by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
It’s difficult to pull together a series of coherent thoughts following a full-on week in one of the world’s top cities for meetings & events that commenced at the discreet luxury of the Gran Melia Rome Villa Agrippina and concluded at the imperial glory of Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria, the legendary Rome Cavalieri.
The reason for this “Roman Holiday” was business connected with SITE, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence. I was participating at meetings of the international SITE and SITE Foundation boards and then joining almost 600 others at the Global Forum, a joint initiative of SITE and Meetings Professionals International (MPI). It was a wonderful week of discussion, debate and dialogue around matters pertaining to the meetings and incentives industry as well as a rediscovery of Rome and why it’s been a beacon for visitors for over 2000 years.
Gran Melia Rome – Villa Agrippina – Meetings & Incentives
I stayed at the Gran Melia Rome – Villa Agrippina soon after it opened in 2012 and had fond memories of a hillside oasis of calm in a pulsating global city. A minute’s walk downhill to the left takes you directly into the rarefied majesty of St Peter’s Square or, to the right, into the labyrinthine mysteries of Trastevere, Rome’s ancient quarter. By following the riverside cycleways either side of the Tiber you get a rus in urbe vibe and can easily reach key city sights without being assailed by the cacophony of cars.
Inside, meanwhile, Villa Agrippina is all period elegance and contemporary flair with guest rooms that manage space miraculously, combining warm hardwood floors, cool white marble and statement art pieces framing the bed. From my room to the left I had a perfect view of Castel Sant’Angelo, providing that unique sense of place from the privacy of a beautifully appointed guest room. With just over 100 guest rooms, Gran Melia Rome – Villa Agrippina is a perfect boutique solution for high end meetings or incentive experiences requiring, simultaneously, security, seclusion and easy access to the city.
Hotel Eden – Meetings & Incentives
The recently refurbished Hotel Eden is another great option for high touch incentives. We were treated to lunch there on the transition day between the end of the board meeting and the start of the Global Forum. Now part of the Dorchester Collection, the Hotel Eden oozes “new luxury” by its combination of understated elegance and unambiguous sense of place. Under the organisational baton of Regional Director of Sales, Marcella Zuniga, the hotel orchestra gave a site inspection performance of rare vintage starring Luca Virgilio, General Manager, on lead violin.
Luca’s team played out a seamless symphony commencing with bubbles in the bar upon arrival, transitioning into a magnificent buffet on the rooftop terrace and concluding with a leisurely roam through the glorious guestrooms. Our hard-to-impress boards were genuinely bowled over by the star quality of the property, the forensic attention to detail of the service and the effortless alignment of the team.
Rome Cavalieri – Meetings & Incentives
The legendary Waldorf Astoria from its eyrie-like perch on Monte Mario provides astonishing views of Rome. It also provides massive capacities for large conferences and hosted the 600 strong SITE MPI Global Forum with ease and aplomb. My last visit to the hotel was around the time it featured memorably on an episode of Mad Men when Don Draper and his Grace Kelly-esque wife, Betty, were hosted at the hotel by Conrad Hilton. The hotel retains this timeless sense of luxury transporting you back, nostalgically, to the halcyon days when international travel was all glamour, extravagance and drama.
SITE MPI Global Forum – Meetings & Incentives
Day Zero of the Global Forum was all about the regional and local chapter leadership of SITE and MPI and involved an after-hours private visit to the Vatican museums including privileged access to the Sistine Chapel. I was particularly anxious to see Raphael’s famous “The School of Athens” as it was the unlikely inspiration of the video for “Tessellate”, a song by English indie band, Alt-J. This massive canvas also discloses the young Raphael’s audacious self-belief and the prevailing zeitgeist of what we now know as the Renaissance – the faces of the great Greek Philosophers, Aristotle and Plato, are modelled on Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. A true renaissance millennial, Raphael also includes himself in the picture – the selfie culture alive and well in Renaissance Rome.
We were taken for a private dinner at Palazzo Brancaccio and enjoyed an unforgettable night of great food and networking with the leadership of global SITE and MPI. Palazzo Brancaccio was built in the late 1800s for Prince Salvatore Brancaccio and his American spouse Mary Elizabeth Field. The neo-baroque palace added another typical Roman layer to a pre-existing historical site, the massive Domus Aurea that dates from the times of the Emperor Nero. Italians, Americans and Forum attendees from over 50 nations all channelled their inner Nero, partying like it was 1999 in a glorious venue with a full house capacity of 800. Beautiful Venetian masks and stiff Negronis added to the party atmosphere!
Day time sessions at the Global Forum pivoted around Storytelling with MC and sometime Operista David Pearl acting as the essential leitmotiv, pulling all elements of the event together with gracious aplomb. Personal testimonies from Song Divison‘s Sam McNeill and the DMC Network‘s Aoife Delaney were highlights with Aoife, in particular, striking a deep chord on the topic of work / life balance. @Supergreybeard and yours truly also contributed to the educational programme with well attended sessions on designing a winning site inspection and creating and maintaining a workplace culture.
Rome is a city that’s immersed in its own history yet it doesn’t define itself exclusively with reference to past glories. The Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI secolo – the National Museum of 21st century art – or MAXXI for short – is dedicated to “contemporary creativity” and was the host venue for a highly intriguing glimpse into the future. Designed by starchitect, Zaha Hadid, and located in Rome’s Flaminio quarter, MAXXI is a spectacular building featuring wonderful spaces that flows seamlessly from one to the other. I enjoyed an intriguing explanation of Einstein’s theory of relativity in one room and a deep dive into the architectural merits of La Nuvola, Rome astonishing new Convention Centre.
The local host committee then staged a finale to rival all finali at Villa Miani, a stunning neo-classical edifice located next door to the Rome Cavalieri on Monte Mario. We strolled back 150 years to the mid 19th century elegance of this stunning Villa only to find its rear elevations lit with very contemporary projections. Inside, meanwhile, we were treated to live renditions of “Nessun Dorma”, “O Sole Mio!” and other operatic standards by a trinity of tenors whose vocal gymnastics would win a Olympic gold medal. Dinner was delightful and delicious and followed, as tradition dictates, by dancing with beats this time provided by an amazing female DJ.
Massive thanks to Annamaria Ruffini, SITE President 2018 and John Iannini, SITE Foundation President 2018 – two proud Italiani of who we are most proud!
Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with Destinations, Hotels and Venues on Strategy, Marketing & Training for the Business Events industry.