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Spouting geysers dwarf an incentive group. A second group soaks in a steaming blue pool. Clad in helmets, overalls and boots, a third group rides small, sturdy ponies along a beach and mountainous coastline. A fourth group enjoys a seafood buffet on snow tables after a snow safari, with jeeps on a glacier.

Photo courtesy of Iceland Convention & Incentive Bureau.

All four groups are in Iceland, an island about the size of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick combined. Located in the mid-North Atlantic, it's about three hours flying time from Europe and five hours from New York City.

"Iceland is a relatively new destination for Canadian incentives," says Susan Radojevic, president, The Peregrine Agency Ltd. in Toronto. "I got to know the country during a SITE conference in Reykjavik. Like everyone else, I had the misconception that it was cold all the time, but it was warmer than Toronto when I was there." The Gulf Stream gives Reykjavik a mild climate, with an average temperature of 0.1 degrees C. in January and 11 to 15 degrees C. in summer. Temperatures are cooler in the Icelandic Highlands (about 51 per cent of the country).

"When SITE took place in Iceland, the incentive infrastructure was still being put into place," says Radojevic. "There were limitations on the number of hotels and meeting spaces."

New incentive-quality hotels

According to Anna R. Valdimarsdóttir, project manager, Iceland Convention & Incentive Bureau (IC&IB), in Reykjavik, the infrastructure is improving. "Several new hotels have opened, all centrally located in Reykjavik. The 38-room 101 Hotel is a boutique property that can host small groups.

The Radisson's SAS 1919 [70 rooms & suites] is a unique four-star hotel, in a beautiful historical building. Hotel Reykjavik Centrum, a four-star 89-room hotel, opened in April. It's in three newly renovated buildings. The oldest part was built in 1764. During its construction, builders found the remains of a Viking longhouse. An exhibition center under the hotel displays the longhouse and other artefacts."

"Nordica Hotel is the largest in Iceland. It's a four-star deluxe hotel with 284 rooms and excellent meeting and conference facilities," says Valdimarsdóttir. "It was open during the SITE conference, but has since increased its number of contemporary-style rooms. It's one of the trendiest places to stay in Reykjavik.

"An ideal group size is 30 to 50," she adds. "If a group is too large for one hotel, the rest can stay at a second hotel. There's excellent cooperation between companies in the tourism industry. Everybody knows everybody and they're just a phone call away. At the Nordic Conference of Lawyers in Reykjavik, for example, several hotels hosted the 1,100 participants."

Kelly Webb, manager nationwide projects, Canadian Diabetes Association, agrees. "It's very difficult to put a large group in one hotel. You have to book well in advance." Webb brought close to 300 Team Diabetes Canada runners, their friends and families to Reykjavik for the half and full marathons and 10K run. "This was our third year in Iceland," she says. "We picked Iceland because we thought the destination would interest everyone."

Webb cites the benefits of the island of 285,000 people. "The air is pure, the water clean, the people wonderful and the convention planners will do their utmost for you. They're very well-organized and they believe in service."

Attracting Canadian incentives

So why isn't Iceland popular with Canadian incentive planners? Susan Radojevic suggests three reasons. "Most of our groups like direct flights. Canadians connect with Icelandair flights in Boston, Minneapolis and New York (JFK)." This problem was resolved when Icelandair began direct flights from Toronto and year-round flights from Halifax to Iceland.

"Secondly, I really believe that Canadians don't understand what this destination offers. They need to be educated about Iceland to promote it in a way that appeals to corporations."

Anna Valdimarsdóttir says Iceland is making positive changes that will continue. "Facilities that cater to incentive markets have increased dramatically in the last five years. IC&IB, in cooperation with the Iceland Tourist Board, is thinking of doing more marketing in North America. We have not yet [at the time of writing] finalised the details. Currently, our main marketing activity in North America is at IT&ME."

IC&IB is a non-profit marketing organisation, established in 1992, to promote Iceland convention facilities and incentives internationally. Its free services include assistance with corporate meeting and conference preparations, information on suppliers of services for incentives and conferences, suggestions for incentives, promotional materials, bid support for conferences and organisation of inspection visits.

"Most of our incentive groups are European," she says. "Their average stay is four days, three nights. Reykjavik is the main destination." The world's most northerly capital, with a population of 180,000, has much to offer meeting and incentive groups, says Kelly Webb. "Reykjavik is a fun, dynamic city, with interesting theatre, stores and restaurants. The food is delicious, especially the fresh seafood." Susan Radojevic describes a "wonderful Viking theme evening, with performances and drinks of Black Death (a potent schnapps)." The venue is Fjorukrain, a restaurant where Vikings, in full armour, serve the feast and lead groups in traditional games and dances celebrating Iceland's ancestors.

Jeep safari
Jeep safari
Photo courtesy of Iceland Convention & Incentive Bureau.

Numerous venues outside hotels

Restaurant Laekjarbrekka and its two banquet halls (up to 100 people each) specialise in local cuisine (Icelandic lobster, mountain lamb and puffin). Broadway, a sophisticated restaurant and nightspot, has three rooms (800, 160 and 160-person capacities) for gala dinners, shows and meetings. Four function rooms (15, 50, 100 and 150 persons) and a 300-seat banquet room top the Kaffi Reykjavik Ice Bar, where the temperature is kept below zero year-round. All the fittings and glasses are made from Iceland's glacier ice. (Glaciers cover 11 per cent of the country.)

Conference facilities in Reykjavik include the Haskola Cinema, with five auditoriums (50 to 976 people), the Culture House, with six rooms for small groups, in one of Iceland's oldest stone buildings, Reykjavik City Theatre (two auditoriums for 200 and 535 people, six function rooms and exhibition space) and the Laugardalur Sports Centre, which has a 1,200-seat hall, 300-seat balcony and 200-seat meeting room.

The Pearl crowns six water storage tanks that supply geothermal energy to Reykjavik. Its fifth-floor glass dome features a 340-seat revolving restaurant. The ground floor Winter Garden seats 600 in an exhibition and function area. A basement conference hall seats 50.

"Art galleries are now opening up as venues for product launches, opening ceremonies and cocktail parties," says Anna Valdimarsdóttir. "Swarovski Crystal used the Reykjavik Art Gallery for their latest product launch."

Year-round adventure

For activities, Susan Radojevic recommends that corporate planners don't try to replicate a European incentive. "Be open. Allow the country and people to suggest things to do. Promote Iceland for what it is — an adventurous, up-and-coming destination." Adventure activities vary with the season. Whale-watching, hiking, golf and white-water rafting are popular in warmer months. Snowmobiling and dog sledding take place in winter. Horseback-riding, fishing, spas and teambuilding games are available year-round. Destination management companies can even create a corporate version of The Amazing Race television show, which featured Iceland.

River rafting
River rafting
Photo courtesy of Iceland Convention & Incentive Bureau.

"Look at the big picture, rather than individual items, when it comes to costs," recommends Valdimarsdóttir. "Groups pay less for flights and accommodations than in London, for example, but more for food and drinks. Most incentive groups come at the shoulder seasons, early spring, late summer and fall. The advantages are better hotel prices, hotel bookings with shorter notice and greater availability. The disadvantage is that some countryside hotels may be closed."

Radojevic reminds planners that summer brings nearly 20 hours of daylight, while winter has nearly 20 hours of darkness. The former offers opportunities to play golf at midnight, while the latter allows viewing of awesome northern lights.

Kelly Webb saved money by taking advantage of an annual August festival called Culture Night. "Art galleries, museums, shops, bars and restaurants stayed open late. After our victory dinner, we went to the harbour and watched a dazzling fireworks display with local residents."

Webb absolutely plans to bring a fourth group to Iceland. "It's a spectacular place," she says. "Iceland is a breathtaking, different place to visit," adds Radojevic. "It's going to be a great destination for incentives."


Iceland Convention and Incentives Bureau: https://meetinreykjavik.is

More information on Iceland:

Icelandair Toronto to Iceland Flights

Iceland - What to See and Do Beyond Reykjavik