Algarve Convention Bureau executive manager Luis Rocha says: "The British market is still very much key for the Algarve as a MICE destination. Although we did not see a huge increase in business during 2003, this market had a positive impact."
While there has been a rise in the number of large conferences - up to 1,200 participants - coming to the Algarve, smaller meetings and product launches are also popular.
"We do not expect UK inbound business to increase for 2004, but we are confident we can keep the sustained increase we have had over the past couple of years," notes Rocha.
Paulo Vicente, sales manager at the Sheraton Algarve Hotel at the Pine Cliffs Resort, says that while the volume of requests from the UK has been growing, the conversion ratio is marginally lower: "We believe this is due to the number of emerging destinations which may not compete with the Algarve on quality, but offer aggressive rates."
However, Vicente believes MICE business from the UK still has the potential to grow, depending on the rate of sterling against the euro. This optimism in UK C&I spend is also shared by the Tivoli Group, which owns the local Tivoli Marinotel. The sales office says that the number of UK enquiries are growing with an increasing rate of conversions. Their clients include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Dewalt, Hewlett-Packard, and there are bookings from Cisco Systems. Land Rover and Philips.
Investment in the region's conference market includes the £10m Arade Pavilion, which will open in 2005 near the mouth of the River Arade, opposite Portimao. The Arade Pavilion, with a capacity of 1,200, will be the Algarve's first standalone convention centre.
Maritz Travel Europe has been using the Algarve for a few years, citing some "very good" hotels. But vice-president Graham Frazer says: "Clients prefer non-mainstream tour operator destinations, although we use the Algarve for budget groups."
Skybridge senior account manager Jen Lipson's one bugbear is the limited availability of suitable larger off-site dining venues. Lipson is using the Sheraton Algarve at the Pine Cliffs Resort for a telecoms conference "The outdoor facilities provide a relaxed atmosphere for networking," she notes.
HOTEL FACT FILE
Opening in April this year, the Grande Real Santa Eulalia Resort & Hotel Spa is situated on the beach at Albufeira and offers a choice of 189 rooms and a theatre-style convention centre that can accommodate up to 700 delegates.
The five-star Vila Sol Morgadinhos Spa Hotel, five minutes from Vilamoura, opens in September. Set in 150 hectares and adjacent to a 27-hole golf course, the 189-room ballroom can accommodate up to 400 theatre-style.
Hotel Algarve Casino, in Praia da Rocha, Portimao, reopened last December after a EUR2m (£1.4m) renovation. Offering nine meetings spaces, the conference capacity is 340.
The Tivoli Marinotel, in Vilamoura, has the largest number of meeting rooms in the Algarve and a theatre-style capacity of 1,200. Improvements to its meetings offering include new lighting and WIFI access in public areas and meeting rooms. Tivoli is also gearing up to open a 280-room five-star property in Vilamoura in 2006.
The 175-room Ria Park Resort Hotel, 20 minutes from Faro airport, has 12 meeting rooms capable of accommodating up to 1,200.
The Sheraton Algarve Hotel, at the Pine Cliffs Resort, offers conference facilities for up to 250 people. Last year it opened a clubhouse, golf academy and beach restaurant.
Leading Hotels of the World member Vila Vita Parc is a low-rise property with a variety of rooms and villas to choose from. It can also hold conferences for up to 350 delegates.
Teresa Leitmann from AIMS Portugal says beach games and water sports are always a popular choice of activities in the Algarve - and with 100 sandy beaches, there are plenty to choose from. A pirates' night at Falesia Beach is one such popular option.
Janice Grant, DMC Portugal Travel Team's manager for the UK, says quad quad biking is taking off all over the country and "works brilliantly" as an incentive activity. The ideal group size is between 50 and 200 to cover set-up costs. The DMC organises an outdoor location and an event to fit with individual groups' requirements.
Red e2 used the Sheraton Algarve Hotel for a sales and marketing conference for 100 delegates in November. Operations director Peter Jackson says the hotel offered a very competitive rate with easy access for the pan-European Sterling Commerce group. "There are lots of low-cost airlines that service Faro, with regional airports offering flights from around Europe," he says.
Jackson was impressed by the hotel's "very good, flexible and hard-working staff", and was delighted to be able to arrange an outdoor lunch despite the season. However, he says the lack of quality restaurants with capacity is a challenge.