This sun-kissed country boasts northern efficiency and a laid-back, Mediterranean attitude to quality of life, coupled with a rich culture and efficient infrastructure. By Allan Lynch, May/June 2009
Puerta del Sol Square, Madrid
To sample the real Spain, head to Madrid’s Corral de la Moreria. Founded in 1956 by a retired matador, the Corral is flamenco’s epicentre in Madrid, and where the best singers, guitarists and dancers perform. During the day, the Corral can be opened for private group programmes, while in the evening, it works as a restaurant with a flamenco show. It’s a classic, thrilling evening.
Heather Douglas, buyer, programme design, for Maritz Canada, in Mississauga, Ont., is mesmerized by the entertainment at the Corral. Moreover, Douglas says that while parts of the coast have been overrun by sun-seeking tourists, “Madrid has been out of the cycle for many, many years and it’s a little gem that not enough people know about.” As with all of Spain, she says, “The service levels were very high. The pricing on just about everything is very reasonable, and there’s so much colour and authenticity everywhere you go.”
Madrid, which really started developing in 1561, when the royal court moved from the Spanish city of Toledo, is a fairly modern, opulent European capital. She continues, “There is so much variety there. I almost think it could become the new Italy, because Italy is highly desirable, but quite costly. And Spain has so much to offer in terms of culture, history, sightseeing and gastronomy. It has a lot of the similar categories (to Italy), but at a much lower price point.”
Spain offers northern efficiency with a laid-back Mediterranean attitude to quality of life. Among the country’s surprises is its modernity. Although it has ancient streetscapes and a rich culture, it boasts an efficient infrastructure.
While Madrid is a royal city of broad boulevards, grand parks, palaces, convents and extraordinary art collections in the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza, Reina Sofia and others, more North Americans are familiar with its edgier cousin, Barcelona, which hosted the 1992 Olympics.
Barcelona exudes a bohemian beach culture that builds on its avant-garde roots, based on the architecture of Antoni Gaudi and artists like Miro, Dali and Picasso. Douglas says, “Barcelona is one of the cities in the world that has a real energy. Barcelona has got such a rich history, but it has this edge. They’re exciting and they’re always trying new things, whether in gastronomy or something else. There’s just so much stuff to do there.”
That stuff ranges from group regattas to scooter tours, golf, polo and vineyard tasting tours.
Groups can work with venues built for the 1929 World’s Fair, 1992 Olympics or architectural treasures like the Gaudi house.
Jacqueline Acomb, a Carlson Wagonlit Travel programme manager embedded with Toronto-based IT reseller Softchoice, took 168 people to Barcelona in May, 2009, for a four-night programme. Her client alternates between a beach destination and European city. “Barcelona,” she says, was chosen over Rome “because it had a little more flash, and the hotel — the Hotel Arts Barcelona — won us over.”
The Arts’ beach location allowed her to stretch her budget. “Lots of the stuff we’re doing is within walking distance. We’re right at the port, so we’re doing a regatta, so for that transfer, we’re walking. Then we’re doing a nightclub night out and that’s around the beach, so that’s also a walking transfer.”
Given her group’s demographic (it tops out at 40), Acomb saves money by not loading the itinerary with activities. “It’s such a young group, they’d rather see things on their own, so they welcome the free time.” By opening up the day, she also saved on lunches. Her big off-site dinner was at a hilltop restaurant beside the Olympic pool overlooking the city.
Language was a challenge. While many Spanish suppliers are fluent in English, the weakness is menu description. Acomb says, “F&B is a little tricky. I find the translations of the menus a little funky.” This resulted in more calls and e-mails than usual.
Barcelona’s strong selling point is its lifestyle and edginess, says Airy Garrigosa, director of the Barcelona Convention Bureau.
Douglas says, “Spain has got so much to offer.
And it has so much variation, regionally. It bears looking into. If someone is looking at Italy, you look at Florence-Rome or Florence-Venice. I think Spain requires a little more looking into, because it’s been out of the cycle for so long. People are not familiar with it to the same degree they are with so many other (destinations). Barcelona has been the star, for many, many years. But you need to look at other destinations in Spain, too — specifically, Madrid, take a good look at it. It’s a fantastic destination.”
— Allan Lynch is a New Minas, N.S.-based freelance writer.