The 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics—both of which will take place in Brazil— may be the most visible examples of this South American nation’s appeal as a destination for events, but these world-famous sporting competitions aren’t the only reason planners are drawn to its two largest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
“I felt instinctively that Brazil was the country we should come to this year,” Suzy Menkes, fashion editor at the International Herald Tribune, told attendees during the 11th annual Hot Luxury Conference, which brought more than 500 delegates—including leaders from the fashion, design and luxury goods industries—to Sao Paulo in 2011.
Attendees at the two-day conference included the creative minds behind world-famous brands like Coach, Alexander McQueen, LVMH and Carolina Herrera. During one presentation, fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg said, “I think that if Brazilians could put their optimism and their joie de vivre in a bottle, it would be bigger than Coca-Cola.”
The excitement expressed during the Hot Luxury Conference is but a sample of the overall optimism that’s enveloping the nation.
“Brazil has been enjoying a stable economy and a positive reputation over the last few years, [and] that has attracted a lot of international attention to the country,” explains Thierry Guillot, general manager of the 466-room Grand Hyatt Sao Paulo.
Indeed, Brazil has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, far outweighing all other South American countries, according to the CIA World Factbook—and it’s the “B” in the much-watched group of BRIC countries (Russia, India and China provide the remaining letters in the acronym). Business growth, of course, often means more reason to stage meetings and events. Add to that the open skies aviation agreement that the U.S. and Brazil are phasing in through October 2015, and the pull southward feels even stronger.
It’s hard to deny Brazil’s appeal for meetings and events, according to Alejandra Cumbrera, partner and event planner at ELA Connection, a corporate event-planning agency based in New York City.
“Most of the events that we organize at ELA Connection are Latin America-based, and since Brazil’s economy is booming right now, Sao Paulo and Rio are the main cities I’ve been working in,” she says, noting that one of her most recent events was The Economist Brazil Forum, which took place in November 2011 in Sao Paulo, hosted by the 85-room Unique hotel, a member of Design Hotels. “[It] is one of the trendiest and hottest venues in Sao Paulo.”
Sao Paulo: Grand-scale city
Considering that it’s one of the largest cities in the world, it’s no surprise that Sao Paulo—with nearly 20 million residents in its metropolitan area—is an important place to do business.
“Sao Paulo is not only the biggest economic center in Latin America, it is also the capital of culture, fashion, entertainment and knowledge for the region,” says Marcelo Rehder, president of Sao Paulo Turismo, the city’s tourism organization.
“Sao Paulo is the heart of Brazil, [home to] not only the financial segment, but also the headquarters and branches of the most important banking institutions of the country and the world,” notes Francisco Garcia, regional director of operations for Brazil at InterContinental Hotels Group, which has four properties in the city: the InterContinental Sao Paulo, the Holiday Inn Sao Paulo Parque Anhembi, the Holiday Inn Express Sumare Avenue-Sao Paulo and the Staybridge Suites Sao Paulo. “Sao Paulo is responsible for nearly 33 percent of the national GDP, contributing more than 32 percent and [almost] 50 percent of the national revenues of the commerce and services sectors, respectively.”
The city is well equipped to handle groups both large and small. According to Embratur, the Brazilian tourism board, Sao Paulo has nearly 50,000 hotel beds and more than 12,000 restaurants. There are some 20 large fair and convention centers, including Anhembi Parque, which is billed as the biggest events center in South America, covering nearly 100 acres with a 388,000-square-foot convention center, an 800-seat auditorium, a 30,000-person, open-air arena and an 18-acre expo center with three pavilions.
One of Sao Paulo’s biggest selling points, according to Brian Bingham, vice president of Meeting Protocol Worldwide, a Dallas-based company that recently organized a pharmaceutical conference at the 487-room Hilton Sao Paulo Morumbi, is the city’s accessibility and consistent level of service.
“It’s easy to get to,” he says, referring to the many long-distance flights that arrive at Guarulhos International Airport. “You can pretty much fly there from anywhere.”
In addition, Bingham says the range of international hotel brands makes it an easy sell for attendees.
“They’ve got the Americanized hotels there, versus other places we’ve been where there is no business center and nobody speaks English. The Hiltons, Marriotts and Sheratons are quite consistent,” he says.
According to Michael Hudson, president of Site Search & Select, a New York City-based company that focuses on sourcing and event planning for the pharmaceutical, finance and technological industries, the Sao Paulo CVB deserves high praise.
“My operations director has indicated that the Sao Paulo CVB is just amazing to work with,” he says. “They have gone above and beyond what’s needed. They are on par with some of the services that are offered here in some of the larger CVBs in the U.S. We were very impressed.”
Public and private investment continues to result in improved infrastructure in South America’s largest city. The subway line has been extended, and a new soccer stadium, the 48,000-seat New Corinthians Stadium, is being constructed for the World Cup, with an opening date in 2013. In addition, a new complex, Expo Sao Paulo, is in the works in the Pirituba neighborhood in the western part of the city, which will eventually have hotel facilities as well as space for meetings, expositions and entertainment.
Sao Paulo’s accommodations options are diverse and extensive. Large hotels include the 780-room Holiday Inn Parque Anhembi, the 487-room Hilton Sao Paulo Morumbi, which recently renovated its meeting space and debuted an extensive new wine list at its Canvas restaurant, and the 220-room Tivoli Sao Paulo-Mofarrej, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, where the Elements Spa by Banyan Tree joined the Leading Spas of the World this year.
Sao Paulo is also known for its array of stylish boutique hotels, including the 60-room Fasano, where sumptuous style and gourmet cuisine are the calling cards; the 76-room L’Hotel Porto Bay Sao Paulo, which in 2011 unveiled a new 285-person meeting and event space; and the 85-room Hotel Unique, which is easily recognizable for its decidedly eye-catching modern architecture. The Unique recently introduced a sustainable cycle tourism program and expanded its rooftop restaurant and bar to include a private dining terrace.
Indeed, Sao Paulo’s dining scene provides its own special rewards for planners and groups, according to Chef Alex Atala of D.O.M., one of the city’s top-ranked restaurants, which has space for private events for up to 24 people.
“There is now a new kind of Brazilian cuisine: creative cuisine with new flavors,” he says, adding that the new generation is making more sophisticated cuisine, with Brazilian ingredients and international influences from places as far away as Japan and Lebanon—a sign of Sao Paulo’s own ethnic diversity and creativity.
The Allure of Rio de Janeiro
One of the world’s first jet-set destinations, Rio is sometimes called the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (“Marvelous City”), and if you talk to a local, you get the impression it’s becoming more marvelous by the minute.
“One can feel the energy walking in the streets, going to restaurants or trying to rent an apartment,” says Roberto Hirth, director of Open House, an event organizing company in Rio de Janeiro. “Rio has always been the creator of fashion and [trends], and it is where all major Brazilian music, TV and film stars live.”
The reason for the new energy, according to Hirth, is multifaceted.
“With a booming oil industry, huge investments and a very positive political ambience, Rio is heading for a new climax,” he predicts. “Hosting the World Cup and the Summer Olympics is, of course, a big bonus. The thought in clients’ minds is clear: ‘If Rio is hosting the Olympics, it can host my event—or I want to hold my event in an Olympic City.’”
No wonder the Cariocas—as Rio’s residents are called—are in such a good mood.
Like a famous actress getting in shape for her latest starring role, Rio de Janeiro is sprucing itself up in preparation for the World Cup and the Olympics—and the results will be good news for planners for years to come. The international airport is being renovated to efficiently handle 15 million passengers per year. Expressways are under construction, and the port facilities are being expanded to enable larger ships to dock, with new cultural and gastronomic venues. Among the most promising new attractions along the water is the Museu do Amanha—the Museum of Tomorrow—which will host exhibits focusing on the sustainability of civilization. Slated to open by early 2013, the 134,000-square-foot facility will likely attract attention because of its cutting-edge architectural design, which is the work of world-famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Additional new museums planned include the Museu de Arte do Rio, an art museum being built in the central port area, and the Museu da Imagem e do Som, a film, photography and music museum that will overlook Copacabana beach.
Development is also intense in Barra da Tijuca, the fast-growing neighborhood in the southern part of the metropolitan area. Barra, as it’s often called, is home to the city’s largest convention center, Riocentro, which has more than 1 million square feet of space divided among five pavilions. The city’s Metro system is adding a new line to Barra in time for the Olympics, and a new performance venue, the Parque Olimpico Cidade do Rock (Olympic Rock City Park) is under construction here as well.
Even the city’s long-standing icons are getting facelifts. Visitors can now ride modern escalators part of the way up Corcovado, the mountain topped by the much-photographed giant statue of Christ the Redeemer. And Maracana, the massive soccer stadium built for the 1950 World Cup, is being refurbished.
As plans heat up for Rio’s two big events, new and upgraded hotels are debuting at a faster pace. The city, which already has 30,000 hotel beds, will add some 8,000 new hotel rooms by 2016, including a new 408-room Hyatt slated to open in 2015 in Barra da Tijuca. Additional new names on the scene include the 545-room Windsor Atlantica, which opened in 2010 following a conversion and renovation of the former Le Meridien, while the former InterContinental Rio de Janeiro has been recast as the 418-room Royal Tulip Rio de Janeiro.
Rio de Janeiro’s hotel inventory includes examples of the city’s legendary style—both old and new. The 245-room Copacabana Palace, Rio’s grande dame of the luxury hotel scene, is in the midst of a series of upgrades this year, while the trendy 91-room Fasano has secured its role as a symbol of 21st century chic on Ipanema beach. The classic Hotel Gloria, which first opened in the Flamengo district in 1922, is closed for a head-to-toe renovation until the last quarter of 2013, at which time it will re-emerge as the 231-room Gloria Palace.
Among the best-represented hotel companies in Rio is Accor, which has 10 properties designed to fit a variety of budget and traveler profiles. On the lower end is the 250-room Formule 1 Rio de Janeiro Centro. The company’s mid-scale hotels include the 47-room Mercure Rio de Janeiro Leblon, while upscale travelers favor the 388-room Sofitel Rio de Janeiro Copacabana.
According to locals as well as international observers, both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro appear to be positioned for even more growth in the meetings and conventions sector.
“Brazil is the seventh-largest economy, where investors from all over the world are expanding their businesses,” ELA Connection’s Cumbrera explains. “Therefore, more and more, it’s becoming an international destination where face-to-face meetings can facilitate business practices. Also, the heavy investment in infrastructure due to the soccer World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016 will allow for larger conventions and conferences to take place in Brazil.”
Freelance journalist Mark Chesnut has been covering Latin America for more than 15 years. He is currently the business travel blogger for Orbitz Worldwide and edits his own blog, LatinFlyer.com, about—you guessed it—travel to Latin America.