There is something about arriving in Barcelona that immediately puts the visitor at ease. Whether it’s the sight of the Mediterranean lapping at the sweep of Port Olímpic (Olympic Harbour), the lush parks and gardens glimpsed from one’s trundling airport bus, the rambunctious activities along La Rambla – arguably the city’s most popular tourist neighbourhood – or merely the wide smile of a hotel receptionist welcoming a stranger, the sensation is unmistakable. Barcelona feels like a lot of fun.
Like many European hubs, Barcelona boasts a rich heritage. Established as a Roman outpost over 2,000 years ago, and later becoming an important addition to the Kingdom of Aragon, the coastal enclave has remained a travellers’ must-see for its enduring combination of high culture, quirky architecture and laid-back ethos.
Through the years, Barcelona seems to have had a knack for reinvention and raising its profile. In 1888, it was the site of Spain’s first international trade fair, the Exposición Universal de Barcelona, followed in 1929 by the Barcelona International Exposition. Then, just when the city needed a compelling reason to rejuvenate what had become a predictable skyline, the International Olympic Committee – then headed by Barcelona native Juan Antonio Samaranch – awarded it the plum hosting of the 1992 Summer Games.
Since then, Barcelona has powered forward, adding briskly to its arsenal of attractions, a number of which provide impressive settings for all types of business events. The Forum Zone, opened in 2004 in the new Diagonal area, boasts some of the largest congress and hotel facilities in Europe; medieval and late 19th-century structures have been spruced up and converted into chic post-conference options, while deluxe hotel chains such as Mandarin Oriental, Le Meridien, The Ritz-Carlton and W have established residency in prominent locations. While Antoni Gaudi’s beloved Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) church remains Barcelona’s foremost landmark, other imaginative edifices are starting to share the stage. These include Jean Nouvel’s iridescent Torre Agbar, headquarters of the local water company and Enric Massip’s triangular Torre Diagonal Zero Zero, seat of Telefonica Spain.
Mercedes García, marketing manager, Barcelona Turisme Convention Bureau (BTCB), says her city’s transformation over the past two decades reflects “a dynamic and pioneering spirit as well as the drive and capacity for innovation of a young society”.
“We’ve been ranked as one of the top five meeting destinations in the world since 2001, and even reached first position in the past,” she adds. “And we’ll keep promoting Barcelona as a meeting and incentive destination to maintain that good reputation in the years to come.”
The weather and variety of activities have also contributed a great deal to Barcelona’s popularity with the events and exhibitions community. Cristina de Seras, director, Barcelona Business Pass, observes that the weather is “mostly nice throughout the year”, although she recommends still making a Plan B, especially for alfresco affairs, in case of unexpected rain.
Given the plethora of activities the city and its environs are capable of presenting, those DMCs (destination management companies) Mix interviewed all agree that they could cater to a range of interests and inclinations. Summing up the business climate, Vanessa Lopez, senior project executive of Pacific World Spain, says without a hint of braggadocio: “We are open to all kinds of business… we welcome everyone.”
Crossing cultural divides
The markets that every tourism-driven destination covets – China and India – have found their way to the Catalan gateway. Barcelona’s El Prat de Llobregat Airport now boasts refreshed facilities such as the gleaming Ricardo Bofill-designed Terminal 1. With its enhancements, El Prat is working to boost connectivity, scoring a coup when it enticed Singapore Airlines to use it as a stopover point on its way to Saô Paulo from the Lion City. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Chinese carriers came next, considering their unceasing expansion in recent times.
In July of last year, Lopez’s Pacific World Spain designed an itinerary for a group of over 200 insurance executives from AXA Shanghai, which kicked off with an elegant gala dinner at the former stock exchange, the venerable Casa Llotja de Mar, featuring an opening speech by the company’s chief executive. Lopez recalls: “The Chinese clients love to dress up, and enjoy very typical Spanish entertainment like the Flamenco.” (The dance, by the way, is not a Catalan tradition but hails from Andalucía.)
Catering to non-traditional clientele has allowed local DMCs to learn valuable cross-cultural lessons. Chinese travellers have idiosyncrasies, Lopez realised, including an aversion to too much walking and intense loyalty to Chinese cuisine. “They are happy to eat Chinese food daily,” she notes. Fortunately, a slew of authentic Chinese restaurants as well as Thai, Indian and Vietnamese have cropped up around the city, reports Elisabeth Martinez, director of Iberoservice, “which offer excellent dining options”.
Indian visitors also prefer to stick with what they know, their dhals and curries. Nightlife and clubbing appeal to them as well. But both nationalities share a passion for shopping (as do most Asians), the planners have learned, pointing them to La Roca Village, a member of the Chic Outlet Shopping chain, 40 minutes from the city centre near the French border, as well as Poble Espanyol where handicrafts from different Spanish regions are displayed.
A strong identity
Capitalising on an opportunity to promote local traditions, DMCs try to inject an Iberian flavour into team-building exercises and group experiences. De Seras of Barcelona Business Pass describes one activity where participants learn how to perform various instruments together (classical guitar, cajon drum, palillos rhythm sticks and palmas hand clapping) to use during a Flamenco performance, then put on a show with the help of a professional singer; another task is forming a castell (human tower) – a uniquely Catalan feat that is staged during town festivals and provides fierce competition among the castellers seeking to build the tallest column. For the food-inspired, there are paella- and sangria-making lessons, and the art-inclined can receive guidance in fashioning pottery from renowned ceramist Jordi Serra.
Then, of course, there is FC Barcelona, one of Spain’s best-known exports, that has helped immeasurably to enhance its hometown’s image around the world. DMCs offer visiting clients a chance to get up close and personal with their footballing idols – well, at least show them where the players spend the match season: Camp Nou stadium. Martinez of Iberoservice says it may be difficult to invite a current team member to speak before a group, but arrangements can be made for one of the retired players to do the job. Another sporting event that has put Barcelona on the map, the F1 Grand Prix held in May, furnishes the chance for a heart-pumping round of trial drives around the Formula 1 circuit at Granollers. To impress clients even more, helicopter transfers can be staged between the city and the town.
So much to do in Barcelona… but how to squeeze it all into a few days’ visit? What a wonderful dilemma.
One of Antoni Gaudí’s unique masterpieces, commissioned by textile magnate Josep Batlló in the early 1900s and declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, the fantastical Casa Batlló offers 3,000 sqm of fully adaptable venues. Choose from the Noble Floor, Coach Houses or the Dragon’s Top Floor for your next exclusive function or presentation.
CAMP NOU (FC Barcelona Stadium)
The home base of one of the world’s richest sports clubs, FC Barcelona boasts a range of conference spaces, along with value-added services such as transfers using the players’ coach, “Barca”-themed events and guided tours of the complex and museum. A word of warning – there is a high probability that corporate bookings may not be entertained during the La Liga football season.
The wine cellars in this ancient estate, established by farmer and winemaker Jaume Codorníu in the 16th century, are among the world’s most extensive, occupying five levels which, if stretched out, measure 30km. (One needs a special train to navigate the various tunnels.) Groups can enjoy gastronomic meals painstakingly paired with some of the sparkling wines for which the estate is renowned. Open 9am-5pm Monday to Friday, 9am-1pm Saturday, Sunday and public holidays.
CASA LLOTJA DE MAR
A fine example of medieval Mediterranean architecture, the former stock exchange building – which was in action well into the 20th century – hires out its handsome spaces or salos and elegant patio for board meetings, conferences, cocktails, gala dinners and even fashion shows. The edifice is also a museum, boasting a priceless collection of Neoclassic sculpture, most famous of which is the Dying Lucretia by Damian Campeny.
Designed by groundbreaking American architect Richard Meier, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona provides unique settings for all types of events, either social or corporate. MACBA also offers the Capella, part of a heritage building beside the museum, featuring soaring vaulted ceilings which when lit up create a truly special atmosphere.
Opened in 1929 to coincide with the International Exhibition, the Spanish Village is located on Montjuïc Hill, close to the city’s trade fair precinct. Sprawling over 49,000 sqm, it is completely pedestrianised and consists of replicas of different communities found throughout Spain, providing rooms and venues of all styles and capacities for group activities. A plaza also provides the perfect option for a dinner out in the open.
BARCELONA BUSINESS PASS
Access: Currently, only Singapore Airlines links Asia to Barcelona directly. There are several ways to reach downtown – taxi (approx €32/US$41), airport bus (€9/US$11.6 one way) and train (€2.50/US$3.2 one way).
Climate: The city enjoys mild, humid winters and hot, dry summers. The coldest months are December–February, while July and August are the hottest months.
Language: Catalan is the official language, but Catalonians speak Spanish as well. English is spoken and understood in the main tourist areas and facilities.
A sample itinerary by Barcelona Business Pass:
0900 Depart hotel for a city tour. The group and guide are dropped off at the city’s most famous tourist destination, Las Ramblas, where the walk takes in one of the city’s most iconic attractions, Boquería Market, brimming with fresh produce from Spain’s various regions. From there, it’s a short stroll to the Gothic Quarter, a tapestry of interconnecting lanes that yield photo opportunities on every corner. Here also is the Born district, now the coolest place in town, dotted with chic cafés, tapas bars and patisseries.
- 1300 Lunch at Attic at Las Ramblas.
- 1500 Departure for Port Vell (harbour).
- 1545 Hop onto a speedboat for a seafront tour of Barcelona.
- 1930 Return to the dock. Time for a stroll along Paseo Marítmo on the way to dinner.
- 2000 Arrive at Bestial Restaurant, which features a wide terrace that opens out on the ocean. It specialises in Mediterranean cuisine.
- 2230 Transfer to the hotel
- 1030 Depart for guided tour of FC Barcelona Stadium, better known as Camp Nou.
- 1115 Arrival at the stadium. Visitors are shown various areas of the complex, from the changing rooms and the pitch to the pressroom and the presidential box, and finally, a tour of the club museum.
- 1300 Transfer to Can Cortada Restaurant for lunch and a taste of Catalan cuisine.
- 1500 Return to hotel. Afternoon at leisure.
- 1830 Transfer to Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village) to Tablao del Carmen Restaurant to experience a typical Spanish meal, followed by a Flamenco show.
- 1000 Depart for city tour, this time to points where panoramic views of Barcelona can be enjoyed.
- 1330 Go for lunch at Matamala Restaurant in the city centre.
- 1530 Start of guided tour of landmarks of the Modernism movement, in particular, Gaudi’s most famous buildings such as La Pedrera, Casa Batlló and Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.
- 1700 Transfer to hotel to rest and relax.
- 2045 Transfer to Vinoteca Torres for tapas and wine-tasting session.
- 2230 Return to hotel.
- 0930 Depart for visit to Picasso Museum in the Born district.
- 1000 Arrival at Picasso Museum.
- 1330 Depart for lunch at 1881 Restaurant, which offers panoramic views of the city and Mediterranean cuisine.
- 1530 Transfer to hotel. Afternoon at leisure.
- 1800 Transfer to the Arab Baths, which offer a range of massage treatments and soaks in hot or cold pools, salt pools or Jacuzzis. A hammam (Turkish bath) is also available for those wanting to try the experience.
- 2030 Depart for dinner at the Oleum Restaurant, part of the Museu d’Art Nacional de Barcelona and located in the room where King Alfonso XIII inaugurated the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition.
- 2230 Return to hotel.
As the meeting rooms in this 16-year-old hotel veteran encircle a lush garden, participants enjoy natural light during their discussions and can step out anytime for fresh air or a smoke.
An expansive foyer provides an area to set up break-time buffets or evening cocktails. A boardroom accommodating 12 persons
Managed by the Ritz-Carlton, this 483-room property boasts 4,500 sqm of meeting and event spaces featuring stunning views of the Mediterranean. This is broken down into a grand ballroom, 14 conference rooms, one boardroom and a variety of outdoor terraces, including those on the topmost floors (40 and 41) branded as “Arts 41”, ideal for more exclusive affairs.
Ensconced in one of Barcelona’s most eye-catching landmarks, this hotel has 280 guestrooms and a range of facilities including the 5,000 sqm Congress and Conference Center made up of a grand hall, auditorium (seating 500 persons) and four function rooms, all allowing access to outdoor terraces. Power meetings are catered to with six boardrooms. After work, participants can – and should – repair to Evo, the domed restaurant on the top floor offering priceless city views and gastronomic delights.
The latest addition to the portfolio of established Spanish chain Melia is designed to cater to “cool”-conscious customers. The business-minded, however, can also enjoy productive stays with a range of meeting choices that include seven studios, three Sky Ballrooms and three breakout spaces, spread out over 1,185 sqm and equipped with the latest audio-visual technology and connectivity. A total of 500 attendees can be accommodated in this special event area.
PULLMAN BARCELONA SKIPPER
A location in the swanky Port Olimpic marina area – 50 metres from the Barceloneta beach and 10 minutes from the city centre and International Convention Centre – allows this Accor member to ably serve both the conference participant and leisure traveller. Following the Pullman commitment to excel in business events, the facilities in this department cover more than 1,000 sqm, with capacity for 800 people. The Grand Ballroom Olimpia accommodates up to 680 for cocktails. Leisure options include two outdoor swimming pools and a running circuit.
HOTEL REY JUAN CARLOS I
Why go somewhere else to meet when on the grounds are found the Catalonia Palace of Congresses, consisting of 35 function rooms (most with natural light), an exhibition hall and an auditorium seating up to 2,027! Within the historic 19th century gardens, three marquees are permanently set up, catering to 250, 300 and 450 guests respectively, while the alfresco areas lend themselves to evening cocktails, concerts and fashion shows. The hotel enjoys a desirable location along the prestigious Avenida Diagonal, one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares.
PRINCESA SOFIA HOTEL
A worthy rival of Hotel Rey Juan Carlos I, the Princesa Sofia Hotel is also located along Avenida Diagonal and combines style and modernity. Recently refurbished event facilities are scattered throughout the building, from street level (Catalunya Room and Mediterraneo Rooms) to the top 19th floor (Diagonal, Pedralbes, Victoria and Bonanova Rooms). The staff are trained to serve groups ranging from small numbers up to 1,200 participants.
Injecting the “wow” factor into business events is this Starwood brand’s evergreen promise, and its Barcelona establishment seems to have the goods to do so with 2,500 sqm of meeting space consisting of a foyer, 13 assorted function rooms, an alfresco area with unmatched views of the Barceloneta boardwalk, and the 26th floor bar Eclipse. In addition, the W team can suggest ways to jumpstart the creative flow: mood music and signature scents, among other things, as well as a unique team-building exercise on mixing the hotel’s signature cocktails.