Encounters in Spain


The country has also built an impressive infrastructure that welcomes meetings and events. In the Spanish language, the word encontrar means “to meet” as well as “to encounter.” And in Spain, that word perfectly describes what attendees at conferences, exhibitions and other events experience. They meet for business, but they also have memorable encounters with the people, the history, architecture and culture of the Iberian Peninsula.  

Tourism and meetings industry officials from Spain have made strong efforts recently to spread this message among corporate and association event planners in the United States, Canada and Mexico. For instance, an event called Spain Meeting Point was held in June 2013 in Madrid. Hosted by Turespana (the national tourism agency), the tourist offices of Spain in Chicago and Toronto, and the Madrid Convention Bureau, it brought together convention and visitor bureaus, suppliers and destination marketing companies with several dozen meeting buyers from across North America to show how large and small events can be not just dynamic, but easy to plan, in many cities across Spain.

What’s more, last year the Tourist Office of Spain in Chicago launched a digital magazine titled Meet in Spain, which publishes several times annually and focuses on different cities and regions from a group-event perspective. Spain also has a strong presence at North American meetings-industry shows, so planners can be exposed to the depth of the country’s hotel and meetings infrastructure, and the quality of service and hospitality.


Only You Hotel, Madrid

The International Congress and Convention Association ranks Spain as the No. 3 meeting and exhibition country and Madrid as the No. 2 meeting city in the world, trailing only Paris. It’s also the third-largest European city in terms of multinational corporate presence.

Driving these rankings is the fact that Madrid is among the most centrally located cities for North American, South American, European, African and Asian attendees. Flights are seven hours from New York, Mexico City and Caracas, and two hours from Berlin, London, Paris and Rome. In fact, Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD) is the main European hub for Latin America. The airport is just 15 minutes from the city center, and the metro rail system is modern, clean and easy for travelers to go from the airport to city hotels.

Madrid has more than 70,000 hotel rooms of at least three-star quality and above; it also has 15 or more four- and five-star hotels, including the Hilton Madrid Airport that’s within five minutes of The Feria de Madrid (IFEMA) trade fair venue.

One recent hotel development that could help attendees from distant places acclimate more quickly is the 24-hour check-in policy at the 58-room, four-star Only You Hotel & Lounge, a former 19th-century palace that also offers a la carte breakfast at all times. This property isn’t unique in its pedigree, though. “Luxurious palaces and medieval castles blend with modern buildings throughout the city, forming a varied backdrop” for any meeting or exhibition, notes Joaquin Castillo Dolagarary, director general of tourism for the region of Madrid.

Madrid, home to the Royal Palace and the Prado Museum (with masterpieces by Goya, El Greco and many more), has several venues that can handle international events. The Feria de Madrid is an exhibition complex with separate north and south convention facilities. The north has an auditorium that seats 1,100, 18 meeting rooms and a multipurpose entrance hall. The south has a 600-seat auditorium and 10 spaces of varying capacities.

The Municipal Conference Center of Madrid is integrated into the financial complex of Campo de las Naciones, a hub for many corporate headquarters and site of several business hotels. The facility has hosted summits of NATO, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Adjacent are a shopping mall, a 395-acre park and a golf facility.

The recently refurbished Glass Pavilion at Casa de Campo Convention Center draws international events regularly; it’s very close to the city center and next to the largest green space in the city. Principe Felipe Convention Center is close to the airport, with a 2,200-seat auditorium and 59 meeting rooms totaling 166,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Large vehicles can fit through the freight entrances, allowing for a variety of exhibitions and events.

As would be expected in a city that dates back to the Roman Empire, special-event venues with historical and cultural significance abound. The Glass Gallery at Cibeles Palace is a 22,000-square-foot atrium that was part of the Retiro Royal Palace in the 17th century and part of Madrid City Council headquarters. The Matadero Madrid—the riverfront slaughterhouse complex that was central to life and commerce in Madrid 100 years ago—has been transformed into an artistic center that offers huge spaces for special events.

The Stock Exchange Palace is a gorgeous classical building and a Spanish finance hub that can be used for cocktail receptions or award programs in the evening hours. The Las Ventas Bullring is an iconic landmark and has areas down low for a group to witness a bullfighting exhibition together. Even the ring itself can be used as a unique setting for dinners, concerts, and other celebrations. The Santiago Bernabeu Stadium—home of the famed Real Madrid soccer club—not only has 20 meeting rooms, but also grants access to parts of the field for special events, and offers guided tours of the facility.  


Palau de la Musica Catalana, Barcelona

Even though it has half the population of Madrid (1.6 million vs. 3.2 million), Barcelona has become one of the most important cities in the world for the meetings and incentives industry. For almost a decade, this Mediterranean coastal city in the community of Catalonia has maintained its position in the top five of ICCA’s rankings for international association meetings. In 2013, Barcelona hosted 179 international association events, trailing only Paris, Madrid and Vienna in the latest ICCA rankings.

Barcelona was revitalized by the buildup for the 1992 Summer Olympics. It continued its ascent by frequently upgrading facilities and infrastructure in the following years, greatly changing the urban and architectural layout, even compared to its Olympic rebirth. Coupled with rich cultural offerings (among them a unique Gothic Quarter as well as Gaudi’s surreal Sagrada Familia Church), mild climate and prime geographic location, this open, welcoming city is now top-of-mind for international corporations and associations looking to hold memorable events.    

Barcelona’s airport, El Prat (BCN), handles more than 800 flights per day and is just 7.2 miles from the city center. New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Miami, San Diego and Los Angeles have direct flights to Barcelona. Also, there is metro rail service to and from Barcelona city center that minimizes the need for attendees to take taxis or chartered coaches. There are seven four- and five-star hotels in the city, including business-friendly properties from Marriott, Hilton, Starwood, Melia and Pullman.

Casa Batllo, Barcelona

Barcelona offers cultural riches (think Picasso and Antonio Gaudi) and also a number of citywide meeting venues. The International Convention Centre Barcelona (CCIB) is integrated into Diagonal Mar, the city’s new seafront district that’s home to many high-tech firms. The facility can handle up to 15,000. Its architecture and column-free design make the facility as versatile as it is aesthetically impressive.

Palau de Congressos de Catalunya is set in the prestigious Avenida Diagonal, the city’s financial and business center. As part of the Hotel Rey Juan Carlos I complex, the building is surrounded by the most beautiful gardens in the city. There are 35 halls and rooms, an auditorium that can hold 2,000 and 43,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space that can accommodate banquets for 3,000. Fira Barcelona is among the most important trade fair institutions in Europe, with 4 million sq. ft. of exhibit space across two convention centers that house 14 pavilions.  

As for special-event venues, there’s Cupula Las Arenas, situated very close to the revered Plaza Espanya. Its spectacular dome is one of the largest in Europe, and the facility has 27,000 sq. ft. of usable space for up to 2,000 people.

Palau de la Musica Catalana, completed in 1908, is an Art Nouveau building that offers seating for 2,100 in its stunning concert hall. The National Museum of Catalan Art is housed within the Palau Nacional building, with views across Barcelona, and can handle 1,400 attendees for receptions. Casa Batllo is a masterpiece designed by famed architect Antonio Gaudi and holds 1,500 for receptions. Poble Espanyol is a village built in 1929 for the Barcelona International Exhibition; its 117 buildings and squares are scale reproductions of locations throughout Spain. Up to 10,000 people can enjoy this venue.

Valencia, Seville & Zaragoza 

City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia

Another city on the Mediterranean coast, Valencia hosts the third-largest number of MICE events in Spain, and is among the fastest growing cities in Europe for hosting association events, according to ICCA. A legacy of 2,000 years of history representing various civilizations and a mild climate make Valencia a repository of preserved ancient architecture. Roman ruins in the Plaza de la Almoina; remnants of huge city walls from Islamic and Christian societies; the Moors’ legacy in the streets; towering medieval buildings; and Gothic architecture all provide a feast of historical and cultural perspective .   

Manises International Airport (VLC) has direct flights from about two dozen European cities. Valencia’s AVE high-speed rail system connects the city to Madrid and other Spanish destinations. The distance from the airport to city center is just five miles and the metro system provides easy transport to hotels. Five five-star hotels plus four four-star hotels have significant meeting space in Valencia, with brand names such as Westin, Melia and Barcelo represented in that inventory.

The Valencia Conference Centre, open since 1998, is called The Palace of Light. With $12.7 million invested in refurbishment and upgrades over the past decade, it was named the World’s Best Congress Center in 2010 by the International Association of Congress Centres. The 172,000-square-foot facility has three auditoriums, for 1,481, 467 and 270 people; more than 10 breakout rooms as well as two multipurpose rooms; and a prefunction/exhibition area. A new casino recently opened across from the facility, making after-hours entertainment easy to coordinate.  

The Feria Valencia Convention and Exhibition Centre sits under a spectacular glass dome, and offers 24 meeting rooms and two auditoriums, plus 12 exhibition pavilions larger than 100,000 sq. ft. each. Its north forum also has three meeting rooms in addition to restaurants, coffee shops and VIP areas. Lastly, there’s 215,000 sq. ft. of landscaped outdoor space for receptions. Events can also be held at the City of Arts and Sciences, a five-section complex dedicated to operatic performances, an IMAX theater, a science museum and the largest aquarium in Europe.

Seville is another Spanish city that has been a crossroads for civilizations over centuries. Roman, Muslim, Jewish and Christian influences abound in its architecture and culture. Its southern location makes the city among Europe’s sunniest and warmest, and its setting on the banks of the Guadalquivir River means it’s a lively commercial port.

Hosting the 1992 World’s Fair Expo did much to push the city’s infrastructure forward, especially its international airport and high-speed train service. As for hotels, there are five five-star and four four-star facilities, including the Hotel Alfonso XIII, a 1928 gem with a majestic, classical design; and the Gran Melia Colon, set in the historical, financial and shopping heart of the city and frequented by famous bullfighters and other celebrities.

For citywide events, there’s Seville Conference and Exhibition Center (FIBES), set just a few miles from the airport and the city center. FIBES1 is one-half of the facility designed for large exhibitions (232,500 sq. ft.). FIBES2 is a recently built conference-focused facility with a dividable auditorium holding up to 3,200 people, plus more than 20 additional meeting rooms and 41,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. Another facility, Sevilla Congress Centre, has 24 rooms of differing sizes and its own catering service that accommodates up to 3,500 in the main halls, common areas and magnificent gardens. 

A city with a strong industrial base, Zaragoza also has much of the same historical legacy as other cities in Spain. It is a 90-minute high-speed rail trip to Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. Zaragoza hosted the 2008 World’s Fair Expo, which resulted in an upgrade of its meeting space and hotel inventory.

For citywide events, there is the Convention Center of Aragon, which has 170,000 sq. ft. of meeting and exhibition space. For midsized meetings, the city offers the 185-room Reina Petronila Hotel, with a 600-person auditorium plus several breakout rooms, as well as the 179-room Hotel Palafox, with a 373-person auditorium plus breakout rooms.

Sightseeing in Zaragoza should include the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar on the banks of the Ebro River, the city hall, the Lonja (old currency exchange) and the Cathedral of San Salvador, a church built over what was the city’s main mosque, with Romanesque apses from 12th century. Inside is the famous Museum of Tapestries.

Melia Zaragoza

Meet in Spain

Earlier this year, the Huffington Post ran a popular story titled “20 Reasons to Drop Everything and Go to Spain,” which mentioned 1,000-year-old mosques, myriad hidden beaches, Salvador Dali’s house and countless varieties of paella. To that list, we’ll add: great meetings.

Rob Carey is a business journalist and principal of Meetings & Hospitality Insight, a content marketing firm for the group-business market.

Hotel Chart

Click here for detailed information on the hotels in this story.




Seville, Valencia & Zaragoza

Five Neighborhoods in Madrid

Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, Madrid

Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, Madrid

With nearly 130 neighborhoods, Madrid can overwhelm the unprepared visitor. Here are five areas where attendees can stroll, with restaurant recommendations from the Madrid CVB.


In the heart of Madrid, full of monuments, shops, restaurants and bars. The enormous Plaza de la Puerta del Sol (pictured) and impressive Plaza Mayor are there. Any street off Puerta del Sol offers shopping for quality souvenirs and Spanish clothing brands such as Zara and Mango.


Adjacent to Sol, Palacio has some of the city’s best attractions, such as the colorful, covered Mercado de San Miguel, with its variety of snack booths and gourmet tapas. Also, visit the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral—the palace’s outdoor Sabatini Gardens is stunning, and free.


Encompassing several small neighborhoods, it has the most exclusive shopping in Madrid; in the Recoletos and Goya neighborhoods you’ll find top Spanish (and non-Spanish) designers and luxury brands. Wonderful restaurants, bars and delis offer traditional and modern fare at all price ranges.


A mini-neighborhood inside the Cortes quarter, Huertas is known as the literary neighborhood, famous for once being home to icons such as Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega. It’s now full of late-night bars and restaurants.


A non-touristy alternative neighborhood with some of the city’s best and most offbeat boutiques, restaurants, take-away spots and cafes, including international options. Wander its streets for glimpses of street art, secondhand shops and even pop-up stores.