The revitalised Lebanese capital is an alluring destination for incentives and events, says Ian McCurrach.
Beirut’s history as a tourist destination stems back to its 1960s heyday, when it was a glamorous jet-set playground dubbed the Paris of the Middle East.
The Lebanese capital played host to business and leisure visitors alike, attracted by the vibrant beach culture during the long, hot summer – the city enjoys an average temperature of 21?C – the skiing in winter and natural surroundings in the spring. In those heady days, film legends such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton played on the sun-drenched sands and then partied the night away in Beirut’s famous nightclubs.
Happily, a new golden era has almost arrived – political stability coupled with huge investment has ensured that the once war-torn capital is safe to visit. Tourists and business travellers have returned in their droves and, in 2009, The New York Times voted it the number one place to go in the world.
The city is also a highly respected player in the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) market. In 2009, Lebanon saw the highest growth (39 per cent) in visitor arrivals in the world. And it is easy to see why. The city enjoys an enviable position sandwiched between the warm shores of the Mediterranean and a series of undulating hills and mountains. Compact and easy to get around, much of Beirut’s magnificently rebuilt downtown area is easily accessible on foot. Recent openings include the impressive Beirut Souks in 2009, a luxury mall, big-name designer stores such as Chanel and high-street brands such as Zara.
At 20 sq km, it is also a relatively small city for an international destination, which means that at the end of a day of meetings, those wishing to take in the surrounding countryside can get there in less than ten minutes by car.
“Time is a crucial issue in terms of putting together any kind of meetings programme,” says Huda Malhas, director of sales and marketing at the Four Seasons hotel. “Beirut is a fantastic world city and has unique culture all within easy reach of both the airport and the surrounding area, which offers a wealth of incentive activities.”
Rebecca Nachanakian, director of sales at the Phoenicia hotel, adds: “What ultimately sets Beirut apart as a meetings destination is its striking location and geographical position at only a four- to five-hour direct flight from most European and Gulf hubs. It is also perceived as an exotic destination with a fascinating mix of Oriental and Occidental styles, influences and culture. While the official language is Arabic, English and French are widely spoken and many signs, especially in the retail sector, are in English only.”
Bmi and Middle East Airlines (MEA) both offer direct flights from London Heathrow. Bmi has twice-daily services on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with a daily flight on all other days. MEA flies daily.
It is difficult to gauge what effect the political instability of the Arab Spring has had on the market. Hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray, who opened Beirut’s Le Gray hotel to wide acclaim in 2009, says: “Lebanon is in isolation from the trouble that surrounds it. In Beirut it is business as usual. The hotels are full, the restaurants are doing well and the town is buzzing.
“However, we have situations where newscasters are showing footage of Syria and it inevitably has the reporter’s name on the screen as headquartered in Beirut. Unfortunately, the implication is that it is all happening in Beirut, when it is not.”
Campbell Gray believes that it is important to set the record straight on that front. “I am about to go to Dubai to sit on the advisory board of the Arab Investment Conference,” he says, “and I suspect the issue we will all want to discuss is how to get the [right] perception of the Middle East out there in the public domain.”
BIEL, the city’s dedicated international exhibition and leisure centre, has a 9,000-person capacity. Meetings also take place across the city’s five-star properties, all of which are situated in or around downtown. Leading exponents in terms of meetings include the Phoenicia Intercontinental, the Four Seasons, Le Gray, the Habtoor Grand and the Metropolitan Palace (see overleaf for more details on these).
“I think that the hotels’ approach to meetings has to be highly individualistic,” Malhas says. “There is no strong active tourist board, no convention bureau and no significant destination management companies. The majority of MICE activity is from the banking, pharmaceutical, government and diplomatic sectors.”
The Phoenicia has some of the most extensive conference facilities, including a ballroom that accommodates 900 delegates banquet-style. Like all of the hotel’s meeting rooms, it has newly installed state-of-the-art audio-video equipment. Recent events held there include the JP Morgan Middle East Conference.
“MICE visitors typically book a three-night stay and a two-day meeting at the Four Seasons, or possibly a three-night/day-and-a-half meeting to allow for some activities within the country,” Malhas says. The Phoenicia’s Nachanakian adds: “We find that meetings visitors frequently extend their stay to five nights because of what the city has to offer in terms of leisure opportunities.”
This opulent grande dame opened in 1961 and is situated on the Corniche at the edge of downtown. The five-star property has 500 rooms and suites, four restaurants and extensive conference, spa and fitness facilities, including indoor and outdoor pools. The ballroom has a 2,000-delegate capacity and there are three other meeting spaces, the largest holding 190 people reception-style.
? Minet El Hosn; tel +96 1136 9100; ichotelsgroup.com
This 26-floor five-star property opened two years ago, has 230 rooms and suites, and is located opposite the marina. It features an impressive top-floor rooftop terrace and pool, and more than 1,500 sqm of conference and meeting facilities, including a 750 sqm ballroom that accommodates 450 people banquet-style.
? 1,418 Professor Wafic Sinno Avenue, Minet El Hosn; tel +96 1176 1000; fourseasons.com
Opened in 2009, in the heart of the reconstructed downtown area, this five-star contemporary boutique property has 87 rooms and suites designed by Gordon Campbell Gray and Mary Fox Linton. Its excellent facilities include a sun deck and glass-sided rooftop infinity pool, several chic restaurants, bars and ultra-modern spaces for small-scale, high-profile get-togethers of up to 40 delegates.
? Martyrs’ Square; tel +96 1197 1111; campbellgrayhotels.com
Located in the Jnah residential district, this 31-storey, five-star, Arabian-influenced property has 195 rooms and suites. It also features a wide range of restaurants and an excellent health club and spa. Meeting space includes Emirates Hall, which has a maximum capacity of 3,000 guests.
? Sin El Fil; tel +96 1150 0666; habtoorhotels.com
Situated next to the Grand, Habtoor’s five-star sister property has 183 spacious rooms and suites, extensive dining options and a large health club and Elixir spa. Venues for large events include the Dubai Hall, which has a capacity of 1,000 delegates for drinks.
? Horsh Tabet, Sin El Fil; tel +96 1149 6666; habtoorhotels.com
This traditional 33-suite boutique five-star property is located in the Achrafieh district, just outside downtown. The ninth-floor rooftop pool and garden has great views, and there are several dining outlets. Intimate gatherings of up to 40 people banquet-style can be held in its private dining room.
? 137 Rue Abdel Wahab El Inglizi; tel +96 1133 9797; albergobeirut.com
According to Pierre Ashkar, head of the Lebanese Hotel Owners Association, about 42 hotels with a total estimated value of US$2.4 billion will add 5,000 rooms to the market over the next decade.
- The Grand Hyatt, owned by Société Meditérranée des Grand Hotels, is scheduled to open in October 2013 with 350 guestrooms.
- The Kempinski Al Abadiyah Hills-Beirut, a mix of 74 rooms, 12 villas and 181 luxury apartments, is also scheduled to open in 2013.
- Campbell Gray Hotels won’t be drawn on new openings as yet but official announcements are imminent, according to Campbell Gray.
- Talk of Hilton launches are similarly vague, although according to recent reports in Beirut’s The Daily Star, the chain plans to rebrand the two Habtoor offerings (Grand and Metropolitan Palace) during 2012.
- Byblos – an hour north of Beirut, this ancient Phoenician port is home to archaeological remains and many five-star beach clubs, including the Edde Sands hotel and wellness resort. Visit eddesands.com
- Baalbeck and Château Ksara – visit the impressive Roman temples and remains at Baalbeck, which are some of the world’s best preserved, and enjoy wine tasting and cave exploration at one of Lebanon’s leading wineries, which dates back to 1857. Visit ksara.com.lb
- Skiing – hit the slopes at Mzaar Kfardebian, which has more than 80km of runs and 18 ski lifts, and is only an hour’s drive from Beirut. Visit skimzaar.com
- Casino du Liban – the world-famous casino (cdl.com.lb) is a 30-minute drive from the capital and offers poker, slots, black jack and roulette
- Culinary classes – most conference hotels regularly organise authentic on-site Lebanese cookery courses led by their executive chefs.
- Walk Beirut – a four-hour city tour (bebeirut.org) puts into context the city’s recent political events against its rich cultural heritage.