Perennial European destinations, returning Caribbean options and unexpected Asian attractions are among the international hot spots that meeting and incentive planners are most interested in now — and where they expect to bring their events in the coming year. Drawing on research and reports from industry organizations and our own interviews with industry leaders, these are the top international destinations for meetings and incentives now.
Top 10 International Cities for 2018
According to Global DMC Partners' 2018 Global Destination Index, the 10 top cities for meetings and incentives are:
Destinations on this continent dominated the 2018 Global Destination Index from Global DMC Partners' analysis of more than 6,000 meetings and incentive programs across 500 destinations. All 10 of the cities on its list of international destinations were European cities, with the top five spots held by traditional favorites: Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Stockholm and Vienna.
Mandy Espey, lead buyer – event purchasing and industry relations for ITA Group has found enduring interest in another classic European destination: London (which came in at No. 6 on Global DMC Partners' list). She recently had a U.S.–based client with an incentive program with meeting components in London that went over well. While this destination has always had appeal as a global hub for meetings and incentives, she was struck by how it "continues to reinvent" itself with new and updated offerings.
"For this client, we hosted a breakfast meeting at the Tower of London, inclusive of a private tour of the crown jewels by the infamous Beefeaters," she says. "We also bought out King Henry XIII's former palace, Hampton Court, for the Farewell Gala, which included an after party of dancing in the King's former beer cellar…I think the overarching message here is you can return to a destination multiple times if you're able to seek out personalized experiences that speak to your audience with offerings they could not have as a leisure guest."
Reykjavik, Iceland, is another option that continues to surge in popularity for meetings and events buyers, but for evolving reasons, according to Beau Ballin, senior director of business development for CWT Meetings & Events. He says that while the initial interest was mostly driven by increased and affordable airlift from North America, "the increased demand has been fueled by a social wave of Instagram photos from tourists at popular activity sites ranging from glacier hiking, hot springs, whale watching, cave tours and the Northern Lights. The destination delivers an experiential travel and unique venues with ease and accessibility."
Europe has its share of off-the-beaten-path options keeping planners' interest. Destinations management company Pacific World included the French city of Bordeaux in its recent list of five emerging destinations attracting meetings groups.
Lauren Berns, who organizes events for Continuing Education, Inc., which hosts educational conferences primarily aboard cruise ships, has seen "increased interest in our conferences that stop in Iceland and Ireland. A perennial favorite for us, cruise conferences out of Barcelona, are currently outperforming their typical good performance." She adds that cruises in general have become more attractive for attendees thanks to the new inventory coming online, such as the new Celebrity Edge ship debuting at the end of the year.
But river cruises continue to be a favorite way for groups to get around this continent, according to planners.
"The smaller, intimate size of the vessels allows the opportunity for smaller groups (under 200 attendees) to consider a ship buyout which is routinely attractive for group business," says Espey. "Having the flexibility to own all of the space, all cabin categories and the ability to brand the ship with company logos and/or program theming is ideal."
She adds that river cruising also appeals to the frequent traveler who has visited Europe numerous times and seeks out a different experience, allowing for visits to second- and third-tier regions/cities that would not make as much sense to visit via a land program, but works well as part of a port-of-call "day trip" experience.
"The ability to visit multiple countries on the same trip, yet still maintain control of your budget, guaranteed in USD (and not worry about the ever changing exchange rates and multiple currencies) is highly sought after," Espey adds.
Top Asia-Pacific Destinations
According to American Express Meetings & Events’ 2019 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, these are the destinations in the Asia-Pacific region where planners are excited to bring groups.
2. Sydney, Australia
3. Bangkok, Thailand
4. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
5. Hong Kong
6. Shanghai, China
7. Melbourne, Australia
8. New Delhi, India
9. Tokyo, Japan
10. Mumbai, India
Cate Banfield, senior director of event solution design and strategy at BCD Meetings & Events has been seeing what she calls, "a really interesting mix of destinations with our client events and we have seen a shift from some of the more traditional destinations like Spain, Ireland and Dominican Republic to some more unique locations." Among these has been Asian destinations like Singapore, which took the top spot on American Express Meetings & Events' list of top Asia-Pacific destinations for meetings in its 2019 Global Meetings and Events Forecast (followed by Sydney, Australia; Bangkok, Thailand; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Hong Kong).
"Singapore has been named one of the world's easiest places to do business and is highly regarded as a global commercial hub with a clean, safe and efficient infrastructure," says Banfield. "Although Singapore has flourished into a major meeting destination in Asia, the city is also a great option for incentives. Beyond the great infrastructure, the avant-garde city has plenty of unique facilities, fun and hip areas to explore, and many new attractions to discover and Singapore Airlines offers excellent lift from the US, exceptional service and a state of the art fleet."
Asian destinations took two out of the five spots on Pacific World's list of emerging destinations: The South Asian kingdom of Bhutan (the self-appointed Land of Happiness, recently awarded an Earth Award for its sustainable tourism development) and the Greater Bay Area along China's southern coast where a number of major projects are currently underway.
Natalie Zaborowski, senior project manager at Ashfield Meetings & Events, which specializes in events for healthcare professionals, has found the Japanese cities of Tokyo and Kyoto to be current favorites for the events she plans, and in both, "Attendees immersed themselves in the culture, cuisine and adapted to the harmonious lifestyle and created wonderful lifelong memories."
This pair of Japanese cities proved a good fit for a recent program run by Valerie Bihet, owner of event planner Vibe Agency.
"We did a key learning expedition in Japan. After having done the U.S., France and Germany, they wanted to do Asia," she says. The sales meeting in Kyoto, which "added a lot of flavor for people coming from all over the world who have never been to Japan. We did few dinners outside and tried to show them a bit of the country in a tight schedule. Then we took the train to Tokyo."
Middle East & Africa
This region continues to be more popular for incentive destinations, in particular. And among these visitors, Dubai remains a favorite.
"It has so many of the 'world's best,' it's logical to bring your best performers there," says Kelli Slonim, vice president of client services for meeting and incentive planner One10, citing its unbeatable opulence. "Emirates has many non-stop flights and continues to make the travel experience easier for meeting attendees. The hotel portfolio in Dubai provides numerous high-end options. The activities and experiences are unique and unlikely to be duplicated in other parts of the world."
Another favorite destination in this region is South Africa, where CWT Meetings & Events recently created a two-country, six-city itinerary for the Minnesota Orchestra and 90 of its most passionate supporters and patrons, to celebrate the centennial of former South African President Nelson Mandela.
"In South Africa, the group traveled from Cape Town to Durban, Pretoria to Soweto and finally, to Johannesburg. The program included 14 different attendee types, five safari lodges, three hotels, dozens of restaurants and activities, and a visit to the US embassy and consulate offices," explains Ballin. "Outreach was a major part of this travel experience, and South Africa is a destination for groups that embrace community, giving and celebration."
This is also a region full of unexpected attractions. Pacific World included the southern African destination of Namibia, with its wealth of natural riches and hot springs, on its list of emerging destinations, as well as the ancient Turkish city of Bodrum.
Caribbean & Latin America
The Caribbean remains a favorite destination for planners due to its proximity to the U.S., natural attractions and wide range of group accommodations. Global DMC Partners' 2019 Meetings and Incentive Destination Hot List, based on interest from meeting planners for programs scheduled for next year, includes a number of Caribbean destinations. Costa Rica and The Bahamas hold the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively, with Puerto Rico in at No. 4 and St. Lucia at No. 7.
ITA Group's Esprey has found Aruba to be resurfacing in popularity for several reasons. The fact it is outside the hurricane belt gives groups an added sense of security, while logistically, the fact that it allows for U.S. citizens to clear U.S. customs and immigration on island means flights from the island arrive as a domestic flight into the U.S. "This saves a tremendous amount of time for attendees having to connect again upon landing in the U.S.," she says, adding that, "The Aruba CVB office excels with promoting the island and offering incentives for group business."
One10's Slonim spotlights the Dominican Republic for its "good lift, short flight time from the east coast, nice all-inclusive hotels that help support event budgets, excellent staff that understand hospitality and execution." She's found it to be a great option for North America participants to get an international experience without the long distance travel.
Further south, the most popular meetings destinations in Central and South America, according to American Express Meetings & Events, were Rio de Janeiro, Mexico's Cancun/Riviera Maya, Mexico City, São Paulo and Cartagena, Colombia.
Several planners cited Peru, in particular the cities of Lima and Cusco, as options that had the interest of their groups. Bihet took a large group to Lima, Peru and came away impressed.
"We were outside every night for the dinners as we use the opportunity to make attendees test some of the best restaurant around the world, and of course a trip to Machu Picchu," she says. "You can't go to Lima without seeing Machu Picchu."