The Pestana Grand opened in January and looks set to help Madeira move beyond its rather genteel image. IBR account manager Deborah Fullerton-Batten says: "It's very much in the Malmaison style of a design-led, boutique-type hotel. It is interesting to see Pestana take that sort of a five-star concept to Madeira, and I was excited to see it because the island has everything else. It offers great value for money, meaning there is room in the budget to spend on theming a programme."
Pestana area director of sales and marketing Teresa Goncalves says the Grand's upmarket product is perfect for incentive groups of 50 to 120. Corporate groups in 2004 include Novartis, Oracle and Volvo-Penta. The chain is sufficiently confident to be planning renovations to two other five-star properties on the island, the Madeira Carlton and Casino Park.
Maria da Graca Luis, who is responsible for the MICE sector at the regional Ministry of Tourism and Culture, is upbeat about the island's C&I prospects. In 2003, she was confident the island would grow its share of UK MICE business, and 2004 is bearing witness to that optimism in terms of conferences and incentives. As well as value for money, da Graca Luis cites increasing ease of access as a contributor to the rise in business. Eleven flights a week now connect the UK to Madeira - an increase of two new routes a week from TAP Air Portugal and GB Airways.
The Savoy Resort is also confident about future UK MICE business. Marketing manager Antonio Correia says: "Madeira hosts the Carnival, the Flower Festival and the Madeira Wine Rally. We receive many requests from groups who wish to hold their programmes around these events."
Likewise, the 64-room Choupana Hills Resort & Spa has seen interest from UK groups grow since it opened two years ago, particularly from the high-end board meetings market. The hotel has meeting facilities for up to 40 people and is currently working on some UK requests for later in the year. But another five-star property, the historic Reid's Palace Hotel, says that while there is a lot of interest, little is translating into bookings.
Lena Rymer-Rythen, assistant director of sales and marketing at Reid's Palace, says: "Probably the strong euro and the somewhat limited flight connections do not help - although these have improved tremendously in the past year."
Overall, agents and suppliers alike agree that Madeira is slowly but surely starting to compete with the other traditionally appealing MICE destinations in Portugal.
HOTEL FACT FILE
The five-star, 193-room Pestana Grand opened near Funchal in January. Located on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Cabo Girao - the world's second-highest cliff face - the property has a 220 sq m function room with ocean views.
The Vila Porto Mare hotel complex, opened last December, incorporates three hotels: the existing 146-room Hotel Eden Mar, which was refurbished last year; the new 198-room Hotel Porto Mare, and a timeshare property. The resort has four conference rooms with theatre-style capacity of 140.
The rebranding of Hotel Tivoli Ocean Park in April 2002 marked the arrival of the Tivoli chain on the island. With 317 rooms, the property features eight conference rooms, seating up to 300 people.
The two-hotel Savoy Resort - comprising the classic Hotel Savoy and the more contemporary Royal Savoy - can cater for events of up to 600 theatre-style, the largest meeting space on the island. Together the two hotels have 499 rooms.
Leading Hotels of the World member Reid's Palace Hotel has 130 rooms and 34 suites, and can host meetings for up to 80 or dinners for 250.
The 300-room Crowne Plaza has conference capacity for 150 people. Located on the southern coast of the island - 20 minutes walk from capital Funchal - it is a spacious resort-style, oceanfront property set in sub-tropical gardens. The hotel receives many requests from British groups and has hosted three conferences in the past six months. INCENTIVE IDEAS
DMC The Lisbon Consortium is currently working on a UK booking and has proposed an adventure day which involves mountain-biking, trekking and a jeep safari to really discover the interior of the island.
One staple of the Madeiran incentive programme is a cable-car ride to the top of Funchal's Monte in the old town, followed by an unmissable toboggan ride back down on a wicker contraption that is pushed by two runners.
Other must-do activities include sailing. A replica of Christopher Columbus' boat, the Santa Maria, is available for exploring Madeira's waters, and whale- and dolphin-watching are other popular marine excursions.
Director of Well Placed Events Paul Welling is planning a four-day conference in November at the Pestana Grand for Volvo-Penta. "We chose the property because it's brand new, good quality and of a very high standard," he says. "Madeira was picked as it offers short-haul sunshine with good cultural activities, and it's something a bit different from the Canaries or mainland Spain."
While the client was concerned about the rather old-fashioned image attached to the island's tourist market, Welling says the event is being built around cultural events, golf and sailing. "I wouldn't recommend the island for a young sales group, but Madeira's appeal lies in all the different activities for delegates to get involved in," he says.