Good night Vienna

Vienna’s famous river may not be as blue as it was in the 19th century but the city remains one of the conference capitals of the world, as it was in the days when right-wing royal Prince Metternich hosted the Congress of Vienna, which helped redraw the map of Europe.

Officially, the city is now the second most popular destination in the world after Paris for major conventions and is also a boom town for smaller meetings.

This year, the city will host 1,300 delegates in the Hofburg Palace, once the home of the emperor and his family, for the Second World Conference and Exhibition on Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conversion. The Vienna Fairground is expecting 23,000 delegates in August for the 20th Congress of the European Society of Cardiology and a month later 15,000 will be at the Austria Centre Vienna for the 11th World Congress of Gastroenterology. There will also be a series of events connected with Austria’s presidency of the European Union during the second half of 1998, including the European Council summit scheduled for December at the HofburgCongress Centre, with 7,000 delegates expected.

By any standards this adds up to a bumper harvest. Christian Mutschlechner, director of the Vienna Convention Bureau, forecasts that another four events taking place in Vienna between June and September will generate a total of 110,000 overnight stays in the city.

He says: “Vienna appeals because we are constantly learning and refining our ability to extend the finest hospitality to all our guests. We have a team which concentrates on developing our three most lucrative markets – the UK, Holland and Italy.”

He forecasts that the arrival of the European Union will stimulate still more international business because in Vienna there is usually an event to justify a party. For example 1999 will see the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Johann Strauss.

Vienna scores because the city has at least a dozen destination management companies. When the Amadeus world conference was held in Vienna, with 1,500 attendees from more than 50 countries, all planning was left to Imperial Tours, which last year handled an incentive visit to Vienna for Siemens Russia as well as a conference for the Adam Smith Institute think-tank.

Imperial Tours managing director, Andreas Jany, began the Amadeus celebrations with a parade of horse-drawn carriages waiting to meet delegates when they stepped out of the international airport.

Delegates and incentive groups in Vienna have one of the widest choices of five-star and deluxe hotels anywhere in the world, many of them former royal and ducal palaces. Perhaps the most prestigious is The Imperial, which was opened by the emperor Franz Joseph after a royal duchess had declined to live there because she regarded 80 rooms as too small for her personal needs. Today the hotel boasts 150 rooms and is preferred by many visiting VIPs.

In the same class as the Imperial and its sister hotel, the Bristol, is the Inter-Continental. Overlooking the city’s main park, where a statue of Johann Strauss is forever playing his violin, this hotel is traditional Vienna with every modern convenience.

The ANA Grand, a favourite with Japanese visitors, offers opulence and impeccable service, while the 310-room Marriott is another former palace on the Parkring. The Radisson SAS is two adjoining ducal homes converted into a single property, where it is still possible to drive a horse and carriage through the front door.

And there is the Hotel im Palais Schwarzenberg, a deluxe hotel with its own extensive grounds in the heart of the city. There are just 38 rooms in this property whose public salons are crowded with works by Rubens as well as an exquisite collection of finest Meissen. Vienna also boasts two Hiltons and, of course, the famous Sacher which is, perhaps, even more famous for its Torte than the luxury of its 103 bedrooms.

In many ways Vienna is a place where there is too much to see and do. Most conference delegates and incentive groups go home having enjoyed only half the attractions the city has to offer. There is seldom sufficient time to take in a visit to the opera or a concert in the Golden Hall at the Musikverein from which the annual New Year’s Day concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is broadcast and televised to the world. St Stephen’s Cathedral, with its medieval spire and criss-crossed green tiled roof, deserves a visit, as does the Hofburg, once the magnificent royal residence of the Hapsburgs.

There is much that is new, too, in Vienna. Last December saw the opening of the first ever museum devoted to the history of the Spanish Riding School. Last year also saw the revival of the royal train of the Emperor Franz Joseph, now modernised and as regal as it was 100 years ago. Companies can hire it for dinner, take guests on a three-hour ride around the Austrian capital, or on a longer train ride to Budapest, Salzburg or Prague.

The sight of a less than blue Danube is not deterring the conference industry. Vienna is determined to keep its place on the conference map.

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