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Flooding washed out best laid plans

Montpellier trip was severely disrupted, explains Michelle Chenery

I was recently part of an organiser’s nightmare – when a natural disaster upsets all the careful, detailed arrangements made for an event.
Sud de France, the organisation set up to promote business tourism in the South of France, invited groups of MICE buyers and journalists to visit Montpellier in order to enjoy that beautiful part of France and to take part in a workshop, where we could meet local suppliers. ITCM was a member of a group from the UK.
We left from Gatwick Airport on EasyJet, the no-frills airline that has now recognised the opportunities in the MICE sector and has at last allowed groups to advance seat bookings on their flights.

Unfortunately, in mid-flight it was discovered that there had been unprecedented heavy rainfall in Montpellier, the airport was completely flooded and it had to be closed.

Instead, our flight was first obliged to circle for almost an hour and was then diverted to Toulouse, to refuel and then, it was hoped, fly over to Montpellier.

But no. The flooding was even worse than first imagined. We were stuck on the Toulouse tarmac for over four hours and then informed we had to stay overnight.

Courtesy of EasyJet, we were all accommodated in a local hotel. It was therefore the next day that we eventually transferred by coach to our destination.

The scene was astonishing. It was as if a tsunami had hit Montpellier. During the afternoon of September 29 as much as 255mm of rain (10 inches) had fallen, equal to six months of rainfall in 3 hours. To make the situation worse, the River Lez had overflowed its banks.

We were carefully bussed to Parc des Expositions, where Sud de France was staging its show ‘Destination Incentive’. This is the only annual salon in France dedicated specifically to incentives and to the organisation of events, seminars, team building and congresses.

Tragically, when obviously so much effort and finance had been invested into the event, many of the exhibitors had not been able to set up and many of the invited groups had not been able to attend as visitors. The 2012 and 2013 events were a big success and everyone had been looking forward to the 2014 version.

Fortunately, all was not lost, as we were able to spend a few hours meeting the exhibitors.

There was a mix, mostly, of hotels, incentive organisers and team building providers. Typical of the local properties was the Auberge Cavaliere du Pont des Bannes. It is a 4-star spa hotel of 69 rooms, offering all the atmosphere of the Camargue.

Mobilboard was an exhibitor offering tours on Segways. From Mon-sejour-pyrenees groups can get mountain adventures ranging from dog-sled tours to ski-ing to helicopter rides over the peaks.

The trip was able to get back on track when we were transferred to our hotel, the Vichy Spa Hotel Montpellier Juvignac, a member of Club Prestige. It was here that flood waters had washed cars out of the one of the lower level car parks and strewn them around like flotsam. Believe it or not, we even saw some cars stuck in trees.

It is in the small town of Juvignac, just 15 minutes from the centre of Montpellier, and enjoys a location between the sea and the mountains and is known for its very pleasant climate. It is a destination for golf, tennis, cycling and hiking. The 18-hole Fontcaude International Golf Course and the 9-hole Executive Course, combined with a range of practice facilities, cover 200 acres and attract many golfing groups.

In addition, the Fontcaude Spa has thermal waters from the Marinet and Valadiere Hot Springs. The name Fontcaude derives from an old term for Warm Fountain and its soothing powers have been acclaimed since Roman times.

The Vichy Spa Hotel, an Art Deco property with 99 rooms and junior suites, exudes typical French charm. Its spa boasts 27 treatment booths and both an outdoor and indoor swimming pool.

After checking in and freshening up, we were transferred to another venue for an evening of food, drink and entertainment. The Mas Saint Gabriel is in the very heart of the Camargue, the region famed for the breeding of horses and bulls. It is a 17thC property of 300 hectares (750 acres) and has an abundance of bird life and flora. The entertainment was an intriguing mix of wine tasting and gambling, with an added display of flamenco dancing. There were casino tables on which we placed bets as to the type of wine we were tasting.

The food was tasty and satisfying but, at the same time, gave us an insight of all that the region has to offer. It was served on small plates bearing steak, fish, ham, sushi and ribs – all prepared in front of the guests. By now the earlier disruptions of the timetable were well and truly behind us and we were into the spirit of this very distinctive region of France.

The morning of our third day we were able to spend an interesting time inspecting the facilities of the Vichy Spa Hotel Montpellier Juvignac, where we had spent the night. It was only opened in May 2014 and it adds to the traditional health treatments of the Vichy hot springs the latest treatments provided by a cryogenic temperature and a Japanese Iyashi Dome, so that guests can also be frozen to temperatures as low as minus 130deg or they can be bombarded with microwaves.

It was, obviously, a shame that a trip of this amount of interest coincided with the heaviest rainfall in living memory, but we were able to return home with a good impression of what the Camargue region can offer groups in terms of fun, food and fantasy.

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