Postcards from the Edge

For most of you reading this magazine, when you think of "international" meetings, you probably imagine a conference in Toronto, London, or Paris. Chances are you don't picture a group of Pfizer executives in a Beijing ballroom or Israeli exhibitors working an Internet trade show in Budapest—let alone a GE training session in Amman, Jordan.

But over the past year, when Successful Meetings sent me to five offbeat cities to assess their meetings potential, I witnessed all of these gatherings, and more. Some of these destinations might seem dicey to planners stateside, but everywhere I went, I saw that to locals—and often to Americans—they're vibrant, viable business hubs.

Amman, Jordan

It's 8:30 a.m. on a Monday in March, and the breakfast room at the InterContinental Hotel in Jordan's capital city is abuzz with activity. Two U.S. military officers, chests bristling with brass, are deep in conversation at a table alongside African businessmen with meeting badges dangling from their necks. Tall, fair-haired women chatter in German, and Jordanian men in traditional Bedouin headgear—a red-and-white kaffiyeh cloth held in place with a black rope—help themselves to dates and goat's milk yogurt from the buffet. At a nearby table, Iraqi men and women in town for a training meeting are smoking cigarettes and sipping mint tea.

I'm here to attend a conference of the American Tourism Society and the United States Tour Operators Association, which with the help of the Jordan Tourism Board have invited about 45 U.S.-based travel executives to Jordan in an effort to overcome misperceptions about the country. Judging by people's reactions when I told them my travel plans, these organizations have their work cut out for them. "I'll worry about you," my mother fretted. "You're not afraid of being kidnapped?" inquired a friend.

I understand their trepidation—Jordan's in a rough neighborhood, surrounded by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Still, many of my assumptions about the Middle East dissolved upon my arrival at the airport, where the first sight to greet me as I waited in line to buy my entry visa was a huge advertisement for Citigroup. Several of the Americans in line alongside me were en route to Baghdad for construction jobs that, to judge from the thick wad of $100 bills one produced from his pocket, are pretty darned lucrative. Any fears I had about being a Westerner here further evaporated as I observed these guys: In their leather jackets, Wranglers, and Wolverine boots, they might as well have been draped in the red, white, and blue.

War and Peace

"Iraq has been the main engine driving Jordanian business," Mark Timbrell, area director of sales & marketing at the InterContinental, tells me the next evening at a cocktail reception. (Though Jordan is officially Muslim, alcohol is readily available, including some decent local wines.) Because of the country's good relations with the West and reputation for safety and security, it's where U.S. companies involved in the Iraqi reconstruction—Bechtel and Kellogg, Brown & Root, to name two—have established regional offices. Many wealthy Iraqi businesspeople have moved here because of the recent conflict; Amman is also where many firms train their Iraqi workforces, as I saw that morning when I passed a GE training session for power plant workers in one of the InterContinental's ballrooms.

It's largely because of such meetings that occupancy at Amman's five-star properties is at least 80 percent, Timbrell says. But if the war's been a boon for the Jordanian economy, it's hardly the only source of meetings here. The American Society of Travel Agents came to Amman in February, and the U.S. Export-Import Bank is holding a financial conference here in May. Just 45 minutes from the city, the World Economic Forum has been holding regional summits every year since 2003 at the Movenpick Resort & Spa's conference center on the Dead Sea, with Jerusalem visible across the cobalt water. (This year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend.) And during our conference, Musa Helal of Amman-based Maltrans Travel reported that programs for pharmaceutical and medical firms like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer (whose office is across the street from the InterContinental) are robust in meetings and incentives. In September, Helal has 400 attendees arriving for two large incentive programs for Italian and French firms.

For an incentive, I don't know what could top a photo op with a royal—especially one as charismatic as His Majesty King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with whom our group had a personal audience. This young, athletic monarch (who speaks impeccable English, thanks to his British mother and American education) has made it his personal mission to promote tourism, a key economic contributor in a country that lacks oil. He thanked us warmly for our visit: "The fact that you're here gives a sense of security that brings a spark of hope to the rest of the world."

Promised Land

With sites where countless Bible stories took place, Jordan also receives significant religious tourism from the States. Over Middle Eastern appetizers—baba ganoush studded with pomegranate seeds—Ray Masillo of New York City-based Regina Tours tells me he brings at least a thousand such travelers here annually, to walk in the footsteps of Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and John the Baptist. On my flight home there are about 30 visitors from a Florida church group. As I listen to the blond middle-aged lady next to me wax poetic about Petra—the 2,000-year-old, rust-colored city carved from sandstone—it occurs to me that many of these folks, who don't seem like particularly seasoned travelers, probably didn't have passports before this journey. If they're not afraid to come here, I muse, maybe the rest of us needn't be.

Beijing, China

You'd think a group of international-meeting organizers with, oh, about a thousand years' worth of experience among them couldn't be impressed anymore. At least, that's what I thought before the reception I attended last August at the St. Regis, Beijing.

The service at the event, a banquet to kick off an international planners' conference, was choreographed down to the split second. As a team of 20 tuxedo-clad waiters and waitresses alternately placed dishes of dim sum before us and whisked them away, all at exactly the same instant, audience members gasped. Said one attendee, "Seeing this level of service makes even good service look clumsy by comparison." (And, these being planners, they quickly figured out the method: Each table captain wore an inconspicuous headset that allowed him or her to communicate with the other captains, who then signaled to their respective teams.)

I knew China was an important business destination—I was just one of nearly 1.8 million Americans who visited the country last year, of whom 22 percent traveled for meetings or other business—but I hadn't expected service with such attention to detail. The synchronized-swimmer-like precision of those waiters was an apt metaphor for our conference's theme: "Olympic Motivation," which brought about 60 planners here from Europe, Australia, and the United States to learn about the 2008 Summer Olympics host's potential for meetings and incentives.

"There's an incredible buzz about Beijing right now because of the Olympics," Terri Steinberg, who manages meetings and incentives from North America to various points in Asia for Singapore Airlines, tells me. "The fact that it's hosting such an important event makes the destination seem safer to Americans."

They Got Game

As the city gears up for 2008, plenty of new meeting facilities are going up. The National Grand Theatre, dubbed the "Eggshell" for its sleek, hemispheric design, is to be completed by December and will include three different venues with a total seating capacity of nearly 6,000, and glass windows looking on Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Lily Li, a spokeswoman for the meetings and incentives sector at the Beijing Tourism Administration, told our group that the current crop of 30 five-star hotels in town will climb to 40 by 2008. Newcomers will include a 300-room Four Seasons and two Ritz-Carltons with a total of 576 rooms between them, all slated for next year, as well as a 591-room JW Marriott coming in 2007.

Chinese and American air carriers are increasing airlift to the Middle Kingdom, thanks to a U.S.-China aviation agreement signed last July. In March, Continental launched the only daily nonstop flight between New York (via Newark Airport) and Beijing. When I flew Air China direct from Kennedy Airport last summer, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, thanks to a direct route across the North Pole, flying time had been cut from 21 hours to 13.

Gold Rush

In 2002 alone, more than 5,000 international meetings were held in Beijing, Li told us during our seminar at the Kerry Centre Hotel (which recently hosted a 100-person summit for the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives). At the St. Regis, where I stayed, meetings for Pfizer, IBM, Cisco, and Citigroup, plus several local firms, were in house during my visit. About 30 percent of the hotel's meetings are U.S. based, and VIPs who have been guests here include George Bushes I and II, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Jackie Chan.

Our Beijing seminar was timed to coincide with the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where the Chinese came in second with 32 gold medals, including unexpected firsts in tennis, wrestling, and weightlifting. The victory couldn't have been more opportune as an advertisement for the destination. If I didn't know better, I'd say it had been engineered—like that service at our banquet—by the Beijing Tourism Administration.

Shanghai, China

Deng Xiaoping, that wily Communist who helped transform a state-run economy into one of the world's fastest-growing outfits, once said, "If China is a dragon, then Shanghai is its head." Based on my brief visit last August, Shanghai is the most dynamic city I've ever seen, and I've lived in both New York and Sao Paulo—the motor of Brazil, the world's ninth largest economy.

Shanghai may not have the history and character of Beijing, but its international, business-boosting flair makes up for that. It's home to the country's stock market and more foreign banks than any other Chinese city. Futuristic skyscrapers and construction cranes dominate its skyline as new structures go up, virtually overnight. Pudong, the new business district, didn't exist until the 1990s, but now contains some of Shanghai's most recognizable buildings as well as the airport and the world's first commercial magnetic levitation train. ("Maglev," as the technology is known, uses electromagnetic power, meaning that trains don't use engines and run, with no friction, at up to 300 miles per hour.) By 2010, when this city of 16 million hosts the World's Fair, 95 percent of Fortune 500 companies will have offices here; daily direct service from Chicago via American Airlines starts next March.

I stayed in Pudong at the St. Regis Shanghai, where a Swiss agribusiness interest had just finished an investment seminar for 60 people from all over the world. Besides free, in-room broadband Internet access, the St. Regis also offers business travelers their own round-the-clock butler, assigned on arrival. Butlers will not only unpack guests' suitcases and repack them when they leave, but also iron up to five garments for free. With back-to-back meetings the next day, who could refuse?

Shanghai thinks tall. Perhaps that explains native son, Yao Ming, the seven-foot-five NBA phenom, whose face is plastered all over billboards here. Pudong is home to the 1,535-foot Oriental Pearl TV tower; the in-progress World Financial Center, which will be the world's tallest building at 1,614 feet when it's finished in 2007 (complete with a built-in hole to relieve wind pressure); and the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, currently the highest hotel in the world at 1,380 feet. When our group visited the Grand Hyatt's 54th-floor lobby, my ears were popping. Fortunately for attendees vulnerable to vertigo, its conference space is on the ground level; meetings for Honeywell and Johnson & Johnson were in house during our visit.

Back to the Future

Being a port city, Shanghai has always been more international than Chinese, but those seeking a taste of traditional culture can find it at the Shanghai Museum, in the Puxi neighborhood across the river from Pudong. I spent a morning exploring the museum's 10 galleries, which showcase ancient works in bronze, porcelain, calligraphy, jade, and other media—including pottery that dates back more than 4,600 years. The museum also offers a fascinating window into the country's 55 minority ethnic groups, from Tibetans to Uighurs, who all have distinctly different costumes and customs.

For insight into Shanghai's past and future, I suggest a meal at M on the Bund, an upscale Continental restaurant in Shanghai's riverside Bund neighborhood. In the 1920s, this area was Wall Street for Shanghai's Westerners, but fell into disrepair after the Communists took over in 1949. M on the Bund's opening in 1999 sparked a revival of the neighborhood, and last year an Armani boutique and the first Jean-Georges eatery outside of New York opened across the street. M on the Bund's outdoor terrace, which seats 60, is a good vantage point for comparing the Bund's stately European buildings with the dizzying, hypermodern towers of Pudong across the river.

Budapest, Hungary

It's a snowy February morning and the Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal in downtown Budapest is hopping. Besides the Johnson & Johnson gathering in house, a British Internet company is hosting a high-tech conference, and as our group tours the exhibit space I hear attendees and exhibitors speaking in French and Hebrew as well as Hungarian and English.

We zip past booths set up by Dell, Ericsson, Microsoft, and other familiar names demonstrating their latest offerings in broadband, Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, and Voice-Over-Internet Protocol. Fortunately, no one's using the hotel's 400-seat Grand Ballroom—which means I get to gaze for a few moments at its portraits of Hungarian musicians Franz Liszt and Bela Bartok, who performed here when this venue was the town's top concert hall.

That mixture of new and old Europe is what makes Budapest so interesting—and is one of its main draws for business. Since Hungary joined the European Union last May, money's been pouring into the capital city; in fact, the Centre for Economics and Business Research, a British consultancy, recently rated the Budapest region as the second-best place in Europe to invest. Low-cost carriers, introduced when Hungary joined the EU, are helping group business too: As I'm stomping around the medieval streets of Castle Hill, I meet some British travelers from Manchester, who tell me their round-trip flights cost just 42 pounds—about $80.

Hungary for Dollars

Over lunch at the Grand Hotel's sister property, the Corinthia Aquincum, general manager Jo Gowie informs me that many U.S. companies have regional headquarters or divisions in Budapest—Pepsi, IBM, Ford, Microsoft, and GE, to name a few. When Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania join the EU in 2007, Budapest will become even more important as a regional meetings hub, Gowie predicts.

For those with greenbacks, Hungary offers better value than Western Europe. "Budapest is very attractive price-wise to American buyers," Cornelia Kausch, general manager of the Grand, tells me the next morning over a breakfast of coffee and Hungarian pastries. Since being hired in 2003, Kausch has been courting the American group market. She hosted a Fourth of July party here last summer, as well as a party for the U.S. elections on November 2—to which nearly 1,500 people showed up. The hotel also has a relationship with low-cost carrier ATA Airlines, whose crew members often stay here. About 50 percent of the Grand's business is derived from meetings and incentives.

Budapest is well known for its natural thermal springs, and while its Roman bathhouses are famous, local spa culture actually dates to pre-Roman, Celtic times. The bathhouse I visited was of more recent vintage: the turn-of-the-century Gellert Spa. Like any Hungarian spa calling itself a "thermal bath" (meaning it's derived from natural springs), the Gellert is regularly tested for its medicinal properties by the government. And while it's not luxurious, it's affordable (about $12 for a two-hour visit) and egalitarian, filled with senior citizens enjoying government-subsidized visits. All in all, a refreshing alternative to the American view of spas as private, occasional indulgences for the wealthy.

Prague, Czech Republic

The capital city of the Czech Republic is more Carmen Miranda than Franz Kafka, I discovered on my visit last February. Instead of the grim, Gothic towers I'd imagined, its streets are lined with red-tile-roofed buildings in pale pinks, yellows, and greens that wouldn't look out of place in Coral Gables or Havana. But don't let the tropical colors fool you into thinking that the city is laid back when it comes to business. Big firms have been moving in since the Czechs joined the European Union last year, and Prague was recently rated the number-one place in Europe to invest.

Second Spring

Since the decline of manufacturing, which made it one of the richest cities in the world in the 19th century, Prague has been reinventing itself as a center of technology and research and development. "Many multinational companies are opening offices in Prague," Katerina Pavlitova, director of the New York City office of CzechTourism, tells me. "They use it as a gateway to their Eastern European markets because it's an attractive city with a high standard of living and a highly skilled, educated workforce that speaks good English. It's a very comfortable place for Westerners to do business."

A recent study named the Czech Republic the fourth most attractive destination (after India, China, and Malaysia), for offshore services, the only European destination to make the top 10. So it's no wonder that Prague has also become popular for shared service centers, offices that centralize a company's back-office functions, most commonly in finance, accounting, human resources, or IT. Honeywell, Ingersoll-Rand, IBM, DHL, Black & Decker, ExxonMobil, and Philip Morris are some of the firms that have opened shared service centers here. "Prague has become an important part of our portfolio," Paul Dickard, a company spokesman for Ingersoll-Rand, tells me. "We have both manufacturing and administrative facilities there." In fact, the company just finished a sales and leadership conference in Prague that comprised 300 attendees, 10 percent of them from the United States, at the Corinthia Towers Hotel.

I stayed at the Corinthia Towers, where I arrived to find a reception for the American Chamber of Commerce underway in the 24th-floor conference space, with its panoramic views of the city. There was also a large group of Israelis here for a pharmaceutical meeting; 60 percent of the Corinthia's meetings business, in fact, comes from the pharmaceutical sector.

The Corinthia is adjacent to the Prague Congress Center, which can host up to 6,000 attendees. Over a traditional Czech meal of duck, red cabbage, and knedliky (bread dumplings), I learn that in 2000, the Congress Center hosted the annual meetings of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, bringing a total of 15,500 delegates to town. Two years later, the NATO summit brought 5,500 attendees here.

Bellybutton of Europe

More recently, members of the local tourism industry have been complaining that the Czech Republic needs to market itself more aggressively as a destination for tourism and conventions. Meetings and incentives currently comprise just eight percent of total tourism, and last year, only a hundred large international meetings—comprising at least 300 attendees, with 40 percent or more from at least five different nations—took place in the country, virtually all of them in Prague. Budapest, meanwhile, attracts far more conferences overall, even though its convention center can only hold about 2,500 people.

An upcoming gathering, however, could help change Prague's fortunes. The American Society of Travel Agents is meeting here next year, at a conference expected to attract at least 1,500 U.S. tour operators. ASTA's board of directors chose the city by unanimous vote, because they found it still relatively unknown yet easy to sell to Americans. Last year, 356,000 Americans visited Prague—a somewhat low number, but still a 32-percent increase over the previous year. The smaller but highly influential American Tourism Society is also meeting here next year, while this month the Meetings & Incentive Trade Market, a European meetings trade show, expects to bring 250 attendees to the Prague Congress Center.

Prague has many nicknames: "Golden Prague," "Bellybutton of Europe," "Town of the Hundred Spires" (though Jitka, my guide, assures me there are six times that many). The most appropriate, however, is "Textbook of Architecture," as Prague's buildings, from sober medieval to quixotic Art Nouveau, were left largely unscathed by World War II. A popular choice for special events is the city's Art Nouveau landmark, the Municipal House, with rooms for groups from 10 to 500. But I would recommend the Bellevue Restaurant, with its view of Prague's 1,100-year-old castle; the snow that was falling gently when we dined there made the city seem even more magical.