History and culture coupled with top class conference facilities - it's no wonder Lisbon is one of the world's leading cities in which to meet for business, says Jonathan Hart
It's raining in Lisbon - an unexpected bonus for conference chief Henrik Nielsen. Not that serious-minded delegates to the annual congress of the European Wound Management Association (EWMA) are usually the type to go AWOL, he is quick to stress, but if anything could tempt them to play truant, Lisbon on a more typical sunny day might almost be enough.
" We rarely venture this far south," admits Nielsen, the organisational manager for EWMA. "Frankly, northern venues are more our thing - familiar places we're all used to and where there are potentially fewer distractions. After all, our congress is the tool that delivers the important messages and delegates are here to learn, not play. This is no holiday."
Evidently. Across the hallway from Nielsen's temporary office, in Auditorium VII of Lisboa Congress Centre, a session on 'The Challenges of Fecal Incontinence' is in full flow. And elsewhere in the businesslike modern building, a medical trade fair plus sessions on equally discomforting bodily malfunctions are playing to full houses and rapt attention. You gain the distinct impression that, save a stiff after hours' tincture to settle the stomach, venue selection, fripperies or downtime are not exactly top of EWMA's list of congress priorities.
So why choose Lisbon? Its history, culture, architecture, cuisine and leisure attractions are all ingredients that have helped pivot the city into the world's top 10 destinations for meetings, according to the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). (Portugal's capital has equal sixth position alongside Budapest in ICCA rankings, after Vienna, Berlin, Singapore, Paris and Barcelona.)
"It's not so much a question of us choosing Lisbon, as Lisbon choosing us," says the no-nonsense Nielsen. "We needed to stage a pan-Iberian congress and, as far as I was concerned, it could have been held anywhere in this region. We don't 'investigate' venues in advance; we don't listen to testimonials or long presentations. We don't have time. We have specifics, a budget and a job to do. Lisbon got that in one; it didn't beat around the bush and cut to the chase rather than try to talk us into something we didn't want.
"The convention people here understood us from the outset; matched us with the right type of facility, space and price at the time we wanted; were quick to confirm and got the business. Simple as that."
So was it just luck or negotiations conducted with surgical precision that led to Lisbon capturing the EWMA congress, one of an estimated 16 international scientific and medical congresses alone being staged in the city this year?
Ana Mendes, sales representative of Lisboa Convention Bureau, smiles modestly." You can talk up a venue forever," she says. " But it's pointless if you don't have the ability to react to given circumstances and deliver. We're fortunate to have a flexible choice of facilities plus the support and communication services to match, as well as the capability of being able to mix and match to individual requirements."
Together, with competitive prices stemming from the lowest cost of living in the eurozone, Lisbon walks the walk, and talks the talk of international meetings today. The city has been nurturing the sector since hosting the World Expo 10 years ago - an event that produced the Park of Nations, essentially an ultra-modern, fully integrated mini-city running adjacent to the capital's historic quarters scenically scattered across seven hills alongside the River Tagus.
In tandem, both old and new areas are helping to provide the best services possible in terms of venue choice and, along with the connecting waterfront, continue to be developed and expanded with specific regard to retaining character and choice. Together with easy accessibility, these elements rather than venue size are focal to Lisbon's appeal, says Mendes. While up to 12,500 delegates can be seated under one roof here, the city is particularly geared to hosting smaller events in historic or unusual settings.
In addition, the airport is located close to downtown and much of central Lisbon is compact enough to walk between hotels and stand-alone venues, supplemented by efficient public transport and the most reasonably-priced taxis of any European capital.
Mendes reckons the general trend is towards shorter lead-in and registration times for smaller, value-added meetings with ad hoc additions. If this is true, Lisbon is well set with its rapid response acumen, solid DMC base and impressive 98 per cent delegate satisfaction levels, coupled with the integration of palaces, convents and museums into the mix - unique venues with in-built or co-ordinated catering and banqueting facilities.
Few of the 30-plus new upscale hotels opening in the two-year period to 2010 have more than 200 rooms - the trend instead is towards boutique and hi-tech, high-design properties with multi-purpose facilities geared to small gatherings or supplementing bigger events. One of these is the recently-opened 139-room Fontana Park, a vision in black, white and glass minimalism on the edge of Saldanha in the heart of the city.
Another is the 44-room Altis Belém, a sleek low-rise opening in the waterfront area this November, notable for its museums, gardens and Jerónimos Monastery. Overlooking the Tagus and Bom Sucesso marina, the hotel is within a few minutes' walk of the Cultural Centre of Belém, one of the city's finest and most atmospheric venues.
In line with the trend, Altis and other local hotel groups, like CS, also have smaller properties in the pipeline to marry the ultra-modern and multi-functional with the personalised and traditional.
The likes of Henrik Nielsen might not care, but culturally-proud and flexible Lisbon - with historic Sintra and seaside Cascais - appears intent on hosting meetings that make the most of both work and play.
Warm to hot summers with temperatures in the high 20°Cs. Mild, often wet winters.
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In addition to the above, Lisbon has many smaller four- or five-star properties either newly refurbished or under construction, plus a growing number of three-star and serviced apartment units. Marriott, Hyatt, Holiday Inn and Novotel are among imminent new arrivals.
Lisbon Portela is 7km from downtown, less from the Park of Nations district. Journey time into the city centre by taxi or Aerobus is about 20 minutes, 10 for the Park of Nations district. The airport's main terminal is currently being expanded and a new complex has been opened for domestic flights.
Places to meet
Purpose-built sites include the 12,500-seat Atlantic Pavilion in the Park of Nations and the recently updated, hi-tech Lisboa Congress Centre on the edge of the old town, seating up to 3,500 in eight auditoriums, five halls and 25 conference rooms.
Character venues for smaller meetings or breakouts include the new Oriente Museum, the 15th-century Beato Convent, plus a variety of other museums, convents and palaces.
Chief downtown conference hotels for up to 750 delegates include the totally renovated Sheraton Lisboa Hotel and Towers; refurbished Hotel Tivoli Lisboa; Corinthia Alfa; Four Seasons Ritz; Avenida Palace; Dom Pedro and Tiara Park Atlantic.