Destination report: Istanbul

“We are described as an ’emerging world city” says Ozgul Yavuz, general manager of the Istanbul Convention and Visitors Bureau (ICVB). The phrase is used by the likes of consulting giant AT Kearney to rank those destinations with potential to become global leaders – in 2014 it ranked the city 15th in the world.

Perhaps ‘re-emerging’ would be a better word: Istanbul, straddling Europe and Asia, and home to 14 million people, has previously been the capital of three epochal empires: Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman.

Either way, there are plenty of figures to back up the sentiment. KPMG’s Global Cities Investment Monitor for 2014 put Istanbul in its top 25 for ‘global attractiveness’ to businesses (it falls within Europe’s top seven) and for ‘green field’ investments – multinationals constructing new facilities from the ground up.

Meanwhile, in 2013, Forbes ranked Istanbul 11th place in its chart of fastest-growing megacities. UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) research highlights some eye-catching points about the country, including the fact that Turkey is currently the fastest emerging market of Europe and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries; and the OECD projects Turkey as the third-fastest growing country after China and India by 2017 – and says it will overtake India after that.

Meanwhile, Yavuz highlights the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) sector: Istanbul is ranked in eighth place for international association meetings according to the latest statistics from the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) – up from 36th in 2000. For meetings of between 300 and 500 delegates, it is ranked number one.

“It has been a journey,” says Yazuf, which she says started when Istanbul hosted the 1996 United Nations Habitat Conference, turning one of the city’s major sports arenas into a conference hall, now the Lutfi Kırdar Convention and Exhibition Center. The following year the ICVB was founded. “Everything accelerated after that, with a more conscious focus on meetings and events,” she says. “We have lots of potential and advantages, because geographically we are in the centre of the world. So it’s a good location and good business – and we have to invest more to grow.”

Neslihan Ayik, sales and marketing director for HRG Turkey, paints a similar picture. “Business travel and MICE in Istanbul is certainly increasing, and has been over the last few years – despite cost-saving initiatives from many multinational companies,” she says. “Internal MICE activities are increasing, but we’re also seeing more activity from overseas.” February saw the city host the Ace of MICE Exhibition, which attracted around 10,000 delegates and exhibitors from more than 25 countries.

Past meets present

The ICVB offices are located in the city’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic district, a few steps from the sprawling Grand Bazaar. It’s one of the oldest covered markets in the world – people have been trading here since the 15th century – and its 5,000 shops are a dazzling riot of colours, sounds and aromas.

While the bazaar is part of Istanbul’s remarkable heritage, its present-day reality features retailing of a different kind: 105 shopping malls, and enough luxury fashion brand outlets to take on the Champs-Elysees. The new Istanbul is a city of spectacular infrastructure projects, a burgeoning financial centre, free-trade zones and investment incentives, and growth in modern industry sectors from life sciences to telecoms.

Much of the current infrastructure investment is around transport – including a third bridge over the Bosphorus strait linking Europe and Asia, due to open this year, which will be the world’s longest combined motorway and railway bridge. A double-deck ‘Euro-Asia’ motorway tunnel under the seabed is also under construction. The trans-Bosphorus metro tunnel, which opened late 2013, has already seen more than 50 million people travel through.

However, stealing the limelight from these projects is what is expected to be one of the world’s largest airports, with six runways and an eventual annual capacity of 150 million passengers – the world’s largest by passenger volume. Istanbul Grand airport is scheduled to open in 2018, and will feature four terminals, parking for 500 aircraft (and 70,000 cars), hotels and a convention centre.

Turkish Airlines senior vice-president Ali Genc says the new airport will play a key role in the airline’s growth strategy.   “Turkish Airlines passenger numbers have been growing on average 17 per cent annually, “ he says.  “The fleet is currrently 262 aircraft; by 2020 it will be more than 400. The new airport will support this growth, and we will have an opportunity to make our transfer product more attractive and competitive compared to other hubs.” 

The airline and the city’s convention bureau have a close relationship – Turkish Airlines CEO Temel Kotil is an ICVB board member – and recognise each other’s importance to the region’s progress. Bureau boss Yavuz says the airline’s growing international network helps position Istanbul as a global hub, while Genc points to the city’s geo-location as a competitive advantage for the airline: “There are more than 55 capital cities that can be reached with narrow-bodied aircraft from Istanbul,” he says. “To be able to use narrow bodies gives Turkish Airlines a cost advantage, and operational flexibility.”

Genc also cites the airline’s own conventions services, which offer special fares and booking tools for organisers of events with more than 100 international delegates. “Turkish Airlines’ Group and Convention Department and the ICVB have been working in close coordination since 2008,” he says. “This continuing and effective collaboration is playing a key role in the rise of the congress and meetings industry in Istanbul.” The airline flies to 261 destinations in 108 countries, and is a significant player in the UK market: it flies to Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh, with a total of 89 UK departures a week.

Technology and distribution giant Travelport recently opened a new operator office in Istanbul. Travelport regional president and MD Rabih Saab cites figures showing Turkey’s travel spend in 2013 at US$29 billion. “Turkey benefits from its unique geographical location straddling Europe and Asia,” says Saab. “Turkish businesses are able to deal with the more established Western markets and are also profiting from the high growth rates being experienced in the Middle East and Asian economies. As a result, the country is attracting large amounts of foreign investment interest.” 

Hotel growth

The region’s economic growth also is reflected in the hotel sector. Recent high-profile openings include the Shangri-La Bosphorus in 2013, and Raffles Istanbul in September last year. Openings slated for 2015 include St Regis, Mercure and Soho House properties. The 210-room Steigenberger Hotel Istanbul Airport is scheduled for completion in June 2016.

Shangri-La Bosphorus general manager Vito Romeo points out that the Istanbul property was one of the first three “strategically chosen locations” in Europe when the brand started expanding from its Asian market – along with Paris and London. He says key factors during feasibility studies included the city’s location “as a crossroads” and its popularity for business and leisure travellers. Romeo adds that helping drive demand is “a wide range of direct flight connectivity,” wide choice of hospitality brands and value for money.

Hotel market analyst STR Global reports nearly 7,000 rooms in the pipeline, a 15 per cent increase on the city’s current room-stock of more than 46,500. STR also notes that while Istanbul’s occupancy levels in 2014 were down slightly to 65 per cent, its revenue per available room (RevPAR) and average daily rate (ADR) were both up year-on-year.

However, it’s not all plain sailing on the Bosphorus. Turkey’s volatile neighbours include Syria, Iraq and Iran, and the so-called IS caliphate is certainly too close for comfort. According to Middle East online news channel Al Monitor, there are around 1.6 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, equivalent to a 2.1 per cent increase in the country’s population. Driving round Istanbul’s sophisticated city centre, it feels European; but one of the few obvious signs of its proximity to Middle Eastern turmoil is the Syrian refugee children darting dangerously between cars at traffic lights, wiping windscreens for a few lira.

As Turkish Airlines’ Genc delicately puts it: “We are close to Europe and the Middle East, therefore we’re sensitive to economic and political changes in these regions. We are aware of this risk, and manage our capacity in our wide network to handle these fluctuations.”

Severnside Consulting founder Chris Pouney says: “The country’s confidence has taken a knock with the dual disappointments in 2013 of failing to land both the 2020 Expo and the 2020 Olympics. Add to this the conflict in Syria, with which Turkey shares a 500-mile border, the growth and excitement around Istanbul and Turkey has been tempered somewhat.” But he lists several positives, including the flag carrier “going from strength to strength”, infrastructure investment and Turkey’s determination to join the EU. 

Of course, talking to locals – like most places in the world – there are plenty of gripes about the government, from Kurdish rights and freedom of speech to the controversial new 1,100-room presidential palace in Ankara, nicknamed the ‘White Palace’ in reference to the White House in Washington, which it dwarfs. But with three empires under its belt and more than 1,000 years on the world stage, it’s a fair bet that Istanbul will overcome its hurdles.

Distinctive events venues

As well as seven convention centres and several international hotels with conference facilities, the ICVB offers some “unusual venues” for meetings and events. For more information, visit icvb.org

The ancient, underground Yerebatan (‘Basilica’) Cistern
has more than 300 floodlit classical columns reflected in dark, shallow water that ripples with cruising carp.  It makes a splendidly atmospheric setting for  events, and is used for  theatrical performances.

The 19th-century waterside Beylerbeyi Palace features an ornate mix of baroque and Ottoman architecture. Built as a royal summer residence for the Sultan, if offers indoor and outdoor event spaces for up to 1,000 people.

The NAR Restaurant is on the top floor of the stylish Armaggan department store,  that champions local designers and artisans. NAR includes roof terraces which can be used for al fresco events for up to 70 guests, as well as three flexible private event spaces with moveable partitions.  They can be combined for gatherings of up to 100 people.

The glass furnace is set in countryside out from the Asian side of the city. The glass-making school and studios are a hub for local and international artists – and can also be an inspirational venue for creative corporate team-building activities. It offers hands-on experience with molten glass, specialist tools and expert tutors, as well as catering and accommodation. For more information, visit camocagi.org

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