For planners seeking an element of indulgence for their groups, Kobe offers some of the best dining and entertainment - all conveniently located just 20 minutes from Osaka and 60 minutes from Kyoto by train.
"Japan is increasingly popular for incentive travel, especially for groups from Southeast Asia," noted Etsuko Kawasaki, executive director at the Japan Convention Bureau. "Incentive travel from the region increased by 18% year-on-year to 242 trips." As Kobe prepares to host 2019 Rugby World Cup matches, the city is working to enhance its image and improve on-the-ground support for planners and visitors.
Despite the limited number of international brands, Kobe's upscale hotels offer extensive meeting facilities for groups of all sizes. Hotel Okura Kobe boasts one of the largest pillarless ballrooms in the Kansai region with its 2,100sqm Heian Grand Ballroom.
Designed to evoke the feeling of sailing on a luxury liner, Kobe Meriken Park Oriental Hotel wows guests with five oceanfront banquet spaces featuring full-height windows and balconies. At the 262-room Kobe Bay Sheraton Hotel & Towers, the Rokko Ballroom can accommodate up to 940 guests, while 13 meeting rooms offer flexible layouts.
Beyond the ballroom
To complement existing convention facilities, Kobe is building its inventory of unique venues. Previously, one key hurdle planners faced in securing historically significant venues was the logistics and special arrangements involved.
This is gradually changing as private enterprises take over the management and promotion of historical buildings. Japanese company Value Management Group, for example, runs the Nipponia hotel chain as well as venues like Kobe Geihinkan Former Guest House.
Kobe Geihinkan is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government, and will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2019. The western-style mansion features banquet halls that can accommodate 72 to 130 guests, as well as a salon and garden for outdoor cocktail receptions. Value Management Group also represents unique event spaces in nearby Kyoto and Osaka, such as in Heian-jingu Shrine and Nishinomaru Garden at Osaka Castle Park.
Recreational attractions like Kobe's Suma Aqualife Park can also serve as gala venues, as the 754 delegates of the OCEANS'18 MTS/IEEE Kobe conference discovered. With the aquarium's main tank as the backdrop, guests experienced a traditional 'Kagami-biraki' sake barrel breaking ceremony, tea ceremony, and a traditional 'koto' (Japanese harp) performance.
Wining and dining
Delegates who visit Kobe will no doubt be expecting a taste of Kobe's most famous export: Kobe beef. A truly local dining experience here involves counter seats at teppanyaki-style joints, where diners will be shown their choice of meat before the chef slices and grills it to perfection.
Misono Kobe, one of the city's pioneer restaurants, says it has received many requests from Muslim guests who want to try Kobe beef. Catching on to this demand, it started offering a halal Kobe beef steak course late last year, with the option of a 150g sirloin at JPY 29,160 (US$260) or fillet at JPY 41,040.
Spirits connoisseurs will also appreciate a visit to the sake (rice wine) breweries in Kobe's Nada region, which is renowned for producing exceptional sake due to the local rice and water used. At the award-winning Kobe Sushinkan brewery, English and other foreign language group tours are readily available and participants can taste a range of Nada sake varieties and flavours before choosing their favourites to take home as souvenirs.
Finally, Kobe is the only place where one can claim to have soaked in the oldest hot springs in Japan. Arima Onsen, founded approximately 1,300 years ago, is famed for its "kinsen" (gold spring), which is rich in iron and salt, as well as carbonic "ginsen" (silver spring). For a post-conference party, planners can organise a gathering complete with geisha hostesses and kaiseki cuisine right within the onsen.
Learn from the experts
Kobe is known for its "Ten-Million-Dollar Night View" from Mt. Rokko, but there's a more thrilling spot for groups to get a panoramic view: Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. Linking Kobe with nearby Awaji Island, this is the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world. A technical tour of the bridge, guided by locals who personally worked on the bridge's construction, promises to thrill with visits to walkways under the bridge as well as to the top of the 297m-high central towers.
For a deeper understanding of Japanese carpentry and architecture, a visit to Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum provides insight into how famous buildings in Japan were constructed and restored. Delegates can also get hands-on experience crafting their own wooden toys, cutlery or even furniture at the museum's workshop as they experience Japan's culture of monozukuri, or "making things".