Istanbul has been in the international spotlight throughout 2004, with such big events as the NATO summit and the OECD conference attracting global attention. By itself, the city has much to offer as a venue for conferences and congresses, but delegates have equally been applauding the quality of the facilities themselves recently. Istanbul is in no short supply of impressive meeting venues, and even if the disruption caused by some high-profile events may leave some local inhabitants a little disgruntled, the congress and trade fair sector is undoubtedly moving from strength to strength.
Amongst the biggest and most popular venues is the Istanbul Lutfi Kirdar Convention and Exhibition Centre (ICEC). In June 2004, it hosted the World Newspapers Congress, with 1500 attendees, which was followed immediately after by the OECD Conference for Ministers Responsible for SMEs, with over 40 ministers attending the event. The NATO summit then saw 46 presidents and prime ministers walk through the ICEC's doors, along with over 3000 accompanying delegates and personnel. Other high-profile events for 2004 included the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting for foreign ministers and the International Dental Congress.
With bookings back to back, the ICEC also boasts the most elaborate of facilities. Apart from a capacity to hold 5500 individuals, the centre can also cater to 3500 delegates in one open space. This accompanies a 2100 sq metre ballroom, along with the 2000-seat Anadolu Auditorium. Located in the centre of Istanbul, it is little wonder that high-profile events have been drawn to the ICEC.
Equally impressive are the facilities of the World Trade Centre Istanbul (WTCI),
a city unto itself, with business centres, hotel complexes and giant fair halls in close
proximity. Built in a 500,000 sq metre site, the WTCI is the largest and most elaborate world trade centre globally, with the trade fair company CNR's fair halls covering 100,000 sq metres and including a 5000-seat congress centre. Hardly surprising then that CNR has hosted over 300 fairs in the last 15 years, bringing together 100,000 participant companies from more than 70 sectors. This, the management claims, has effectively translated into an attendance rate of 3m visitors a year.
Communication and transport has also been key to the WTCI's success. The centre is within walking distance of Ataturk international airport - an undeniable bonus for international travellers. It also now has a light rail link into the centre of the city itself.
Also operating in the city is the TUYAP Fairs and Exhibition Organisation. Having served more than 25,000 domestic and foreign client organisations in the last 25 years, TUYAP has successfully organised over 443 domestic fairs and exhibitions. With 52,000 sq metres at its disposal, TUYAP is one of Turkey's largest and most modern venues.
Beyond large-scale exhibition and conference centres, Istanbul also enjoys an array of hotel-based meeting points. The 1600-seat capacity Hilton conference and exhibition centre tops the list. With 19 five-star hotels, over 5000 five-star hotel rooms and nine international chains Istanbul has much to offer in this area too.
Meanwhile, new initiatives continue to emerge. The Bosphorus-side Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel for instance has embarked upon a new programme to organise conferences for leading companies in Turkey. The objective is to select experts in a particular business field and to enable them to share their knowledge with the most successful companies in Turkey. This project will see the appearance at the hotel of Sergio Zyman, former chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola, later this month.
Much of Istanbul's appeal derives from factors that extend beyond the facilities on offer. Promoters point to the city's history, as the seat of three empires - Ottoman, Roman and Byzantine. Combining business with tourism is often an appealing prospect for jet setters and their families. Meanwhile, the city, with over 12m inhabitants, remains the undisputed engine of Turkey's economic growth, with the Istanbul region accounting for 40% of the Turkish economy. Thus it is a logical destination for any businessman looking to network in the country or the region at large.
Equally appealing has been its geographical location, as it is ideally positioned for any meeting that brings together delegates from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. This is aided by the fact that over 50 airlines fly to Turkey, with the majority of large European cities within two to three hours reach. In this context, ICEC claims that Turkey (and Istanbul in particular) is on its way to becoming the congress capital of the 21st century.
While the 1999 earthquake, followed by the September 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq war adversely affected the incentive market, convention centres nevertheless managed to hold their ground. The Iraq war led to the postponement of just two events scheduled in ICEC premises for early 2003, along with a slight drop in attendance at those that went ahead.
There can be a price for such success too, though. The disruption caused to the European side of Istanbul during the NATO summit this year left many locals uncomfortable. Tight security conditions in the centre of the city - involving the deployment of tens of thousands of police - were also costly. Amongst a series of critical remarks from local papers, Cumhuriyet at the time labelled Istanbul a "ghost city", thanks to the security-related disruption caused to transport routes.
Although the summit inevitably drew wanted international attention to Turkey, the cost of preparations carried something of a bill for a cash-strapped state. Communication preparations for the summit alone amounted to TL1 trillion ($690,000), according to Zaman newspaper, with total costs estimated to come in at $20m for the full summit.
Yet, irrespective of the potential inconvenience posed to local inhabitants, Istanbul will maintain its image as the place to be for international get-togethers. Promoters are now preparing to exploit Turkey's EU prospects as a further selling point for events. But as things stand, Istanbul's meeting venues are already tightly packed.