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Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon’s tourism sector has been enjoying steady growth since 1998, providing a welcome buffer against austerity. Now replete with new hotels, bars and meeting spaces, James Lancaster finds a city with…

Wind in its sails…

You get a sense of just how close Lisbon International Airport is to the city centre when you look out of the window during landing and wonder how all those terracotta roof tiles and satellite dishes have stayed intact for so long. This proximity – rare for a major European city, albeit a relatively small one – is confirmed when a taxi from the airport takes just 20 minutes to reach your downtown hotel.

The five-star Hotel Sheraton Lisbon, where I was staying, is just a quick leg-stretch or Metro ride to the Avenue Liberty, which intersects the city’s various and distinctive districts. In a preternaturally hot September these were still bustling with tourists, enjoying a city in full revival mode.

At every turn, a new venue. And most of them – like the striking Lisbon Cruise Terminal (it looks more like a modern art gallery) or the fabulous Sud Lisboa Hall, both overlooking the dreamily wide River Tagus – have event spaces where delegates can be entertained in considerable style.

Although it doesn’t shout about it, Lisbon has always been a heavyweight when it comes to hosting international association meetings. Over the last two decades it has occupied a top 20 spot in ICCA’s City Rankings, and has been ninth for the last three years – hosting 149 meetings in 2017.

The city itself is not big (population 550,000) but the greater metropolitan area takes this number up to between 1.3 million and 2 million depending on which measurement you use. Nevertheless the range and quality of hotels is extraordinary. It has almost 40 five-star hotels and more than 80 four-star properties, besides a plethora of three-stars, guest houses, and Airbnb accommodation.

The range of meetings venues is impressive, too. The CCL (Lisbon Congress Centre) has eight auditoria, five pavilions and 34 meeting rooms. The largest seats 2,500 theatre-style. Alternatively the Cultural Centre of Belèm has a conference centre with 22 event spaces, seating 1,400 theatre-style in the Grand Auditorium. Meanwhile, FIL – Feira Internacional de Lisboa, is the city’s main exhibition centre with five pavilions, three auditoria, five meeting rooms and two foyers.

Outside the lecture theatres, delegates can explore a city that comes alive after dark, especially in the Bairro Alto district, with its bustling 24-hour bar scene.  South west of the city centre, the culturally resplendent Belèm district is home to numerous national monuments, including Belem Tower, and museums such as the recently opened MAAT (Museum of Architecture, Art and Technology), a reptilian-looking building designed by British architect Amanda Levete.

CASE STUDY

Who? Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology Society of Europe (CIRSE)

What? CIRSE Congress 2018

Where? Lisbon Congress Centre (CCL)

When? September 22-25, 2018

“Events like this help doctors digest the big information…”

Lisbon welcomed 6,500 doctors and medical suppliers working in the vanguard of interventional radiology to CIRSE 2018 – an annual meeting it has hosted every three years since 2009.

This year’s edition included several innovations – including an expanded student programme – and lecture rooms were full even as exhibition stands were being dismantled on the final day.

A strike by taxi drivers in a row with City Hall over the presence of Uber in the city could have made things sticky, but the impact on congress was minimal. It helps that you can get around on foot.

Certainly CIRSE executive director Daniel Waigl had few complaints.

“I think we have gone a long way together, since we organised the first CIRSE congress in Lisbon in 2009. My impression is that the Lisboa Convention Bureau has well understood the signs of the time and significantly improved their service and professionalised their approach over the years. For CIRSE 2018 the cooperation is very good.”

Waigl was keen to beat the drum for face to face meetings.

“Events like this really help doctors digest the big information. And it’s not just about going to the seminars and lectures, but the peer to peer networking that goes on, which really allows doctors to consolidate their opinions or test them against those of their colleagues. We need to create areas where doctors can relax and think without any distractions, and learn from each other, and that’s why face to face meetings will always be important.”

He added: “The CIRSE Annual Congress brings together the world leading experts in Interventional Radiology to discuss, learn, interact and enjoy the experience of the largest and most comprehensive IR meeting in the world. We hope to inspire our delegates every year and support them in their clinical work and patientcare and their professional effort to develop their own practice and Interventional Radiology as whole.”

Shortly before my interview with Waigl, I met one of the congress suppliers, CTI, who handled registration, e-posters, and abstracts, and it was an eye-opener into the huge impact outside companies can have on a meeting. The technology was impressive: seamless and user-friendly.

“We are very careful in our selection process, but once we have made a decision we usually keep the same provider for a longer period. Today big congresses like CIRSE must go digital and embrace new technology where it enhances the experience of the delegates and increased the reach. This goes from online registration and abstract submission to conference apps and live streaming of sessions.”

Cocktail with a difference?

Estufa Fia

Or ‘Cold Greenhouse’ makes a remarkable setting for a cocktail evening – or a gala dinner with a difference. Home to hundreds of plants from all over the world (Portugal’s former colonies) the venue, in Edward VII Park, houses a pavilion (Nave), where all manner of events can be held. This is privately run by catering company Casa do Marques, and can seat up to 600 people. www.estufafria.cm-lisboa.pt

Carlos Lopes Pavilion

Perhaps the name rings fewer bells than it once did, but before Cristiano Ronaldo came on the scene, Carlos Lopes was Portugal’s most famous sporting son, winning gold in the Marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles’ Olympics – and dominating long-distance running for a generation. Now his medals – and his gold-swoop Nike trainers – take pride of place in this newly renovated pavilion. The balcony overlooking Edward VII Park provides the wow factor to impress delegates. www.venues.askmelisboa.com

Beato Convent

Built in the 16th century this beautiful convent survived the 1755 earthquake that flattened many surrounding buildings. Mainly made from Portuguese white marble, shot thought with red jasper, the building has numerous event spaces, besides the architecturally stunning cloisters. Grown up and elegant, this richly atmospheric venue has been used for small congresses, exhibitions, and seminars, besides gala dinners and cocktail receptions.

http://www.conventodobeato.com

Culturgest

Built inside the imposing head office of Portugal’s second-largest banks, CGD, this sumptuous venue runs a year-round contemporary arts programme, making it one of Lisbon’s cultural hotspots. Opened in 1993, it has a main auditorium holding 600 people, a smaller auditorium for 145 people, and six ancillary meetings rooms. Some associations might be tempted to hold their entire congress here, but it also makes an interesting setting for a reception or networking event – especially if combined with a performance of exhibition.

www.culturgest.pt