The Netherlands could never be accused of putting all its eggs in one basket. Each of its major cities has a specific role to play in the social and economic life of the nation. Amsterdam, is its cultural and financial heart, The Hague is capital and home to the royal family and government, while Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe, is the country's industrial powerhouse.
So it is fitting that Holland's relatively lesser-known, but equally important cities, along with other centres such as Maastricht and Utrecht, have begun to emerge from under the shadow of Amsterdam. Rotterdam and The Hague in particular have geared up in recent years to pose a genuine challenge to Amsterdam, and the establishment of a joint UK office in 2004 continues to increase the cities' penetration among British C&I planners.
"Amsterdam is still the first city UK planners think of, but since cities like Rotterdam and The Hague and Maastricht have started approaching the UK market directly, we are getting more requests for them as well," says Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions MICE project manager Karin Loohuis.
While Amsterdam remains the default setting for those considering the Netherlands, and given the rate at which it continues to build its infrastructure, the city clearly does not expect business to taper off soon. The RAI conference complex has plans to build an extra meeting space and an on-site hotel.
Further hotel developments are planned by Movenpick, whose 400-room property opens in September, while Sofitel's refurbished The Grand Amsterdam is among the new and improved hotel stock.
Big event capacity
It is ongoing development such as this that enabled Amsterdam to win the right to retain ITC, the content management conference and exhibition, which brings 40,000 people to the city each September. "It's the largest event in Holland, and organisers were looking at other cities, so we are very pleased that delegates are still happy with the city," says Amsterdam Convention Board director Max Schreuder.
While he is not obliged to flatter the challenge of its domestic rivals, Schreuder is gracious. "Rotterdam and The Hague have their own look and feel," he says. "The Hague has a lot of governmental conferences and Rotterdam is doing a very good job. They are competitors for smaller corporate events, but our main focus is on international rivals such as Barcelona, Vienna, Berlin and Copenhagen."
In terms of price, Amsterdam remains something of a bargain in this company.
"I had a recent request for 2,000 people to come to Amsterdam from Norway," says Holland Events Company sales manager Ben Hassing. "They had planned to go to Barcelona, but it has become so expensive. What Amsterdam has is good infrastructure, good prices, a good-quality product and people speak English."
Rotterdam and The Hague would argue that they possess these qualities too, of course, along with an element of surprise which may be lacking for those who are now well acquainted with Amsterdam.
"Amsterdam is a beautiful city, but the other cities are all quite different, and for us it is good to have this kind of variety," says Loohuis. "Rotterdam is doing a really good job with the meetings market and the signs are that the balance is shifting and these other cities are becoming more popular."
Rotterdam is a modern city, brought about by its almost total destruction during World War Two. It now offers some of Holland's most imaginative architecture, as well as a vibrant nightlife and a business attitude.
"Rotterdam is cheaper than Amsterdam and it is a no-nonsense city of hard work," says Claudia van der Graaf, director of sales at the four-star Bilderberg Parkhotel. "In Rotterdam, we just go for it, and that is why we have captured a lot of events that should have been taking place in Amsterdam."
The city's infrastructure is growing in line with these successes. In September next year, De Rotterdam, an old Holland America Line cruise ship, will return home to a permanent mooring. The liner is currently being restored in Poland and will operate as a floating hotel with 250 rooms and a 600-capacity theatre.
The UK is already the biggest source of its corporate market. "The UK MICE market has always been important to Rotterdam," says Rotterdam Marketing account manager congresses and business events Hans Sittrop. "In fact, the largest proportion of all overseas hotel nights are from the UK across the entire business travel sector."
The UK accounts for 17 per cent of the city's business tourism, ahead of the US and Germany. One reason for its popularity, according to Allan Brunton-Reed, managing director of the ABR Company, which brought the International Tug & Salvage conference and exhibition to Rotterdam's Beurs-World Trade Centre in April, are its competitive rates. "The rates were less than half of those in London," he says.
Brunton-Reed's 800 delegates and exhibitors spread themselves across the Hilton, the Westin, the Atlanta, the Savoy and the Bilderberg Parkhotel.
"It is a very prosperous, very thriving city and it was ideal for us," he adds.
As the administrative capital, The Hague has a built-in market and an impressive infrastructure of its own. A city as historic as Rotterdam is gleaming and new, The Hague has three five-star hotels - the beachfront Steigenberger Kurhaus, Le Meridien Hotel des Indes and the Crowne Plaza Promenade - as well as a clutch of four-star properties including the Sofitel, Parkhotel and the Carlton Beach, and there a plans for a Hilton opening for 2009. The Hague is accustomed to taking on world-class events, too, with a recent UN event drawing Kofi Annan to the Kurhaus, Bill Gates has attended a Microsoft conference that ran across several venues and Pricewaterhousecoopers held a conference for 160 tax partners at the Kurhaus in May. Senior manager Sue Muir was impressed. "I would certainly consider using it again," she says. "I wouldn't say it was second-best to Amsterdam at all. If we found the right venue for the right event, at the right price, The Hague would get our business just as often as Amsterdam."
And the city has plans to spread the word. The Hague Visitor & Conventions Bureau and Rotterdam Marketing jointly funded a fam trip to both cities in late-June for UK planners, which generated positive responses.
"I was surprised at Rotterdam's vibrancy," says IBR account manager for Eurofinance Rachel Millington, who is looking for a new location for an event which has outgrown the Amsterdam Hilton. "I think Rotterdam is more suited to the client's type of business. It is an up-and-coming city and they are obviously doing a lot to improve it."
A key selling point of both cities is the ease of access. Three airlines serve Rotterdam from London - Transavia flies from Stansted, KLM from Heathrow and VLM from London City. It is a 35-minute flight, and the airport itself is just 15 minutes by car from the city centres of both Rotterdam and The Hague.
More importantly, perhaps, Amsterdam's far larger Schiphol airport is less than an hour from both cities - a fact which Paul Swain, UK account manager for the two cities, believes is a major advantage. "What we are saying is, you can use the hub of Schiphol, but just spend 40 minutes heading south instead of north to Amsterdam, and you are into two completely different cities."
AMSTERDAM CONFERENCE VENUE
The Amsterdam RAI dominates the conference and exhibition scene, with 22 spaces and capacity for 1,750 delegates, 11 flexible halls with 87,000m2 of exhibition space. Each year, the venue hosts more than 50 international congresses, 70 trade fairs and 1,000 conferences. The site will be extended later this year with extra meeting space, and there are plans for an on-site hotel.
The 139-year-old Intercontinental Amstel, on the banks of the river of the same name, is far from the largest hotel in Amsterdam, with just 79 rooms and seven meeting spaces, but it may well be the most prestigious.
Its clientele reputedly includes royalty and international celebrities, while its meeting rooms include the famous Spiegelzaal (mirror room) ballroom.
GALA DINNER VENUE
Beurs van Berlage is an important piece of Dutch architecture in the centre of Amsterdam, built in 1903 and which now caters for the C&I market. Its main hall is the largest in the city at 1,600m2 and can hold more than 1,000 for banquets. Further capacity is available with the addition of other rooms. It was here in 2002 the Prince of Orange and Princess Maxima were wed.
Part of the appeal of Holland is that so many of its venues are unusual to British eyes, but many of them can outdo our own penchant for history and tradition. The Breughelhuis, former home of the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter, can offer a candlelit period experience, complete with wandering magicians and troubadours and even herring salesmen.
Amsterdam is only an hour or so by road from the world-class courses of the North Sea coast between Zandwoort and The Hague, but the peaceful, nine-hole Amsterdam Old Course is only a couple of miles from the city itself and barely minutes away from the RAI Congress Centre.
The Beurs-World Trade Center, in the heart of Rotterdam's business district, has been the subject of multi-million pound refurbishment over the past four years. Its 30 meeting rooms, with capacities ranging from 10 to 1,000, offer an airy, modern environment studded with art and design touches. The International Tug & Salvage event brought 360 delegates to the centre in April.
The Millennium Tower
The fact that the Westin is the only five-star hotel in Rotterdam demonstrates a weakness of the city in its lack of high-end hotel stock.
Nonetheless, the 231-room Westin is well situated in the Millennium Tower.
It is connected via air-bridge to the Doelen Conference Centre and consequently can provide meeting space for anything up to 3,000 delegates.
Beurs van Berlage
Between 1873 and 1970, Rotterdam's Cruise Terminal was the hub of the Holland America Line, ferrying passengers to and from New York. Now the building has been repurposed as a venue and its six-arched roof houses offer numerous options for those planning dinners and other events. The largest space can accommodate 1,500 for parties or 500 for a dinner.
As a tall building in a flat country, the Euromast, opened in 1960 for the Floriade flower festival, remains a key landmark in Rotterdam, where it is still the tallest structure at 186m. The crow's nest and restaurant is around 100m up with views across the city and up to 20 miles beyond on clear days. The Euromast can host groups of up to 375 people, or 160 for dinners.
Amsterdam Old Course
Holland's holy trinity of golf courses, namely Kennemer, Royal Hague and Noordwijk, are closer still to Rotterdam than they are to Amsterdam, but for those who don't have the time to drive out to the coast, Kralingen offers a challenging nine holes just a few miles from the city centre.