Israel is a unique destination

Al Aqsa Mosque

Events business is on the increase
Jan Erik Paulden was invited by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism to see what Israel has to offer to event organisers. He reports on a land where ancient religious and historical texts come to life, supported by modern facilities tailored to MICE sector.

Israel has all the elements for a successful MICE event - unique historical and cultural heritage, year-round warm climate, long coast with delightful beaches, a variety of landscapes and activities, plus top-class hotels and meeting facilities. Israel hosted many events in the 1990s, but political and military conflict in the new millennium meant the events industry lay fallow for about a decade.

In recent years, Israel’s MICE business has begun to recover and, despite the troubles in 2014, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism says that for corporate groups and tourism, security is not a problem. The Ministry is keen to point out that the perception of Israel from media reports in the wider world is a far cry from how it is when one is actually in the country.

Israel is certainly a unique destination. Being in the Holy Land is like walking through the pages of the Bible. It comes to life around you. Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Jericho, Galilee, Bethlehem are all real, thriving places. As Israel is a small country, everything is within easy reach. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are only a 30-minute drive from Ben Gurion International Airport and the Red Sea resort of Eilat is served by an internal flight. The full length of the country can be driven in a single day.

A survey by the International Congress & Convention Association in the late 1990s ranked Jerusalem in 5th place – and 1st among non-European cities – on the list of cities hosting international congresses and conventions. The country is popular for science, technology and medical conferences, areas where Israel is at the forefront of research and practice. As part of such events, seminars can be arranged with Israeli researchers. Hotels are well versed in catering for corporate groups and there is a choice of experienced DMCs. Convention delegates are welcome regardless of the passport they hold and whether or not the issuing country has diplomatic relations with Israel. English is widely spoken and is on all road signs. Furthermore, Israelis hail from many parts of the world and can offer services in many language.

Jerusalem – holy of holy for three religions
The jewel in the crown of the region is undoubtedly Jerusalem. It is one of the holiest sites in the world for the three main monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The historical Old City is surrounded by a wall and divided into four quarters – Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim. A popular tourist attraction is to walk the Via Dolorosa, the route Christ took, bearing the cross, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christianity, where Jesus was crucified and buried. This huge church is divided into separate areas for various different Christian denominations.

The mosque on the Dome of the Rock is the third holiest site in Islam, with Mohammed’s footprint in a rock at the centre of the mosque, where he stepped when ascending to heaven upon his steed. The Western Wall, widely known as the Wailing Wall, on the side of Temple Mount, is the holiest place in Judaism and the most visited site in Israel. It is the only fragment of the ancient Great Temple to survive the Roman destruction and is the spot where Abraham came to sacrifice his son Isaac.

A more modern tourist attraction in the Muslim quarter is shopping in the Ottoman-style souk. The country’s history, culture and arts are showcased in the Israel Museum, one of the largest in the world. There are many outside spaces where dinners and cocktail parties can be held after 5pm, when the museum is closed. For example, it is possible to have dinner alongside a model showing the Jerusalem of 2000 years ago. The site also includes the private house of a deceased patron of the arts, a friend of Henry Moore and Picasso, whose works are on display. Although closed to the public, the house can be hired for events for up to 60-80 people at a cost of around £2500, including dinner. Another much-visited museum is Yad Vashem, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, a powerful and moving experience.

Jerusalem’s meeting facilities
Jerusalem is well endowed with conference and meetings facilities. At the entrance to the city, easily reached from the airport, the International Convention Centre (ICC) Jerusalem has 30 meeting halls totalling 48,000sqm and can accommodate conferences from 100 to 20,000 delegates. It is surrounded by a choice of meetings hotels. For example, adjacent to the ICC is the Crowne Plaza, which offers 399 rooms and extensive meeting space, both indoors and outdoors. Standard rooms start at $190 per night. The hotel boasts one of the largest swimming pools in the city.

Closer to the city centre are several top class properties. The most prestigious hotel in Israel is the King David, built in 1931, which was used as the headquarters of the British mandate. State functions are hosted there, with Heads of State staying in the three suites on the 6th floor that have remarkable views of the Old City. The upper two floors have been fully reconstructed in the last two years. In total, there are 233 rooms, with 42 special rooms and suites. The hotel has a number of meeting rooms, the largest holding up to 330 people and various areas of the beautiful gardens can also be used for events.

The David Citadel has fantastic views of the Old City, especially from its beautiful terrace. Although modern, the 384-room hotel is imbued with a feel of the Holy Land. Its grand ballroom is entered through impressive gold and bronze doors and is finished in golden Jerusalem limestone. It has space for up to 500 guests and can be divided into three separate ballrooms. There are also four smaller banquet rooms which can also be used as one larger space for up to 160 people.

Across the street from the David Citadel is its sister property, the more modern design hotel, the Mamilla, which has just become a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and has a rooftop restaurant on the 8th floor. Rooms are from $400.

One of Jerusalem’s newest properties is the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, designed as a blend of Greco-Roman, Gothic and Ottoman architecture. Its facilities include 226 guestrooms, including 29 suites, a 700sqm pillar-less ballroom and a 500sqm foyer with natural daylight. Together the ballroom and foyer hold up to 1200 and there are nine other meeting and boardrooms.

Tel Aviv
In contrast to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is a modern coastal city with 13km of beachfront and a vibrant nightlife. Yet it is also a historic city. Founded in 1909, it was the first Hebrew town. The State of Israel was declared on Rothschild Boulevard, famous for its Bauhaus architecture. The picturesque old city of Jaffa is about 5,000 years old and was formerly Israel’s main port.

Inside Jaffa, the Ilana Gur museum is the eponymous artist’s private home where she displays 500 works of art by herself and other artists. The museum can host dinner, as well as cocktails for up to 100 people on its roof, affording one of the best views in Tel Aviv.

Another novel venue is Ha Tachana, the renovated 19thC railway station, with shops presenting local Israeli designers, restaurants and a film of its history in a moving train carriage.

Tel Aviv is popular for all kinds of meetings, conferences and incentives. It has its own trade fairs & convention centre, set in more than 75 acres (30 hectares). Across from the beach, the 478-room Dan Panorama hotel is the third largest convention centre in Tel Aviv. Its main hall has no pillars and divides into two or four halls. There is also ample exhibition space. Larger events can be shared with the neighbouring Intercontinental. Close by, the stylish Isrotel Royal Beach Hotel, which opened in June 2013, also has great views of the beach and the town. Its wide corridors are designed to resemble an art gallery, with intriguing works of art displayed throughout the property. Most of its 230 rooms have balconies and cost around $400. Its events floor has an attractive view of the beach and dinners and parties can be arranged by the pool, looking out to sea.

A new boutique hotel with a 1920s design, The Norman Tel Aviv, opened on 2nd December 2014. A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it has 30 bedrooms and 20 suites, including two penthouse suites, a rooftop infinity pool and features original Israeli artwork.

The Dead Sea
One of Israel’s major attractions is the Dead Sea, which makes for a fascinating and enjoyable day trip. The lowest point on earth, 400 metres below sea level, it is perhaps best known for its high salt content, which means that you float on top of the water without any effort. The minerals in the water are good for the skin, making it popular for health tourism. Indeed, covering oneself in Dead Sea mud is one of the local rites of passage. Ahava uses these minerals in beauty products, which make good pillow gifts. There are a number of resort and spa hotels on the beach, of which the best is probably Herod’s. The area has an impressive history. It is where Jesus was baptised and where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world, founded 10,000 years ago, is nearby. The imposing Mount Sodom, 80% salt, can be visited in jeeps. In Roman times, soldiers were paid in salt, which, along with spices, was worth more than gold. In fact, the word ‘salary’ derives from the word ‘salt’.

On top of a steep cliff, with bird’s-eye views of the Dead Sea and across to Jordan, are the ruins of King Herod’s mountaintop fortress, Masada, the last stronghold of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 73 AD. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that from around £100 per person can be used for events accommodated in the modern visitor centre or in tents in the desert.

Theme parties and cuisine
Israel’s rich history affords many other opportunities for unforgettable events. Groups enjoy memorable evenings at a Queen of Sheba theme party in King Solomon’s Mines, a Crusader Dinner in the crypts of Old Acre, or a Bedouin Fantasy in the Judean desert.

Groups are also likely to benefit from the Israelis’ fondness for good food. A small group can eat dinner with a family in their home for around $40-50 a head. Our small group ate an exquisite dinner in the Adam restaurant in Jerusalem and an appetising lunch at Abrage in Jaffa, housed in a 100-year-old historic Arabic building from the Ottoman era.

Flight connections
Flight connections to Israel are good. We flew on El Al, the national airline, which serves 43 countries. From the UK, flights of 4.5hrs depart from Heathrow and Luton. Israel is only 2 hours ahead of UK time, so jet lag is not a big problem. According to Martin Haley, El Al’s UK Customer Relations Manager, one of the airline’s advantages is the assurance provided by its tight security. As well as the normal airport security, every passenger has a personal interview. In contrast to some security staff I have encountered, I found my El Al interviewer to be polite and friendly. Martin notes that advising the airline of your group in advance helps the security checks to proceed smoothly. For the return flight it is possible to use one of the authorised companies that specialise in passing people through security and check-in. If required, El Al can arrange off-site check-in, for example at the hotel.

Final comment from Sara Salansky, Director for Europe at Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. ‘The best times for MICE groups to come to Israel are September to November and March to June. July and August are family holiday periods and probably too hot, while January and February are low season, with temperatures averaging around 16degC. The Dead Sea and Eilat enjoy a warm climate all year round.’

Sara notes that all corporate groups are welcome in Israel, with any mix of religions. For instance, she points out, many Muslims live and work in Israel and many visit. While she acknowledges people have concerns about security, Sara suggests that event planners should come and see the country for themselves.

‘If you are looking for a new destination for a significant MICE group’, she says, ‘the Ministry of Tourism will be happy to host you for an inspection tour.’

She is confident that once a person has visited the country, their concerns will be allayed and they will be impressed by the possibilities. ‘Israel is ideal for events. We have the history, the sights, the facilities and we can build anything in the desert. There are almost no restrictions. If you come here, we will make your MICE dreams come true.’