All Eyes on Iceland as World Leaders Gather and the Skift Team Reunites

Skift Take

From Skift's annual retreat that focuses on gathering its globally dispersed team to the Council of Europe, where leaders from 46 member nations convened, Iceland took center stage as a meetings destination last week.

Skift focuses on the transformative nature of travel and uses its power to motivate its own fully-dispersed team of 75. From as far away as South Africa, India, Denmark, and Scotland, the team came together in Iceland last week. Often marketed as a destination to “Let’s Meet in the Middle” of North American and European routes, that is what Skifers did. 

At the same time, the Council of Europe, the leading institution overseeing human rights on the continent, gathered in the Nordic country. This was only the fourth time the organization has held a summit in its 73-year history, and its main focus is to “refocus its mission, in the light of new threats to democracy and human rights, and to support Ukraine.”

The first Reykjavík Summit was held in 1986 and brought together U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It showcased Iceland to the world as a neutral meeting ground.

“That meeting got the ball rolling. It also motivated Icelanders about the meetings industry,” said Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, the head of Visit Iceland.

The most recent Summit brought together Heads of State and Government from the organization’s 46 members. Among those present were German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. They were joined via video link by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The country delegations and the press totaled around 1,000, with security around the venue heightened, and downtown streets closed to all non-official traffic.

A local Reykjavik publication reported that around 300 police officers received special training in the use of firearms in preparation for the event. Armed police officers are a rarity in Iceland as they typically do not carry guns. Streets around Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, the site of the Summit, were closed to vehicle traffic.

Similar to the short-term booking trend the entire industry is experiencing, the Summit was booked six months out. “It was a short turnaround. We just found out six months ago this was happening,” said Guðmundsdóttir. “This is a gathering that gives us a lot of visibility.” 

Harpa Center Attraction in its Own Right

Harpa, not only a conference venue that can accommodate groups of up to 3,500 in Reykjavik but an attraction in its own right, was the site of the Summit.

Olafur Eliasson designed the building; after decades of planning and pushing for such a structure, construction started in 2007. Unfortunately, the financial crisis that impacted Iceland’s banking system the following year halted construction. It was eventually restarted in 2009 with the help of the local government and opened in 2011 as a symbol of Icelandic culture. Today, it’s popular with locals, meeting groups, and visitors.

The unique glass honeycomb structure houses the striking Eldborg Hall, home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera, and Reykjavík Big Band. This hall can seat 1,800, the largest space in all of Iceland. Silfurberg Hall is more appropriate for conferences and seats up to 840. Other acoustically-sound areas at the venue designed for music and performances are equally suitable for business lectures. Several other rooms, including small meeting rooms, can be rented for a half day. While many lobby spaces have unique shapes and limited access, the views and natural light offer the ideal contrast to dark halls and rooms.

The venue is flexible and conveniently located just a few minutes from Reykjavik’s tourist center. Several four- and five-star properties are all within walking distance. The largest hotel is the Fosshotel Reykjavík, with 320 rooms. The brand-new Reykjavik EDITION offers 253 rooms in modern five-star luxury next to the Harpa Center.

Natural Landscapes Inspire

High-tech conference facilities are just the beginning. It’s the country’s unique natural landscapes that inspire. From hiking the scenic trails of Hverageroi, relaxing in the iconic Blue Lagoon, and witnessing the power of mother nature at Gullfoss Waterfall and the Geysir Geothermal site to standing in a spot where the North American and European tectonic plates meet, Skifters immersed themselves in the country. Intrepid Travel, an adventure travel company, created several itineraries for Skifters to choose from. A company focusing on responsible travel, it carbon offset Skift’s trip. 

E-Sports Gatherings Propel Iceland During Pandemic

The Covid shutdown didn’t halt Iceland’s meetings and conventions business. Instead, it flourished as the site for e-sports tournaments.

The League of Legends international tournament, a mid-season invitational, was held at the Laugardalshöll multi-purpose sports and exhibition venue. The League of Legends World Championship followed that, the concluding tournament that brings together the best global teams. It was initially scheduled for Shanghai but moved to Reykjavik due to China’s zero-Covid policy.