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Pole Position


Roger St. Pierre surveys the attractive meetings possibilities in a rejuvenated Poland

Being sent to the salt mines used to carry implications of hard labour and an early death – but not anymore.
The 800-year old World Heritage Site workings at Wieliczka, 10-km outside Poland’s former capital city of Krakow, have been transformed into one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions – and one of Europe’s most unusual conference venues, welcoming more than 1.2-million visitors a year, including delegates to a raft of incentive and conference meetings.

300-km (190-m) of galleries that stretch down through nine levels and 327-metres (1,073 ft) feet underground lead to vast subterranean halls adorned with stunning salt carvings of princes, bishops and other famous figures from Poland’s long and turbulent history. There are three chapels and a full-size cathedral where Pope John Paul II once preached. Six chambers are fully kitted out as full-service meeting spaces – the largest accommodating up to 800 theatre style and offering such amenities as large stages, screens, multi-media projectors, a portable audio system, wi-fi and highly polished wooden floors.

Very different but equally appealing is the nearby lavishly restored Dwor Sierakow manor house hotel, restaurant and parK, lovingly run by English-born Caroline Grabowska and her Polish husband, Pavel Gasiorek Besides John Lennon’s fabled “10, 000 Poles in Blackburn, Lancashire”, there are now a million of the East European country’s passport holders residing in the UK – and Polish is today the host nation’s second most spoken language.

Budget airlines easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz have not been slow to capitalise on the new market opportunity this has presented and there is now a wide network of low-cost flights available linking London, British regional and other West European centres with a comprehensive range of Polish destinations, including Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Katowice, Gdansk, Poznan and Lublin.

This is backed by a range of exciting events venues and a good choice of high standard hotels, some of them truly cutting edge, like the stylish 4-star Andel’s Hotel Lodz, with its 216 double rooms, 53 suites, four maisonette rooms and a two-storey maisonette. While locally owned, this outstanding property is operated by the Austrian-based Vienna International Hotels & Resorts organisation, one of the fast growing stars of the designer hotel world.

Besides a massive ballroom for up to 800, the hotel offers seven smaller meeting rooms plus large breakout areas..

For a time mid-19thC, Lodz was expanding faster than any other city on earth, including the burgeoning industrial centres of America. Its fortune was built on cotton and textiles – earning it the nickname ‘The Polish Manchester’.

The Andel’s property is part of the huge Manufaktura re-development of the complex that once housed the textile operations established in the 19thC by the mercurial Jewish entrepreneur Izrael Poznanski.

There are 13 historic buildings and a brand new shopping mall housing shops, restaurants, bars, a wintertime ice rink, summer-time beach, and the fascinating Museum of the Factory.

Built on a Roman/American street grid system, Lodz is at first sight rather rundown but there’s already a real buzz right across town, with a range of developments, from refurbished spaces for small businesses, especially in media and fashion, exemplified by the funky OFF Piotrkowska Centre, and loft apartments to mega projects.

A city full of students and fresh ideas, Lodz hosts fashion weeks surpassed only by those in Paris and Milan.

If you think Manufaktura is imposing, watch out for the re-development of the former industrial complex of Poznanski’s great rival Ludwik Geyer, a site that has at least five times more space.

These two men and others like them built magnificent townhouse palaces, many of which have now been restored, some with available meeting space. Also among Lodz venues worth checking are the engaging Central Museum of Textiles with its displays of fashion down the years and one-off design shows and the Palmiarnia palm house in Zrodkiska, the city’s oldest park.

You can fly your group directly to the ultra-modern airport at Wroclaw (pronounced ‘Vrotzwav’) or make a grand entrance by arriving on the train.

Now, the Polish state railway company’s rolling stock may be a bit decrepit but you can’t level the same charge against Wroclaw’s fastidiously restored and truly magnificent main railway station – as impressive as the London St. Pancras restoration, if on a slightly more modest scale.

Here there’s a gloriously ornate room that once served as a huge boardroom but lay empty for years. It’s now available for corporate events of up to 100 delegates seated – and further spaces are set to be re-opened.

Wroclaw has known rule under the Bohemian Crown, the Hapsburg Empire, Prussia and, until the end of World War II, Germany, but since then its re-drawn borders have made it definitively Polish. In 1945, when it was commonly known as Breslau it was the last city where the Nazis held out, even after Berlin had surrendered.
Fortunately, nearly all the architectural scars have been healed and the city centre has regained its medieval grandeur.

Among a number of outstanding venues is the foyer of the Wroclaw Opera, known as the Crystal Room and regarded by many as the finest room in all of Poland.

Group organisers should also check out the remarkable Centennial Hall, opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1913 as war clouds were gathering over Europe. The space under the colossal main dome can accommodate events for up to 15,000 attendees and the complex is now included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site listings.

Set outside the hall is a spectacular multi-media water fountain, with hundreds of water streams creating a screen for an unusual animated laser show.

Poland has vast flat areas but in the southeast there are the Tatra Mountains, soaring to around 1,800m (6,000ft). Here is the renowned ski resort of Zakopane, offering a range of group activities and renowned spa treatments.

Among the best hotels is the spacious Belvedere, which offers a range of meeting spaces for from 25 to 340 delegates, as well as 148 guestrooms and 27 apartments.

Throughout the whole of Poland there’s a sense of new beginnings, of vibrant rejuvenation. With the infrastructure slotting into place, lots of cheap flights and great value venues, it’s time for organisers to check Poland out seriously.

For further information go to Roger St. Pierre’s fact-finding mission was organised by Polish National Tourist Office in London.

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