PORTUGAL - INCENTIVES: Land of contrasts

Portugal has golf, beaches and culture in abundance, and is now adding creative excitement to the mix, as Sharon Greaves discovers

The sweeping beaches of the Algarve that divide the busy resorts of Vilamoura, Albufeira, Lagos and Portimao have long convinced tourists to return time and again to Portugal's southern stretches.

Away from the crowded pockets that house the hordes of sunseekers, the region's year-round welcoming climate combined with sand, sea and golf has also remained a safe choice for corporate groups. "Golf is key," says Capital Incentives director of travel and event management Chris McQue. "And there are the right kind of facilities for partners and non-golfers."

The Algarve's infrastructure is ideal when it comes to offering incentive programmes tied to a meeting or event. Agencies are particularly keen to endorse the region's renowned properties such as the Vila Vita Parc, Hotel Quinta do Lago and The Sheraton Algarve Pine Cliffs.

Vilamoura in particular has emerged as a hotspot - hardly surprising since it is home to the largest marina in the country, an international casino and a swathe of golf courses, some ranked among the top ten in Europe. Its hotel stock, which includes the Tivoli Marinotel and Congress Centre, the Hotel Atlantis Vilamoura and three Dom Pedro hotels catering to an upmarket audience, is as commendable.

Another property, the Ampalius Hotel, has recently hosted six groups from Chaffoteux, a boiler manufacturing company. Travelling in May and June the groups, each numbering between 35 and 40 people, enjoyed a relaxed three-day incentive programme that featured golf and a jeep safari.

Leisure Link, which organised the trips, has been promoting the Algarve for 15 years and has consistently found it offers a high-quality product at a reasonable price. "The accessibility of the Algarve allows it to be very competitive, says general manager Julie Franklin. "The flight schedule is excellent and allows business people to really make use of their free time. They can go out early on Thursday morning and return on Sunday evening."

For the Chaffoteux trip Franklin had to cater for a variety of people and be able to fly them in from regional airports. "We had to find a resort that met the needs of a broad spectrum of people. We wanted versatility and something compact, and Vilamoura has it all."

Outside of Vilamoura, the region's hotels offer a full complement of leisure facilities to amuse corporate groups. Beyond the resort's perimeter, DMCs pick up the challenge of trying to put a new take on a product that has always been cemented around sun, sand and beach-led pursuits. It appears to have changed little if at all.

"The Algarve doesn't really change from year to year, says Travel Impact account director Caroline Staveley. "For golfing groups it is perfect.

There is a very good choice of courses and it is not terribly expensive in terms of meals and hotels.

"The only down point is the lack of creativity in terms of what you can do on the ground with young groups. DMCs are still offering the perennial jeep safaris or a boat cruise. They tend to be a little set in their ways. She adds that although there is a reasonable choice of restaurants, it is difficult to find gala dinner venues and nightlife to rival Lisbon.

For that reason, she would recommend only a three-night programme.

Miltours Algarve manager of the incentive and conference division, Anja Julian, agrees with the criticism to a certain extent. "We have to work with what we've got, she explains. "There are not a lot of castles and monuments, but groups coming to the Algarve are not really looking for culture."

Programmes, therefore, tend to focus on golf, horse riding and watersports, while functions take place either at the hotel itself or at local restaurants.

"There are not a huge number of unusual venues, Julian admits. "Very big groups can take over the square of a small village, but we are limited in terms of really big spaces."

Even so, it is still possible to soak up what culture the Algarve offers.

One suggestion is to take a half-day trip to the old Moorish capital of Silves to view the castle remains and cathedral on the hilltop. A walk down through the pretty town then takes visitors through the daily market.

Tavira, Lagos and Faro are other towns that still embody a Portuguese flavour, and groups are encouraged to weave around the older districts before shopping. Leather goods, typical Portuguese pottery, tablecloths and Atlantis crystal tend to catch the eye and the wallet.

The region also continues to update its infrastructure. Faro and Portimao are concentrating on improving their environment by opening new green zones and cultural spaces and this summer saw the final finishing touches to the motorway, which will facilitate better travel around the region.

Four new golf courses and marinas are also planned alongside an influx of four- and five-star hotels to keep the offer fresh.

Porto

Far from the beach-side activities that are played out along the southern coast of the country, Porto in the north of Portugal has a tried and tested offer for corporate clients. The city, which is one of the oldest in Europe, has maintained its connections with the port wine industry for more than two centuries, and the opportunity to sample a fine port in an old vaulted lodge is one no group should miss.

The area is ideal for nature and culture lovers alike and DMCs make real strides to include the region's historic origins in every programme's itinerary. Private mansions, wine cellars, museums and palaces are willing gala dinner hosts, and vintage tram cars and boats can be commanded for private excursions. While keeping its feel intact, the city has also been busy revitalising many of its public spaces. It now presents a more welcoming face and DMCs are quick to suggest treasure hunts around the colourful market, taking respite in Art Nouveau cafes, as well as walks through the historical centre.

Porto is a good starting point for venturing into the countryside. This may involve tracing the course of the river Douro by boat or venturing into the Douro valley on historic trains, and then a transfer by horse and cart rides to quintas (old country estates) to learn about the art of wine making or enjoy al fresco dining high on the hillsides.

But in spite of these unusual excursions, Porto still struggles to win over UK incentive agents who bemoan the lack of truly first-class incentive resorts. Porto's selection of trustworthy hotels at the core of the city's business centre include Le Meridien Park Atlantic Porto and the Porto Palacio while, alongside them, the Hotel Tivoli Porto is currently more than doubling its room stock from 58 to 130.

"Porto will never compete with Lisbon, says IBR business development manager Louise Kenrick. "But it is a worthwhile option in terms of access and travel times.

It is only the lack of five-star hotels that lets it down slightly."

Slowly, though, the city is trying to turn things around. Some of Portugal's most enchanting pousadas (inns) offer accommodation in the Douro region, and TAP Air Portugal special accounts manager Richard Eastaugh recommends the Vintage House Hotel in Pinho. Closer to the city, the Solverde Hotel is a five-star resort on the ocean front, while the 45-room Pestana Porto Carlton Hotel forms part of a block of charismatic townhouses.

In 2003, Sheraton is due to enter the arena with a 270-room hotel. Altogether, room capacity is to increase by 40 per cent in the next three years. "The Sheraton will put Porto more on the map, adds Eastaugh. "Things are changing and as long as Porto markets itself around port wine making it is bound to do well, especially with more mature groups."

Madeira

Like Porto, Madeira has still largely to be discovered by the UK market. Its seeming inability to take a more co-ordinated approach to marketing itself as an attractive incentive destination has resulted in a general lack of awareness about the island among British buyers.

A £301m extension to the airport runway has improved access and resort hotels have hurried to fringe the coastline in the past few years. Yet Madeira is still perceived as a poor relation to the mainland when it comes to winning event business.

In its defence, Funchal, the capital, now boasts some 5,000 rooms. Nor does anyone dispute the fact that the semi-tropical island offers an attractive backdrop for outdoor pursuits, and DMCs are adept at twinning the potential of the ocean and forest terrains.

Their ideas range from adventurous pursuits such as mountain climbing, abseiling, tobogganing, canoeing and diving to the more gentle deep-sea fishing and swimming in the natural pools of Porto Moniz. The island's tangle of small man-made irrigation canals, known as levadas, make a good starting point for treks, while jeep safaris in the Laurissilva forest allow groups to reach more inaccessible places.

These inherent attractions aside, however, the fact remains that Madeira struggles to enhance its image. Many organisers perceive it as a sleepy destination lacking the necessary punch for incentive groups. It is more suited, they feel, to elderly holidaymakers. These perceptions are difficult to dispel, but the tourist board is now starting to put some muscle behind presenting the destination's modern face.

The push began tentatively last year with the appointment of Graca Luis as congress and incentives assistant. She will head up Madeira's first convention bureau when it is established in early 2003. Luis states: "We attract mainly conferences, but we hope to increasingly point out our range of activities, particularly those that are adventure-led. She is confident business can only improve. "From June to December in 2001 we had 100 conferences. We can triple or quadruple that figure if we work at it."

Luis recognises the fact that Madeira does not wish to be overrun by mass tourism - some 70 per cent of the island's hotels are of four- or five-star standard - and this can only add some much-needed kudos. In addition, DMCs are becoming more proactive. For the UK market, Luis recommends Abreu, Blandy, Top Tours and Viva Travel.

Blandy manager for groups and incentives Cristina Abreu is aware of the challenges ahead. "We are competing with the likes of Monaco, so we have to set the same standards. We have to push back the boundaries when it comes to creativity. The old attitude was that groups had to go to the same places as tourists but we are now encouraging more unusual venues, such as boat club houses, to open up and we are promoting unusual team-building activities, such as pirate evenings and orienteering."

The island's upmarket qualities are certainly beginning to make an impact.

Konika, for one, has chosen the destination to reward its top performers.

"It's not very touristy and it has an upmarket reputation, explains Konika conference and incentives executive Laura Simons.

The company's five-day programme, to be held in May next year, will include walking tours, golf, spa treatments and functions in the Madeira Wine Institute and a former fortress. The age range in the 80-strong group spans from the mid-20s to 50s. "In the past we have been to the likes of La Manga and Rome but a few years ago we started going further afield, says Simons. "Budget airlines have made European destinations so cheap to get to that they are no longer as motivational as they were. It is difficult to incentivise with something that you can easily buy off the shelf. "

Following a personal recommendation, Simons opted for the Reid's Palace Hotel as the group base. Along with its neighbour, The Cliff Bay, it remains a favourite with agents looking for refined surroundings.

Well-established venues aside, the island now offers a broad sweep of high quality hotels. The Madeira Palacio Resort Hotel, which was renovated in 2001, along with the Crowne Plaza Resort Madeira and the Tivoli Ocean Park Hotel, provide a full complement of leisure activities.

But the most significant recent development for the incentive market has been the opening last February of the Royal Savoy Resort, built in front of the Hotel Savoy. It features 162 luxurious studios, suites and penthouses and works in tandem with the more traditional 337-room Hotel Savoy, which is equipped for large events.

In a further boost, Pestana Hotels intends to open a five-star business hotel in Funchal next spring, while Dorisol is planning a four-star resort due for early 2004.

Moreover, airline operators are finally beginning to increase the number of direct flights from the UK to Funchal rather than forcing groups to make transfers in Lisbon. TAP Air Portugal already operates two weekly flights, and GB Airways is increasing its number of direct flights from Gatwick to five a week.

GB Airways conference and incentive account manager Elizabeth Inseal says: "We are now seeing more interest from small groups for conferences and incentives. Madeira's strength lies in the fact that it is a short-haul winter sun destination and there is good golf and a broad selection of hotels. These are all attributes that suppliers hope will contribute to a greater groundswell of interest in this attractive destination that has plenty of untapped potential.

INCENTIVE OPTIONS

The contrasting landscapes of Porto, Madeira and the Algarve lend themselves to different incentive activities. Porto concentrates on its history and culture, the Algarve on fun in the sun and Madeira on getting back to nature. All, however, share a common bond in finding exciting ways in which groups can discover each region

Jeep safari tours, often enhanced by a tailor-made treasure hunt, are an ideal way of combining adventure with customised sightseeing in the Algarve and Madeira. Land Rovers take groups to the mountainous terrain in Madeira, while similar vehicles can take groups along tracks and river beds in the unspoiled Algarveian countryside. Groups can stop to watch basket making, enjoy a lunch of chicken piri-piri, or visit a small distillery to see how the local firewater is made.

The ten-minute cable car ride from Funchal to the mountain-top haven of Monte is a must in Madeira. There, the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens is worth a visit before experiencing the thrill of a toboggan ride down the cobbled mountain slopes.

Madeira also offers special boat charters, including a full-size replica of Columbus's Carvela. From the deck enjoy dolphin and, to a lesser extent, whale watching before putting down anchor in a cove only accessible by sea. The vessel can also be hired for dinners.

For sporting and team-building opportunities, operators in the Algarve offer ballooning, horse riding and rafting, beach Olympics and, of course, golf. Madeira's tally of two golf courses is set to double. A tiny 18-hole course on the small island of Porto Santo is planned, as is a 27-hole facility in the south east of the main island. With the new ferry, Porto Santo is only two hours from Madeira. The island has a 9km beach, perfect for land and sea-based team challenges. Cycling and karting are available too.

DMCs in Porto tend to focus on the art of port wine making and the region's heritage. Trips into the picturesque Douro valley and to the port wine lodges lining the river in Porto allow groups to experience first hand the art of wine making.

The town of Guimaraes, whose historic centre is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage scheme, is another easily accessible attraction.

It is noted for its architecture and small, medieval streets. It is possible to organise a medieval dinner in the castle and take over a public square for festivities. This can be followed by an overnight stay at a charming pousada in the city or the Pousada de Santa Marinha da Costa, a former monastery with 49 rooms situated on a hill nearby.

AFTER DARK

Portugal's rich diversity of venues for social functions ranges from the traditional and atmospheric to the sleek and modern

Madeira The oldest working wine lodge in Funchal is the Old Blandy Wine Lodge. It opens for private dinners with entertainment for up to 150 people and there are cellars and a museum to visit.

Terreiro da Luta, set in the former train station terminal, has lovely gardens and a fabulous view. It can hold up to 300.

Traditional espetada - barbecued meat on the spit - is best served at A Adega in Estreito, surrounded by vineyards just 15 minutes from Funchal.

Porto

The Stock Exchange Palace, the Palacio da Bolsa, is a neoclassical monument in the middle of the old town and one of the city's main architectural attractions. It opens up a number of salons for cocktail parties and gala dinners, ranging from the opulent Hall of Nations which seats 600, to an Arabian room with capacity for 220 and the much smaller Golden and Portraits rooms.

The Tramcar Museum houses a permanent exhibition of tramcars and engines dating from the 1940s and will accommodate groups of up to 1,000 for banquets and cocktails.

The Algarve

Beneath the walls of the ancient castle of Silves is a former cork processing factory from the 19th century. It has recently been transformed into a cultural and entertainment park and has a large central court covered with a 1,000m2 marquee seating up to 650 people.

The Agostos Estate, located towards the highlands of the Algarve some ten miles from the coast of Faro, comprises two houses and an olive press house. It is possible to build a marquee for up to 300 people in the grounds around the farmhouse. Guests can arrive by horse and carriage and enjoy home cooking surrounded by rosemary and lavender gardens.

VERDICT

Capital Incentives director of travel and event management, Chris McQue

McQue has taken groups to Portugal in the past, and while he thinks it has a lot to offer, he feels it must work to maintain its market position

"Groups always enjoy Portugal. Golf is key, particularly in the Algarve, and the range of hotels in the four-star and above categories is fairly wide. Although Porto plays the cultural card it has never quite trumped the sun, sand and sea of the south.

"The Portuguese play on their wine production, history, traditions and culture, but they seem to struggle with creating intrigue for their visitors.

"We have not seen the same development of new ideas as we have from DMCs in other countries in this market, and because there have been no dramatic developments, competitive destinations have now started to chip away at the country's market share."

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