Great and small: the best compact meeting destinations

As savvy association planners start exploring smaller cities, first-tier meetings destinations are beginning to face competition, writes Holly Patrick. While there’s no official list of first, second, or even third-tier destinations, there are certain unwritten criteria that are attributed to each – size, facilities and accessibility being acknowledged by all planners. However, smaller cities are making their way on to planners’ radars and are stamping their mark on the association meetings industry…


Cambridge, UK

  • Population: 129,000
  • ICCA Ranking: Worldwide: 183, European: 98

Cambridge is a small city renowned for its university. Its convention bureau, Meet Cambridge, wants to create a reputation for hosting association meetings to match.

Meet Cambridge has more than 20 years’ experience in helping association event planners find the ideal venue for conferences and meetings. Its portfolio includes Cambridge University College venues, hotels and other unique properties around the city.

Meet Cambridge deputy manager, Judith Sloane, said: “Cambridge is home to rich pools of expertise, which makes it an incredible destination for association events.

“Organisers and delegates can tap into the local intellectual capital at our universities and the many clusters of knowledge at the science and technology parks; the opportunities for collaboration and peer-to-peer networking are outstanding.

“Coupled with a unique range of stunning venues, both historical and contemporary, as well as a mix of accommodation styles and a host of activities on offer, the city is perfect for these types of events.

“Our Ambassador Programme is key to attracting association conferences; we are fortunate that we have local experts willing to take the lead in bidding to bring their conferences to the city. Our service offers full support, from building the bid through to the event itself and beyond.”


Chiang Mai, Thailand

  • Population: 127,240
  • ICCA Ranking: Worldwide: 267, Asia Pacific: 67

Since the Chiang Mai Exhibition and Convention Centre (CMECC) made its debut in 2013, the region has expanded its international association conference offering. It hosts around 25 ICCA-verified international meetings a year, in industries such as medicine, higher education, social studies, engineering, technology and agriculture.

Recent initiatives to attract association business include MEDICOPOLIS which aims to bolster the region’s capacity for digital technology and biological innovation.

Chiang Mai has also set up a MICE Promotion Committee. The committee works with the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB), which recently launched its northern branch, along with private sector stakeholders and academic institutions to set the direction of the MICE industry in the city.

The city’s new provincial strategic plan 2020 – 2023 has identified winning more bids for international conferences as one of Chiang Mai’s KPIs and elevating the city’s ranking in ICCA’s annual statistical rankings.

One way it plans on doing this, as Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau president, Chiruit Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya explains, is by using what is already abundant in Chiang Mai – culture and history.

“To deliver unique and exceptional experiences for meeting delegates and organisers, Chiang Mai has collaborated with TCEB during the past few years in developing products, activities and attractions under seven magnificent MICE themes that can cater to MICE requirements.”

Some of the highlights include the special venue ‘Kao Mai’, an old tobacco-curing plant and cultural experiences where delegates can learn the traditional process of coffee production from ethnic hill tribes.


New Orleans, USA

  • Population: 391,006
  • ICCA Ranking: Worldwide: 136, Latin & North America: 29

“New Orleans is a city known for joyous celebrations, gatherings of all kinds, and of course hosting memorable meetings and conventions. It’s a timeless, resilient city, built on strong traditions and world-renowned for hospitality,” says Stephanie Turner, VP convention sales & strategies, New Orleans & Company (formerly the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau).

The strong traditions of New Orleans remain, as they have for more than 300 years, yet the entire meeting experience has been reimagined, beginning at the airport. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport boasts 59 direct flights across 16 airlines.

The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (MCCNO) is ideal for groups of all sizes with 103,000sqm of contiguous exhibition space, plus 140 meeting rooms, a 4,000-seat theatre and two ballrooms. MCCNO is the sixth largest convention facility in the US and consistently ranks in the country’s top ten facilities that hold the most conventions and tradeshows annually.

“As a major meetings destination, New Orleans hosts events from all industries including medical and healthcare, education, social, sports and technology,” explains Turner. While the city doesn’t run an association programme, New Orleans & Company can provide planners with local experts who can assist in every aspect of the meeting.

The city is undoubtedly a cool destination for delegates to explore and with more than 1,200 eateries around the city, you can guarantee they won’t go hungry.


Reykjavík, Iceland

  • Population: 123,000
  • ICCA Ranking: Worldwide: 79, European: 42

Reykjavík has a firm focus on sustainability. “Many associations see conferences and events as an extension of their brand and a platform to communicate what they stand for; their focus on contributing to a more positive social and environmental impact has increased dramatically over the course of just a few years,” explains Sigurjóna Sverrisdóttir, managing director of Meet in Reykjavík.

“Some of the welcomed feedback we get from our partners in the international MICE industry is how the nature around Reykjavík fuels the attendee experience along with the positive delivery it has on overall morale, performance, energy, and wellbeing.”

Along with Iceland’s outstanding natural beauty, Reykjavík has also built up a reputation for reliability, high-tech infrastructure, service excellence with flexibility, and convenient flight connections to and from North America and Europe.

Its successful Meet in Reykjavík Ambassador Club has played an integral part in attracting association meetings to the city. “History shows that a limited number of individuals have been the key influencers of bringing large meetings and conferences to Iceland,” adds Sigurjóna. “We try to identify those individuals and equip them with free, impartial advice and support on all aspects of conference planning and organization.”

Besides its burgeoning meetings offering, Reykjavík provides delegates with downtime activities fit for a Viking. From short sightseeing tours around Reykjavík, snowmobile tours and glacier walks, to exploring caves and river rafting. Alternatively they can relax in the famed Blue Lagoon.

“Last but not least,” Sigurjóna adds, “walk around the city, mingle with locals and get the feel of the most peaceful population on earth. Enjoy our old fashion hospitality: ‘Vertu velkominn’.”


Ljubljana, Slovenia

Population: 288,307

ICCA Ranking: Worldwide: 44, European: 27

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is an increasingly attractive destination for meeting planners and conference organisers as the 2019 ICCA country and city rankings show.

A compact, walkable and widely pedestrianised city with around 300,000 residents, Ljubljana was awarded the coveted title of European Green Capital 2016 for achieving visible results in its sustainable development, which is now embedded in its DNA and widely supported by the locals as a way of life.

Slovenia’s location, nestled between Austria, Italy, Hungary and Croatia with the country’s main international airport just 25km from the city, gives Ljubljana easy access to regional attendees as well as to those attending international events.

Ljubljana has a diversified conference venues portfolio with two congress centres within walking distance to the Old Town quarter and more than 1,300 rooms.

The current portfolio of special event venues in the downtown area, crowned by the Ljubljana Castle, will be enhanced in 2022 by an exciting development – a multipurpose cultural venue. Cukrarna, a massive former sugar refinery originally from the 1820s, is now under renovation and will provide an eclectic space for standing receptions for up to 1,000 delegates.

In 2019, Ljubljana also introduced its Ambassadors Club which works in conjunction with the University of Ljubljana to support academics and experts, predominantly in the field of science, to win international association meetings for the region.

Jan Orsic, head of business tourism, Ljubljana CVB, said: “Ljubljana is a very active destination on the association market, which is confirmed by ICCA rankings and supported by our marketing activities in the association segment such as ICCA Association Relations Partners programme. The fact that Slovenia was the first EU country to declare the end of the epidemic is relevant on its own. We will keep up our efforts to provide a safe and hospitable destination.”




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