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Matteo Renzi has been called the Barack Obama of Florence. He’s the young mayor of Florence who 3 years ago made the courageous decision to ban motorised traffic around the historic centre of the city. The net result of his decree is that you get to stand in front of the Duomo and marvel at its magnificence. You get time and space to think about the symbolism of the Duomo and to juggle with contrasting issues like faith, temporal power, wealth, architectural beauty. Renzi’s decision does require additional planning and expectation management if you’re operating a meeting, event or incentive programme in the city but it brings you to a new level of intimacy with the city that leaves an indelible mark on your heart. Florence is, after all, the city of Art, part excellence.

Four Seasons Firenze

Four Seasons Firenze is located about 1.5km from the Duomo in a quiet neighbourhood and is the chosen location for the incentive programme that we’ve come to Florence to finalise. At breakfast we’re greeted by Patrizio Cipollini, General Manager of the hotel. He’s managed to imbue this elegant but potentially austere property with his natural Italian expansiveness and warmth and to create a guest experience at once emotionally impactful and aesthetically satisfying.

Ugo Riva Exhibition

At present the hotel is hosting an inspiring exhibition of works by banker-turned-artist, Ugo Riva. The urban garden that links Conventino and Palazzo Della Gherardesca, the two Renaissance edifices that make up Four Seasons Firenze, is the perfect setting for Riva’s extraordinary installations. Scatted amidst the boxwood bushes and ancient trees are Riva’s astonishing creations in ceramic and rusted iron depicting other-worldy, dream-like scenes. His Trappola per angelo (see below) depicts an angel captured in an iron cage. It’s achingly sad and poignant. Inside the property, enveloped by 500 years of artistic tradition and achievement, is a more “modest” display of Riva’s collaborations in glazed terracotta with ceramicist Gioela Suardi on the theme of “Four Seasons”. This privileged access to Riva’s and Suardi’s work might even justify the room rates that Four Seasons Firenze commands!

Ora d’Aria – Fine Dining near the Ponte Vecchio

Italians have shown the same reaction to change with culinary arts as the British have shown with their currency and measurement systems. Restaurants in Italy tend to avoid trendy gimmicky or radical innovation and focus on simplicity and on sourcing the best, freshest ingredients. Ora d’Aria, recently awarded a Michelin Star, is totally informed by this value system while simultaneously challenging one’s perceptions of typical Italian dining. We were an early party of 8 there on what appeared to be a slow night. A huge, fully glazed wall separates the kitchen from the small, high ceilinged dining room. Marco Stabile, the 39 year old chef patron wears rock star black, contrasting with the pristine whites of his 5 man team. He personally supervises every dish prior to its delivery to the table.

We eat a slightly amended version of the tasting menu which, at €60 per person, is the best value tasting menu I’ve ever had. The food is excellent although the service suffers somewhat when the remaining tables fill. Located close to the Ponte Vecchio, in an old palazzo, Ora d’Aria is an outstanding fine dining experience at once traditional and contemporary. Special mention must be made of the L’Uovo e il Pomodoro (Egg and Tomato) dish: made with the famous Paolo Parisi eggs (they cost $22 a dozen!) this is simplicity personified yet the purity of the texture and taste is unparalleled. I also loved the Pappardella al Ragú di Finocchiona con fonduta di Cipollotto al vin santo (Pappardella with Finocchiona Ragout, Onion and Visanto Fondue)

Starwood in Florence – St Regis and Westin

Following a rather speedy renovation programme St Regis Florence is now open again. Located at Piazza Ognissanti on the banks of the Arno, this Brunelleschi designed palazzo offers 100 stunning guest rooms along with a surprisingly extensive suite of meeting rooms including the magnificent Salone delle Feste which can accommodate sumptuous banquets for up to 160. If coupled with its Starwood sister, the Westin Excelsior, conveniently situated directly opposite the St Regis, larger incentive groups of 400+ can be accommodated. The Westin, too, has undergone extensive refurbishment in the public areas and on some of the guest room floors. Most significant, however, is the addition of roof top space which provides private function area for over 100 persons along with a tasty-looking fine dining restaurant and cocktail bar. Offering 360 degree views over Florence’s historic centre, Piazzale Michelangelo, the Oltarno district and out to the surrounding Tuscan Hills, this is a wonderful addition to the city’s meetings and events infrastructure. Account Director at Starwood, Luigi Comi, did a super job at showcasing all the benefits of St Regis and Westin and left us eagerly anticipating our next opportunity to offer Florence to our clients.

Ovation Italy

Qualifiers on incentive travel experiences want to reach beyond the limits of the guide book. They seek unique destination encounters they can never discover on their own. Having Margherita Rugiardi, our own native Fiorentina on the team at Ovation Italy makes this part of the planning process quite straightforward. When hunger overtakes us and speedy sustenance is required she leads us to Pugi where we devour slices of variously topped, oven fresh pizza along with a bagful of Schiaccata, a local speciality – roughly flattened or “squashed” pizza dough infused with olives and sea salt: a cheap stand-up but thoroughly authentic lunch to rival the best of 5 star luxury!

Artisans in Florence

We also visit the workshops of some local artisans – the Mosaicista Renzo Scarpelli, Marblizer and Book Binder, Gianni Parenti and Goldsmith, Paolo Penko. In each case you feel privileged to touch and feel a centuries’ old tradition passed down through the generations. All of the artisans use techniques and tools that have been part of their families for hundreds of years and all of them possess a profound pride in their craft while acknowledging, too, the burden of responsibility of having such a gift.

Suddenly, for me, it’s time to go! IMEX Frankfurt beckons and so I leave the planning team to finalise what I know is sure to be a true incentive masterpiece. The setting is perfect – even in poorish weather Florence and the surrounding Tuscan countryside do not disappoint – and the palate of extraordinary experiences that guests will chose from is truly motivational. I’m really looking forward to being part of the delivery tea of this great event in April 2013.

Pádraic Gilligan is Vice President of Ovation Global DMC, the Destination Services division of MCI, a globally integrated association, communication and event management company with 47 offices in 23 Countries. He was in Florence with Michael Libotte, Head of Ovation Italy. Based in Rome, Michael’s team of 10 talents delivers destination services all over Italy with Michael’s unique, hallmark mix of military precision and creative panache. We are proud to be working with the team at SEI Meetings and Incentives and learning so much from them about creating a truly special incentive travel experience. We’re also thrilled to work again with our great friend Paul Eder who year after year raises the bar for the delegates who qualify for his conventions.

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