Stepping off the plane in Lisbon last summer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Seven days of sightseeing later—in both Lisbon and 200 miles north in Porto—and the country had cemented its spot as my favorite place in Europe. Lisbon reminded me of San Francisco with winding streets, trolley cars, rooftop bars and endless entertainment. Visiting Porto was like stepping onto the movie set of a medieval city with cobblestone alleys and cathedrals with chiming bells so consistent it didn’t make sense to wear a watch.
Word of Portugal’s charm is catching on, and not just in leisure travel circles. Meeting planners from around the world are flocking to the edge of the Iberian Peninsula and the country is responding in kind with a host of new hotels, venues for all size meetings, airport expansions (Porto, specifically) and the addition of new air routes from the U.S. TAP Portugal, the country’s national airline, added two flights this summer—from Lisbon to New York’s JFK Airport and Boston’s Logan International Airport—and is partnering with JetBlue to connect U.S. passengers from more than 20 domestic JetBlue destinations.
“I like to say we have German efficiency and a Latin spirit,” said Nuno Tavares, owner and CEO of TFY Events, an award-winning DMC based in Lisbon. “Our best advertising is word of mouth and people genuinely love it here. It is amazing how much everything has grown even in the past five years. I think it has a lot to do with the safety of Portugal and its welcoming people.”
Numbers echo Tavares’ comments. According to the Lisbon Convention Bureau, overnight stays in Lisbon jumped up 8.4 percent in 2015 from 2014. Lisbon boasts an average of 6.7 percent more overnight stays than other European cities. It helps that Portugal is one of the most affordable cities in Western Europe.
In early 2015, Alexandra Baltazar, manager at the Lisbon Convention Bureau, received an e-mail from the organizers of Web Summit, a major tech conference, asking if Lisbon was interested in submitting a bid.
“It had been taking place in Dublin for a while and had exploded in popularity,” she said. “The first year they had about 400 people and in the last two years they had more than 20,000.”
Lisbon not only won the bid; the city is slated to host the conference—expected to bring in more than 25,000 attendees each year—in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Web Summit is just one of Lisbon’s sizable events on deck. While the country’s capital is its main meeting locale, gatherings are also attracted to nearby Porto for its unique event venues and accommodation options.
Here, we explore why the world is waking up to Portugal.
Walking the streets of Lisbon is like strolling through a living-history museum. The ancient architecture is still largely intact thanks to the country remaining neutral during WWII. Lisbon has preserved its culture with Fado (Portuguese opera) singers on corners and art galleries on nearly every street. The museum scene is also thriving.
In October, the city will unveil its Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (the MAAT) along its waterfront, and it will offer space for event rentals. In mid-2015, the city opened the National Coach Museum, with exhibits that show off the history of royal transportation. The space not only has a 300-person auditorium, but a hall suitable for 400 cocktail guests and another that can accommodate 500 attendees.
Other cultural venues that can be privatized for events include the 16th century Jeronimos Monastery (space for 500 people in the cloister, 500 in the garden and 350 in the refectory), the National Palace of Ajuda where the royal family once lived (several rooms host up to 300 people each) and the Belem Tower, built right on the Tagus River more than 400 years ago, and where planners can host 250-person groups on its terrace.
Meeting hotels can be found all over the city but none in as concentrated an area as around the Park of Nations, a region that was revitalized ahead of the 1998 World Exhibition.
“We have four pavilions there for meetings. The Lisboa Congress Center, which is a good place for smaller conferences, is also on the waterfront,” Baltazar said. “The area is easily accessible from the airport by subway and there are five meeting hotels very close.” (Those hotels include Hotel Olissippo Oriente, Hotel Tivoli Oriente, Tryp Lisboa Oriente Hotel, Myriad by Sana Hotels and Hotel Tryp Lisboa Aeroporto.)
New or refurbished hotels in Lisbon that cater to groups include the InterContinental, Porto Bay Liberdade and the Pousada de Lisboa.
“Porto is the perfect place for MICE meetings for many different reasons,” said Mariana Oliveira Morais, product manager at the Porto CVB. “We have direct [flight] connections worldwide, safety and security, gastronomy, wines and history, and modernity in a perfect blend. And of course we are the home of port wine.”
Attendees with an interest in sampling what is arguably the best port in the world are in luck as many port houses open for private events. Taylor’s Port Wine Cellars is a spot that dates back to 1692 and offers six rooms suitable for group gathering buyouts, all which offer views of the Douro River. Right down the street, Calem Port Wine Cellars is another historic spot with space for midsize gatherings in its auditorium and other rooms. Graham’s Port Wine Cellars, a new kid on the block, having opened in the early ’90s, and Ferreira Port Wine Cellars, which opened in the mid-1700s, are two more spaces groups can meet while tasting the celebrated drink.
Other meeting venues include the ornately beautiful, Neoclassical Palacio da Bolsa and the Palacia do Freixo, a massive palace and monument (now a hotel) that offers multiple group function rooms.
Major meeting hotels in Porto include the Sheraton, Porto Palacio Congress Hotel & Spa and a Crown Plaza.
New properties in the area that meeting planners may want to note include the Flores Village Hotel & Spa, the Pestana Vintage Porto Hotel and the Vincci Porto Hotel.