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Meetings and Incentives in New Zealand: Auckland

This is the fifth in a five-part series on meeting in New Zealand (Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: Getting There; Part 3: Rotorua; Part 4: Queenstown)

We headed off to Auckland for the opening evening of MEETINGS, the big annual New Zealand meetings and incentive trade show. But first we checked into the Sofitel Viaduct Harbour, another beautiful boutique property, this one located between the Viaduct Harbour and the new Wynyard Quarter. It was walking distance to the Skycity Auckland Convention Centre, where MEETINGS was held, as well as to the shopping and business districts.

Meeting: The 53,000-plus-square-foot Skycity Auckland Convention Centre is part of the massive Skycity destination, which includes a casino, bars, restaurants, two hotels, and the Sky Tower. It offers a 13,990-square-foot plenary room with retractable walls; 11,600 square feet of exhibition or conference space with an additional 8,600 square feet of foyer space; plus two fully equipped boardrooms, a speaker prep room and a media room, and 11 breakout rooms. It can accommodate 1,750 delegates theater-style. You can access the entertainment complex and hotel via a skybridge. There are plans for Skycity to build a new convention center nearby that can accommodate up to 3,500, but as of press time Skycity and the government were still negotiating the terms of the deal.

The opening MEETINGS reception was held at the Hilton Auckland, which looks a bit like a cruiseship that went aground and decided to stay there. The 165-room hotel offers 7,440 square feet of exhibit space, and its largest meeting room is 13,024 square feet. It has 10 other meeting spaces that can accommodate up to 280 theater-style.

I had jogged by the Viaduct Event Centre at sunrise, but it looked very different when we stepped inside for the MEETINGS final evening gala! Opened in 2011, the $32 million, 64,500-square-foot facility provided eight separate rooms for conferences, gala dinners, and expos. For the MEETINGS gala, it had good acoustics for the bands and DJs, plenty of space for dancing, eating, and drinking, and it was easy to move from the reception space to where the main event was held.

The 173-room Sofitel is geared more toward smaller meetings and incentive groups: Its largest meeting space is the 1,345-square-foot Private Room, which can accommodate up to 180. Other meeting spaces include the 312-square-foot Boardroom II and the 215-square-foot Boardroom I. Audiovisual service and equipment is provided, and videoconferencing is available.

Eating: While we had many fine meals in Auckland, notably in the Sofitel’s Vie restaurant, the Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant on Waiheke Island was an incredible way to give our tastebuds one last blast of New Zealand cuisine before heading back to the U.S. The setting is so romantic that, even as we were commenting during our lunch that they must do a million weddings, a man two tables down got on one knee to propose. Surrounded by gardens, groups will feel comfortable, though perhaps uncomfortably full, after a group luncheon, dinner, or event. The Cable Bay Vineyards, also on Waiheke Island, offers a very different vibe, with an art and sculpture collection, clean and modern restaurant, a beautiful small meeting space that can be set boardroom-style to accommodate up to 20, plus a wine bar and an intimate, interesting space in the wine cellar that can be used for groups.

The south wing of the Euro Bar, where we had a sumptious feast our first night in Auckland, can be set boardroom-style, horseshoe, or classroom for business events. The food is amazing, even if I did have to ask our server what at least five different things on the menu were—very cutting-edge cuisine.

Adventuring: Auckland is the city of sails, so it almost seemed de rigueur to get us out on the water, but who would have thought we’d get to sail on a former America’s Cup Yacht, courtesy of Explore New Zealand? Since we were a small group, we all were called to the “grinders” to haul up the massive sail and help make course corrections, and we were allowed to take the helm and steer a course as the hull sheared through the calm harbor waters. No longer just for billionaires and yachting pros, now hoi polloi like our group could get a taste of what it’s like to compete in the world’s oldest and most prestigious yachting race. Well, we didn’t really go that fast, but it was a wind-in-our-hair cruise I will never forget.

I also had the chance to experience two luxury yachts chartered by Pacific Mermaid Cruises. We boarded the 70-foot Activa for a sunset harbor cruise press event. The Activa’s four all-weather dining spaces can accommodate up to 35 for a cruise. It also has a submersible swim platform cruisers can use in weather a bit warmer than we had. We also had the chance to experience the 105-foot superyacht Pacific Mermaid, a gloriously impressive ship fitting for heads of state or corporate VIPs, complete with a baby grand piano in the main salon. It holds up to 80 guests for cocktails and finger food; 50 for seated buffets, or 30 for sit-down dining. Or you could, as we did, just tool around the harbor and take in the views on the way to Waiheke, an island known for its fine vineyards and restaurants.

Auckland’s also a city of “mild and wild,” as our MEETINGS hosts told us in a funny sketch at an evening reception, and we got to experience what was the wildest thing I’ve ever done when I took a flying leap off the Sky Tower, a 1,076-foot spire of a building right next to the Skycity complex. They call it “base jumping with a wire,” but SkyJumping is really just a pure adrenaline rush. They hook you up securely, then somehow persuade you to overcome millions of years of evolution that tells you when you’re on a cliff, stay on the cliff, and instead step off and plunge 630 feet. For someone like me who has a severe fear of heights, you’d think it would be a nightmare, but instead it was one of the many highlights of the trip for me.

Even just getting around the city of Auckland can be pretty adventurous if you want it to be. If your group is born to be wild, give them a thrill ride with a city tour via Harley-Davidson from Bularangi Motorbikes New Zealand. The day was a little cool and misty, but we donned leather jackets, gloves, and helmets and tooled through the city with true biker flair. They have a variety of tours available, from airport pickups to a day-long tour to the new Hobbiton Village where the moviemakers turned a piece of Waikato farmland into the Shire for the Hobbit films.

So whether your group is into meeting, eating, sightseeing, or having adventures of a lifetime, New Zealand has something to offer for just about everyone. It may be a long way to go, but it's well worth the trip—it's a whole lot more exciting than the back yard of anyone I know.

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