances lead to the 23 stylishly decorated and high-tech meeting rooms, for as many as 750 people. The five-acre Walled Garden accommodates up to 1,000 for summer events. Other features of the property include an 18-hole Kyle Phillips golf course and day spa with 12 treatment rooms. For small groups, planners can book the entire main building — the Mansion — with 26 guest rooms, two meeting rooms, and a private dining room.
Rayna Skolnik

Prague: Lifting the Veils

First, to correct the misconceptions. The Czech Republic is in Central Europe, not Eastern. In fact, Prague is northwest of Vienna. And Prague neither looks nor feels like the communist-dominated city that it once was.

In the 16 years since the Velvet Revolution, the city has undergone extensive renovation and renewal. Buildings have been steam-cleaned, revealing gorgeous architectural details, and people's moods have brightened as well. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the shift from communism to capitalism is on the main shopping streets, where you'll see the names Hugo Boss, Dior, Escada, and Vuitton. Interspersed are cafes with bright white tablecloths, sparkling chandeliers, and smartly dressed waitstaff.

Corinthia Hotels, a 40-year-old, Malta-based company with 20 hotels in 11 destinations, has just begun to target the MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions) market in the United States. In Prague, the company has two properties suitable for groups, the five-star Corinthia Towers and the four-star Corinthia Panorama.

At the Corinthia Towers, where I stayed, service was flawless. The hotel has 544 rooms, including three executive floors with a separate check-in and concierge, executive lounge, and communications room with free Internet access. Executive floor guests also have free access to the expansive 25th-floor health club. There are two floors of meeting space that accommodate from 10 people boardroom style to as many as 700 for receptions.

The 450-room Corinthia Panorama also offers special amenities to guests on its three executive floors, and has seven meeting rooms that can accommodate as many as 400 people for receptions. Events @ Corinthia is a program of facilities and services for meeting planners that includes a round-the-clock event assistant and tech assistant.

Prague also has a wide range of choices for sightseeing tours and off-site events, including the Municipal House, an art nouveau gem with restaurants and concert halls. The focal point of the city is the 14th-century Charles Bridge. A popular pedestrian walkway, it's lined with statues of saints and with vendors selling better-than-expected crafts and souvenirs.
Rayna Skolnik