Known variously throughout its history as Byzantium, Constantinople and of course by its modern moniker, Istanbul has been a strategic epicentre and the point where east meets west for more than two and a half millennia. Having served as the capital of four empires, it has lost none of its geographical importance in modern times, and remains a major crossroads for trade, travel and ideology. Located on either side of the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, it’s the only city in the world to straddle two continents, and it’s difficult to imagine a place more replete with contrasts. Ancient Roman and Byzantine architecture sit side by side with monuments to Ottoman grandeur and modern economic might, while the minarets of more than 2,000 mosques pierce the skyline alongside the hulking outlines of conference centres and state-of-the-art malls. Fanatical support for Istanbul’s famous Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Be?ikta? football teams runs as high as the city’s passion for eating out, drinking and dancing, and while Ankara might be Turkey’s capital, there’s no doubting which city holds the reins as the financial and cultural centre.
Location, location, location
Modern Istanbul is the pulsating cosmopolitan city at the vanguard of Turkey’s rise to prominence on the world stage. With steady growth for the past decade, the country is now the world’s 18th largest economy, according to a June report by the World Bank. Not without its problems, as recent political protests highlighted, it is nonetheless a fascinating nation with heritage, natural beauty and hospitality to rival anywhere in the world. Istanbul, too, ranks among the world’s greatest cities, and one in which you can be sure of a warm welcome. Indeed, as Can Dogusal, marketing communications manager at ODS Turkey destination management agency, puts it: “Turks believe that visitors should be treated as guests sent by God.”
If the welcomes are divine, then so is the connectivity: Istanbul is less than four hours’ flight from all major European capitals and around 10 hours or less from the major Asian hubs. Turkish Airlines has invested heavily in the expansion and improvement of its network in recent years and now serves 229 destinations in 100 countries, giving the national carrier the world’s fourth biggest flight network. The airline, which has been named European Airline of the year for three successive years by Skytrax, has also sought to innovate and push the envelope in terms of customer service and design. It even offers free, guided tours of Istanbul for passengers with time to spare between their connections. According to Can Gökta?, regional director of sales, Turkey and Southern Europe at Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, the city is feeling the benefits of the airline’s strategy. “Istanbul has become the hub of transit passengers,” says Gökta?, who sees a growing number of business travellers using Istanbul as the transit point between Asia and destinations in Europe and the US. Gökta? also notes the popularity of the Istanbul-Singapore and Istanbul-Bangkok routes, and Turkey has also seen a rise in visitors from China thanks to direct code-share flights between Turkish Airlines and Air China.
While, like any major city, traffic can be a problem, Istanbul’s infrastructure is generally good and set to improve further thanks to forthcoming bridge and tunnel projects complement the two existing bridges that cross the Bosphorus. Taxis, meanwhile, are relatively inexpensive, and the possibility of using private boats or water taxis means there are always various transport options available for groups and individual travellers.
Many major hotel chains are present, and most offer conference and meeting facilities. The city also has three main dedicated conference centres. The Istanbul Congress Center is the newest and largest, with seven floors, 119,500 sqm of floor space and an auditorium that has a capacity for 3,700 guests. The Istanbul Convention & Exhibition Centre, meanwhile, offers the only space in the city where 3,500 guests can sit down together for a five-star gala dinner. Both are located close to the city’s major hub, Taksim Square. Also centrally located on the banks of the Golden Horn, a buzzing district that sits on the edge of an estuary, sits Halic Congress Center, which can accommodate up to 3,000 people and features a 447 sqm stage with orchestra pit. The venue is an ideal choice for planners arranging ceremonies, product launches and live shows.
“Istanbul has everything [needed] to compete on the world stage in the MICE business,” says Renaissance Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel sales & marketing manager Gaye Azami. She points to International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) statistics that rank the city as the ninth most popular destination for congress business in the world – Istanbul hosted 128 such events in 2012 – and the number one destination for congresses above 500 people.
With the exception of Rome, there is perhaps no other city in the world with such a treasure trove of ancient cultural sites that sit amid the hustle and bustle of modern city life. Many of Istanbul’s most essential attractions are gathered around Sultanahmet, making it easy to visit several in one sweep. The Hagia Sophia museum and Blue Mosque are architectural treasures not to be missed, while the Topkapi Palace delivers a fascinating insight into how the sultans lived at the height of the Ottoman Empire. If you need a cool escape from the heat, head to the Basilica Cistern, an eerily beautiful subterranean reservoir featuring 336 marble columns and dating back to the 6th century. And for those with a passion for classical sculpture, the Istanbul Archeological Museums house an incredible collection of more than one million ancient objects across three museum buildings, including a magnificent sarcophagus depicting Alexander the Great.
Elsewhere in the city, there’s the ornate Dolmabahce Palace in Besiktas, the residence of the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which commands the same view across the Bosphorus as the growing contingent of five-star hotels in the area. And don’t miss the Kariye Museum – also known as the Chora Church – in Fatih, home to one of the most stunning collections of Byzantine mosaics and frescoes in the world.
From ancient landmarks to hip modern venues, planners are spoiled for choice when it comes to spectacular locations to host events here. Ciragan Palace Kempinski is a popular choice due to its sumptuous architecture and lush gardens. The hotel can host a terrace cocktail for 1,000 and dinner for 800. It’s also possible to hold similarly-sized dinners at a 1,500-year-old Roman cistern or within the Grand Bazaar, while, with special permission, you can take the prestige factor up another few notches at Beylerbeyi and Dolmabahce palaces or the Istanbul Archeology Museums. The museum gardens, for example, can host receptions of up to 1,000 people and cultural events for 500 guests between the months of May and October.
Thanks to the Ottoman Empire, the city is blessed with a raft of picturesque private residences and palaces that date from the 19th century or earlier, and many can be hired out, including Sait Halim Pasha Waterfront Residence, the Küçüksu, Adile Sultan and Y?ld?z Palaces and the Sait Halim Pasha Mansion. Esma Sultan Palace in Ortakoy, meanwhile, is a 200-year-old brick mansion that caught fire in 1975 but has been partially restored and complemented by glass and steel features to create a dramatic setting for an evening soiree. For something more contemporary, the Istanbul Modern Art Museum can be taken over for private events, while the man-made island of Suada features a swimming pool and restaurant and bar facilities for up to 600 people, all in the middle of the Bosphorus.
Work hard, play hard
As with any city on the water, boat cruises are a popular option, and these can be as large or intimate as you desire. It’s also possible to arrange dragon boating to show off those Hong Kong sporting skills, or to take in the Bosphorus from the comfort of a helicopter tour. Games and tours based around the Grand Bazaar are another way to get your group interacting with the city, while a traditional whirling dervish show is truly a sight to behold. Or for something really different, why not arrange a dinner at a table suspended 50 metres above the ground with event planner Dinner in the Sky. The company has previously hosted a similar moonlit party for Peugeot over the harbour.
While such lavish settings and one-of-a-kind attractions might sound expensive, the favourable exchange rate of the Turkish lira means that costs can be less than you might expect. “Istanbul overall is still a value for money destination,” says Eda Ozden, director of business development at MEP DMC. “Our accommodation can get a bit expensive at certain times of the season but wining and dining costs and all ground handling costs are very competitive. And the quality of service is so high over here that the value you get for the same amount you’d spend in Europe
Every major destination within Turkey can be easily reached from Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, so it’s easy to add on a two-night/three-day night side-trip after the main business has been concluded. There are Aegean coastal gems and ancient ruins aplenty in the southwest (including Ephesus, Fethiye and Ka?), and Cappadocia in Central Anatolia, just over an hour’s flight from Istanbul, is another great incentive option to round out your Turkey trip.
This local tour operator can arrange hot air balloon rides, hiking, mountain-biking and 4×4 all-terrain-vehicle tours in Cappadocia in Central Anatolia just over an hour’s flight from Istanbul. Here, strange rock formations define the landscape and vast underground cities and centuries-old cave churches with jaw-dropping frescoes can be explored. The tour group also offers an unusual take on golf where players have to negotiate a notional course amid the rock formations and strike their ball into a net rather than a hole (crossgolf.com.tr).
This firm has helped create unique itineraries and events for clients including McDonalds, GE Capital, Fuji Film, Nike, LG, Samsung, Mercedes-Benz, Deutsche Bank and the Consumer Goods Forum.
Boasting more than 35 years’ of experience, MEP have worked with the likes of Adidas, Barclays, Citibank, Ford, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Microsoft, UBS and Pfizer.
This DMC offers escorted land tours, daily excursions and custom group tours, including “Turkish Delight”, which takes in Istanbul’s spice markets the volcanic valleys of Cappodocia and the ruins of Ephesus among other stop-offs.
Arranges special interest trips such as golfing programmes, cruising and rafting tours and spa and thalasso therapies.
Both a Professional Conference Organisation (PCO) and Destination Management Company (DMC), Gemini can help set up everything from small symposiums to international conferences.
Opened in May, the hotel is housed in a heritage building that was formerly a tobacco warehouse and is in prime position next to Dolmabahce Palace. It offers 186 rooms and suites, many with views of the Bosphorus, plus two ballrooms and all the dining, banqueting and conference facilities you would expect. The hotel boasts various touches that will satisfy Asian visitors looking for home comforts, from congee at the breakfast buffet to a variety of Asian languages spoken by the staff. Shangri-La expects the strength of the brand in Asia to be a significant advantage in attracting Asian visitors.
The Ciragan Palace Hotel Kempinski
Previously the residence of Turkish sultans, the hotel now attracts royalty and heads of state. The regal feeling is most pronounced in the Palace suites, which feature vaulted ceilings, elegant antiques and lavish textiles that recall the opulence of the Ottoman era.
The hotel is at perennial favourite with planners thanks to its Bosphorus-side location and abundant meeting facilities, with 20 meeting rooms to choose from, the largest of which can accommodate up to 1,000 people. The hotel is also celebrated for its plush grand ballroom.
Featuring 244 guest rooms including 57 Ritz-Carlton club level rooms, the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul has more than 2,403 square metres of meeting space spread over a mezzanine level and ballroom level. The largest room is the Ritz-Carlton Ballroom, which measures in at 695 sqm and can house receptions for up to 650 people. Its attractive location overlooking the Bosphrous is another advantage.
Hilton Istanbul Bomonti Hotel & Conference Center
Set to open in February 2014 in the central area of Sisli adjacent to the former Bomonti Beer Factory, this is a great option for large groups as it will have 840 rooms and more than 20 events spaces, including a main ballroom with a capacity for 3,200 people theatre-style and 1,600 delegates for a banquet. The Istanbul Congress Center and the Lufti Kirdar Congress Center are both 2km away.
Jumeriah Pera Palace
For a more boutique experience, the 83-room Jumeirah Pera Palace in Beyo?lu is a gorgeous 118-year-old building that has previously hosted Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock. Granted museum status in 1981 when room 101 was converted into the Atatürk Museum, a tribute to the founder of modern Turkey, the hotel has five function rooms, the largest of which is the Grand Pera Ballroom that can host up to 120 guests.