Spain: Up and coming stars

Spain's lesser-known cities are ripe for recognition and jostling for extra business.

Valencia is a prime example of how a seemingly obscure but affluent sporting event can lift a city into international consciousness. Before it hosted the America's Cup, Valencia was already growing prodigiously thanks to developments such as the famous City of Science and Arts, but the arrival of the world's richest yacht race proved a catalyst for some light-speed urban growth.

Before the event, the city was struggling to make it on the radar of most UK agencies. Andrew Winterburn, operations director at World Events, was one of the few going out there. "Venues were very much learning their trade and the city had a lot of challenges, despite its beauty," he says.

Improved access, infrastructure and lashings of global attention have gone a long way to change this, though. "Valencia has improved tenfold as a destination," adds Winterburn. "It's now definitely an option we would put in front of clients along with Madrid and Barcelona."

World Events had most recently used the 135-room Westin Valencia, a dramatic building that features five meeting rooms for up to 400 delegates. The feedback from the pharmaceutical client praised both the hotel and the city.

The arrival of these big-name properties - Hilton opened its avant-garde property with meeting space for up to 800 this year - further helps the city's cause, according to DMC Allied Europe director of UK sales Maxine MacPherson. "Valencia is definitely getting its fair share of interest," she says. "We are seeing an increase in enquiries and awareness in the destination, boosted no doubt by sales from the new Hilton."

Meanwhile, great things are afoot for Zaragoza, the fifth largest city in Spain. Relatively unknown, at least in leisure tourism terms, the city is about to become a hotspot when it hosts Expo Zaragoza 2008. Although not quite on the scale of the Universal Expos, which Seville hosted in 1992, the event will be attended by more than 80 countries, with around six million visitors anticipated.

In essence, Zaragoza is to be reinvented as part of a £1bn project that will overhaul its infrastructure, create a new urban transport system and redevelop the Ebro River. A new airport terminal, a stadium and 11 hotels are all planned for the city. Already in place is the Auditorium Congress Palace, which offers seven halls for up to 6,500 delegates.

Planners appreciate the present short lead-in times that the cities and destinations outside of Madrid and Barcelona can offer. Murcia, for example, is an atmospheric city (the ninth largest in Spain) dating back to the 14th century. Its proximity to La Manga means that there's healthy trade in golf-themed incentives. In terms of hotels, the five-star offerings include the Hyatt Regency La Manga, with 17 meeting spaces for up to 450, and the Intercontinental Mar Menor, with 64 rooms and suites, and its own nine-hole golf course.

Flexibility is also a key attraction of regions such as Cadiz and the Costa de la Luz. Mark Taylor, director of operations at Grass Roots UK, found that a six-week notice period for a Hitachi European launch at the Estepona Kempinski Hotel didn't present too many problems for the venue. "They were a bit naive in terms of service," he says, "but very accommodating as they were very keen to impress - the clients felt they got the attention that they deserved."

Taylor was also able to book, at short-notice, exclusive use of the Melia Sancti Petri in Cadiz for a group of 400 from BP with success.

Agencies are finding that Spain's 'second cities' are happy to offer this level of flexibility and at a good price, as opposed to fighting for limited space in bigger destinations that comes at a higher price.

Taylor sums it up: "Spain's big cities - especially for conferences - are a nightmare. There's never room for anything date-specific unless you're prepared to compromise a bit. We love Spain but are often now showcasing places like Cadiz, Bilbao and Santander."

DIRECTORY SPAIN
Spanish Tourist Office
Contact: Valentina Beteta, 020 7317 2029
Email: Valentina.beteta@tourspain.es
Web: www.scb.es.

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