by Andrea Doyle | November 02, 2016

An afternoon spent immersed in the Maori culture in New Zealand. Competing in traditional Scottish Highland games. A Samurai experience in Japan. These are one-of-a-kind activities unique to each respective destination. And when a group experiences something so memorable together, the camaraderie created -- not to mention the memories -- can be powerful.

"The best networking happens when the group is doing something new and unusual together," says Lindsay Griffiths, director of global relationship management for International Lawyers Network, an association of more than 5,000 lawyers worldwide. She plans from two to four international conferences a year for the organization, and is a proponent of incorporating a sense of place, adding that, "We build unique cultural experiences into the social program to bond the delegates."

Among these are tossing the caber (a large log) and learning Highland dancing last year on Loch Lomond during its Scottish European Regional Conference; bike riding through rice paddies in Vietnam; getting pedicures at a fish spa in Singapore -- the more out-of-the-ordinary the better. "These are the things my delegates are still talking about," she says.

The group has met in destinations as diverse as New Delhi, Bangkok, Shanghai, Singapore, Lisbon, Rome, London, Paris, and Copenhagen, and she turns to her association for help in selecting them. "I use the expertise of our local members to find out what we should incorporate into the program," explains Griffiths. "I've found that local DMCs can get access to things that you wouldn't be able to get on your own."

The groups, which range from 75 to 125 attendees for the annual meeting and 25 to 45 at the regional meetings, has a dine-around one evening where groups of about 10 experience small, nearby restaurants. "We always try to stick to local cuisines," she says.

For example, one of the restaurants chosen for a dine-around in Rome was where Fettuccini Alfredo was invented. "They made it for us tableside. It was amazing," says Griffiths. "Not only do we look for local restaurants, but we try to stay at hotels that are not that generic."

Finding ways to infuse local culture into events is so important that many hotels, resorts, airlines, and even convention and visitors bureaus, have added cultural ambassadors to their staffs.

For example, Palm Beach County's Cultural Concierge helps groups tap into the more than 42,000 cultural experiences available in this Florida destination. Air New Zealand employs Andrew Baker, an indigenous New Zealander, or Maori, as cultural development manager. In his role, he makes sure passengers understand the uniqueness of his country and culture -- and how to experience it firsthand.

Meeting Demand
Hotels are finding ways to meet this demand for meetings infused with local culture. The Ritz-Carlton's newest program, "A Meeting of the Senses," focuses on meetings that not only awaken the mind, stir creativity, and intensify focus but incorporate local culture as well.

Sixty Ritz-Carlton properties around the world are participating in this program that creates immersive experiences. For example, at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, planners showcase the destination's beauty with the "Picnic Under the Stars" program, in which each guest receives a picnic basket they take to the property's rolling Plantation Lawn, and there enjoy an outdoor movie. The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans offers an "Oyster Butler" and "Crawfish Concierge" to guide attendees in properly shucking oysters and peeling local crawfish.


Visitors join in the "Give a Ghaf"
program at The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai

Another property highlighting the local culture for international meetings is The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre. Traditional dishes like Chicken Shawarma are presented as part of a coffee break setup, served with traditional appetizers such as hummus, fattoush, and mutabal. Taking the experience further, the property incorporates a variety of Arabic touches that can include a welcome from someone dressed in a traditional Khandoura or entertainment from a Henna artist.

For meeting professionals who want to extend their programs outside the walls of the hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre's signature "Impact Experience" invites groups to make a meaningful contribution and feel personally connected to the local community through "Give a Ghaf," an initiative that aims to help preserve the national tree of the UAE.