[ON LOCATION] BARBARA SCOFIDIO
When it comes to hosting international congresses, Vienna has dominated the ratings for years. The city just did so again in 2023, taking first place worldwide in the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) City Ranking, ahead of Lisbon and Paris, with 162 hosted meetings.
With a top-notch convention bureau and three major exhibition centers—Hofburg Conference Centre (the former principal imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty); Messe Wien, the biggest trade fair in Austria; and the tech-forward Austria Center, located adjacent to the United Nations complex—it’s easy to see why. During our visit in September, the same week that two major conventions were in town (the European Petrochemical Association’s Annual Meeting at the Hilton Vienna Park and the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attraction’s European Expo at Messe Wien), we witnessed firsthand this city’s mastery as a convention hub. Vienna was packed to the brim with convention delegates, with many hotels at 100 percent occupancy.
We were also there to explore Vienna’s limitless possibilities for incentive groups. Top-tier incentive-quality properties range from the historic—such as our host, the Grand Hotel Wien, centrally located steps away from all the Imperial sights (and the shopping)—to the stylish Park Hyatt Vienna, opened in the former Austrian Hungarian Monarchy Bank building. Its jaw-dropping pool is located inside what used to be the safe, and the giant safe door has been restored as a showpiece. We also stayed just steps away from Belvedere Palace, one of the city’s top historic sights, at the soaring Andaz Vienna am Belvedere, just opened in 2019. This luxury lifestyle hotel showcases a brilliant collection of local art and sculpture, and its Nordic-style rooftop bar is the perfect spot to relax in the evenings, with firepits, cozy shearling-lined furniture and sparkling city views.
A must-do for incentive groups is a guided tour of the city’s architectural gems lining the Ringstrasse, considered by many to be the most beautiful boulevard in the world. The 3-mile street was master-planned as a setting for museums, performance venues, palaces and parks, including the world-renowned Vienna State Opera, which opened in May of 1869 with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” After a day steeped in Austro-Hungarian history and seemingly endless crystal chandelier sightings, attendees might enjoy a traditional gourmet dinner in the midst of the Museum of Applied Arts at Salon Plafond, or at Meissl & Schadn, known for its must-try local favorite, Wienerschnitzel fried in lard.
Our hosts sprinkled the agenda with exclusive experiences for incentive groups of all flavors. A favorite that would appeal to a younger demographic—and risk takers of any age, including this writer—is a ride on Platform Number 9, a glass platform with no sides, on the world’s first Ferris wheel at the vintage Prater amusement park. You’re secured only by a harness attached to the bar above as the huge wheel does a full rotation, with views for miles at the apex (if you’re not too terrified to open your eyes).
A visit to the home of so many famous composers—among them Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Strauss, Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn and, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven—would not be complete without an evening of music, and our group enjoyed a charming performance by Alma Deutscher, an 18-year-old genius composer and pianist, at the city’s historic Konzerthaus. Another bucket list opportunity available for groups is a visit to watch the graceful Lipizzan stallions during their morning training session at the famous Spanish Riding School. We were even able to get behind the scenes in the stables with the horses. As with most venues in the city, meeting planners can work through the Vienna Convention Bureau to rent all or part of the majestic building for a group function.
A little-known secret of Austria is its wine region, situated on the hills on both sides of the Danube River. A short half-hour drive and it feels as if you’re in the countryside, though the region is still technically part of Vienna proper. We had the chance to travel to this area twice—once for a traditional country-style buffet dinner at a local Heuriger, Fuhrgassl-Huber, which has been family-owned since 1683, and again for lunch at the Rondell Cafe, with spectacular panoramic views of the city below. After a peek at the adjacent Weitsicht Cobenzl, a function facility with room for up to 2,600 persons (indoors and outdoors), we finished off the afternoon at Coblenz Winery. Austrian wines are not imported to the U.S. and, as such, are a rare treat to experience. The cellars also include a charming room for intimate wine dinners, and the winery can host receptions for up to 150.
Of course, the definition of incentive travel is to create an experience that seasoned winners—who have likely seen and done it all—could never create on their own. Our hosts did exactly that, topping off our trip to Vienna with an exquisite dinner in a private glass room atop the elegant restaurant DO&CO, overlooking one of the most iconic Catholic churches in Europe, St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Sprinkle in a week of summer-like weather in late September and a brilliant full moon—just for us—and we could not have imagined a more perfect showcase of Vienna’s incentive possibilities.