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Azerbaijan

Once constrained by the shackles of communism, Azerbaijan now has one of the world’s most flamboyant convention centres sitting at the heart of a fledgling meetings and events industry. Holly Patrick reports…

The hidden gem of the Caspian Sea 

Azerbaijan, also known as The Land of Fire, is a nation oozing with tradition, culture and oil. Located on the Western Shore of the Caspian Sea – actually the world’s largest lake – it’s the biggest country in the Caucasus region, covering nine out of 11 climate zones, with almost every kind of geography, from mountains and forests to steppes and coastline. Its capital, Baku, was once a major destination on the Great Silk Road; today, this trading culture lives on with the exportation of oil and gas, as opposed to carpets and horses.

Alongside its abundance of natural resources, Azerbaijan has marked itself on the map for a variety of reasons, including its participation in sporting events, such as international football tournaments and the Grand Prix, for its glowing track record in the Eurovision song contest and, most recently, for its emergence onto the meetings and events scene.

But as recently as 2010, Baku was a city with a limited number of event venues due to the stagnation of infrastructure during the Soviet Union era, lasting from 1922 to 1991. Once Azerbaijan regained its independence and control over its economy, the nation began laying the groundwork to build industries beyond oil and gas.

In 2012, Azerbaijan hosted several global events such as the Eurovision Song Contest (after winning in 2011), the European Games, the Islamic Games and the Chess Olympiad. These events spurred on an overhaul of infrastructure in Baku, from roads and public transport to hotels and dedicated event venues.

The crowning of Azerbaijan as the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest winners led to the construction of the world’s fifth-largest indoor arena, Baku Crystal Hall, with a capacity for 27,000 people.

Since the erection of the arena, several purpose-built venues have sprung up across the city, including the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by the late Zaha Hadid. Living up to her reputation as the “Queen of the Curve” Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre shuns edges in favour of elegant curves, reminiscent of the waves of the neighbouring Caspian Sea.

A glittering gem on the Caspian Sea

Boasting one the world’s most beautiful concert halls, the centre also serves as a library, museum and conference centre, with a capacity of up to 1,000 delegates.

Adjacent to the Heydar Aliyev Centre, The Baku Convention Centre, designed by Austrian architectural practise Coop Himmelb(l)au, offers flexible meeting spaces, 1,000sqm of networking space and 15-breakout rooms around the 3,065sqm, 3,500-capacity auditorium at the centre. With only a road separating the two centres, they make ideal venues for conferences needing additional space.

But it’s not all about flashy new structures, according to Sevda Aliyeva, director of the Azerbaijan Convention Bureau: “Some of Baku’s classic Soviet-era venues such as the Dinamo and Intourist hotels have also been given a second life, as has the Gulustan Palace that was built ahead of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to Baku in the 1980s. All of this adds to Baku’s unique character of contrasts.”

There’s plenty in the way of special venues in Baku, including the world’s first and only Carpet Museum, ideal for a culture-filled drinks reception, and Villa Petrolea, former home to the Nobel Brothers who were among the first oil barons in Azerbaijan. History and culture continue to thrive at the centre of Baku, in the Old City, home to an array of unique venues, such as the Qaynana Restaurant, serving traditional Azerbaijani cuisine.

Tradition living alongside an emerging economy

Beyond Baku, the varying topographies and climates of Azerbaijan offer a unique backdrop to yet more impressive venues. The Heydar Aliyev Congress Hall Gabala in the mountainous north of Azerbaijan, for instance, features three floors of congress halls fitted with stages and adjoining networking spaces, and is one of the most beautiful congress centres you will ever see.

The newly created ambassador programme is focusing on encouraging associations to choose Azerbaijan for their next conference as Aliyeva explains: “The purpose of the Ambassador’s programme is to promote and attract association business events for Azerbaijan. We have selected approximately 15 individuals who are scientists, scholars, academics and business people, who have a strong reputation, to represent the association business events industry. The next step is to conduct personality training for the purpose of being competitive enough internationally.”

However, the Azerbaijan Convention Bureau has already been able to secure a selection of impressive international conferences including the upcoming International Conference on Application of Information and Communication Technologies (AICT) in October, The World Net Summit in November and the International Conference on Management, Economics and Social Science in March 2020.

In addition to the ambassador programme enticing association business, the Azerbaijani Convention Bureau is also offering complimentary dinner and drinks reception venues and pre and post tours to groups, depending on the scale of the event, the number of delegates and the association. “Our experts are happy to navigate and provide organisers with impartial advice from the planning process till the execution of the event,” added Aliyeva.

Azerbaijan isn’t as difficult to get to as attendees to the 2019 Europa League final in Baku would lead you to believe. There are direct daily flights from London Heathrow to Baku, thrice-weekly direct flights from Beijing and multiple flights from New York to Baku with one stopover.

For now, Azerbaijan remains and fairly unexplored association meeting destination, but the Azerbaijan Convention Bureau is working continuously to change that.

Ask the expert: 

Murad Asadov, director of sales Pasha Travel

  • Special venue 
  • Museum of Taghiyev can accommodate 100-150 people. It has a cosy, but elegant ambience and guests will be surrounded by Azerbaijani history where they can learn about Azerbaijan’s first oil millionaires.
  • Gala dinner venue
  • Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall can accommodate more people, up to 1000, and serves as a unique place to hold huge gala dinner.
  • Drinks reception
  • The rooftop of the Promenade Hotel during the summer season and Nur by Eleven restaurant if the weather doesn’t allow. Also, the Chicago Club can be comfortable for a drinks reception or small presentation which can accommodate up to 200 people.

Fast Facts

  • Currency: Azerbaijani Manat, equivalent to approx. $1.70
  • Time zone: GMT +4
  • Language: The national language is Azeri and nearly all Azerbaijanis speak Russian. Many speak English in Baku, but it is less commonly spoken in the regions. 
  • Airport to city centre: Heydar Aliyev International Airport is a 30-minute taxi drive from Baku city centre.
  • Light reading: Baku is home to the world’s only miniature book museum, with more than 5,600 fairy-sized books in the collection.