In a country where Vikings, trolls and family sagas—narratives from the 9th-11th centuries—shape its history, an equally intriguing and unique combination of geological influences shape Iceland’s incomparable landscape. The countryside spills with glacial floodplains, waterfalls and fjords in addition to deserts of volcanic ash, volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and lava fields. Meanwhile massive glaciers mark the highlights of national parks like Vatnajokull and Snaefellsjokull.
The result is a wealth of outdoor adventures of every variety, just one factor among many attracting tourists and groups to this island. Its colorful and vibrant capital of Reykjavik is another.
“Iceland checks a lot of boxes for meetings and incentive planners and is in fact highly accessible, and ideally located to ‘Meet in the Middle,’ with only a five-hour flight from the East Coast of North America and about a two- to three-hour flight from Europe,” said Inga Hrund Magnusdottir, project manager, sales and marketing for Meet in Reykjavik. “For those who enjoy adventure, history, nature and culinary delights, Iceland has been described as the meeting and incentive planner’s paradise.”
Magnusdottir also touted Reykjavik’s amenities and venues for groups.
“For meeting and event planners it is important to have professional organizers, modern infrastructure as well as everything within reach,” she said. “That is exactly what Reykjavik has to offer combined with a peaceful environment and friendly people.”
In 2015, 88,000 foreign MICE guests visited Iceland, which is a 10 percent increase from the previous year and constitutes 7 percent of the total number of travelers passing through Keflavik International Airport.
“Reykjavík is a MICE-ready, compact city with excellent infrastructure, cutting-edge technology, unique meeting venues, fine hotels and great restaurants,” she said.
The city’s venues include the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera. Harpa offers four halls, the largest one seating up to 1,800 people. The National Museum of Iceland’s Culture House also offers space for events.
Hotel options are expanding to meet growing demand. This summer Icelandair Hotels welcomed the 112-room lifestyle hotel Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre. The 50-room Consulate Hotel Reykjavik is slated to open in 2018, as is the 160-room Iceland Parliament, while a five-star, 250-room Marriott Edition next to Harpa will debut in 2018/2019. There are also many four-star hotels set to open this year and beyond to accommodate the steep annual increase in general tourism, according to Magnusdottir.
Out of Town
For all Reykjavik’s urban charms, Iceland’s true wonders are on full display outside the city, spreading every direction.
“Outside the city in a 62-mile radius, there are areas of astounding natural beauty that offer ample opportunities for teambuilding adventures,” Magnusdottir said.
“If you want to put some truly out-of-the-ordinary experiences on your delegates’ agenda, visit the magma chamber of a volcano, snorkel between two continental plates—North America and Eurasia—enjoy snowmobiling, four-wheel driving or hiking on a glacier or go hunting for the magical Northern Lights,” she continued. “If that is not enough, you can go bathing in hot spring rivers, soak in the mystical Blue Lagoon or explore remote areas on Superjeeps [operated by Team Superjeep.is].”
Magnusdottir added that Iceland’s midnight sun in summer makes it an ideal outdoor playground for groups.
“Expansive open spaces, towering mountains, majestic waterfalls, barren lava fields and magnificent glaciers are open for exploration and enjoyment,” she said. “Ash spewing from unpronounceable volcanoes and scorching geothermal water shooting out of the ground are just some of the images that come to many peoples’ minds when they think of Iceland.”
In a land of geothermal hot pools, the Blue Lagoon reigns as most popular for its proximity to Reykjavik and its surreal turquoise, mist-shrouded waters, as I learned on a recent trip to Iceland. The silica mud purportedly improves people’s skin conditions, such as psoriasis. According to Magnusdottir, Blue Lagoon will open a five-star hotel with 60 rooms later this year.
On a day tour of the Golden Circle, a 185-mile scenic loop from Reykjavik, I got another taste of the volcanic and geothermal wonders of the island, stopping at the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellir National Park—the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates—and the bubbling pools, steaming vents and spouting Strokkur geyser at Haukadalur. Another tour landed me at Snorrastadir Farm to ride Icelandic horses, an import from the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. These regal beauties are known for their diminutive size and smooth fifth gait, or tolt.
Closer to Reykjavik, Icelandic Horse Park, Fakasel presents evening shows focusing on history, Old Norse mythology and exhibition riding. Its Barn Lounge offers space for 80, while the Horse Theater can host dinners for up to 600 or receptions for 2,000 people. There is also a restaurant for up to 500 standing.
Companies like Iceland Rovers can cater to incentives and small groups with customized tours and teambuilding options, including a glacier walk on the Solheimajokull glacier along the South coast. Another option is a glacier walk from the company’s base in Skaftafell just underneath Hvannadalshnukur, Iceland’s highest peak.
On the Southeastern leg of my journey, the theme was fire and ice, including a bumpy ATV ride over lava rocks at Katla Geopark, a half-day glacier hike at Skaftafellsjokull glacier in the Vatnajokull National Park, and a duck boat tour on the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, a shimmering glacier pool punctuated by what looks like a tray of oversize ice cubes.
Northern Iceland also brims with outdoor adventure, with highlights that include Godafoss, or Waterfall of the Gods, and Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, which I saw in full splendor with double rainbows arching across.
“Vikings believed the rainbow was a bridge between man’s world and world of the gods,” my tour guide said.
According to Arnheiour Johannsdottir, managing director of Visit North Iceland, “Among the most popular excursions, we have whale-watching that can be done by renovated oak boats, rib boats, schooners and carbon-free schooners.”
I had a close humpback spotting from a boat out of Husavik, Iceland’s whale-watching capital. There are at least seven whale-watching companies in the area, in Eyjafjordur and Husavik. I also visited the serene Myvatn Nature Baths.
“Tours to the Lake Myvatn geothermal region are a must and these are very variable as well, from standard nature exploration to Game of Thrones tours where the locations for filming the program are visited,” Johannsdottir said. “Often tours end with a visit to the Myvatn Nature Baths, similar to the Blue Lagoon. We also have very popular coastal tours, visiting food producers and micro breweries on the way. In winter we also have snowmobiling, dog sledding and skiing.“
Myvatn is an hour from the north’s main town of Akureyri, where the Hof Cultural and Conference Centre is the primary meeting point for groups. Hotel options include Icelandair Hotel and Hotel Kea. Hotel Laugarbakki, midway between Akureyri and Reykjavik, opened last summer after a full renovation. Myvatn has a few big hotels, such as newly renovated Sel-Hotel Myvatn; Hotel Laxa, which opened four years ago; as well as Hotel Reynihlid and Hotel Gigur, both recently renovated.
In spring Kaldi microbrewery plans to open a Beer Spa in Arskogssandur—30 minutes from Akureyri and a popular stopover in tours.
“In 2018 sea baths in Husavik will open; they are based on warm water coming from under the ocean and located at Husavik Cape with a view north over the ocean,” Johannsdottir said. “In 2018 we will also have the opening of the Vaolaheioi tunnel, which decreases the distance between Akureyri and Myvatn.”
Fosshotel Husavik was renovated in 2016 and is the largest conference hotel in North Iceland, with 110 rooms and 11 meeting and conference venues.