As an ancient city, culture and history combine with sophisticated modernity for planners meeting in Istanbul. Along the Bosphorus in the trendy area of Yeniköy, the Sait Halim Pasa Yalisi mansion’s gilded rooms were once home to a prince and the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, but now the waterfront venue hosts groups of up to 900 spread throughout its rooms that blend French and Egyptian design, and even include stained glass once belonging to the mansion’s hammam. The best way to arrive is via boat up to the private dock, which can be transformed into a cocktail soirée (harem gardens included) for up to 1,000 guests.
The Haliç Congress Center is another spot where arriving by boat is du rigueur. The single-story congress center is the newest in town, built in 2009 on the shores of the Golden Horn, with views of Istanbul’s famous golden sunset flooding the outdoor terraces. “What makes the center different is the location, the layout and the architecture,” says Handan Boyce, Haliç Congress Center’s general manager. One of the buildings, for example, has a 1920s neoclassical design—and was once used as a slaughterhouse–that has been slightly modernized to blend in with the style of the other buildings.
With its 21 different rooms, five auditoriums and outdoor terrace, groups of up to 10,000 can use the center and its four buildings in different ways depending on the type of event. A few ideas include using the platform on the water for light shows or even moving the party to the private island floating just across the way. By the end of this year, 2,000 hotel rooms will also open up as another large hotel moves into the area to serve attendees coming to the center. “The advantage for us is that we have many hotels, not just five-star,” Boyce says. The center also has plans for an extension project, expanding an additional 10 percent by 2017, transforming a 107,000-square-foot open-air space into an exhibition center.
Groups don’t even need to plan for sightseeing in Istanbul—they can attend events right in the sites themselves. The 336-column Basilica Cistern, one of the oldest water reservoirs in the world dating back to the 4th century, is just one example. The former Eastern Orthodox church, Hagia Irene, the first built in Constantinople, can also be used as a concert venue.
The 17th century Blue Mosque in the Old City of Sultanahmet, whose nickname reflects the 20,000 blue ceramic tiles that line its interior, have helped make the spot a must for groups. The maze-like Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world, is another worth visiting, with 5,000 shops selling rugs, jewelry and lamps lining 60 streets. While groups are in the area, they can even take home a bit of the culinary culture with a candy cooking demo at NAR Restaurant, featuring methods inspired by the original process dating back to the 17th century.
“The natural beauty of the city, its exciting scene blending a metropolitan way of life, and its modern infrastructure makes it a unique meeting place for businesses,” Istanbul Convention & Visitors Bureau’s general manager, Özgül Özkan Yavuz says. “A magnet for dynamic and talented people from around the world, Istanbul is the ideal MICE destination with its vibrancy, modernity, swathe of new infrastructure, heritage and enviable geographical position.”
Istanbul’s up-and-coming neighborhood Karaköy in the northern part of the Golden Horn was once home to banks and electrical shops, and groups can still see evidence of these landmarks today. The new 63-room Vault Karaköy, The House Hotel is perched on the Avenue of Banks just next to the former Imperial Ottoman Bank. Set in a 19th century bank, most of the original structures—like the bank vaults—are still standing. Down below, one of the meeting rooms features one of these original bank vaults.-Lane Nieset