Now that memories of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea are fading, Europe is switching its attention to the 2004 European Championships.
Portugal, as host nation, is confident of delivering a world-class performance off the pitch, if not on it - a situation with which the nation's beleaguered football fans are becoming all too familiar.
As the capital, Lisbon is positioning itself centre stage of Portugal's efforts with continual improvements to the city's infrastructure. These have included the construction of two football stadiums and at least 14 new hotels, to make it more appealing to tourists and business visitors alike.
Over the past few years, the city has been quick to turn its fortunes around. While once it was regarded as a slightly shabby alternative to the more salubrious destinations of Barcelona and Paris, it is no longer perceived as a last gasp solution for events. Indeed, it has emerged as one of five finalists from the 22 cities eager to host the EIBTM exhibition between 2004 and 2009. "It is definitely a destination on the tip of everyone's tongue at the moment, says Louise Kenrick, IBR business development manager.
"It is now seen as a brand new destination by clients. Its profile has been raised and that is starting to pay off."
The city's hotel stock and convention spaces chime well with the congress market. Both the Le Meridien Park Atlantic Hotel and the Ritz Four Seasons offer attractive function space, while Marriott and Corinthia Hotels International have taken over two of Lisbon's largest properties.
Ground operators are constantly refreshing the incentive opportunities, as Cristina Vares, account executive of DMC Vega explains. "The greater part of our business comes from UK conferences because many of them include an incentive element, she explains. "The UK market looks for activities more than culture. Groups want to come together and be competitive so we organise a lot of team-building games. These, she adds, tend to revolve around tours and treasure hunts either on foot or using the city's old fashioned trams. More than 500 people can be guided around the warren of narrow roads in the oldest parts of the city, notably the Alfama district and the hilly Bairro Alto, while being given a series of tasks involving communicating with locals. In addition, the majority of the city's host of museums and cultural attractions are very accomodating to the corporate market, and provide a viable alternative to the surf and golf of the Algarve.
"Lisbon is becoming the biggest incentive destination in Portugal for the UK market, says Joao Luis Moita, executive director of DMC Citur.
"It has changed a lot in terms of its infrastructure and hotels in the past few years. If a group just wants fun then the Algarve works perfectly.
But if an incentive is related to a product launch or a presentation we push Lisbon. It has more to offer in terms of venues so groups are able to stage stylish functions."
These venues could include the Electricity Museum, which can host delegates for cocktails or banquets, and the Coach museum where events can be held amid the collection of antique, gilded 17th century coaches. The 15th century Beato convent also hosts major events in its cloisters, while on the outskirts of Lisbon, Versailles 'look-a-like' the National Palace of Queluz is available for cocktails in the gardens and banquets in the throne rooms, musical hall and ambassador's room - all of which can be enhanced by cultural equestrian shows.
DMCs also point to the city's new-found ability to juxtapose the old with the new as being another reason for Lisbon's revitalisation. As well as dining within the walls of centuries-old monuments and enjoying the narrow streets with whitewashed buildings clad with faded azulejos (tiles), Silva adds that it is equally worthwhile to take delegates into some of the city's newer areas as well.
Nation's Park, a triumph of modernist architecture and clean exhibition space, also houses an impressive aquarium and the Atlantic pavilion, where clients can stage shows incorporating fashion and all types of live music including jazz and fado, the region's traditional musical form.
The dockside area has pulled itself into the 21st century and courtesy of an ever burgeoning mix of trendy waterside restaurants and bars, the area offers an enjoyable night-time alternative. "Lisbon's history and culture is always a big pull but the social scene has really come on over the past few years, comments P&MM operations manager Sarah Stanyer. "The city now works for all kinds of ages. The lively nightclubs and jazz cafes in the Docas area are ideal for young groups, while there are excellent traditional restaurants, many of which feature fado performances, for the more refined visitor."
This is a view shared by Travel Impact account director Caroline Staveley.
"The night life is on a par with Barcelona, she says. "There are now loads of places that have sprung up by the river. The standard of restaurants and venues has certainly come up and the suppliers are good to work with, they are very efficient."
More than anything, Lisbon's close proximity to the cosmopolitan beach resort of Estoril and the mountainous beauty of Sintra is what really makes it stand out among its city competitors. Citur's Luis Moita describes it as a city resort. "There is a unique combination of culture, history, gastronomy and modern hotels."
Playing to this advantage, the convention bureau in Lisbon enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with its neighbours to attract business and push back the area's boundaries even further. Next year sees Estoril launching a three-year plan to change much of its seafront, and, in the process, recapture the glamour of a town that once served as a home to exiled monarchs. Within the next few months it will also have its own official convention bureau. "That will help a great deal. We can then enter a completely different field of negotiation with buyers, says incoming director Jorge da Costa.
He views Estoril as a continuation of Lisbon and certainly as a complementary destination. "We don't compete with each other. We are complementary, as we have to work closely together."
Of course, Lisbon has much more capacity in terms of hotels and conference venues compared to the auditorium in the new Estoril convention centre, which seats a maximum of 600, but Estoril's sophistication, beaches, water sports and fine seafood restaurants will do much to attract business.
Not only that, the town also boasts Europe's largest casino and eight golf courses concentrated into a small area, so both sites can strengthen the other's offer.
Furthermore, Estoril combines readily with the mountain enclave of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site on account of its cultural significance and outstanding natural beauty. "Its heritage and palaces gives a cultural leg-up to Estoril, da Costa says, "and because of this combination we are more popular for incentives."
Corporate bookings currently make up 50 per cent of the traffic to the resort, partly because the hotels are 20 per cent cheaper than their Lisbon counterparts, and partly because it is increasingly commonplace to combine business with pleasure on multi-centre trips.
The possibilities offered by the capital's culture, Estoril's beaches, and the mountains surrounding Sintra are an attractive proposition for incentive organisers. Jeep rallies in the Sintra mountains can be combined with picnics and treasure hunts, perhaps culminating with a cocktail party at the mountain-top Palacio de Seteais or dinner in the modern restaurant at the Palacio de Pena. Meanwhile, the sandy beaches of Estoril, just 20 minutes from Lisbon, make the ideal venue for fun tournaments and parties.
No matter where groups head to, the whole region is no bigger than Greater London, plus there is a large range of hotels, from corporate-minded properties run by international chains to state-run pousadas.
In Lisbon, incentive groups tend to head for the more glamorous properties.
Of note is the Lapa Palace, which recently added a new wing and restored a villa in its grounds to offer an additional 12 rooms and two suites.
IBR's Kenrick recommends the Dom Pedro and The Carlton Palace Hotel, which is a sympathetic refurbishment of an abandoned 19th century palace. "They've got the service down to a tee, and it is very centrally located she says.
The two principal accommodation mainstays in Estoril are the Hotel Palacio and the Estoril Sol. Both are within easy reach of the resort's water and adventure sports, such as para-gliding and orienteering, a flying school, pony-trekking tracks through the woods, and golf courses. The Estoril Race Track - a well-established venue on the Formula 1 circuit - is also situated nearby.
Another renowned property is the 177-room Caesar Park Penha Longa Golf Resort which nestles in Sintra's foothills. Gaining ground in the incentive market are the golf/conference resort, The Hotel Quinta da Marinha, and The Albatroz Hotel, a new member of Leading Hotels of the World. Both are located in Cascais. The Dom Pedro group is also now building a five-star golf resort hotel in Belas just ten minutes from Lisbon, which is scheduled to open in 2003.
It is this range of hotels, supported by its favourable climate, and its short-haul access from the UK that make Lisbon function so well now, believes P&MM's Stanyer. "It has a very good ambience and works for all kinds of ages. It is also very cost efficient. Compared to other cities the hotels are very reasonably priced. When you present clients with the whole picture, along with the activities and options you can add on in the mountains and by the beach, it becomes very attractive."
World Event Management business unit director Sara Strid
Strid enjoys the Portuguese capital and finds it packed with quirky and yet to be discovered venues
"We often propose Lisbon to clients for events because it is cost effective compared to other European capitals and we find that a lot of delegates have never visited the city before. The suppliers there are familiar with the C&I market but we have to press DMCs to find unusual venues for social functions and be proactive ourselves so we don't just get offered the standard places.
"We have used the Port Wine Institute, which is not very well-known, and we've taken over a floating restaurant next to Nation's Park for a Portuguese evening with fado singers putting a modern twist to the traditionally sad songs.
"We've also rented an aristocrat's house, the Casa Sao Domingos, in central Lisbon, which has a lot of atmosphere and an interesting history. Another venue is the Red Cross Palace. It is an old palace and although the outside doesn't say much, the inside is spectacular and part of the profits from staging a function there goes to the Red Cross."
Portuguese National Tourist Office 2nd floor, 22 Sackville St, London
W1S 3LY Tel: 020 7494 5723 Fax: 020 7494 1868 Contact: Henrique de Moser
portugaloffice.org.uk Web: www.portugal