When members of the World Water Council sat down to plan the world’s largest forum devoted to water resource issues, one destination came to mind: Istanbul.
“It was the ideal location, based upon its symbolic, geographical and geopolitical importance,” says Huma Gruaz, president and CEO of Alpaytac Marketing Communications, which provided public relations services for the 2009 World Water Forum. “And obviously, as far as its different trade facilities are concerned, it’s a fantastic city.”
As the world’s only city spanning two continents, with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia’s Middle East, Istanbul was the perfect choice for a conference calling for global cooperation on water resource issues, Gruaz says. The city is surrounded by water, and hosting the forum at two of the city’s newest venues — the Sütlüce Congress and Cultural Center and the Feshane International Fair Congress and Culture Center, both on the shores of Istanbul’s Golden Horn — meant delegates would catch a glimpse of the glittering Bosporus Strait every time they opened their eyes. And council members knew that as the crossroads of civilization for 6,500 years, Istanbul would be an unforgettable experience.
“It’s not like there’s just one nice palace or museum,” says Haldun Dinccetin, a spokesman for the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office. “Istanbul was the capital of two major empires, the Byzantine and the Ottoman — and the Ottoman was one of the biggest empires in the world for more than 600 years. So it has the elements and monuments of the Eastern, Middle Eastern and Islamic worlds, with so many different ethnic groups and cultures blended really well. You can still feel this culture when you visit the old neighborhoods.”
Istanbul’s reputation as the world’s gathering place has risen steadily in recent years. In 2000, the International Congress and Convention Association placed Istanbul at No. 40 on its list of top meeting and convention destinations; by 2009, Istanbul had risen to No. 17 on that list, with 80 major international events. Ease of access is one reason for the city’s rise in popularity. It takes less than three hours to fly to Istanbul from most European capitals and just under 10 hours from New York. And while hotel rates are still cheaper in Istanbul than they are in Paris, London or Rome, Turkey’s robust economy has escaped the effects wrought by the global recession. The nation’s economy grew by 11.7 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2010 and is expected to grow by more than 6 percent overall this year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Those who come to Istanbul expecting an ancient city of tiled mosques, crowded bazaars and steaming Turkish baths won’t be disappointed, though they might be surprised by everything else the city has to offer. Istanbul’s greatest monuments — the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine cathedral built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 560, and the Blue Mosque, raised by Sultan Ahmed I in 1616 — still loom over the city’s skyline and most travelers’ to-do lists. But the city chosen as Europe’s cultural capital in 2010 by the European Union is also home to SantralIstanbul, a complex of museums and concert halls built in what had been the Ottoman Empire’s first power station, and the 16,000-seat Sinan Erdem Dome, which hosted the World Basketball Championship in 2010. Istanbul’s whirling dervishes still whirl, though the intricate dances of the Mawlawi Order can only be seen at the Galata Mevlevihane. These days, however, one doesn’t need to visit a mosque to see bodies in motion.
“I’ve lived in Paris, lived in New York and stayed in London and in Holland. And I’ve never seen nightlife like the nightlife in Istanbul,” says Alpaytac Marketing’s Gruaz, who lives in Chicago. “I’ve never seen a nightclub where there’s a line in front of it at 5 a.m. But that’s how Istanbul is. In summer, everything is in the open air and nightclubs are open every night of the week, buzzing people in at 2 and 3 a.m. I don’t know how they go to work the next day.”
The 80 streets of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar offer casual shoppers and skilled negotiators opportunities to make a deal in each of their 4,000 shops. While shopkeepers come prepared — one visitor met a carpet salesman ready to negotiate in 32 languages — they do their best not to overwhelm their customers. In the souk, or market, just as in the boardroom, Turkish businessmen and women believe it’s important to make their guests feel comfortable and welcome before getting down to business.
“There aren’t people yelling at you, trying to get you to buy stuff. It’s just quiet, until you find something you like. Then you can start to haggle,” says Ann Shoji, a San José resident who found her best deals in the smaller shops just outside the Grand Bazaar. “They’ll offer you Turkish apple tea in little three-inch glasses shaped like an hourglass — and it’s the best tea ever — before they start talking about carpets.”
Dining in Istanbul is also a lingering affair, the better to savor plates of grilled chicken doner and lamb beyti, or the sludgy electric sweetness of Turkish coffee. Most Istanbul restaurants worth the name promise a view, and Ulus 29 (a favorite of the Tourism Office’s Dinccetin) offers one of the best: the shimmering brilliance of the Bosporus and its bridges, lit by oil lamps from the restaurant’s veranda. Gruaz prefers drinking tea in the relaxed waterfront suburb of Ortakoy or on the splendid terrace at the Çıra˘gan Palace Kempinski, the former Ottoman palace turned 5-star hotel. She feels she’s earned the respite: While she and the other organizers of the World Water Forum had expected about 10,000 delegates to participate, the final attendance was closer to 28,000 — a figure Gruaz attributes to the charms of her favorite city.
“We’ve never had such a huge attendance at the forum,” says Gruaz, the former president of the Turkish American Cultural Alliance. “Obviously, accommodating all of those world-class delegates was going to be a challenge. But the facilities were extremely comfortable, with state-of-the-art technology. The food was mouthwatering. And the feedback has been phenomenal.”
Gruaz sighs. “It’s my favorite city in the world. My heart beats faster whenever I hear the name of Istanbul.”
Istanbul’s event facilities are concentrated in three clusters: the area near Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport, the Golden Horn and the Conference Valley.
The airport district is defined by the Istanbul World Trade Center Complex and its resident CNR International Exhibition Center. The 452,000-square-foot complex has expanded to eight exhibition halls since it opened in 1993 and now hosts roughly 65 trade fairs each year. The Center includes five restaurants, four seminar rooms and a business center; the adjacent Mydonose Showland incorporates a 172,000-square-foot open area, an 86,000-square-foot closed area with 5,500 seats and a vast, 37,000-square-foot foyer with shops and cafés. 34830 Yesilköy, tel 90 212 465 7474.
The Golden Horn is home to two of Istanbul’s industrial antiques, recently repurposed as congress halls. The Sütlüce Congress and Cultural Center, a former slaughterhouse, is now a 925,000-square-foot event center; and the Feshane International Fair Congress and Culture Center, a 19th-century textile factory, became an 86,000-square-foot hall in 1986. Both facilities are connected by the Galata Bridge and share a pier on the Golden Horn. tel 90 212 501 7326.
The heart of Istanbul’s Conference Valley is the versatile Lutfi Kirdar Istanbul International Conference and Exhibition Center. The centrally located complex has hosted everything from the international Personal Indoor and Mobile Radio Communications convention to the Akbank Jazz Festival within a single month. The center’s main campus includes 21 meeting rooms, while the adjoining Rumeli Fair & Exhibition Hall provides an additional five. The Rumeli’s 22,600-square-foot ballroom offers simultaneous translation in 11 languages. 34267 Harbiye, tel 90 212 373 1100.
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