Putting Poland on the conference map

Colin Ellson

Conterences are held in Warsaw because of the high standard of hotels, but incentive groups should explore further afieldfor their fun, advises Colin Wilson.

Poland has been playing host to meetings for more than 1,000 years. Many were desperate, backs-to-the-wall peace negotiations with a succession of invaders from the East. Since World War II, however, the country has been noted for prestigious international conferences.

Today, the main overseas share of the conference market comes from the UK and Japan, though there has been interest from the Benelux countries, Germany, France and Scandinavia, who are finding new and attractive alternatives to the well-chartered sights of Prague and Budapest.

Promoting Poland and its conference venues, the London-based Polish National Tourist Office (PNTO) is concentrating on highlighting the country's diversity. Terrain ranges from the Baltic beaches and lakes ofthe north, through the central plains, to the beauty of the Taha mountains in the south.

The PNTO is also promoting the meetings facilities in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, combined with wide-ranging leisure programmes. Banquets can be arranged in castles; there are classical concerts and ballet; activities such as sailing, horse riding, fishing and water sports can be arranged; and visitors have the opportunity to see rare birds and the last wild bison in Europe, and enjoy autumn colours which rival those in New England.

For the conference organiser, most events will begin in Warsaw. The capital is only two and a half hours from Heathrow, with two flights a day by British Airways and 16 per week by LOT, which also has three services a week from Manchester.

Since the Warsaw Marriott brought Western standards to the city in the late 1980s, there has been a rush to provide new hotels and upgrade existing properties, with meetings facilities high on the agenda.

The pace-setting Marriott began a US$4 million (£2.4 million) renovation programme early last year which covered all 487 rooms, 105 of them re-branded Rooms That Work, the group's new-style accommodation for the corporate client. The largest of the Marriott's 14 meetings rooms can seat up to 700.

At the opposite end of the time scale the Bristol opened in 1901, and after decades of neglect under communism, its art nouveau splendour was restored in a joint venture between Forte and Orbis. Today the Grande Dame of Warsaw's hotels, re-branded Le Meridien in April this year, has two function and six conference rooms, each with the latest audio-visual equipment, seating up to 110 delegates.

Among the other properties offering five star service and meetings facilities to match are the Holiday Inn Warsaw, with a maximum capacity of 150, the Jan III Sobieski (200), and the Victoria Inter-Continental (800). The capital's newest hotel is the Sheraton Warsaw Hotel & Towers. It has extensive business facilities, an exclusive towers floor and three restaurants. The Grand Ballroom can seat 550 delegates theatre style and there are 11 smaller meeting rooms.

All the capital's conference hotels will arrange themed events and work with local destination management companies to ensure delegates and partners enjoy the city's varied cultural and historic attractions. Mazurkas Travel, for example, can arrange visits to Chopin concerts at Ostrogski Castle and opera and ballet at the Grand Theatre. They can also organise dinners in an extensive range of restaurants with a folklore show, Polish dishes and traditional dances.

The culture and arts might come as a surprise to visitors who imagine Warsaw to be a sombre city locked in a Soviet time warp. But as soon as the Russian influence evaporated, the Varsavians set about removing all traces of the recent past. For instance, the authorities have transformed the auditorium of Joseph Stalin's Palace of Culture into the city's top conference venue, seating 2,800.

Few would guess that some 90 per cent of the city was destroyed as Hitler's revenge for the Warsaw uprising of 1944. The city was reconstructed, using original plans to complete an exact replica. The seams don't show, and the finest architecture is on the Royal Route from Castle Square to Wilanow Palace, including elegant palaces, burghers' houses, churches, foreign embassies and fashionable shops and boutiques. The jewel of the Old Town is Market Square, noted for its artists' booths and street theatre.

Chocolate box like Prague, Warsaw isn't. But conference organisers will find a skilfully designed package containing all the ingredients to make an event memorable and different.

Cracow, the second city, is three hours' drive from Warsaw. LOT flies there three times a week from Gatwick and Manchester. Organisers can choose from five Orbis hotels, or the Ibis, Piast and the Pod Roza. Cracow also has a small conference centre and half a dozen colleges capable of staging meetings.

The city survived World War II unscathed, and no other Polish city has as many historic buildings and monuments. A trumpeter announces noon every day from the Cathedral tower, broadcast on radio stations throughout Poland. A short walk away is Wawel Hill, with its castle, cathedral and ancient tenement buildings housing upmarket restaurants.

Nearby is Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp preserved as a memorial to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and which is now a place of reflection. Also worth visiting is the Wieliczka salt mine. A complex of tunnels and soaring chambers, it has chapels and altars hewn from the salt and is regularly used for banquets and conferences.

But Poland's best-kept secret is the Baltic coastline, the capital of which is the 1,000 year old port of Gdansk. The coast is bordered by dunes and pine woods and strung with fishing villages. Similar in layout to Amsterdam, with gabled houses in pastel shades, Gdansk has a colourful maritime past.

And in 1980, its shipyards were the birthplace of Solidarity, the trade union movement which helped to topple communism.

The city has four Orbis hotels and two colleges which can handle meetings. Local companies are able to organise a wide range of activities including classical concerts, open-air opera, knights' tournaments and folkloric evenings, sailing and ballooning.

This feature first appeared in the June 1997 issue of Conference & Incentive Travel magazine.