by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner at SoolNua
In the field of destination marketing Venice is Coca Cola. It’s up there, profile-wise, with New York and London in the super-brand category, known and recognized all over the world for its utterly unique topology, its ubiquitous gondolas, Carnevale, cruise ships and crowds. Within MICE it’s the incentive destination par excellence, its infrastructure particularly suitable for smaller, high-end incentives whose spectrum of venue choice has recently been extended by the arrival of at least 3 new luxury properties. Ten of us, life long friends, visited this week to celebrate a special milestone birthday. We encountered a city in “business as usual” mode, effortlessly hosting the city-wide architecture biennale and resplendent in the very satisfied afterglow of the Clooney / Alamuddin wedding.
St Regis San Clemente
Thanks to Michael Libotte and our good friends at Ovation Italy, the complex transfer over land and sea from Treviso airport to the St Regis San Clemente was seamless. The early morning mist lifted as we alighted from our minivans at Piazzale Roma, allowing the delicate heat of the early autumn sun to seize the day and to capture us under its fragile mantle. That wonderful holiday feeling took hold and we were giddy as girls as we boarded the water taxi and skimmed across the Laguna to St Regis San Clemente, our private island haven.
Variously a monastery, a military outpost and a decadent place of entertainment, San Clemente has been transformed by Permak Group into a luxurious resort of 146 guest rooms with dedicated meeting space for up to 300 persons. A private shuttle leaves every 30 mins for Piazza San Marco so, despite the island setting, you’re never more than 15 mins from the city sights. Guest rooms have silk wall coverings, high ceilings and heavy drapes. The emphasis is on aesthetics, not high tech, but there is WiFi throughout the property and it’s free! Public spaces juxtapose contemporary fine art with traditional Venetian prints while large urns of pink orchids provide colour contrast. We arranged a small drinks reception on our arrival day and enjoyed fresh strawberry bellinis and appetizers in the garden bar, the sights and lights of the city calling to us from across the water.
An article in the New York Times recommended Covino in the Castello region for its contemporary take on traditional Venetian cuisine. Covino would be special if only for its size – it takes no more than 18 people per sitting – but the real triumphs are the extraordinary skills of front-of-house man, Andrea and the amazing talents of chef, Dimitri. Andrea’s animated description of the evening’s menu was itself an Oscar-worthy performance leaving us with the happy dilemma of having to choose a single starter, main course and dessert. He expertly paired our food choices with local wines, one of which came from his own family’s vineyard. This was a dinner to savour, for the undisputed quality of the food but particularly for the untrammelled joie de vivre which permeated its presentation and service.
On our first morning, Ovation Italy arranged for Cinzia, a local resident and qualified tour guide, to take us for an exploratory walk from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge. Soon Cinzia had us far beyond the maddening crowds of San Marco, ambling aimlessly down tiny calles and alleyways, lost in astonished wonder at a city whose creation proves the veracity of John Donne’s powerful dictum “no man is an island”. Comprised of 118 separate island communities, Cinzia explained, the city came into being when men and women built bridges from island to island and reached out to each other. Her engaging commentary on Venice prompted a barrage of questions from us which she answered ably, underlining the importance, for true destination immersion, of access to a local, knowledgeable person who mediates the experience and brings the destination truly to life.
The Hotel Danieli is one of the city’s iconic luxury hotels, situated on Riva degli Schiavoni, metres from St Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs. Its public areas are timeless, all bedecked in marble, rich lacquered woods and intense period detail. We enjoyed a wonderful Prosecco reception at the ground floor Dandolo Bar enhanced by a perfect, clichéd selection of live lounge music evoking the deliciously decadent decades of cigarettes, cravats and cocktail dresses.
Dinner was booked at the award winning Carpaccio, a short stroll down Riva degli Schiavoni where the tables are dressed with expensive linen and the waiters skilfully filet your fish before you at the table. If the entire evening was retro then it was also right and fitting as this was our celebration of the 1950s and those of us who were born in the early years of that decade.
We found rich and diverse cultural nourishment at Palazzo Franchetti, Palazzo Fortuny, the Guggenheim, Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto, Palazzo Mora and the Scuola Grande di San Teodoro, all sandwiched either side of a spectacular midday repast at Anice Stellato in Canareggio. Throughout its history Venice was a nexus for new ideas, fashions and foods thanks to its international trading relationships. Anice Stellato seeks to replicate this by combining simple, fresh, locally sourced foods with ingredients from other cultures and culinary traditions. I can still taste the delicious carrots tossed in sesame seeds.
Our three days in Venice were mostly characterized by super-abundant laughter – the evangelical “good measure–pressed down, shaken together, and running over”. We laughted a lot and we laughed mostly at simple, silly things. As somebody who travels a lot for work, but rarely with friends and loved ones, I was reminded of the awesome, magical power of sharing unique experiences of amazing places with special people – a key tenet of incentive travel.
Just one abiding memory? Having found the entrance and blagged our way into the rarefied, spectacular interior of the Aman Canal Grande – the multi-awarded, “7 star” property that featured in last week’s Clooney /Alamuddin wedding – we stood at the window of the first floor lounge, smiling and waving at the cameras and smart phones of the giddy, hysterical Chinese who thought they were taking pictures of celebrities from their passing Vaporetto.
Padraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney run SoolNua, a boutique consultancy working with destinations and enterprises in the meetings and events sector.