Innovation in meetings and incentive travel is about more than just finding the newest technology to incorporate into the event, says Brian Kellerman, CEO of GoGather. “We always encourage our clients to stop and think about the ‘why’ before adding in a layer of innovation just for innovation’s sake. What we’re focusing on now is taking a program beyond traditional event objectives to create a more holistic program that does more than just reward top performers. In this regard, an innovative incentive experience is one that motivates real outcomes in an organization and instills a sense of pride, ownership and belonging among attendees.”
Some of the key ways Kellerman sees meetings and events following this innovation path include designing F&B around connection and shared experiences; incorporating corporate social responsibility into the program to help attendees give back to the destination they’re in and feel a sense of connection with and pride in their company; integrating technology into the entire experience, from placing a welcome message on each attendee’s TV when they arrive, to capturing event memories all in one place; and designing micro-moments such as an event lounge and smaller group activities to allow for connection between executives and attendees.
All of the destinations featured in this story offer opportunities for meaningful, immersive and innovative group events and activities, and offer sustainable hotels and venues that reflect local culture. Read on to learn more.
While Great Britain is known for its rich historical roots and traditions, it is also a nation that embraces change and is continuously leaning into the future, says Leila Heller, meetings & incentives director, the Americas, VisitBritain. “Alongside its stately homes and royal heritage, Britain is surrounded by innovation and creativity,” she notes. “Over the last decade we have seen Great Britain welcome a variety of new sustainable venues, city initiatives and renewable resources that have created exciting new approaches when it comes to hosting events.”
Great Britain is also a country with a diverse range of destinations that can deliver the unexpected, says Heller. “From hosting your meeting surrounded by the Scottish Crown Jewels in the world-renowned Edinburgh Castle to planning a corporate candlelight dinner in Britain’s largest Cathedral in Liverpool, each of our nations and cities have their own character that defines them, and this is reflected in the people, the culture and the product that is unlocked when groups visit.”
Great Britain offers scores of diverse, innovative activities. In Oxford, England, groups can sail restored vintage boats on one of the most idyllic stretches of the River Thames, stopping to visit stately homes and centuries-old riverside restaurants—with the added option of being driven around in a pre-war Rolls Royce. Outdoor activities in The Scottish Highlands range from fly-fishing in the picturesque Loch Venacher to embarking on a quest to find Nessie (the Loch Ness monster), to learning falconry at one of the many five-star castle hotels across the highlands. And, suggests Heller, “Groups who want to get their adrenaline pumping can explore the ‘Adventure Capital of Europe’ in North Wales. Located in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park, Zip World Penrhyn Quarry is home to exhilarating adventures, locally sourced food, Europe’s longest zipline and some of the most incredible views North Wales has to offer.”
England, Wales and Scotland are seeing continued investment to improve MICE infrastructure, including exciting, sustainable venues on the horizon, says Heller. The YTL Arena Bristol in the south of England, due to open in late 2025 in the transformed hangars of Concorde Aviation, will be the region’s largest indoor exhibition center, with the capacity to host up to 4,000 delegates for a banquet. “This new development has been designed with sustainability taking center stage, with the goal to be carbon neutral from day one,” Heller notes. In the north of England, the huge Sage International Convention Centre located in Newcastle Gateshead and due to open in phases between 2025 and 2027, will also have two onsite hotels. “The development will be supplied with solar power and naturally heated mine water extracted from ancient mines,” says Heller. In Wales, Heller recommends the recently renovated historic Newport Market for a unique event experience, with seating for up to 250 attendees.
“At VisitBritain/VisitEngland we help planners by connecting them with the relevant contacts for our destinations and convention bureaus, focusing on specific needs and offering practical advice to help deliver flawless programs for all types and sizes of meetings and incentives,” says Heller. “We also work closely with our stakeholders to provide educational resources that ensure we are taking the necessary steps towards being as inclusive and environmentally conscious as possible.”
Meeting planners might be surprised at how integral Canada’s diverse identity is to every aspect of event design, says Jennifer Attersall, acting sr. director, Business Events, Destination Canada. “Inviting people to experience our authentic, local cultural stories isn’t entertainment, it’s part of the programming,” she says. “Planners are also pleased to see how advanced Canada is with our sustainability initiatives. We’re not speaking exclusively from an environmental perspective, but also from a cultural and socio-economic perspective. Canadians are passionate about opportunities to incorporate all three of these pillars into event design.”
Important new MICE hotels and venues in Canada include Hotel-Musee Premieres Nations just outside Quebec City, which has been completely renovated and also expanded with a new wing that opened in spring 2023. “This is a one-of-a-kind luxury accommodation,” says Attersall. “Indigenous culture is artfully woven throughout the design of the property and there’s a museum, spa and traditional longhouse onsite.” In downtown Halifax, the new, 160-room Moxy Hotel is the flag’s first newbuild property in Canada. And in big convention center news, Calgary’s BMO Centre will open in June 2024 with over 1 million sf of space. The innovative new building will feature three floors of tradeshow and convention space, including new exhibition halls, two ballrooms and a central hub.
Opportunities for innovative group activities abound across Canada. Among them, only 15 minutes from Quebec City, Attersall recommends an immersive cultural activity at Wendake, home to the only Huron-Wendat Nation in the country. After an indigenous meal, the group meets up with a local artisan to learn how to make their own moccasins to bring home. The day ends with a visit to a traditional longhouse for local storytelling. In St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, participants in Lori McCarthy’s foraging tour learn about Newfoundlanders’ connection to culture through nature and food, while eating locally sourced fare including freshly caught cod and seal. Across the country on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the luxury outpost Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge welcomes groups for an unforgettable experience of the landscape and its wildlife. “Any visit here means staying in luxuriously appointed white canvas tents, in the style of turn-of-the-century prospectors, dotted among the region’s pristine old growth temperate rainforest,” says Attersall. A surprise helicopter ride takes groups to the top of a mountain, where a wellness coach leads breathing exercises and a plunge into a glacier pool. In Nunavut, an area of northern Canada known as the Arctic Kingdom, a hot air balloon ride over the arctic icebergs is a singular experience, notes Attersall. And throughout Canada, groups can learn how to make a coat with Pendleton blankets in a workshop with indigenous fashion designer Stephanie Crowchild of Stephanie Eagletail Designs. “Learning how to create a Pendleton coat is an authentic and enriching hands-on experience that allows participants to be immersed in a one-of-a-kind cultural experience,” says Attersall.
The above are just a sample of the innovative events and activities that Business Events Canada helps planners to design and implement. They can assist with impartial insights, introductions, bid assistance and planning tools.
Dallas has more hotel product in the pipeline than any other U.S. destination, notes Bradley Kent, sr. VP and chief sales officer for Visit Dallas.
“Over the next several years, we expect more than 20,000 rooms to be added to Dallas’ hotel inventory. And this is only the beginning of what planners have to look forward to. A new convention center, scheduled for completion in 2028, will drastically improve Dallas’ urban landscape and offer 2.5 million sf of space, 800,000 sf of exhibit space, a walkable entertainment district and easy access to public transportation.”
Groups have countless opportunities for immersive, innovative activities in Dallas. “Plenty of our hotels and restaurants offer customizable F&B experiences, but as the home of the frozen margarita, margarita making is distinctly Dallas,” says Kent. He points out that Dallas is home to several award-winning chefs. “One of them is Kent Rathbun, a 4-time James Beard Award nominee. He frequently opens his beautiful home and garden to groups for private tasting experiences.”
Kent also recommends a group gathering for high-tech shuffleboard, food and drink at Electric Shuttle in Deep Ellum, and a visit to the immersive art museum Sweet Tooth Hotel in downtown Dallas, which showcases work by local and national artists. “Groups visiting Sweet Tooth Hotel will be transported to a world of boundless imagination. This creative haven knows no bounds. Each year, the museum features new artists, ranging from fiber artists to those working in new media, who meticulously design each of its unique ‘hotel rooms.’”
Among the new hotels in Dallas are two important MICE properties that opened this year. Dallas’ first JW Marriott, in the heart of the city’s Arts District, features 267 guest rooms, three restaurants, a sky lobby, two ballrooms and meeting and conference areas. “The hotel’s most exquisite feature,” says Kent, “is a mid-air pool and deck with 40-ft ceilings, a sleek terrace bar, cabanas and an outdoor event space with stunning views of downtown.” Another Dallas first, from Harwood International, is the 134-room Hotel Swexan. “The 22-story boutique hotel reflects a fusion of Swiss and Texan cultures, embracing Texas charm and European elegance,” says Kent. There are three uniquely designed dining experiences, a rooftop infinity-edge pool, and 12,000 sf of meeting and event space with two grand ballrooms and three private meeting rooms.
Visit Dallas can assist planners to identify innovative group experiences and welcomes site visits. “We love for planners to experience firsthand what the attendee experience will be once they’re in Dallas.” says Kent. “All meetings and events are different, so we truly dive into the group’s demographics when deciding what activities will best elevate their experience. When planners come to Dallas for a site visit, we like to showcase what all of our hotels, venues and attractions have to offer—from a chef’s tasting to a mixology class to designing a custom cowboy hat.”
From five-star metropolitan hotels to waterfront retreats, Maryland offers cultural diversity and comfort to groups, says Rich Gilbert, travel trade sales manager, Maryland Office of Tourism. “Maryland is a fun destination filled with unique water- and land-based group activities,” he says. “Attendees can experience everything from driving along our 18 scenic byways to being on the water with a certified Chesapeake Bay storyteller to exploring a trail system second to none.” Additionally, Gilbert notes, Maryland is affordable and easy to get to.
Maryland’s sustainability and CSR efforts, continues Gilbert, are robust. The Baltimore Convention Center, for example, “continues to create new and innovative ways to support the community. Through their CSR initiatives, including the Sustainability Program, they service the community by diverting tons of potential debris from local landfills. The program also diverts edible food products, building supplies, furniture, school supplies and more. These items are made available to local organizations who work within the community to aid some of Baltimore’s most vulnerable populations.”
Innovative group venues include the Crossvines, “a multi-purpose facility in Poolesville that features a custom grape-crushing facility, a 250-seat banquet hall and a winery, with opportunities for groups to connect with and learn about the local winemaking and agritourism industries,” says Gilbert. He also recommends the Hagerstown Aviation Museum, home to the largest collection of Fairchild aircraft and memorabilia in the world.
There are many new MICE venues and hotels in the state. An expansion of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City was completed last year, adding 33,000 sf of exhibit space. In Baltimore, the M&T Bank Pavilion at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, with flexible event space for up to 1,500 people, reopened in spring 2023 after undergoing a $20 million renovation. Also in Baltimore, a $200 million redevelopment of the CFG Bank Arena is in its final stages.
New hotels have recently opened throughout the state as well. AC Hotel by Marriott Bethesda is a newbuild with 220 guest rooms and 3,100 sf of meeting space, including an outdoor terrace with views of downtown Washington, DC. Also in Bethesda, the 245-room Marriott Bethesda Downtown at Marriott HQ has 8,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space. The 700-room Great Wolf Lodge in Perryville is a new, $200 million, 44-acre lodge and waterpark with 7,500 sf of meeting space. In Ocean City, the former Clarion/Ocean City Fontainebleau Resort has renovated and rebranded as the 250-room Ashore Resort & Beach Club, and the former Dunes Manor Hotel has renovated and rebranded as Hilton Garden Inn Ocean City Beachfront. The new Hyatt Place Kent Island has 120 rooms and 5,000 sf of meeting space, while the new Rod & Reel Hotel/A Chesapeake Beach Resort & Spa has 3,000 sf of outdoor meeting space and two meeting rooms, and is adding a ballroom.
“The Maryland Office of Tourism offers destination expertise and suggestions for venues, properties and offsite activities for meetings and events,” says Gilbert. “We can also provide lead and RFP distribution to our Maryland DMO partners.”
Sweden and the Nordics (Denmark, Norway, Finland) offer a wide range of unconventional and innovative event spaces, says Magnus Lindbergh, founder, BoostSweden and BoostNordics. As well, “the region’s deep connection with nature offers options like forest retreats, lakeside meetings and wilderness excursions that provide a refreshing change from traditional event venues,” he notes. “Beautiful natural settings are often on the doorstep of bustling cosmopolitan cities like Copenhagen, Helsinki, Oslo and Stockholm.”
The famous Icehotel in Jukkasjarvi is just one example of the extraordinary winter experiences available in Sweden, says Lindbergh. “Event planners can arrange ice-themed gatherings that range from ice bars to ice sculpting workshops, or even host events inside ice chambers.” For events in northern Sweden, he recommends late September to early April, to coincide with the breathtaking northern lights. “Plan an outdoor evening gathering in a location with minimal light pollution for the best view.”
And culinary adventures abound year-round: “Nordic cuisine is undergoing a renaissance, with a strong focus on locally sourced, sustainable and innovative dishes,” Lindbergh says.
The Nordic region is also known for its sustainability initiatives. “Planners will be impressed by the eco-friendly options available, from venues with green certifications to carbon-neutral transportation choices,” says Lindbergh. Recommended event venues in Stockholm include the Vasa Museum, home to the world’s only preserved 17th century warship, and Stockholm Waterfront Conference Centre, overlooking the iconic Stockholm City Hall.
Among many innovative group events and activities in Stockholm is a boat trip to a charming island where attendees will learn the art of baking traditional Swedish cinnamon buns. Lindbergh also recommends a hands-on artistic workshop at Fotografiska Stockholm, one of the world’s top museums for contemporary photography and visual arts. “Participants can unleash their creativity by capturing Stockholm’s iconic skyline from the museum’s panoramic view, or create unique photographic artworks inspired by the museum’s exhibitions.” For an outdoor adventure, he suggests sea kayaking and an island picnic in the Stockholm Archipelago.
BoostSweden and BoostNordics offer a range of free services and resources to assist planners in finding innovative ideas and activities for their meetings and events in Sweden and the Nordics, says Lindbergh. Services include destination insights, customized itineraries, connecting planners with trusted local suppliers, assisting in setting up private cultural experiences, helping to incorporate eco-friendly practices and providing advice on integrating cutting-edge technology into meetings and events. They also partner with DMC Nordic to help planners create programs and activities tailored to specific group preferences and meeting objectives. “Today, our network boasts 36 partners, a tightly knit team of professionals that includes airlines, ferry companies, hotels, DMCs, attractions, activity companies, restaurants, venues and hotels,” says Lindbergh. “We aim to elevate every aspect of the meeting and incentive experience in Sweden and the Nordics.”
businessevents.destinationcanada.com; visitdallas.com/meetings-events; visitbritain.org/resources-event-planners; visitmaryland.org/group-travel; boostsweden.com/meetings-incentives