Meet in Belgium
Published: 29/02/2012 - Filed under: Archive » 2012 » March 2012 » Destinations » Features » Features » Meetings » Features » Destinations » Features » Destinations » Europe » Archive » 2012 » March 2012 »
The Belgian province of Liège offers fast and furious incentives combined with chilled out charm, discovers Rose Dykins.
A one-hour train ride from Brussels brings you into Liège’s new station. Shaped like a stingray, with white beams and a glass ceiling, the structure – designed by Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava – is a million miles from the station that was here before. It feels like an airport, and it’s a testament to the region’s aspirations for the future.
Surrounded by green hills and with a population of only 195,500, the former coal-mining and steel-making city is perhaps an unlikely candidate to have reached the shortlist for hosting Expo 2017, which is expected to last over three months and attract five million people (liege-expo2017.com). The winner will be announced in December and Liège’s citizens are eager to win, knowing that its appeal is not in offering sprawling nightlife or large-scale facilities.
“We’re not Madrid or Paris. Liège has more of a village mentality,” says Pierre Alderson, co-ordinator of Liège Congrès, an institution that promotes the city. “When you go to a café and meet people who live here, you feel the welcoming atmosphere.”
The best way to soak up the local culture is by hanging out in the city’s exquisite chocolate shops, such as Darcis (darcis.com), and quirky restaurants such as the Kitchen (thekitchenrestaurant.be), which serves delicious Mediterranean food. Strolling through the cobbled streets, you’re greeted by strangers – something a metropolis can’t offer.
What’s more, Liège has the facilities to host major events, with a 20-room convention centre, 1,100 three- and four-star hotel beds and a five-star property in the Crowne Plaza. It borders the Netherlands (30km away) and Germany (45km), making it a central spot for continental visitors, and is a 45-minute drive from Brussels airport. Liège is a one-hour train journey from Brussels Midi, and it’s hoped that the anticipated Deutsche Bahn route from London to Frankfurt, due in 2015, will pass through the city. Plans are also under way for a tram system.
With such developments in the pipeline, some dependent on the Expo bid, it will be interesting to see how the city’s landscape changes in the next few years.
A 30-minute drive from Liège is Spa, a quaint bourgeois town that gave its name to the spa concept we understand today, thanks to its ancient springs. It’s also home to one of the world’s first casinos, which opened in 1763. Arguably Spa’s main attraction is that it is the local town of the Francorchamps Formula One racing circuit. During the Belgian Grand Prix, both Spa and Liège are overflowing with visitors, and throughout the year the racetrack is a popular setting for events, meetings and thrilling incentives.
Crowne Plaza Liege
Mounted on a hill overlooking the city, Liège’s only five-star property opened last year. It was formed by combining two adjacent historical mansions – one boasts a 16th-century turret and houses nine suites, while the Comtes de Méan section, joined to a modern wing and with a neoclassical façade, holds 117 guestrooms. Bright, modern furnishings inject warmth into the hotel’s grander aspects, such as dark, carved wooden doors, plastered ceilings and stone arches. The elegant Napoleon III-style ballroom has pale green walls with gold panelling and large arched windows, and holds 200 people for a banquet. La Cave is the hotel’s underground bar, a former arms room with an original vaulted brick ceiling and columns – it hosts up to 100 people for drinks and has a smoking area. There are eight meeting rooms, the largest of which can host 100 delegates theatre-style. Osmose spa has 11 treatment rooms and there are two restaurants, including a brasserie with an outdoor terrace for up to 90 diners.
- Mont Saint-Martin 9-11; tel +32 4222 9494; crowneplazaliege.be
Located in the centre of Liège, independent four-star Hotel Jala also opened last year. The cylindrical property has 54 rooms over five floors, all featuring contemporary, neutral décor. The five top-floor rooms are more spacious and each has a wraparound balcony. Hotel Jala and the rather funky retirement home next door have the same owner, and four meeting rooms are located in the latter, the largest accommodating 80 delegates theatre-style. Back in the hotel, a ground-floor meeting venue with Marilyn Monroe Warhol reproductions on the walls holds 30 people. There is a small fitness room, a chic restaurant and a bar.
- Rue Jaspar 2; tel +32 4230 7330; jalahotel.com
Palais des Congres
The riverside Palais des Congrès has hosted everything from conferences for European ministers to concerts and fashion shows. It’s a modern, airy building, with plenty of spaces to choose from. Three auditoria hold 250, 500 and 1,000 delegates respectively and open on to a huge foyer on the first floor, which has a glass wall providing great views of the River Meuse. There are also ten breakout rooms, all with natural light, two of which can be combined to accommodate 120 delegates theatre-style. An 800-capacity hall comes fitted with a stage for musical events. The venue has an in-house technical and audio-visual team, and is wifi equipped.
- Esplanade de l’Europe 2; tel +32 4340 3888; palaisdescongresliege.be
Circuit de spa Francorchamps
While the Belgian Grand Prix isn’t until August 31, Francorchamps will have a 220-day occupancy this year owing to other competitions and test runs (the racing season kicks off this month and runs until November). Conference and event spaces surround the track, with the sound of zooming engines potentially adding an exciting soundtrack to meetings.
There is a vast range of rooms to suit different purposes – these include the press room, which holds 400 people classroom-style, 300 sqm and 600 sqm rooms with glass walls alongside the finish line, and L’Eau Rouge, a former hotel. This Parisian-style venue is located in the middle of the track, beside one of the circuit’s most infamous bends, and can hold 600 people for a reception. Corporate packages to view races are available and the circuit can arrange incentives such as test runs in Lotuses, or teambuilding games including pit-stop challenges and electric bike rides in the countryside.
- Route du Circuit 55; tel +32 8729 3700; spa-francorchamps.be
Hotel de la Source
Situated uphill from the famous corner of the racetrack it’s named after, this four-star property has a young, modern vibe and racing-inspired décor. A baby-blue Lotus is displayed in the sleek lobby, and there is racing photography in the 86 rooms and four suites. The eight meeting rooms all have natural daylight, and seven can be combined to host 1,000 people for a reception. The other is a 22-capacity boardroom with a garden view. Racetrack driving, nature walks, chocolate-making classes and murder mystery nights can be arranged for groups.
- Route du Circuit 22; tel +32 8779 5800; hotel-de-la-source.com
A 15-minute drive from the racetrack takes you to the neighbouring village of Stavelot. The abbey was founded in the seventh century and reopened a decade ago with three museums and six atmospheric event spaces. The museums can be hired for drinks receptions – one takes you through the history of the abbey, another presents the works of local poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and the other is the official museum for Francorchamps Circuit, displaying photography from the first Belgian Grand Prix in 1922. There is fascinating footage of races from before 1925, when the track had no road or barrier separating it from the crowd – it shows spectators running for their lives as cars veer off course.
The museum connects with one of the meeting spaces, Salle des Gardes, a vaulted brick basement space that holds 290 people for a reception. This room leads on to Cave des Blanc Moussis, which has a dungeon-like feel and can host 200 for a candlelit banquet (480 for a reception). Other options include the 330-capacity Réfectoire des Moines, an 18th-century hall with peach walls and great light.
- Cour de l’Abbaye 1; tel +32 8088 0878; abbayedestavelot.be
Spa Balmoral Hotel
A ten-minute walk uphill from Spa is this family-run, four-star property. It can arrange taxi pick-ups from Brussels and Liège, and there is a shuttle service to the town centre and Thermes de Spa (see panel below). There are stunning views of a nature reserve and lake from some of the 126 rooms, all of which have balconies, and there are three 82 sqm
suites. Rooms are spacious with splashes of lime green, and many have a window into the bathroom, giving an open feel. The new wing of the hotel was completed in 2009 and holds some of the 16 conference rooms, the largest of which hosts up to 300 delegates theatre-style and has huge windows. Seven ground-floor meeting rooms have access to a garden, and there is a top-floor boardroom with a roof terrace.
- Route de Balmoral 33; tel +32 8779 3250; hotelspabalmoral.be
Radisson Blu Palace Hotel
The Radisson Blu has its own cable car that transports guests uphill to Thermes de Spa. At the time of my visit, its bar and restaurant were undergoing refurbishment, which should now be complete. The 111 standard rooms measure 27-29 sqm and are warm and comfortable, and there are nine suites, including the 102 sqm Palace suite. There are two meeting rooms, both divisible by four – the first-floor venue has a capacity of 150 people theatre-style and a terrace, while the ground-floor space can hold 180 delegates for a reception and is due to be refurbished in August. There is also a top-floor fitness centre, and the hotel offers free wifi throughout.
- Place Royale 39; +32 8727 9700; radissonblu.com
TAKE THE WATERS
The use of Spa’s thermal spring water for health purposes dates back to Roman times, establishing the town as the epicentre for sanus per aquam (health through water). Hydrotherapy is still an essential part of the treatments at Thermes de Spa – water from the town’s Clémentine spring, which is rich in calcium, iron and bicarbonate, is heated to 32?C and supplied to its 800 sqm indoor and outdoor pools, which are fitted with spa baths, bubble seats and water jets.
The building is light, airy and clean, with a floor of treatment rooms dedicated to hydrotherapy. Try a carbogaseous bath – a copper bath filled with spring water, designed to boost circulation and relaxation. The floor above offers beauty and relaxation treatments including massages, Reiki and reflexology. In the west wing, there are two hammams and two saunas (one of each is for naturists). It’s not possible to hire the venue exclusively, but with 40 treatment rooms and sociable relaxation areas serving tea and spa mineral water, it could welcome a group after a hard day’s work.
- Colline d’Annette et Lubin; tel +32 8777 2560; thermesdespa.com
- Rail Europe can arrange travel from London to Brussels (via Eurostar) and onwards to Liège (total journey time four hours) and Spa (five hours 15 minutes). Visit raileurope.co.uk
- See businesstraveller.com/tried-and-tested for reviews of the Crowne Plaza and Radisson Blu.
- Visit belgiumtheplaceto.be
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