Finland: The event planner's guide to ... Helsinki

The Finnish capital is developing a global reputation. Anna Maria Espsater finds out why.

Helsinki has a long-standing tradition as a city for meetings, conventions and conferences. Many an accord and treaty has been signed here over the years, and the already high standards of infrastructure, technology, facilities and services were further heightened when Finland held the EU presidency in 2006.

According to research carried out by the Union of International Associations, the Finnish capital Helsinki ranks sixth in terms of international meetings, while the country as a whole ranks eighth.

Finland attracted more than 143,000 delegates to corporate events and incentives in 2006, 40 per cent of whom came from overseas. Although Lapland is a popular Finnish destination, hosting 33 per cent of the country's international corporate events, Southern Finland, particularly in and around Helsinki, continues to be the main draw, attracting 48 per cent of visitors.

"You could say the whole of Finland is a retreat," says Finland Convention Bureau managing director Tuula Lindberg. "There's a lot of space and many interesting places surrounded by nature and we use snow, ice and midnight sun, as well as unique design, art, music and the latest innovations in mobile technology, as building blocks for meetings and events."

Regardless of the time of year, there's an abundance of activities on offer, even during the darker, colder months, when winter adventures can easily be incorporated into programmes. Several UK companies, including Norwich Union and HBOS, have recently tried Finland as a corporate event destination.

"We chose Finland as a reward event for an annual incentive because it was unusual and fun," says Hazel Ward project director at agency BI Worldwide, which organised the HBOS incentive in Finland. "The destination suited an audience with a wide range of interests as the activities on offer, despite being snow-based, are diverse and novel."

Getting there: Helsinki's Vantaa airport is well served by some 30 airlines with 180 international landings daily. Finnair, British Airways and low-cost carrier Blue1 operate daily flights from Heathrow with a journey time of about three hours. There are also flights from Manchester and Dublin. The airport is a swift 25-minute journey from the city centre.

Where to stay: There's no shortage of options in Helsinki and many of the central hotels are geared specifically towards C&I groups. Hotel Kamp, one of Finland's key five-star properties, is situated right in the heart of Helsinki in a recently restored historical building. Its 179 rooms retain their 19th-century character and four different meeting rooms cater for up to 120 people. The Crowne Plaza Helsinki and Scandic Continental, also in the city centre next to Finlandia Hall, provide conference facilities for large groups. The latter offers sustainable meeting packages, taking into account the carbon footprint. Design Hotel Klaus K, inspired by Finland's folklore epic The Kalevala, has both a conference hall for up to 120 delegates, smaller board rooms and even a sauna for meetings. For an option slightly out of town, the Hilton Kalastajatorppa, ten minutes from the centre and overlooking the Gulf of Finland, offers conference packages for to up to 500, while the historic Hotel Haikko Manor, which dates back to 1362, when it was a Dominican Monastery, has conference facilities for up to 400. "Usually our customers combine both business and pampering while visiting Hotel Haikko Manor," says deputy managing director Kai Mattsson. "One recent group arrived on an old steam boat from Helsinki for a three-day meeting and on the first evening participants were pampered at Haikko Spa."

Incentive ideas: Helsinki and the surrounding area have an array of options, from visiting nearby Nuuksio national park for team-building activities or making your own piece of silver jewellery, to midnight cruises visiting the Unesco World Heritage-listed Suomenlinna Fortress, or ice-hockey nights with your own sauna. "Usually the programmes that we arrange for our clients are a combination of several items, as each programme is tailored to the clients' needs," says Helsinki Expert product director Arja Tarkki.

Saunas feature heavily in the lives of Finns and in incentive packages, regardless of the time of year, with trips to Saunasaari, or Sauna Island, a sauna lover's paradise, 15 minutes by boat from Helsinki's Market Square, among the many possibilities. Outdoor activities are prominent, but for those looking to stay indoors, there are Cossack nights, cookery evenings and drinks in the Arctic Ice bar to choose from.

C&I venues: Helsinki has a great variety of unusual venues with conference and meeting facilities. These range from informal seaside villas, such as Villa Andania and Villa Wuorio, to the Fortress of Suomenlinna's own conference and banquet facilities, with eight venues available, catering for groups of different sizes. Voimala, a former power plant, is the latest addition to the more unusual event backdrops. Its boiler hall can accommodate up to 1,000 delegates. For even larger groups, Wanha Satama, or "Old Harbour", Helsinki Fair Centre and Event Arena Bank are ideal for fairs, exhibitions, conferences and banquets.

Places to party: Many conference hotels have venues available for evening hire, such as Club Kamp, part of the hotel with the same name. Lux nightclub has a prime penthouse location in central Helsinki and its five bars, VIP lounge and terrace can be hired for group events. Grand Casino Helsinki, for those with a gambling bent, is Finland's only international casino, with three bars and two restaurants. Its Fennia Salon, which offers a show during dinner, can be booked for private functions. Restaurant Porssi offers smaller private rooms for hire, as well as a large main dining room for bigger groups.

REGIONAL UPDATE

Beyond the capital

"The most popular destinations for incentive trips after Helsinki are of course Lapland, including Kuusamo, followed by the lakeland around Kuopio," says Helsinki City Tourist and Convention Board marketing manager Ines Antti-Poika.

Popular meeting venues outside Helsinki include the Dipoli & Hanasaari Swedish-Finnish Cultural Centre in nearby Espoo, Tampere Hall in Tampere and the universities in Turku and Jyvaskyla. New for this year are the Levi Summit conference centre, near Kittila, and the island of Aland's new venue, Alandica.

With Tallinn only a short hop away by ferry, and daily train connections to St Petersburg, two-centre trips are increasingly popular options, while winter activities in Lapland and throughout Finland remain key to incentive agendas. "Finland as a C&I destination was superb," says Andrew Van-Parys, from HBOS Advisory Service, who visited Rovaniemi recently on an incentive trip. "Beautiful scenery, friendly and efficient people and a well organised DMC. Activities included husky and reindeer sledding, skiing, skidoos and snow games. The only low point was returning home."

DIRECTORY FINLAND
Finnish Tourist Board
Contact: Riitta Balza, 020 8600 7282
Email: riitta.balza@finpro.fi
Web: www.visitfinland.com

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