After a decade of aggressive development and marketing to establish itself as a highly popular destination for corporate meetings and incentive programs, Mexico has caught on with association meeting planners — thanks to a uniquely powerful combination of history, culture and value.
“Mexico is increasing its awareness on the radar of association meeting planners, notes Phelps Hope, vice president, meeting and expositions, at Atlanta-based Kellen Meetings, a business unit of association management firm The Kellen Company. “And a couple of factors drive that. Mexico is great for resort meetings. But those have traditionally been corporate or incentive programs. But as their business grew and the number of properties grew and the availability of meeting venues and goods and services grew, Mexico has expanded beyond corporate meetings and incentive programs. And they now get a lot of business from associations.”
Two key underlying factors, Hope says, are Mexico’s huge commitment to and investment in meeting-related infrastructure such as new hotels and convention facilities.
“And those things have just reinforced a groundswell of interest that actually started years ago,” Hope says. “But it has reached the point now in terms of awareness where it is the topic of day-to-day conversations in the association meeting industry. And it’s also very much an international destination. They’re not just serving the American market. So there is just a lot of awareness and interest now from all over the world, including the U.S.”
In turn, that has led to strong and vocal support from major industry organizations such as ASAE and PCMA.
John H. Graham IV, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of ASAE, has proclaimed the rise of Mexico as an association meeting destination ever since ASAE named the country a strategic partner several years ago.
“A partnership like the one we have with Mexico has to be a win for Mexico and it has to be a win for ASAE,” Graham told industry media outlet Mexico Today. “And the partnership has been a great success for both of us. And one of the things we do is look for ways to promote our partner. Mexico is known as a great destination for leisure travel. What we hope to do is to grow awareness among our (member) associations that Mexico is also a great meeting destination. And it’s in North America, which means it’s accessible. It’s also affordable.
Among Mexico’s other high-profile industry supporters is PCMA president and CEO Deborah Sexton. In November 2012, PCMA’s North American Advisory Board held a conference in Mazatlan. High-profile attendees immediately began to proclaim the virtues of Mexico as a unique and very appealing destination.
Its reputation and portfolio of meeting-quality hotels have been enhanced by major U.S.-based hoteliers, such as InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Marriott, Hilton and W, among others. IHG alone will have invested $500 million in 47 new Mexico properties by the end of this year.
In the meantime, major Mexican and international hoteliers such as Fiesta Americana, Grupo Presidente, Barcelo Hotels & Resorts, Palace Resorts, Riu Hotels & Resorts and AM Resorts have made significant investments in new hotels and renovations of existing properties to stay abreast of their American competition.
In May, Hard Rock International opened the world’s fourth All-Inclusive Collection property with the debut of the 1,264-room Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya in the red-hot, modern resort destination.
At the same time, Palace Resorts completed a $55 million renovation and expansion of its landmark, 2,409-room Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort in Cancun. The expansion included the addition of a new 140,000-sf Moon Palace Arena convention center.
Grupo Presidente — which operates hotels across Mexico in destinations including Cancun, Los Cabos, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Ixtapa and Merida — has undertaken major renovations at its Presidente InterContinental Mexico City Polanco and the Presidente InterContinental Cancun Resort.
There also are new convention center facilities in Cabo San Lucas, Tijuana and Puebla.
And the nearly 400,000-sf Centro Banamex convention center in Mexico City remains one of the most acclaimed facilities of its kind in Latin America. It recently announced commitments from the World Congress of Cardiology, World Congress of the International Society of Nephrology and FIFA World Congress to hold its annual meetings there in 2016 and 2017. Centro Banamex can accommodate groups of up to 10,000, and there are 5,000 hotel rooms within three miles.
In addition to its ever-growing list of individual destinations and hotels, Mexico also offers exceptional value. And that has become even more important now that meeting budgets remain tight and the U.S. returns to a seller’s market, with hotel rates spiking in many A-list meeting destinations.
For Sheilah Jewart, CMP, the Windermere, Florida-based executive director of the American Society for Neurochemistry, whose members are scientists who specialize in brain research, the value proposition in Mexico was a primary reason why she chose the Fiesta Americana Cancun for her five-day joint meeting in April with the International Society for Neurochemistry, which drew a combined total of 1,100 attendees.
“We just get so much more for our money in Mexico,” Jewart says. “I can give my attendees incredible food, tours and entertainment for a registration fee that is about half what it would be if we did the meeting in a major U.S. destination.”
And value is key for her, Jewart says, because research scientists typically work on modest grants and do not have big travel budgets.
Len Douglen, executive director of Livingston, New Jersey-based Associated Pest Services, whose members include pest control companies from across the country, says the bottom-line value Mexico delivers was a key factor in his organization’s selection of the Fiesta Americana Grand Los Cabos All Inclusive Golf & Spa for a three-day meeting in February for 126 attendees.
He estimates that in a dollar-for-dollar comparison with a similar U.S. resort destination and hotel, he saved about 20–25 percent.
Hope concurs that based on his experience hosting meetings in several Mexico destinations over the last two years, the country typically delivers savings of 20–25 percent. And that value proposition is now becoming even more important because U.S. properties in A-list destinations have begun to price themselves out of consideration for associations facing tight budgets — which includes most associations today.
“It only rains in Cabo for about seven days a year and those are all in summer. So the climate and the weather are great for most of the year, especially in February.” — Len Douglen
In addition to cost savings, Douglen also praised the quality of the Fiesta Americana. “It’s a very charming hotel,” he says. “Everyone has an ocean view room. They have a beautiful infinity pool. The rooms are nice and the food is excellent.” And the service was superb, he says. “The staff there is excellent,” he says.
Another bonus is the weather in February, which is when his group went to Cabo. “It only rains in Cabo for about seven days a year and those are all in summer,” Douglen says. “So the climate and the weather are great for most of the year, especially in February.”
In addition to value, Mexico also delivers a unique and fascinating experience. Its rich history, combined with its cuisine and music, are a strong draw for both American and international attendees.
Jewart’s attendees raved about Cancun and its famous “suburbs” in a post-meeting survey.
“They loved the culture, the food, the tours — everything,” she says. Of particular interest were tours to Mayan ruins and historic landmarks such as Tulum and Chichen Itza, south of Cancun on the Caribbean Sea. Chichen Itza was among the largest cities in the ancient Mayan empire, and its ruins draw tourists and historians from all over the world. Tulum is a pre-Columbian walled city that overlooks the breathtakingly beautiful waters of the Caribbean on the Yucatan Peninsula.
“The history and culture of Mexico were so interesting to attendees that we had people going to Chichen Itza and Tulum every single day in groups,” Jewart says. “They went snorkeling atplaces like Tulum and participated in ancient Mayan rituals with Mayan priests. It was just a spectacular experience.”
Because of the extent of her attendees’ interest in local cultures and eco-tourism, Jewart typically stages what she calls satellite meetings prior to the start of the main meeting. In Mexico, her satellite meetings in the small village of Valladolid, halfway between Cancun and Chichen Itza, and Merida, each drew more than 100 attendees for four days.
“Our scientists really love eco-tourism, and they also want to really immerse themselves in the local culture of the destination,” Jewart says. “So Mexico gave them a fantastic chance to do that.”
For Douglen’s group, the big appeal was whale-watching in Cabo San Lucas. Because it was the perfect time of year for an excursion, he booked a catamaran and hosted his group the day before the opening of the meeting. “It was great,” he says. “We saw a whale go straight up in the air. Everyone loved the experience.”
He also took advantage of the Fiesta Americana’s location by hosting an outdoor welcome reception on the beach after the first day of meeting sessions.
His personal review of Cabo: “If it were up to me, I’d go back every February,” he says, adding that his group will go back in 2015.
Not that long ago, Mexico was known — and often criticized — for its laidback “siesta time” work ethic, which often translated into mediocre service. But those days, too, have been eclipsed by an ongoing commitment to constantly improve the service hotels and other vendors offer meeting planners and their attendees.
“The hotels and the convention center were very well organized,” Jewart says. “The convention center and their ‘alliance,’ which is what they call their suppliers and vendors — are really strong. And they all work together very well. So it was very easy to do a meeting there.”
During her planning phase, she made several interim trips to organize details and vendors. “The hotels that are in the convention center district also work really well together, so that makes it easy to do a meeting there.”
The convention center’s alliance, she says, facilitates and coordinates everything required for the meeting as a way of making the exercise convenient and efficient for the planner.
Hope agrees, based on his own experience, that the general level of service in Mexico has increased dramatically in recent years. “They’ve always been welcoming and friendly,” he says.
“But over the last few years, with the experiences we’ve had there, they are now very much ‘Johnny on the spot’ when it comes to service.”
Another concern for some meeting planners not familiar with the “modern” Mexico is the quality of its convention center facilities — and especially their technology.
However, Jewart says, the $100 million Los Cabos Convention Center was excellent. “It was awesome,” she says. In fact, it was good enough to host the global G20 Summit for world economic leaders in June 2012.
“And they’re just getting ready now to do a big renovation, which will make it even better,” Jewart says. “I was there last week, to get an award they gave me for the meeting I did in April, and they showed me a video of the plans for the renovation of the convention center. It’s going to be even more spectacular.”
The facility is capable of hosting groups of up to 5,000 attendees for meetings and expositions.
Its technology also was excellent, Jewart says. “They’ve got it all, including excellent audio-visual services,” she says.
She also gives high marks to the F&B service at both the convention center and hotel. “Both were excellent,” she says.
Hope also notes the ever-increasing quality of F&B service in Mexico. “From an F&B standpoint, some Mexican properties are rivaling New York and Los Angeles, from the design of the menu to the presentation of the food,” he says. “And many of them have hired international chefs. They have really stepped up their game.”
Perhaps most important, Mexico’s long and diverse list of individual destinations continues to broaden its appeal.
Two years ago, Jewart independently planned a five-day meeting for the Association of Medical Schools of Microbiology and Immunology Chairs (AMSMIC) in Ixtapa, a less well known but exotic destination that shows off yet another aspect of Mexican history and culture — a historic beach resort in the state of Guerrero. “Ixtapa is just a wonderful place,” Jewart says. “It’s magical.”
Her hotel of choice was the intimate, sophisticated, upscale Las Brisas, which has a famous sister property in Acapulco once a top hideaway for Hollywood stars such as John Wayne.
“In Ixtapa, the Las Brisas property is away from the tourist district,” Jewart says. “It’s tucked into the mountains. It was also designed by a famous architect that designed the Westin hotels in Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta. It’s just a very special hotel and a fantastic experience.”
Her group of medical academics avoided the tourist district altogether, instead favoring trips to the nearby beachside town of Zihuatanejo.
“Ixtapa and that area is a very unique place,” Jewart says. “And attendees loved Ixtapa, too.”
If there is a single issue that continues to haunt Mexico and betray the interests of some meeting planners who would otherwise enthusiastically go there, it is the long barrage of media reports in recent years about the violence between drug cartels.
Because of the headlines and travel advisories issued for Mexico by the U.S. State Department and other diplomatic agencies, Jewart says she did get emails expressing concern about safety before her April meeting. But, she stresses, Mexico is safe. “Cancun is about as safe as you can be,” she says. “And it hurts me that Mexico gets the bad publicity. The violence is confined to drug gangs and has nothing to do with tourism or meetings.”
She adds that she has never heard of a single meeting-related incident in Mexico. Neither has Hope.
And now that Mexico is attracting so many association meetings and so much attention from planners, they hope that the last remaining negative perception about the country will fade into history. AC&F