“Geneva is the world’s largest international village,” says Anja Loetscher, director Geneva Convention Bureau. That’s because this business city offers its own cultural flare and is extremely easy to navigate and travel around. Though it only has 190,000 residents, Geneva, Switzerland welcomes three million visitors each year. It couples its unique Swiss-French influence with a vibrant international expatriate community. The stunning Alpine mountains, natural lakes, world class event space and fine dining make Geneva a contender to lure business travelers to meetings in Europe.
Geneva is situated on the banks of the Rhone River and Lake Leman (referred to as Lake Geneva in English) — divided between France and Switzerland at various points — and the Jura and the Alps surround the city.
One-fifth of Geneva is covered by green spaces, including more than 50 parks and recreational areas. French is the primary language spoken in the Canton (the Swiss version of a state), but English speakers will feel at home due to the abundance of signage, plethora of international businesses and organizations, and the numerous English-speaking expat communities throughout the city.
The location and landscape add to Geneva’s appeal for international meetings and those who visit Geneva. “You have lakes, mountains, and plenty of ‘green’ within an international city — and you are quickly in any of these ‘change of scenery’ locations,” says Caroline Pidroni, director of sales and marketing for the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau in New York City.
If visiting or organizing a meeting or event, you’ll want to know about these seven neighborhoods in Geneva:
- Les Nations is the central international organizations and NGO (non-governmental organization) district which is located north of the city center. It contains contemporary architecture with over 35 international and 250 NGOs including the United Nations, Red Cross and World Health Organizations as well as the Centre International de Conference Geneve (CICG).
- Le Grand Saconnex is located northwest of the city. Mainly known for the airport, it is one of the most diverse areas in Switzerland with its mix of inhabitants from many different cultures, and here you’ll find Palexpo Convention Center.
- Les Grottes is in the city center and includes the Gare Cornavin train station. The area feels like a city within a city, and it has many artist shops and cafés. You’ll also see the Strumpfs buildings, which are recognized for their various shapes and funky vibe. low lying buildings with a funky vibe.
- Saint-Gervais is an area directly south of Les Grottes bordering the area to the north and Rhone River to the South. It’s a hub for several major business hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental Geneva.
- Les Paquis is another diverse neighborhood with many immigrants from different backgrounds surrounded by Les Nations and the Lake. It’s also a hub for upscale and luxury business hotels, such as the Hotel Kempinski and Hotel President Wilson.
- Vieille Ville, which means old town, sits on the opposite side of the Rhone River and Lake Leman. This is the Old Town area where you’ll find historic Geneva. It has sites such as the Cathedral of St. Pierre and the Museum of the Reformation.
- Carouge sits directly south and is known for its traditional Renaissance architecture. You can find several delicious eateries here including Pascoet Chocolate.
Hotels in Geneva, Switzerland
Geneva offers a wide arrange of hotels. As of 2014, the city has 118 hotels and 9,000 rooms, and 33 of these are conference hotels that are rated between 3 stars and 5 stars (Geneva has 15 5-star hotels). If you are a business traveler or event planner, consider these:
The Mandarin Oriental Geneva is a 5-star hotel that will make you feel as if you’re at home. This historical hotel, which happens to also have been the site for the first American Embassy there in the 1950s, is situated on the bank of the Rhone River across from the financial district. Business travelers will find the location incredibly tranquil on a small side street, yet the hotel is only 10 minutes from the airport, five minutes from the main train station and 10 minutes away from Old Town.
The Mandarin Oriental has 169 guest rooms and 27 suites – they each have the same amenities, but vary in size. In each of the seven floors, standard rooms are divided into a city or garden view. Mandarin Oriental Geneva has 10 meeting rooms — including six boardroom style rooms — that can accommodate up to 350 in a reception setting. The other six rooms lie on the first floor with a separate entrance, restroom area, and reception check in. Each of the rooms contains natural lighting and river/mountain views as well.
La Reserve is a 10-acre luxury boutique hotel situated on Lake Leman a quick ten-minute drive from the city center. The hotel is modeled after an African lodge and offers incredible breathtaking lake views, complimentary boat shuttle service to downtown Geneva, a spacious summertime swimming pool and bar area, and a winter time ice rink. Each of the 85 guestrooms, 17 suites and the hotel villa are entirely unique and differ in style and décor. The meetings and events space is perfect for a smaller meeting or conference with four full boardrooms and the ability to host an event of up to 50 attendees seated.
The InterContinental Geneva is down the street in the heart of the NGO district. The hotel recently underwent a renovation in 2013, but the structure itself dates back to 1951. The chic Bar des Nations is immediately seen as you enter the lobby, and it serves as the main hotel breakfast area. The Old Cigar and Wine Lounges are perfect for receptions and after hour cocktail hours. The InterContintental Geneva is one of the largest in the city with a total of 333 guestrooms (222 standard and 111 suites). The ground and first floors are the primary meeting facilities. The ballroom on the ground floor can seat up to 300 in a conference setting while there are 16 breakout rooms on the first floor. The poolside area is very serene for being in the center of a business district and can host up to 370 in a reception format.
The President Wilson Hotel, a luxury collection by Starwoods, is in the Les Paquis district, located on Lake Leman — and a quick boat ride from the financial district across the Rhone river. It has contemporary décor and amenities, 180 rooms and 48 luxury suite, three restaurants (one of which is Michelin starred), a full service spa, and the largest Royal Penthouse Suite — claimed as the largest in Europe. The Hotel President Wilson also offers superb state-of-the-art meeting space with more than 1,700 square meters (5,500 square feet) of available space and a capacity of up to 1,000 attendees.
The Grand Hotel Kempinski is a few blocks south in Les Paquis. It offers breathtaking views of Lake Leman as well as a secluded quiet courtyard. The 398 room hotel provides business travelers with three diverse restaurants, French, Asian and Italian, an exclusive nightclub (Java Club), upscale stores and shops, the largest private indoor swimming pool in Geneva and a 1,300 seat theater. The Grand Ballroom is the largest of the event spaces and can host a cocktail event of up to 800 while the main theater on the second floor can seat up to 1,300. These amenities coupled with very flexible meeting space make the hotel one of the top choices for business travelers and event planners.
Meetings in Geneva, Switzerland
Switzerland and Geneva can handle its share of any large event, but trends are showing that the vast majority of meetings held in Switzerland are for groups that have fewer than 150 attendees, with meetings accounting for the majority of events. And Switzerland’s major cities, including Geneva, become more popular, according to Meetings Report Switzerland 2014, a report by SCIB.
And Geneva is a business city when it comes to meetings and events. It may surprise you to know that 80 percent of visitors arrive for business reasons, according to the Geneva Convention Bureau. The top number of business visitors come from within Switzerland, and top international travelers arrive from France, the USA and the UK.
While Geneva is a financial hub (and that’s a great reason to visit here), the top industries that attract international meetings include automotive/technology, health and inter- and non-governmental administration, Caroline explains.
Examples of future meetings scheduled in Geneva include:
- Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping and SIBOS Conference (June 2016)
- Meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (July 2017)
- World Congress of the International Hepato Pancreato Biliary Association (September 2018)
“While European markets still struggle due to the weak euro, the majority of overseas markets show positive trends and are able to partly compensate the shortfall of income in the Swiss tourism industry,” Caroline explains. “During the first half of this year, the US market shows an increase of overnights in Switzerland of 6.3% compared to last year. 2015 is expected to be the sixth consecutive year of increasing visitor numbers from the US to Switzerland.”
Conventions in Geneva, Switzerland
CICG is the largest congress space in Switzerland and one of the largest on Contintenal Europe. Originally built in 1973 and renovated in 2005, the meeting space is located in the heart of Varembe, the NGO district and easily accessible via public transit from the city center. The center contains 27 meeting rooms with a total capacity from 20 to 2,200 attendees in a seated setting.
The space is incredibly flexible and rooms can be separated into the following types: conference, commission, multipurpose, offices, exhibitions and catering. There are 45 meeting rooms for breakouts, 4,000 square meters of exhibition space and an onsite bar and restaurant.
Palexpo, one of Switzerland’s largest convention centers with 106,000 square meters of space, is just a 10-minute walk from the Geneva Airport and a 15-minute tram ride from the city center. The complex includes two congress centers perfect for exhibitions, Villa Sarasin for receptions and events, and onsite restaurants and catering. The congress center can cater to a wide variety of event types and sizes. There are 17 conference rooms with a total capacity of 2,500 seats.
The meeting and events center is environmentally friendly by using only hydropower and solar panels to generate its electricity. The roof is equipped with 30,000 square meters of solar panels, and if independent would be the second largest power plant in the country with the ability to provide energy to over 1,300 households. Recycling is also a key feature of the site with some 80% of all waste eventually recycled. Even the parking facilities have green initiatives including chargers for electric cars.
The Cite du Temps is a 19th century river structure that was home to the Swatch Group’s Geneva workshop. When the group (originally from Bern) moved watch production elsewhere, the building still houses an orological exhibit showcasing the evolution of the famous Swatch products over the years. The location is ideal as it is located on the banks of the Rhone River in the heart of the Financial District. The ground floor bar has a trendy feel and is perfect for a cocktail reception of up to 80 guests.
The Cite de Temps has a unique first floor that showcases various works by local artists. The space is ideal for a reception of up to 110. Finally, the second floor showcases the private collection of the Swatch founder from 1983 onwards as well as contemporary watch styles by Swatch. Staff is available on-hand for private tours around special events.
The Batiment des Forces Motrices (BFM) was an old hydraulic water station located on the Rhone constructed in 1886. Although many of the old water stations have been taken down, the city retained the BFM and converted into a one of a kind meetings and event space. Event attendees in the main hall can still view the original turbines as well as various art pieces given to the city. The large theatre with indoor seating can seat 985 guests while the main hall can hold up to 1,000 in a reception format. Although the building is historic and even classified as a Swiss Heritage site by the Canton, the entire BFM has Wifi in house and can bring in onsite AV technicians for special events.
The Maison de la Paix (Insitute of the Peace) is a Graduate School located in the heart of the NGO district of Geneva approximately 20 minutes from downtown Geneva. The Institute was created through the merger of two different Swiss University graduate programs, and accepts graduates from a variety of subjects relating to public policy. The Institute rents out public spaces to tenants that have a mission of the organization such as sustainability, peace etc and even has speakers come on a daily basis to present on a variety of topics. The Institute is perfect for business travelers looking to hear unique presentations on a variety of topics. Event planners should note that although the space can be reserved for events, any event must be open to the public.
Things to Do in Geneva
There are so many activities to do when in Geneva ranging from the public parks and sites such as the Jet d’Eau, historic architecture such as the cathedral of St Pierre, shopping on the Rue de Rhone and museums.
Dining in Geneva, Switzerland
Dining in Geneva is truly international, representing options from all around the world. From tasty fondue at Les Armures to sumptuous Japanese at IZUMI Four Seasons Geneva, you’ll find 140 restaurants — 10 of which are Michelin-starred and 19 are Gault & Millau-starred.
When you think of Swiss cuisine, you immediately think of fondue, and Restaurant Les Armures is certainly the place to try it. This traditional Geneva eatery is situated in the heart of the Old Town (Vieille Ville) — mere steps away from the Cathedral of St Pierre and the Museum of the Reformation. The wood décor and traditional cozy atmosphere make you feel as if you are in a Swiss Chalet in the Alps rather than in one of Switzerland’s largest cities.
One of the best reasons to travel and/or check out new restaurants is to gain new experiences. And Geneva is where I learned how to eat fondue. To be honest, it was my first fondue experience, and I was lucky enough to enjoy Restaurant Les Armures as the guest of someone who was able to walk me through it.
Cheese fondue is normally served very hot with pepper, garlic and white wine blended into it. It is normally served with a local white wine, pieces of bread, pickles and dry meats. When dipping the bread into the fondue, it is important to spin the soaked bread around for several seconds to let the cheese settle and to cool down.
My host Melanie also explained that there is a tradition in that you must keep the bread from falling into the cheese, or otherwise you will have to buy everyone a round of drinks. Luckily for me, Melanie did not adhere to the tradition!
After you have finished the pot, make sure to eat the coating at the bottom as the taste is much different then the initial fondue. Finally, a double Gruyere cheese meringue finishes off a traditional fondue, which is a perfect hearty winter dish.
IZUMI is a Japanese restaurant with one of the most amazing lake and city views in downtown Geneva. It’s located on an seventh floor terrace that has a 360 degree panoramic view. Here, you will see nearly every iconic landmark and natural wonder in and around Geneva, such as the Jet d’Eau, Lake Leman, Cathedral of St Pierre and Mont Blanc.
IZUMI has a special lunch that is popular with business travelers and special events. The three course menu includes an appetizer, a main course and a desert. The yellow tail sashimi with chili pepper is the perfect appetizer — it has a mild spice and fresh tasting fish. The sautéed dover sole with vinaigrette shiso dressing is an excellent main course. For private events, the restaurant offers indoor seating for 25 guests and outdoor seating of 45 attendees.
If there is one food synonymous with Switzerland, it would be chocolate, and Philippe Pascoet is certainly a “Maitre Chocolatier Suisse” or master of chocolate.
The chocolate boutique, located in the heart of the Carouge district, is about 10 years old. The brand is noted in the chocolate industry for using Criollo, which is a very rare strand of cocoa bean used sparingly in chocolate production since it is expensive to grow and organic in nature.
Michel Baud, the manager at the Carouge location normally gives tours and walks business travelers and event attendees through the art of making chocolate in the laboratory; he also offers group tastings. Michel explained that the art of chocolate making is similar to wine and that it depends on the soil, or terroir in French that the cocoa beans use.
Several different blends are used in the production process in order to create the finished chocolate type. You will certainly enjoy viewing and tasting some of the large stacks of chocolate located around the lab.
Try Java Chocolate, Pascoet’s most basic, truffle, basil and passion flavors. Also make sure to try the cigar flavored chocolate, which was my personal favorite because it really felt as if I had smoked a cigar! Planners should note that there is a minimum of six attendees required for special events.
Restaurant Tipping in Geneva: Ordering at restaurants is easy because most in the service industry are multilingual with French and English being the most predominant. Tipping is expected, but lower compared with countries like the US because staff have higher base wages and a service charge added to the bill. So, if you are happy with your meal, you can round up the bill to the nearest Franc.
Activities in Geneva, Switzerland
As you likely know, Geneva is known for its watchmaking, jewelry and banking industries — all of which make excellent “behind the scenes” tour activities. So you will want to visit the streets Rue du Marche near the Gare Cornavin station or the Rue du Rhone for a wide variety of shops. Keep in mind that many stores are open only until 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and they are closed on Sundays.
What you may not realize is that these industries have evolved because Geneva played an important role in the Christian Reformation — and you can learn all about that. The city became synonymous with John Calvin, a leading Protestant Theologian, whose ideas eventually lead to the development of Protestant faiths throughout the world. Geneva welcomed many French Protestants who were tradesmen and craftsmen during the French Wars of Religion.
Of course, you have a choice of other activities in Geneva, such as heritage sites, museums, tours and cruises — many of which are covered or reduced in price if you buy the Geneva Pass (and many are great ideas for offsite event venues). Tip: Keep an eye on Geneva Tourism’s website for specials. During my stay in Geneva, they offered a promotion for a complimentary 24-hour GenevaPass during the Geneva Fast, a major public holiday.
The Patek Philippe Museum showcases the rich Swiss art of watchmaking from one of the most iconic Swiss brands. The four story early 20th century museum houses centuries old timepieces and includes a spacious library dedicated to the art of horology. The museum itself doesn’t just host iconic Patek Philippe watches, but also antique timepieces dating back to the 1500s.
The exhibition offers incredible historic insights and you will learn about horology as well as the brand. For example, Antoni Patek, one of the cofounders, was actually a Polish émigré who fled to Geneva. He combined his knowledge of watchmaking with a French inventor, Adrien Philippe, to create of the world’s most well-known brands. Private tours are also available for special events groups.
If there is one museum that would be most associated with Geneva’s history, it would be the MIR. In 2007, the museum won the Council of Europe Museum Prize, which signified its contribution to defining European cultural heritage.
The museum is located in an 18th century home where the Geneva council voted on the Reformation. The MIR does not only highlight the Reformation with respect to the city of Geneva, but also the history of Protestant faiths around the world. The museum is perfect to gain an understanding as to how integral the city of Geneva was in the development of Protestantism.
World’s Longest Wooden Bench
If there’s one thing you must do when visiting Geneva, Caroline suggests that you sit on the longest bench in the world. And I agree – we went there.
“‘The Marronnier de la Treille,’ as they call it, is the world’s longest bench, totally 120 meters long, build in 1767 already. It is situated in the Promenade de la Treille, a small green park in the south of Geneva’s Old Town, just next to the Hotel de Ville. The park and the super long bench are just above the Bastions Park, we recommend to have a sit here and enjoy the view. It is indeed a popular place for lovers to go spend a romantic evening together,” Caroline says.
Activities Near Geneva
For those looking to get out of the city and experience activities in countryside, Geneva is surrounded by several small towns that are easily accessible via car and boat — many of which would interest business travelers and organizers of incentive trips. Several ski resorts are within a 30 minute drive, including Chamonix.
Yvoire is a town in France located approximately 30 minutes from Geneva by car and on the main boat route through Lake Leman. The picturesque medieval town is perfect for a day trip from Geneva and includes an old town with many arts and crafts shops as well as restaurants. You can easily get lost wondering its small scenic streets, take a coffee at a café and eat a cake (which the locals say is required!).
If you are taking the main boat route, you must stop at Hermance for lunch. The border town is 20 minutes from Geneva and sits directly on the borderline between the two countries. The town has a few restaurants on the Lake with breathtaking views of the mountains.
Make sure to try Café Restaurant du Quai, which offers outdoor seating, and Lake/Mountain Views. Hermance actually rests in Swiss Wine Country, and if you are at the Café you must order the famous Perch filet, which is not always available, and couple with local white Chardonnay and Prune Cake for desert. The setting is incredibly tranquil with fishermen out on the lake, plenty of wildlife and excellent food.
Logistics in Geneva
Geneva Airport (GVA) is an international airport with over 130 destinations. Business travelers and event planners will enjoy the shortest commute time for any European city from airport to city center at six minutes via local train transfer to the central train station.
Geneva’s main railway station Gare Cornavin is located in the heart of the city just steps away from the lakefront. The railway station is also well connected to large European cities. Geneva will also receive free public transportation from the airport to the city as well as free public transit for the duration of stay as long as it is at a hotel or camp.
Switzerland is a member of the Schengen Agreement, so visitors can travel freely between Switzerland and its neighbors. However, Switzerland uses the Swiss Franc, not the Euro. Nevertheless, many businesses, shops and restaurants do accept Euros and will give change in Francs, but the rate of the exchange is higher. Many hotels also have onsite currency exchanges for guests, including the Mandarin Oriental Geneva.
Tip: Make sure to do some shopping! Geneva has an 8% refundable VAT rate, the lowest in Europe.
Geneva tends to enjoy the full four seasons when it comes to weather. Spring and Fall tend to be the best (and most popular times) for meetings and events. Winters can be cold with snow, but Geneva’s close proximity to the mountains results in much incentives travel during this time.
For more information about business travel, meetings and events in Geneva, Swtizerland, contact the Geneva Convention Bureau.
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Updated. Originally published October 15, 2015.