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Under the Iberian sun

Madrid and Barcelona’s rich histories and modern aesthetics mean that Spain’s most vibrant MICE destinations display unique attributes that attract corporate travellers from all over the world. Amelia Walker reports

For all the talk of Spain’s antiquity, this is a country that lives very much in the here and now. Dedicated to living the good life, Spain stirs the soul.

Visitors from all over the world visit to enjoy the beaches, the sun, the gastronomy and the people. However, in recent years there has been another form of tourism that has overtaken the established: Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events (MICE).

2015 was the year in which more tourists than ever arrived in Spain to attend a MICE event – four million people in fact. That’s 15% more than in 2014, generating around €7 billion for the economy.

The leading tourism destination in Spain is Barcelona, with Madrid a close second. The agency Turisme de Barcelona recently published that its MICE sector generates €1.5 billion each year.

Madrid and Barcelona are fitting places for multinational organisations, as they are at the heart of European variety and have easy access to an eclectic array of travel hubs.

Recuperating after the recession, MICE trips are bouncing back here more solidly than before and enjoying a resurgence in popularity, courtesy of big firms currently touring the continent. And as visitor numbers pick up, so does the demand for appealing places to stay.

When an invitation from AccorHotels landed in my inbox inviting me to experience their eclectic array of Spanish properties, I was intrigued to sample their hospitality. It’s a busy schedule, with our group organised to tour eight hotels in three days across both cities.

Our first stop is to check-in at AccorHotel’s largest Novotel in Europe – the funky Novotel Madrid Centre – which opened this year and is 10 minutes from the city centre, 5km from Chamartin train station and 8km from Barajas Airport. The 24-hour Airport Express bus stops 200 metres from the hotel too, and the nearest Metro station is only 450 metres away. The hotel has its own taxi rank and there’s parking for 300 cars. Rooms are smart and a good size with Cloud 9 beds. There’s 20 adaptable meeting rooms, designed in cool shades of caramel, grey and white, all equipped with the latest technology and free wifi. Kick-start your day by tucking into the free traditional breakfast buffet served in the relaxed gourmet restaurant. Other amenities include a funky reception bar, gym and business centre.

We head to check out the Mercure Madrid Centro, a contemporary and stylish hotel that is themed on the life of Spanish author Lope de Vega. Pendant Tom Dixon-style lighting and cafeteria wood tables decorate the open-plan communal setting in the style of a modern-day apartment, giving it a seriously social vibe. There’s a relaxed library lounge and two meeting rooms, and suites come with separate living rooms, terraces and sumptuous Jacuzzis.

Our final destination for the evening is the Novotel Madrid Sanchinarro, which is located in a quiet residential area just 20 minutes from the city centre by car. It houses 134 modern rooms and the genius that is Chef Angel Risueño showcases an innovative menu of ecological and seasonal produce with top-notch local wines at Gourmet, their in-house open-plan, urban restaurant. Bag a spot at the square glass bar. I am a great advocate of a counter seat and eating at the bar; it’s informal, fast and so Spanish. The restaurant looks out onto the sunny patio, so in the summer months guests can opt for lunch and dinner on the terrace. There is one air-conditioned meeting room available and a self-service business centre, while the swish outdoor heated swimming pool (open in June, July and August) offers a leisure dimension into the corporate mix.

Meeting spaces are evolving – the original boardroom format is being replaced by innovative approaches. The focus is now on creating conducive settings and it is no more a surprising sight to see delegates assembled around a swimming pool or at a bar rather than a boardroom table.

Day two and we have the morning at leisure to explore the city. I stroll along the Gran Vía then head to take in the city’s vista at the rooftop terrace at the The Círculo de Bellas Artes, an ideal spot to have a drink, watch the bustling streets below and take it all in. I finish with a walk around one of the city’s largest parks – the Casa de Campo, which is five times bigger than New York’s Central Park. It’s lunchtime and all the walking has made me hungry. Fortunately, I’m in for a real treat courtesy of a lunchtime reservation at Tatel, one of Madrid’s hippest restaurants.

Spain’s gastronomic flare shines brightly through the magic cooking coming out of the kitchen from Patxi Nino and Redruello Zumarraga, who have created an elegant and innovative menu. Live music with performances by singers and DJs emit an Ibizan avant-garde feel in a setting inspired by the Golden 20s. The food is divine. For mains, think glazed veal cheeks, duck puff pastry, black cod, Bluefin tuna tartare and desserts of hazelnut cake and French toast with ice cream.

Afterwards we head for a tour of the ibis Madrid Centro and are greeted by a DJ mixing up lazy beats, generous, spritely cocktails and tasty tapas on tap – not your average check-in welcome, but one that is innovative. I’m informed it’s like this every Thursday afternoon through to late evening with the aim of encouraging the local community to swing by for a drink, enjoy the music and socialise.

The hotel sits in the heart of the city, offering an excellent base for visitors to discover the famous Gran Vía, Palacio Real, Catedral de Almudena and the Reina Sofía museum. Located in the Malasaña district, close to the Bilbao metro stop and just a stone’s throw from the Colón financial district, it’s a great spot for sightseeing. The interiors throughout are stylish, with cream leather and colourful accessories of yellow, sky blue and red, while snazzy wallpaper injects a sense of fun.

Madrid and Barcelona are well connected by train, ensuring visitors can journey between both with ease. We take the TGV to Barcelona. At the source of the action sits the central business district (CBD), so business travellers are in a great spot to sample the many attractions in between meetings. Awash with culture, the city beckons to some of the world’s most respected international artists. Team this with the city’s local music and visitors are in for a real treat.

The ibis Styles Barcelona, located close to the Sagrada Familia and Paseo de Gracia is our next calling and one for those who like hotels with a personality. Modern in design, it follows the theme of ‘Barcelona at your feet’. Rather apt then, that we are scheduled to embark on a private escorted walking tour of the city to check out the architecture. You can take a tour led by architects, photographers, or students. We wind through the city and view many examples of the city’s famed take on Art Nouveau and the Gothic Quarter. I’d heartily recommend doing this.

Step forward Oasis Collections. For those of you who like the idea of living like a local, then staying in an apartment, villa, or house instead of a hotel is an alternative option. Design aficionados, travel lovers and service fanatics – this is one for you. OC’s aim is to change the way travellers experience the world’s top destinations “through the eyes of a local,” says Parker Standberry, Co-Founder & CEO. “Teams of local experts in multiple cities personally scout out a select group of homes in the best neighbourhoods and provide guests with unique amenities such as stocked fridges, gym memberships and access to a network of private members’ clubs.” The Duchess Apartment emits a home-from-home type feel, the sun-drenched outdoor terrace a delight. Alfresco is the way they roll here.

Next is the five-star Pullman Barcelona Skipper hotel – Barceloneta Beach is temptingly close, 100m to be exact. Add to this that there are two swimming pools (one is a rooftop, rocking a beach club vibe) – then factor in the tapas served up by Blend Restaurant and it’s easy to see why the hotel is popular for meetings (it has nine spaces). We enjoy a cocktail-making master class followed by lunch on the vast terrace – ideal for private alfresco soirees during the dry months. The hotel has two seasonal cocktail bars, while the Blend Lounge & Bar, a modern bar with an outdoor terrace, is open all year round and available for private hire.

Nothing can trump a good rooftop bar – the combination of sunshine, a bird’s-eye view, outdoor swimming pool and alcohol is a heady mix – and Novotel Barcelona City, which is our base, has a fantastic one. Take the lift to the 19th floor and go for drinks and canapés at Zity. It’s the perfect place to kick back and take in the sunset after a long day of meetings. Our host Hotel Manager Antero Cardoso gives us a tour of the premises. The rooms are light and spacious and the suites expansive (474 square feet in total); each comes with a lounge, roomy bathroom, two TVs, Nespresso machine, well-stocked minibar, VIP amenities, bathrobe and slippers, and free wifi. There’s also a fitness centre, hammam, solarium and the meetings space near the reception measures 6222 square feet and seats up to 500 people. “Our rooftop area is a fantastic space for corporate gatherings, be it large or small. The live music creates a fantastic atmosphere,” says Antero. And that it does. Later that evening I’m on the dance floor as the sunsets and our group hits the city’s beachfront clubs until the early hours. At 4am I make my excuses and call a cab.

As I walk, groups are still out and about while odd cars cruise by with music thumping. The city is such a vibrant patchwork of wonder that you won’t be spending too much time holed up in a hotel once you switch off from business. Why? Because you’ll be on the beach, in the buzzy bars, then heading to restaurants for top-notch tapas.

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