Connecting with culture has become a mainstay of MICE activities. “We are seeing a demand for more cultural immersion in incentive programs,” confirms Claire Lester, design strategist, Maritz. “More and more, people are looking to travel to provide transformational experiences. They want to connect with a destination on a more personal and authentic level.”
Lester has seen an increased interest in destinations with strong brands that have a triad of purpose, passion and place. And, for any type of meeting, she says that “CVBs serve as cultural ambassadors of the city, aligning their partners to the destination’s brand, values and personality.”
The six destinations featured in this story are very different from each other. But what Australia, California, Disney Meetings & Events, Malta, Miami and New Orleans share is a strong sense of place and an array of opportunities for planners to create culturally immersive and creative group experiences.
“The uniqueness of both our ancient and modern culture stems from the fact that we are home to the world’s oldest continuous living culture on Earth,” says Robin Mack, Tourism Australia’s executive general manager of commercial and business events Australia. “Spanning more than 60,000 years, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are diverse, and so are the experiences they offer.”
There are hundreds of singular and unexpected ways for groups to experience Australia from a cultural perspective, Mack says. Among them, groups of up to 50 people can explore Australian indigenous art and culture on an exclusive tour, storytelling and indigenous dining experience at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, two riverside galleries located side-by-side in the Queensland Cultural Centre in Brisbane (collectively known as QUAGOMA). In Sydney, small groups can gain a unique perspective of the city on the Burrawa Indigenous Climb Experience atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge. New in Australia’s Northern Territory, groups of up to 130 people can watch more than 1,000 drones take flight at Ayers Rock Resort’s spectacular, immersive light and sound show called Wintjiri Wiru. In the Great Barrier Reef, a new immersive group activity from Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel, called Reef Recovery Days, teaches traditional ecological reef management and includes a hands-on conservation experience.
As well, “Australia continues to enjoy an impressive infrastructure boom,” says Mack, “with almost 200 new hotels opening across the country since January 2020, adding approximately 19,000 rooms to the country’s portfolio. There’s still more to come including the Dorsett in Brisbane, St. Regis Gold Coast and the Waldorf Astoria in Sydney.”
Among hotels and venues that Mack cites for their cultural relevance is the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new North Building in Sydney, which has five flexible event spaces that can accommodate up to 1,000 for a cocktail reception; the architecturally striking 585-room W Sydney overlooking Darling Harbour with 14,079 sf of event space; the 257-room Ritz-Carlton in Melbourne, opened in March 2023 and featuring more than 1,000 pieces of art from 12 different artists; and THE LUME in Melbourne, with multi-sensory immersive galleries available for private events of up to 1,000.
“These are just a few examples of what’s available in Australia,” says Mack, “and there are plenty more in the pipeline.” The Business Events Australia website has a range of resources to assist planners, including sample program itineraries, case studies on past events and the incentive publication Australia Next. “In addition to information on diverse Australia-wide products and experiences, the website also includes invaluable guidance for planners on how to incorporate indigenous culture into their event,” Mack notes. He also points to Tourism Australia’s Signature Experiences Program, featuring specific cultural experiences such as Cultural Attractions of Australia and Discover Aboriginal Experiences, which offer diverse business event options for planners. “Our dedicated Business Events team based in North America, Eric Edmunds and Chris Achacoso, can connect MICE planners to Australian industry operators, including 17 convention bureaus throughout the country, who are experts in delivering outstanding cultural experiences in their respective destinations,” he concludes.
There are countless ways for groups to connect with the diverse cultural uniqueness of California, says Caroline Beteta, president & CEO, Visit California. For example, only in California can groups attend an event within the backdrop of countless iconic films and television shows, she says. As well, singular outdoor activities and open-air event venues abound throughout the state, including along the breathtaking Pacific Coast. In San Diego, Beteta recommends checking out the new, open-air Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on the San Diego waterfront and Trapeze School at the iconic Santa Monica Pier. For fresh mountain air and beautiful vistas, there’s Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes.
Groups meeting in California can also experience its singular wine culture, from the rolling hills of wine country to the walkability of urban wine trails. Notes Beteta: “From Southern California up the coast and into the foothills, California has 148 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) across 49 of our 58 counties, with meeting possibilities from barrel rooms to tasting rooms to out in the vineyards.”
Many distinctly California hotels and venues have recently opened or are in the pipeline, advises Beteta. In Los Angeles, the dual-branded AC Hotel Downtown Los Angeles and Moxy Downtown Los Angeles opened in April 2023 with a total of 727 rooms and 13,000 sf of meeting space. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened in fall 2021 as the largest institution in the U.S. devoted to moviemaking and the 300,000-sf Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is due to open in 2025.
Recommended new venues in San Francisco include the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco (ICA SF) and The Presidio Tunnel Tops, both opened in 2022. New hotels in the city include the boutique LINE SF and LUMA Hotel San Francisco.
In San Diego, the landmark Lafayette Hotel & Club re-opened in July after a $31 million renovation. For casual luxury with California coastal vibes, Beteta recommends the 295-room Pendry Newport Beach, due to open this September. Drift Palm Springs opened in March 2023, the 21-acre Palm Springs Surf Club is opening later this year and The Thompson Palm Springs is due to open in late 2023. And groups visiting Palm Springs shouldn’t miss the new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum for a cultural experience, recommends Beteta. The Smithsonian-affiliated museum focuses on the Cahuilla people of the Coachella Valley and the complex includes The Spa at Sec-he, with 22 private mineral baths for the taking of legendary spring waters.
For more cultural inspiration and destination options, planners can reference visitcalifornia.com, and reach out to the team for a connection with the right California destination for their group. “Each area is eager to showcase their distinct identity and unique cultural offerings,” says Beteta. “Meeting planners can work with these destinations to create experiences such as partnering with local chefs and vendors, touring historic and significant landmarks and tapping into the local arts and culture scene.”
“At Disney Meetings & Events, we’re committed to bringing people together with innovative and memorable experiences so attendees can connect with each other in unforgettable ways,” says Mary Kreins, sr. national sales director. “Creativity, innovation, and a legacy of curiosity have been at the heart of The Walt Disney Company since its inception 100 years ago, and they’re still a driving force behind what we do today.”
Disney is also committed to creating a better world through sustainability efforts, adds Kreins. For example, “many theme park vehicles use alternative fuels to reduce greenhouse emissions, and Walt Disney World continues to expand its use of solar energy with solar facilities that can produce enough renewable energy to power up to 40 percent of its total annual energy consumption.”
Disney’s unique culture and creativity infuse every event at resorts and theme parks. For a few “only at Disney” examples, Kreins cites exclusive, after-hours access to the Avengers Campus at Disneyland Resort, where attendees have a heroic encounter with super heroes from across time and space as they train the next generation of super heroes. At Walt Disney World Resort, she recommends an immersive after party surrounded by the bioluminescent nature, mystical rivers and mountains that defy gravity at Pandora—The World of Avatar. And only at Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina on the leeward coast of O’ahu, “can groups embrace everything Hawaii is famous for—culture, beauty and tradition—while also experiencing a sunset beach reception with a touch of Disney magic,” she says.
Nothing says “special” or “VIP” to attendees more than having a world-famous Disney attraction, venue or land privatized just for them, continues Krieins. “Disney theme parks offer unique, elaborately themed locations for hosting events—everything from an adventure-filled reception at the base of Mount Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to a glittering Hollywood glam party on Sunset Boulevard at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. At Disneyland Resort, there are seven enchanting lands at Disney California Adventure Park where meeting planners can host a morning or evening event. These are places where the stories of Disney, Pixar and more come to life. The beach at Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa is one of the few resorts in Hawaii that can offer a dinner or reception on a private beach with stunning sunset views. Our talented cast members work closely with meeting planners to create the right environment, customized experiences and personal touches to engage and inspire attendees.”
With access to thousands of props, set designs and decor, Disney Meetings & Events can also execute imaginative and creative concepts inside Disney attractions, adds Kreins. For example, she recommends a Haunted Mansion-themed dinner, which creates a unique atmosphere for attendees to network and connect with each other. And hosting a meeting or incentive program on a Disney Cruise Line ship is another great way to create a singular experience, she says, complete with spectacular entertainment, world-class dining and renowned Disney guest service all on board stunning ships.
“Regardless of the Disney destination they choose, meeting planners can rest assured knowing their programs will be flawlessly executed by Disney Meetings & Events, and their attendees and guests will have a memorable experience,” Kreins concludes.
The tiny Mediterranean archipelago of Malta is rich with storied history that goes back more than 8,000 years. “Malta in itself is an open-air museum,” says Michelle Buttigieg, representative North America, Malta Tourism Authority.
“Wherever in Malta attendees find themselves, they will be surrounded by thousands of years of history and culture,” she says. From the enormous Ggantija Temples built more than 5,500 years ago and recognized by UNESCO as the world’s oldest free-standing structures to the fortified capital city of Valetta built by the Order of St John in 1566, Malta immerses visitors with its ancient multicultural vibe, “partly as a result of its location and partly from being conquered and ruled by different nations,” says Buttigieg. Malta was ruled by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights Templars, French
and finally the British. Since 1964, the country has been an independent Parliamentary republic.
Due to Malta’s small size, groups can experience a full itinerary here in a short time, notes Buttigieg. English is one of Malta’s official languages, making communication easy, and the year-round sunny climate is well-suited for outdoor events that easily connect to the country’s singular culture. For example, planners can opt for a reception at one of the outdoor venues at Fort St. Angelo, a splendid Maltese landmark rebuilt by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, or plan a group yoga session at the Hagar Qim, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to between 3600 and 3200 B.C. Another historic venue is the 16th-century Mediterranean Conference Centre, which also houses the Knights Hospitallers Museum.
Heritage Malta is the country’s national agency for museums, conservation practice and cultural heritage, with a portfolio of archaeological sites, baroque auberges and palaces, catacombs, forts, natural landscapes and UNESCO-listed Neolithic monuments. For catered group events, Heritage Malta recently introduced Taste History menus serving traditional Maltese food carefully curated by a team of professional Maltese chefs. “The chefs recreate culinary delights in the actual venues where Inquisitors, Corsairs, Knights, and Libertines once dined,” Buttigieg notes.
Among Malta’s MICE hotels is the new AX ODYCY, a 600-room property in Qawra. Due to open in 2024, the seaside, 370-room Hard Rock Hotel Malta is located in a renovated 19th-century British military building and will have the largest convention center on the island.
The Malta Tourism Authority stands ready to help planners create cultural events with a wow factor, says Buttigieg. She suggests lunch or dinner in Upper Barrakka Gardens, with breathtaking views over Valletta’s Grand Harbour and Vittoriosa’s Grand Harbour Marina; an “In Guardia” Knights of Malta ceremony for a top incentive qualifier or corporate executive, who will be knighted by the grandmaster; and a private event at The Manuel Theatre, built in 1732 by Grandmaster Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. As Malta’s National Theatre “the Manuel is rightly considered a crown jewel in the beautiful capital of Valletta,” she says. “As one of the oldest theaters in the world, it showcases the beauty and history of true Maltese artistry and craftsmanship.”
“We all know that travel can act as a connector that uncovers culture, community, places and diversity, says Carol Motley, sr. VP, convention sales and services at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “The Greater Miami and Miami Beach area is ripe with culture and diversity, and is the largest majority-minority county in the U.S. From glittering South Beach and bohemian Coconut Grove to vibrant hubs of Latin, Black and Caribbean heritage, each neighborhood in Miami stands as a one-of-a-kind destination worth exploring.”
Vibrancy and color permeate every aspect of the city and immerse attendees in a joyful world of art, music and food, notes Motley. “Wynwood, for example, is adorned with exuberant murals, an electric atmosphere and a vibrant fusion of trendy breweries, bars, restaurants and art galleries. And groups can experience many vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, she says, from the Cuban culture along Calle Ocho in Little Havana to the vibrant Black culture of historic Overtown just northwest of Downtown Miami to the flourishing art scene and Caribbean marketplace in Little Haiti. Only-in-Miami group experiences range from salsa dancing lessons to an event in the groundbreaking, experiential art museum Superblue that opened in 2021. As well, groups in Greater Miami and Miami Beach can savor an array of culinary innovation, Motley notes. “The recently released Michelin guide for Florida, with a special focus on Miami, makes it effortless for planners to discover remarkable culinary options.” Adding to its culinary fame, Miami earned the title of 2023 Food City of the Year’’ from Bon Appetit in March earlier this year.
New on the Miami hotel and venue scene is the 217-room Arlo Wynwood hotel, the area’s first. In Coral Gables, the 242-room Loews Coral Gables Hotel opened in November 2022 with 30,000 sf of meeting and event space and 2022 also saw the re-opening of the iconic, 179-room Mayfair House Hotel & Garden in Coconut Grove. Motley also recommends the new Rum Room & Venu in Miami Beach, on the Miami Beach Convention Center campus.
“Collaborating with GMCVB goes beyond simply providing support for exceptional events,” says Motley. “We deliver a meaningful impact by infusing Miami’s vibrant culture into every moment. The GMCVB’s Meetings and Convention Sales team boasts an unparalleled understanding of the area’s abundant offerings, and a network of team members stands ready to assist MICE planners.” An added resource for planners, “The GMCVB’s Multicultural Tourism & Development department is dedicated to showcasing the incredible diversity of Greater Miami and Miami Beach’s multicultural communities, attractions and events.”
“New Orleans has a proud history of creativity and innovation, which is as evident in our business communities as it is in our food, music, art and culture,” says Stephanie Turner, sr. VP of convention sales & strategies for New Orleans & Company. As well, “the compact footprint and variety of lodging options creates an electric and exciting atmosphere that can be felt throughout the city. From large, complex events to vibrant, intimate gatherings, all are welcome in New Orleans. We are a city that’s ‘Built to Host.’”
New Orleans’ 300 years of history is rich with myriad cultural influences, adds Turner, from Native American to African, Cuban to French, Spanish to Sicilian. “Much of that multicultural history is apparent in the city’s architecture, anecdotes and incredible cuisine.”
Creative group activities include chartering a private fishing boat just off the coast of New Orleans for a group outing and then serving up the day’s catch, prepared by a local chef; an only-in-New Orleans teambuilding competition where groups build their own Mardi Gras mini-floats; private receptions in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at New Orleans Museum of Art; and a corporate playdate at the newly renovated Louisiana Children’s Museum. There are endless opportunities for groups to tap into iconic New Orleans culture, says Turner, from private ghost tours to exclusive concerts by New Orleans’ musical legends.
New hotels in the city include several opened in 2021: the hip, 238-room Virgin Hotels New Orleans, the 341-room Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans and the boutique Hotel St. Vincent. In the pipeline to open in 2024, the 340-room Nobu Hotel New Orleans is part of a $325 million renovation of Harrah’s New Orleans into Caesars New Orleans.
New offsite venues include the afore-mentioned Louisiana Children’s Museum located in the lush 1,300-acre New Orleans City Park; the Audubon Aquarium of Americas and Insectarium on the Mississippi River; the city’s latest “sky high attraction,” Vue Orleans; and the National WWII Museum, which in November is opening the highly anticipated Liberation Pavilion. “The November celebration will mark the completion of the $400 million Road to Victory Capital Campaign that has propelled the extraordinary growth of the museum’s campus from one exhibit hall to seven pavilions over the past two decades,” notes Turner.
How can planners tap in to all this cultural richness? “New Orleans & Company can identify unique and captivating tours for groups to learn more about our history and culture, from Mardi Gras mambo tours to destination kitchen tours to cemetery tours,” says Turner. “We can also help MICE planners to identify creative leaders in our local arts community to perform, be a panelist or speaker, serve as an event host and even be a trainer in a team building exercise.”
businessevents.australia.com; visitcalifornia.com/meetings; disneymeetingsandevents.com; visitmalta.com/en/vmim; miamiandbeaches.com/miami-meetings; neworleans.com/meeting-planners