On Location: Copenhagen

Together, they help explain why the country is the most advanced in the world in terms of sustainability and livability. And ever since the G20 world leaders met in Copenhagen last year for the United Nations’ COP15 Summit, to establish new climate goals to replace Kyoto’s mandate, the capital city has assumed the mantle of world’s greenest meeting place.

“When groups come to Copenhagen, they’re going to get a green meeting whether they want it or not,” asserts Ulrika Mårtensson, my liaison with the city’s DMO, Wonderful Copenhagen. She says this while we take our first sip of Globe Ale bottled at the Nørrebro Bryghus restaurant/brewery, housed inside a retrofitted old metal foundry seating 160. Like many things in Copenhagen, Globe Ale is carbon neutral. It’s organic and produced sustainably through carbon offsets, just like the food, meaning no harm was done to the planet during the making of our lunch.

Mårtensson orders the smørrebrød—a signature Danish dish consisting of thin rye bread served open face, typically topped with fresh herring, smoked salmon, Swedish moose or any number of other local foodstuffs. This to me sums up Denmark: smart, sustainable, healthy, well designed and beautiful to look at.

Just like the day before at Restaurant Julian in the National Museum of Denmark, where Ulrika ordered the smørrebrød with juniper smoked Greenland halibut and Fanø Island ham. I try the Christiansø pickled herring and Hallegård sausages from Bornholm. These dishes are designed to celebrate what people were eating during the historic periods exhibited in the galleries. Julian caters meals up to 450 in the museum, and Ulrika recommends booking a choir to sing from the balconies.

More smart, sustainable lunching at BioM in the quaint Fredericiagade neighborhood. It’s an impossibly cool “eco-eatery where life is experienced as a combination of interdependent relationships between plants and animals,” says the menu. This is Copenhagen’s poster child restaurant for farm-to-fork food.

“We’re so lucky that our guests have an opinion that they’re not just cattle,” says owner Brian Johansen, as he grabs a chair constructed from recycled plastic bottles. His goal is to honor the “lambs who have drunk out of the nearby Halkær stream” and his patrons by serving only local and organic fine-dining. The risotto with bacon and mushrooms will floor you. The lemon sole and steamed whole trout explode with freshness. Capacity here is only 40 pax, but Johansen has catered groups up to 2,500 offsite.

Anja Hartung Sfyria then rides up on her bike. Over 36% of locals ride bikes to work or school, but the goal is 50% by 2015. The marketing manager for business tourism with Wonderful Copenhagen is here to discuss EnergyTours, created by a consortium of industries including the Danish Wind Industry Association. Denmark has the world’s largest offshore wind farm, and it manufactures over 90% of offshore wind farms worldwide.

EnergyTours are ways for visiting groups to go behind the scenes to learn about the most modern global advances in high-tech renewable energy.

For example, book a boat ride to the Middelgrunden wind farm outside the Harbour of Copenhagen and ascend to the top of a propeller for a guided tour inside. Or, visit the Amagerforbrænding Incinerator that converts waste into energy. Over 75% of garbage in Copenhagen is converted into household heating. Groups can also check out the Inbicon Biomass Refinery power plant, a world leader in fossil-free fuel production.

“We have a system now to open the door, to get visitors in front of the right people,” says Anja. “We’ve taken advantage of COP15, and we’ve found a lot of synergies, so it’s a much more streamlined process to plan and organize sustainable meetings…. A lot of clean tech companies want this and there’s only one person to contact to arrange everything.”

Then Anja shows me some numbers to help sell procurement on Copenhagen. Since 1980, Denmark’s national GDP has increased 80% while energy consumption has increased only 5%. Furthermore, C02 emissions are down almost 20 percent. No other country worldwide even begins to compare.

Denmark is ranked the happiest country in the world, according to a study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. One reason is the Danish concept of hygge—an emotive experience shared by a group of people when the vibe is perfect, everyone feels truly connected, and there are no stressful detractors. It’s common for a Dane to use the adjectival form and say after a great get-together: “It was hyggeligt to see you.”

We call it teambuilding. It’s 9am and our group of 25 visiting from Australia to New Jersey meet at Bike With Mike. Mike is going to lead us on a 4-hour ride around this city that was seemingly designed for two wheels. There are actually two bike lanes for fast and slow riders, so whatever you do, stick to the slower right side or you’ll get a curt ding-a-ling from a bicycle bell behind. The bike lanes even have dedicated traffic lights.

You really want to schedule this because it bonds groups together so well. During 12 stops, we learned about Denmark’s world’s best healthcare system, Danish furniture design, and the recently voted #1 world’s best restaurant, Noma, near the sleek Copenhagen Opera House. The tour ends at the glorious 18th century Amalienborg Palace, winter residence of the royal family.

Copenhagen has the most cosmopolitan ambience and the busiest airport hub in Scandinavia, due to its proximity to mainland Europe. It has more Michelin-rated restaurants than the rest of Nordic Europe combined, and the city is often compared to Amsterdam with its canals lining cobblestone streets filled with charming old row houses. There are also almost no high-rises, so the many Medieval church spires are still used as navigational landmarks to this day, meaning you have a European capital (pop. 1.7 million) with the easy mobility typical of a provincial town.

The Law of Jante is an old Scandinavian fable that stipulates people shouldn’t place their own wants before others, and that natural social cohesiveness is infectious for visiting groups. It’s also a major factor why everyone agrees about the importance of sustainability to protect the city’s natural resources.

During one late afternoon, thousands of locals and visitors crammed the waterfront cafes in old buildings dating back to 1661 in Nyhavn Harbour to hear the local jazz band, New Orleans Delight. With old wooden sailboats bobbing up and down in the canal, Nyhavn is the most convivial and picturesque spot in the city. It’s where Hans Christian Anderson wrote fairytales and Søren Kierkegaard invented modern psychology, so look into booking up to 50 at the organic Cap Horn Restaurant here.

One of Copenhagen’s signature group activities is a boat ride departing from Nyhavn with DFDS Canal Tours, who will provide an entertaining guide to discuss the dizzying array of arts, architecture, culture and restaurants surrounding the canals. It’s a great way to scope out the city and get your bearings.

In the center of town, Tivoli Gardens is an amusement park that first opened in 1909, with large indoor meeting venues and outdoor event spaces overwhelmed with flower gardens. Some of the rides convert energy derived from their centrifugal forces to power themselves, and in 2010, it became the world’s first amusement park to operate on renewable energy.

Within the gardens, Nimb is an “integrated gourmet house” inside a dramatic Moorish-style palace that fits in well with the theme park motif. The Michelin-rated Restaurant Herman serves 40 with fine-dining “grandmother cuisine,” says chef Thomas Herman, based on updated traditional Danish recipes. There’s also the Scandinavian Brasserie with three demonstration kitchens seating 140, where patrons range from business execs to stagehands. Lastly, the Nimb Vinotek is a rustic venue with long Danish elmwood tables, brick floors and a 1,200-bottle wine list, well regarded for upscale food/wine pairing events for 80 pax.

Right across the street from Tivoli Gardens, the recently renovated 260-room Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Copenhagen is one of the world’s most prized examples of mid-century modern architecture. Today, it’s considered the world’s first designer hotel, built in 1960 as the flagship property for SAS Scandinavian Airlines.

COP15 took place at the 1.3-million sf Bella Center, the largest conference center in Nordic Europe, decorated on the inside with trees planted in 1975. With over 33,000 attendees, it was the United Nation’s greenest conference ever, and it’s being used as the benchmark for both the 2012 and 2014 Olympic Games.

For accommodations, the new 362-room Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers is one metro stop from Bella Center, with fitness bikes hooked up to supply energy back into the hotel’s power grid. And in May, the modern V-shaped, 814-room Bella Sky Hotel opens next to the center, with a solar powered spa.

Here’s one of the coolest breakout rooms ever. Some of the meetings at COP15 took place 45 minutes north in Elsinore at Kronborg Castle—the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Originally built in 1420, it can host up to 700 revelers including 400 pax in the Dancing Room with 25-ft ceilings and arched windows framing Sweden in the distance. Book an abbreviated version of Hamlet and a feast of baked pheasant and oysters.

“It’s great for meetings,” says Anette Nielsen, project manager for the local Kuoni DMC office. “The castle walls are 15 feet thick so no one’s texting.”