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by Leo Jakobson | June 08, 2012
As spectacular as Monaco’s hotels and Riviera vistas are, it’s the principality’s mystique, more than anything else, that makes it such a great incentive destination. The tiny principality with the medieval European city on a cliff, ruled by a sovereign prince, the modern fairytale of Princess Grace and the grand casino with a style reflective of Paris’ belle époque that has drawn the wealthy and glamorous for a century and a half, all add up to a place that doesn’t seem like it should be real. 

And yet it is, and while no one would say it’s cheap, Monaco can be a good and competitive value for five-star destinations, especially with the trophy value you’re getting. Transportation is easy – France’s well-served Nice airport is roughly 20 minutes away, and within the principality there are only a few venues where anything but walking is necessary—New York’s Central Park is nearly twice its size. And because tourism is the largest part of the economy, the government is very accommodating.

Monaco’s old city is set up on a cliff above the city, and it is home to both the palace and the cathedral, both of which are worth a tour. The palace is home to Prince Ranier III’s private collection of antique cars, and is a perennial favorite venue for incentive groups doing a Grand Prix-themed gala. The State Apartments are open to visitors part of the year. 

Excellent views of the square, where the changing of the guard is a prime tourist attraction, can be had at Le Castelroc restaurant, on the far side of the square, which is known for Monagasque specialties, and can hold about 70. A nearby old city street, Rue Emile de Loth, has a number of restaurants packed in tightly enough to make a good dine-around site. 

A Sporting Country
Cars are a big part of Monaco’s history, thanks in large part to the Grand Prix of Monaco, probably the best-known auto race in the world. While we were there, the principality was preparing its streets for this meet, which goes right through the center of town, past the casino, along the waterfront, and then past past a number of hotels, most famously the Fairmont, whose front entrance is the apex of The Fairmont Turn, a hairpin so tight you’d have to slow down on a bicycle, to say nothing of a massively overpowered F1 car. 

There’s a lot of corporate entertainment around the Grand Prix — one of the premiere meets of the Formula 1 seasons — and it’s a spectacular event to time an incentive around, but the price increases are huge and you’d have to book at least a year out. The Fairmont’s seventh-floor Willow Stream Spa has windows overlooking the track and a rooftop pool that may be among the best places to view the race, although you’d probably lose the calm, relaxing atmosphere typical at the nearly 10,000-square-foot spa. 

Of course, that’s not the only big sporting event in Monaco, which because of its wealth and fame is able to fight above its weight when it comes to sporting events and cultural offerings. We arrived just as the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tennis tournament was wrapping up, and the Fairmont’s meetings team proved its resourcefulness by finding a couple of very hard-to-get tickets to the final match, in which Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovich. Set up for the finals, the Monte-Carlo Country Club’s red clay center court was a good one (it has 21 in all), large enough but still intimate, with plenty of corporate event areas for sponsors, as well as an amazing view of the Mediterranean. And like pretty much everything in Monaco (technically the stadium is in Cap Martin, France actually, although there is no noticeable border), it is walkable from the Place du Casino square that is the heart of the nightlife and site of many top hotels. That said, for a group event, its far enough away from the center of town to consider coaches if for no other reason than to keep people together.

That applies to the very green Grimaldi Forum, Monaco’s seaside convention and exhibition center, which hosts the UEFA Super Cup, a champions’ soccer match that kicks off the European football season. It also houses Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo and a number of art exhibitions.

The Grimaldi Forum is representative of the environmental consciousness that the current sovereign, Prince Albert II, and his father brought to the country. The Forum obtained ISO 14001:2004 environmental certification in 2008, and follows though on this commitment in many ways, ranging from extensive waste sorting and recycling to a seawater-based sustainable air conditioning system to an eco-responsibility charter for subcontractors. And the Forum’s staff can work with any group to help make an event greener than it is already. 

With a total of 375,000 square feet, the most attractive space is the 20,000-square-foot Esplanade Princess Grace terrace, set next to the building’s glass roof and facing the ocean, the nearby Japanese Garden, and of course the three-country-view coastline. Inside the glass-and-steel lobby is the 17,000 square foot La Grand Verrier, another great event space. The two exhibition halls have natural light and the three main theater spaces seat 582, 1,150 and 3,600 respectively. There are also 22 breakout rooms and a pair of 6,350-square-foot, naturally lit event spaces, Le Guelfe and Le Genois. 

Out by the far eastern end of the Principality, SBM’s seven-year-old, 334-room Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort has a huge outdoor resort area featuring a large pool and sandy-bottomed swimming lagoon, a sea lounge, many cabanas, and a number of other outdoor event spaces. The shoreline is a good spot for water sports like watercraft and parasailing. It shares a small peninsula with the Monte-Carlo Sporting Club, which has several indoor spaces that can hold a combined 1,500. Its 12-room Spa Cinq Mondes, features rituals from five parts of the world.

The last hotel on the eastern side of Monaco, SBM’s Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel is located just past the Monte-Carlo Country Club. A ‘30s-era property renovated three years ago, it’s small – just 40 rooms and suites — and can be bought out except during the high season. The large pool is backed by the Le Deck event space and often used by groups from other SBM properties. Designed especially with group events in mind, it can host up to 700 for cocktails. Thanks to the curving coastline, all of Monaco is lit up in the background at night. 

The Cultural Side
The fact that half of the grandest building in the principality — Charles Garnier’s Casino de Monte-Carlo, heavily influenced by his masterpiece, the Paris Opera — is given over to the Opera de Monte Carlo, is indicative of the importance given to the arts. It is a sumptuous space decked out in red velvet, and boasts exquisitely intricate ceilings. Depending on the schedule it’s available to groups, but remember that while it seats 520, the royal box is always off limits, even to the CEO.  

On the casino side, the gaming rooms are not available for private parties — they have been open every single day since it was built in 1893, and if SBM Monte Carlo didn’t close even once during World War II, they aren’t doing it for private groups. That said, the columned Atrium du Casino just inside the grand entrance is available for private events — it can hold 400 for cocktails — and the red-carpeted entrance alone makes it a stand-out venue. Much the same can be said for Place du Casino, which SBM controls and boasts about 48,000 square feet of usable event space. 

While Monaco is strong in the performing arts, it has been working to establish visual arts, which is where the Museum Nouveau Musee National de Monaco comes in. The two grand private homes that make up this museum are both good cocktail venues. The Villa Sauber, which can hold 100, allows behind the scenes tours if the exhibition schedules allow it. In May, it had a collection of Josephine Baker's hats —she was hugely popular in Monaco — that was a treat to see up close. Villa Paloma doesn’t allow drinks inside to protect its art, but its terrace, high above the old city, palace and yacht harbor has some of the best views in the Principality. 

One more museum that shouldn’t be excluded as either a venue or simply a free time destination is the Musee Oceanographique de Monaco, set in a lovely manicured park out past the old city on the western side of the principality. Consider a coaches or cabs for smaller groups, as it’s on the far side of the principality from Casino Square. It’s an interesting venue because the areas are so vastly different in style and setting. The lowest level is an aquarium with some spaces that can host dining or drinks, though not too late, as the fish require darkness on schedule. On the ground floor, the high-ceilinged Salle de Conferences has a coffered wood ceiling with murals, and high arched windows on either side that give it the look of a European guild hall. The first floor (what we’d call the second floor) has exploration exhibits, and depending on which side you choose your event will be held under either a life-size model of a whale or an actual skeleton of one. The tall building stands high on a rocky shore, and it’s worth pointing out that down below, right on the water with the crashing surf, is Monaco’s jail. It’s a small one as Monaco is very safe at any time, day or night, but the setting is kind of amusing. 

Nightlife and Dining
When it comes to nightlife in Monaco, there are two basic spots to keep in mind: the Place du Casino area, and Nice, roughly 20 minutes down the coast in France, which has a large and active nightlife scene. That’s one of the secrets to an incentive trip to Monaco: leaving it for the day or evening. Going in the other direction you reach San Remo in Italy in about 40 minutes. Both are good spots for dine-arounds and day trips. Nearby scenic villages include Eze, the medieval village perched on a high cliff that is home to the Fragonard perfume factory, and Cap Ferrat. Both have incredible private villas that can be rented out for an event. 

Place du Casino’s nightlife starts with the Casino de Monte-Carlo, of course. It stays open until the last patron leaves. Note that guest of SBM hotels don’t have to pay the 10 Euro entrance fee that’s essentially used to prevent the casino from being overrun by tourists. The other four casino choices, all run by SBM, include the Sun Casino, with more American table games than the others — the Casino de Monte-Carlo has baccarat, for example, and the rules of roulette are different. 

The star of the Monte Carlo’s nightclub scene is Jimmy’z which has two locations, on Place du Casino and out at the Sporting Monte Carlo complex. It’s owned by SBM, and is one of the top clubs on the Riviera and sees plenty of celebrities; getting in doesn’t require paying for table bottle service, but good behavior at the door helps. There’s also an outpost of Buddha-Bar, which has an excellent Asian fusion restaurant, along with a dozen or so other spots, a number of which have live music. 

On the dining front, there are more than a few grand French chefs who have outposts in Monaco, most notably Alain Ducasse, with Le Grill Louis XV and Le Grill, both in the Hotel du Paris, and the two-Michelin-star Joel Robuchon Monte-Carlo, in the Hotel Metropole. Robuchon also has a one-starred Japanese restaurant, Yoshi, in the property and is opening a third there later this summer, designed by Karl Lagerfeld. (The nearby Villa Ulysse, where the designer lived for 10 years, can be rented for private events.) A new pool area with room for 80 for cocktails, will open later this summer as well. 

For sheer décor, La Salle Empire in the Hotel de Paris is a banquet space that’s also a listed historical site. Carnivores will want to try L’Argentin in the Fairmont. At Le Meridien Beach Plaza, Monte Carlo, there is L’Intempo, the only 24-hour restaurant in Monaco. It has several areas, including a Live Cooking station centered like a bar, that can hold 40, 62, and 88. Cooking and wine classes with the award-winning sommelier are available. The hotel’s Sea Club Conference Centre has 14 meeting rooms on five floors, and can host groups of 2,000. 

At the Hotel Hermitage, Le Vistamar is a Michelin starred seafood restaurant with a terrace overlooking the yacht harbor and a private room for 12. The Salle Belle Epoque and the Belle Epoque Terrace are popular spots for gala dinners. 

That said, there are more than a few good places to dine that are more casual. One of the most famous is the Café de Paris, is SBM’s on Casino Square catty corner from the main Casino. It’s a must do, with a very turn-of the (previous) century Parisian feel, at least as a dine-around option if not for a dinner. There’s the excellent ground floor Brasserie 1900, which takes groups of up to 30, the upstairs event hall Salon Bellevue for 350, and the Bar des Jeux, which can take groups of 30. The building hosts a second casino, the casino Café de Paris, with American-style table games. 

Right at the start of the Grand Prix starting line in the harbor is the Brasserie de Monaco, a very modern dance club/brewpub, which makes several very nice beers, notably the award-winning lager, in the back. It has a 40-person private room, and a 4,300-square-foot terrace. It can handle groups of up to 600. Opened with a push from Prince Albert, who wanted a Monegasque beer in production. Next door is the Explorer’s Club, which focuses on local produce (the lamb was excellent) and can take groups of 80 indoors and 180 on its terrace. The décor is based on scientific polar expeditions undertaken by the current sovereign and his father.