“Will you be safe?”
“Rather you than me!”
These were just a few of the responses from friends and family members on learning that I was visiting Israel as part of the Israel Ministry of Tourism FAM trip November 2013. “I’ll be fine, there nothing to be concerned about” I replied with an inner doubt in my belly growing.
Nothing was done to reduce that belly feeling when being sent to section ‘K’ in the depths of Heathrow to be greeted by armed police. The feeling was further compounded by the most intense check in process I have ever experienced. The EL AL Airlines representative checking my passport knew the lines on my face more than I did by the time she finished her inspection and her colleague asking the questions is possibly lined up to replace Jeremy Paxman when he retires. Then we were done. Phew! Whilst this process seemed uncomfortably strict, the reassuring thing was, as Ms. Paxman told me, that I was now ready to fly on the safest airline in the world. A nice feeling.
Anyway, enough of the boring airport experience! What was Israel like? Our journey started in Tel Aviv, the “Miami of the Middle East” as it is called. I am happy to say it lived up to its name on observing its lively nightlife, beautiful hotels, beautiful restaurant, and beautiful people. Located on the Mediterranean, a sailing experience is a must to see the impressive city skyline that includes historic Old Jaffa to the more modern skyscrapers of Tel Aviv and enjoy a drink or two while watching the sun go down. At no cost to tradition, this city embraces modernity in all forms, from having a visible gay and lesbian community, interesting art galleries, cocktail lounges that would put a London venue to shame, and first class hotels. There is no shortage of restaurants either, in fact my most memorable meal was at Cordelia’s, a charming restaurant tucked down a backstreet in Jaffa with a lively atmosphere, celebrity chef, and melt in your mouth food.
From Tel Aviv we travelled 45 minutes to and past Jerusalem and south for another hour to Massada, a UNESCO site and one of the most inspiring locations I have travelled to. Rising 1300ft from the ground overlooking the Dead Sea, a cable car carries you up to the fortress ruins where the story of what happened there can be explored. Available for hire for a surprisingly varied amount of uses from opera nights to private gourmet breakfasts watching the sunrise, this is one impressive location to bring delegates to.
After the history lesson at Massada, it was time for an adrenaline rush that came in the form of a 4×4 off roading experience. One of the most surreal experiences of driving around Israel is the casual announcements that come: “to your left is Jericho”; “To your right is where the Dead Sea scrolls were found” as we whizz past at 50mph munching on sweets. It felt like being in a real life Epcot Centre at times.
I’ve previously experienced dune bashing and would always recommend it for an incentive experience, however open top off-roading in the Holy Land (“to your left is Sodom”, as we teeter down a 45 degree slope) is not quite like anything else I’ve experienced. By the end of the drive I felt like I had eaten Israel, and so what better way to wash the dust off than a trip to a spa at the Dead Sea – a perfect activity for an incentive group or post conference pampering. Almost 1,100 feet below sea level, the 33% salt levels are ten times greater than normal meaning you don’t have to do any work to stay afloat and relax in the creamy saltwater. The water feels absolutely amazing on the skin and a semi-cautious face massage to ensure temporary blindness from the salt is avoided (!) is simply gorgeous.
Whether Religion is your thing or not, Jerusalem is certainly an incredible experience. Of course it has the literally world changing history of the Old City (more casual announcements “there’s the Garden of Gethsemane where Judas kissed Jesus”), but it also has the wonderful liveliness and energy of cafés, bars, shops and restaurants in the new city, as well as world class museums and art galleries. Jerusalem is one big melting pot of people, religions, ideas and values – it’s fascinating stuff and perhaps that is exactly why there is something for all tastes here. In the Old City there are a heavy presence of armed guards, mostly young adults completing their National Service but it does not evoke a tense atmosphere that I either felt or witnessed. A trip to Yah Vashem, The Holocaust Museum is worth any available time manageable. It’s not remotely fun, but it reminds you of what it means to be a human being.
As for our accommodation, we stayed at the luxurious Intercontinental David in Tel Aviv and site inspected the chic and modern Dan Panorama. The hotels are next door to each other and are located on the coast with great views of the Mediterranean and promenade as well as being within walking distance to Old Jaffa. Both have equally adequate and multi functional conference and event facilities and newly renovated spas. The executive lounge on the 24th floor of Intercontinental David offers the high standards you would expect, and the late night Cigar Bar is a gem.
In Jerusalem we stayed at the world famous and traditional King David. The property is certainty impressive and opulent, with its own colourful history and boasts a previous guest list to include the most powerful world leaders and celebrities of the 20th and 21st Century. However, I wasn’t massively won over by the event space and was surprised by the amount of obstacles and restrictions when it comes to events. Sure it’s a wonderful selling point to use the same meeting room as international presidents and ministers but I take umbrage at Wi-Fi charges of approx. £15 per device. I mean come on!
By contrast, I was completely captivated by the wonderfully gorgeous Mamilla hotel. Effortlessly stylish, and certainly not over substance, this centrally located property has unique event space, an immaculate spa (or ‘Wellbeing Centre’ to be precise), and impeccable service standards. Plus it offers free Wi-Fi!
An exclusive hard-hat tour of the developing Wardolf Astoria (opening February 2014) was also a trip highlight. It has overcome its lack of outdoor space by creating an effective ‘outdoors indoors’ feel in the impressive lobby, and also offers carefully considered event space. This hotel will have no problems making its mark in the city and will certainly make the other more traditional names question their direction.
A final site inspection was of Isrotels’s Cranim Resort & Spa, a perfect destination for luxurious retreats and for incentive groups. Conveniently located in the Judean Wine Region between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem it is even worth just stopping off for lunch on the way to the airport as the food here is so utterly delicious I was chastising my stomach for not being able to take more of it in. Israel’s wine industry is growing rapidly, and apart from being very nice, this encourages less obvious group activities to include in an itinerary
Would I recommend Israel for MICE programmes? Absolutely – and I’m extremely pleased to respond to the perceptions quoted at the start with fact. Israel lends itself well for both incentive groups and conferences and has the infrastructure and resources to do both excellently. It is also an attractive option due to being less than 5 hours from Heathrow and unlike some of its neighbouring countries, Israel has evolved and has congruently embraced the modern world too. It is country that successfully integrates traditional and modernity, history and the future, and religious venues to conference spaces!
We flew El Al Airlines although BA offer frequent daily flights. The security process at the airport is strict and takes a little more time than normal, however this can be managed by sending briefing documents on organized programmes to airport/airline security, as well as utilising the services of an official chaperone company who specialise in passing through the security and arranging designated check in. When flying EL AL Airlines it is also possible to arrange off site check in procedures for hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (must be arranged in UK prior to departure).