Incentive Trips

These four incentive destinations offer the perfect settings for recreation and business

After a bleak stretch of cutbacks, cancellations and uncertainty, companies are once again turning to travel to motivate and reward their teams. This past spring, many major U.S. incentive firms were seeing as many as three-fourths of clients reinstate programs for 2011 and beyond (as noted in M&C, "Incentives Today," bit.ly/by5os1). This time, however, work and pleasure are sharing equal billing. Incentive planners now look at destinations and facilities as much for the meeting space and business facilities as they do for gorgeous settings, intriguing cultures and luxurious accommodations.

To that end, here are four destinations that offer plenty of elements to satisfy both sides of the equation: Barcelona, arguably Spain's trendiest and most fun-loving city; Cartagena, Colombia's gorgeous former colonial capital; Sonoma County, seat of Northern California's glorious wine country; and Trinidad, the sophisticated Carib­bean nation that stands out more for its celebration of culture, food and tradition than for its sunny beaches. For an incentive slideshow, click here.
 
Gaudi chimneys from BarcelonaBarcelona Spain's second-largest city and capital of its Catalonia region is both a picturesque Mediterranean port destination and a major economic hub of Europe. A stroll through the city reveals stunning sites and architecture, from the historic character of the Gothic Quarter to the playful, unique architectural designs of Antoni Gaudí, and a variety of cosmopolitan restaurants and shops throughout. Participants can enjoy tours with gastronomic, architectural, historical or cultural themes, or stroll through the city's parks or beaches.

Accommodations. The city offers an abundance of incentive-level properties. Among them are the 98-room Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona, which recently opened a 2,540-square-foot penthouse suite with panoramic views of the city; the 303-room Hotel Majestic Barcelona, with 8,000 square feet of meeting space and a rooftop pool; and, for very small groups or possibly the top-tier winners, the ABaC Hotel & Restaurant, a 15-room luxury boutique property that offers a restaurant with two Michelin stars and an iPad in every suite. (Note: For additional hotels, see mcmag.com/meeting-facilities/hotels.)

Activities. Barcelona is a fantastic walking city, and tours of the Gothic Quarter, Gaudí architecture, gourmet attractions and the marina district can be organized through the Barcelona Tourism office. GoCar (three-wheeled convertible vehicles that seat two) or mountain-bike tours also can be arranged.

The Catalan countryside features the wine-growing regions of Priorat, Monstant, Penedés, Empordá and Alella. Vineyard and wine-tasting tours can be arranged by Cellar Tours or the destination management company E&TB Group.

Group venues. The vintage 1906 Casa Batlló, one of Gaudí's architectural masterpieces and one of the most recognizable symbols of Barcelona's modernisme movement, can be rented for private events. The largest room, when combined with the adjoining courtyard, can accommodate receptions of up to 350 or seated dinners for 200. Smaller rooms also are available.

Barcelona's main theater and opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, is in the tourist district of Las Ramblas. The original building, opened in 1847, was destroyed by fire in 1994, but the theater was rebuilt to be as exact a replica as possible. VIP tours are available, and the 2,286-seat venue also can be rented for private events. For smaller gatherings, various other rooms are available, including a grand hall that can seat 190 for banquets and a 42-seat projection room.

A gastronome's playground, Barcelona offers countless restaurant options, serving both regional and international cusines. For an experience steeped in local history, consider Can Cortada, on the city's outskirts. Set in a renovated 11th-century castle, the 900-seat venue has been operating as a restaurant since 1994. A wide range of groups can be accommodated by the eight private lounges and garden. (The downstairs "cave" lends a dramatically medieval air to an event.) It's a unique spot in which to sample regional specialities, including stone-cooked meats, prepared on a hot stone in front of guests.

Tapas are a specialty of the Basque region of Spain, but there is no shortage of eateries in Barcelona serving the hot and cold canapés. Txapela is one such locale, styled like a traditional Basque tavern, with two stories and room to accommodate up to 200 people. The restaurant is in the heart of the city on the Passeig de Grácia, in a modernist building deemed a historic-artistic site by UNESCO.

Contact. Barcelona Turisme, (011) 34-933-689-700; barcelonaturisme.com

By Michael J. Shapiro


Architecture from CartagnaCartagena On Colombia's glittering Caribbean coast, Cartagena combines beautifully preserved colonial architecture with a tropical environment. The city has all the elements to make it a popular incentive and vacation destination, as well as the infrastructure to make it a viable business center. The modern Cartagena de Indias Convention Center, for example, offers nearly 205,000 square feet for conferences or trade shows, along with a large ballroom that can accommodate up to 2,000. A stone wall nearly seven miles long surrounds the historic part of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site replete with boutique hotels in landmark colonial buildings. The large plazas and restored mansions here are excellent sites for a variety of events.

Accommodations. In the modern part of the city, the 340-room Hotel Hilton Cartagena Convention Center offers 20 meeting rooms and can accommodate conferences of up to 2,300 attendees. The 250-room Las Américas Global Resort and Convention Center, in the Cielo Mar zone, is in the final stages of an expansion that will result in more than 500 rooms and a convention center that can accommodate up to 2,000.

Inside the walled old city, luxurious boutique hotels are well suited for incentives. Among them are the 121-room Sofitel Santa Clara, in a restored 17th-century building that once was the Santa Clara de Asis Convent; the new 32-room Hotel Cartagena de Indias, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World network; and Casa Pestagua, the formermansion of the 18th-century Count of Pestagua, which offers 11 large guest rooms, stylishly furnished with either colonial, republic or art deco pieces.

Activities. A 45-minute boat ride from the city, the pristine beaches of the Rosario Islands offer soft white sand and crystal-clear turquoise water, an idyllic spot for groups to spend an afternoon. Activities can be organized via the Hotel San Pedro de Majagua, a 17-room boutique property on Isla Grande that also can arrange and host daytime events for up to 300 people. A PADI diving center is on-site. Roundtrip speedboat transportation also is arranged by the property.

Participants can enjoy a guided tour of the narrow streets of the picturesque walled city by horse-drawn carriage (paseoencoche.com). For nighttime activities, the carriages can serve as a shuttle service for groups, offering romantic views of the city en route.

Group venues.
In the old city, groups of up to 100 can enjoy an exquisitely prepared fusion of international and regional flavors at El Santísimo. Named for the street on which it resides, the restaurant had some fun with its moniker ("the Blessed Sacrament" or "Eucharist," from a Catholic mass) when creating the menu. The main entrées include selections such as the Holy Trinity, a heavenly combination of shredded white fish with tomatoes, onion and garlic; prawns flavored with achiote oil, cilantro and lime; and coconut rice with fried plantains.

Many of the buildings and public plazas in the old city can become event venues if you know the right people who know how to get the right permits. Gema Tours is one outfit that can make such arrangements, having turned the Aduana Plaza into a carpeted banquet hall and the San Fernando de Bocachica fortress into a destination for a pirate-themed incentive event, with the guests storming the fort by boat.

Contact. Proexport USA, the Colombian Government Trade Bureau, (305) 374-3144; colombia.travel

By Michael J. Shapiro


SonomaWith its award-winning wineries (more than 300 in all), acres of scenic rolling hills and regionally inspired gourmet cuisine, Northern California's Sonoma County, just 45 minutes from San Francisco, is a lovely domestic spot to host top performers.

Accommodations. The region provides a scenic backdrop for participants to meet in nature-inspired as well as modern settings. Properties include the 250-room Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which offers 8,000 square feet of meeting space plus 3,000 square feet of outdoor event space; the 226-room Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa has 10 meeting rooms and suites and 8,000 square feet of outdoor space for events; and the 155-room Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel and Spa offers up to 40,000 square feet of meeting options, including three ballrooms and 15 meeting rooms.

Activities. Winery visits and tastings are a Sonoma County must (sonomawine.com), but other rewarding activities for participants include biking through scenic rolling hillsides or kayaking down the Russian River. Local destination management firm Getaway Adventures can arrange all of the above for groups of up to 200.

Group venues. For an out-of-the-ordinary reception or dinner for up to 50, the Kunde Family Estate's Wine Aging Cave sits 175 feet below a Chardonnay vineyard, surrounded by five-million-year-old volcanic rock.  

For groups of up to 120, Sonoma County Destinations can organize bocce tournaments at the 115-year-old Seg­hesio Family Vineyards. Participants can compete while tasting wine from the 400-acre winery; afterwards, they can make their own pizzas in outdoor ovens.  

Vistas with views of the Russian River Valley, an outdoor sculpture exhibit and rows upon rows of vineyards serve as the backdrop to a wine-blending competition at the Paradise Ridge Winery, where teams mix and match varietals to create homemade signature wines. The property also has event space for up to 250.

Contact. Sonoma County Visitors Bureau, (707) 522-5800; sonomacounty.com

By Michael C. Lowe


Carnival at TrinidadTrinidad This vibrant island, half of the Caribbean's wealthiest nation (the other half being neighboring Tobago), is home to one of the most sophisticated urban cultures in the region. Groups typically don't come to Trinidad (which derives its wealth from offshore oil deposits) for tropical beach idylls. Rather, they come to experience the music (Calypso got its start here, as did the steel drum), the food (influenced by West Indian, East Indian and European cuisines) and celebrations -- most notably, Carnival, a unique explosion of color, costumes, music and revelry that draws more than 30,000 annually to its bustling capital, Port of Spain.

The island offers plenty of charms outside its main city: tranquil bird sanctuaries, colorful roadside stands bursting with tropical fruits, rainbow-hued Hindu temples, and statues rising on sunbaked plains or remote, marshy stretches of coast. And naturally, powdery white beaches abound, the most famous being Maracas Beach, where enjoying a "shark and bake" -- tangy deep-fried shark on a roll dressed with an array of sauces and spicy condiments -- is de rigueur.

Accommodations.
Port of Spain offers three incentive-caliber properties with meeting facilities: the 428-room Hyatt Regency Trinidad, with 43,000 square feet of meeting space; the recently refurbished Hilton Trinidad & Conference Center, which offers 418 guest rooms and 15 meeting rooms; and the 165-room Carlton Savannah, with three meeting rooms.

Activities. Trinidad's green, mountainous Maraval region was settled by French cocoa planters. Today, top performers can tour the Carmel Valley Estate on the outskirts of the capital and sample the sweet finished product. The estate also accommodates dinners for up to 200.

While Carnival, which marks the Christian season of Lent, is the main event here, there are numerous other celebrations throughout the year that groups can attend, such as Pan Ramajay ("Steelband Ochestras"); Emancipation (Pan-African celebrations); and Divali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. The country's embassy (ttembassy.org/pdfs/tnt-festivals.pdf) lists festivals and dates.

Banwari Experience can organize any of the above activities for groups.

Group venues. Winners can savor the flavors of East Indian cuisine at Aspara Restaurant (868-623-7659) in Port of Spain. Among the dishes to try: curried lamb and spicy shrimp. Groups of up 150 are accommodated.

Contact: Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Co., (212) 529-8484; tdc.co.tt

By Lisa Grimaldi