Irma and Maria tore across the Caribbean in September and October of 2017. The damage to some islands was catastrophic, with full recovery still many months away. Other islands were completely untouched by the hurricanes. For them, bright sun and tranquil blue seas bring business as usual. And for a few islands, it’s a mix.
What stands out most in the aftermath of Irma and Maria is the resilience and heart of the people of the Caribbean. The stories told over and over about the hurricanes are of hotel workers staying in the hotels without water, power and little food to help the guests stranded there — even while their own homes were destroyed. The stories emerging now about the rebuilding of resorts, hotels, airports, cruise ports and other venues are how the people of these islands manage to see this as a gift, a chance to upgrade and improve, in order to better serve the visitors to come.
Tourism, including groups and conferences, is the lifeblood of this region and the truth is there is no reason to cancel many of the 2018 programs already booked. Much of the region is up and running. Even Puerto Rico, which suffered unimaginable devastation from Maria, has already welcomed its first conference of 2018.
True, not every hotel has reopened. But they will. The Caribbean is ready to welcome planners, to show them how things have already improved and how things will be even better in the months to come. Here are a few islands to consider.
Well below the region’s traditional hurricane belt, Aruba had no physical impact from Maria or Irma. Planners can expect their 2018 experience to be very much what it has always been.
Kimberly Findlay, senior account manager with SDI Meetings & Incentives, brought a group of 110 from the Northeast United States to Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in April 2017 for a premium incentive program. She mentions the quality airlift, nightlife, beaches and food as top reasons for choosing Aruba.
“The island is friendly, Dutch, and has great food and drinking water,” she says. “There are big, beautiful beaches and the palapas (thatched-roof tiki huts) are a big hit.”
In addition to functions at the hotel, the group also experienced dine-arounds and traveled on the island’s amusingly distinctive Kukoo Kunuku buses. She calls it all “exceptional.”
The resort gets excellent marks from Findlay for both price and location, but she also notes that it offers an abundance of ocean-view rooms, ideal for incentive participants. She really liked the “complimentary white-washed, family-style tables” they used and adds that, “The sushi bar and Starbucks were both big hits.”
Findlay says there were no real challenges in planning and executing a meeting on Aruba or at the Marriott. In terms of personnel, she says Jessika Panneflek, event manager on property, stands out. To other planners considering the Marriott she suggests, “Get some reserved palapas in your contract. Get as many oceanview rooms as possible in your contract. Don’t do all-inclusive as there are so many great restaurants on the beach and surrounding area that you should try while you’re there. Definitely,” she adds, “do the Kukoo Kunuku busses — they’re so fun for people. Also, do the tattoos and party hats, and try kite surfing.”
Sandy Lane in Barbados falls into the legendary category and has long upheld its reputation for quality, exclusivity and service, making it an ideal destination for incentives. Gai A. Spann, founder and “travel artist” at SPANNing the Globe Tours and a consultant for a meetings and incentive company, has high praise for the property and the island.
“For incentive groups, a unique, luxury destination is desirable. Barbados provides an upscale Caribbean experience and boutique luxury accommodations. The island has an excellent culinary reputation, amazing natural beauty and options for activities.”
She notes that the island and hotel lend themselves well to smaller groups. Recently she brought 30 incentive qualifiers from a U.S.-based pharmaceutical company to Sandy Lane. “You’re able to privatize experiences, meaning entire hotel buyouts, private restaurant dining and setting up beautiful tented events. All work well with a group not too large,” she says.
One off-property highlight is a function at a rum distillery on this island that claims itself as the birthplace of rum. “The facilities were gorgeous and unique as it’s set in what feels like a forest,” Spann says. “The staff, food and service were personalized and extraordinary.”
Sandy Lane’s attributes include, “the level of service, quality and location,” though Spann notes that planners should not be surprised that “everything is a la carte.”
She points out that most of the hotels on Barbados are small to medium size, so there’s rarely an issue with distance from guest rooms to meeting space. Shipping, however, can be an issue and Spann encourages planners to “make sure you send items ahead of time with enough time to clear customs.”
She has two other recommendations. “For catering, it’s good to include local cuisine in the offerings,” she says. “And definitely use a local DMC and start early in your planning cycle. Our DMC, Nicholas Alleyne from Blu Isles, made planning much easier. As a local business, I was able to have him on island to confirm certain requests. His knowledge of the island and relationships with key players made our experience VIP.”
Beyond that, Spann adds, it’s a good idea to visit Barbados early on to find out if offsite locations will work for your group or not.
Alleyne wants meeting planners and their groups to know that Barbados has even more to offer. “Barbados represents the best in authentic Caribbean charm, expertly blended with state-of-the-art conference facilities and an ever intriguing repertoire of attractions and events. This unique combination of a timeless je ne sais quoi, the warmth of its people, advanced development, high amenity value and the island’s security make Barbados a leading choice for the North American market,” he says.
He points out that Barbados is well connected in terms of airlift with direct flights from across the United States and Canada. “Once you get here, the quality mix of leading global brands and local hoteliers provide a range of options from the luxurious to the more traditional. The island,” he adds, “expertly blends modern amenities with an authentic Bajan experience.”
Just as important, Alleyne says the government is very supportive to the meetings industry. “There are duty waiver programs for incentives as well as other concessions.”
Blu Isles curates a range of diverse, culturally rich and fun experiences for groups, from culinary excursions to breakfasts with George Washington (sort of) who once visited Barbados to extravaganzas in the island’s evocative caves and more.
“We know the state-of-the-art facilities, the legal and economic concessionary infrastructure, financial planning, and the range of support services needed to flawlessly execute your conference. Details matter,” Alleyne says. “Leave them to us.”
Images of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria were heartbreaking, and the road back has been challenging. But it has not broken the spirit of the island, and it’s important to note that parts of Puerto Rico are already welcoming visitors.
“Puerto Rico is open for business and ready to receive groups and conventions,” says Alma Pedrosa, CDME, acting president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico. “Most of our hotels and tourist attractions are available to welcome group delegates, as our international airport and port, as well as other attractions, have been operating normally for a few months.”
Pedrosa notes that some hotels are still undergoing renovation, and will eventually open with something new to offer visitors, but emphasizes that major conventions are already returning. The first of 2018 was the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association Marketplace at the end of January. “In March, we will welcome the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN); and, we are proud to report that many of our clients have rebooked their business for 2018 and beyond,” she says.
“We feel proud of our people, our offerings and our determination. Puerto Rico continues to position itself as an ideal destination for meetings and conventions, offering the Caribbean’s largest and most technologically advanced convention center, a wide variety of hotels for all types of budgets and groups, together with a sophisticated business meeting destination.
“Puerto Rico has always been one of the most desirable meetings and conventions destinations,” she says, “and we look forward to the future with enthusiasm. We are moving into a new phase with astounding opportunities for our clients and we are thrilled to have them come and rediscover Puerto Rico!”
Christopher de Medeiros, account manager with San Juan-based Destination Puerto Rico, a DMC Network Company, points out that easy airlift is one of the island’s assets for North American groups. He worked with a group of 50 last March, based at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino.
“San Juan PR was the perfect destination for this group. It offered easy airlift for the participants that flew in mostly from the Northeast. It was a warm break in their winter to enjoy culture, adventure, history and great gastronomical experiences. The San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino was the perfect property for this young group with plenty of restaurants, shopping and nightlife right outside their front door, and an amazing beach behind the property. The resort also has great meeting and function space with an amazing F&B department.”
One off-property function was a dine-around in Old San Juan, where participants branched off to the restaurant of their choice in small groups. “We tied the evening together ending with a party in one of the plazas in Old San Juan where they met for their return transfer to the Marriott,” de Medeiros says.
“Puerto Rico literally has something for everyone — sun, fun, adventure, culture, history, amazing gastronomical experiences — all amid the true gem of the island, its happy and hospitable people. We are a territory of the U.S., use U.S. currency and no passport is required.”
Among the properties to announce opening dates is the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort. In January, the hotel announced that it would reopen on March 1, 2018 following a multimillion-dollar renovation and refresh. Best of all, one dollar of every room night booked by all guests in March and April will be donated to the El Yunque Rainforest Restoration Fund.
The El San Juan Hotel is now scheduled to reopen on October 1, after a renovation of guest rooms, villas, pools, public spaces and landscaping. Since the hurricanes, the property has been hosting first responders and aid workers.
The USVI were among the hardest hit, and many of the larger group-friendly hotels will not open until late this year or even next year.
In September, Marriott International established a resource line for those looking for information about impacted hotels. Among the USVI properties closed are The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, with an expected reopen date of January 2019; Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort, which hopes to reopen December 2018; and The Westin St. John Resort Villas, closed at least through January 2019. Call 866-211-4610 for more information.
The Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa on St. Croix is still closed, but as of October, reservations were cancelled only through May 2018. That could be revised as work continues.
Caneel Bay on St. John will be closed for the entire 2017/2018 season and there’s no current reopen date.
On the good news front, The Buccaneer on St. Croix welcomed guests back November 1, and Emerald Beach Resort on St. Thomas reopened in November as well.
The three islands in this group were among those that saw no impact from the 2017 hurricanes. Conferences and incentive programs booked here will have no issues.
Looking forward, Hyatt announced in February that it will soon be returning to Grand Cayman. The 352-room Grand Hyatt Cayman Hotel & Residences, set on the island’s famous Seven Mile Beach, is slated to open in 2020.
Like many islands in the Southern Caribbean, St. Lucia was not at all impacted by the two hurricanes. “Our hotels and businesses are all open and ready to welcome visitors,” says Prime Minister Allen Chastanet.
JetBlue currently has nonstop flights to the island from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, and a handful of other carriers offer connections through Miami.
In November, Hyatt announced the opening of the first Park Hyatt hotel in the Caribbean. Park Hyatt St. Kitts Christophe Harbour debuts with 78 rooms, 48 suites, three restaurants, a Miraval Life in Balance Spa and indoor and outdoor private event spaces ideal for incentive groups. The resort has a deep focus on wellness and a commitment to local experiences.
The dual Dutch/French island suffered significant damage but recovery is well underway. As of October 10, 2017, the Princess Juliana International Airport has reopened. Although the main terminal is not scheduled to open until some time in 2018, American Airlines and other carriers have already resumed flights to the island. The Dr. A.C. Wathey cruise terminal is also now reopened and the first cruise ships began to arrive in December.
Unfortunately, The Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa, St. Maarten, is still closed and has no current opening date. Riu Palace St. Martin, formerly the Radisson Blu, may reopen as early as April 2018.
The tourism authorities for Trinidad and Tobago want meeting planners and others to know that these two islands sit below the hurricane belt and are fully able to welcome groups.
But there has been a change in how the islands will be marketed in the future. In January, the islands’ minister of tourism, Shamfa Cudjoe, announced the launch of a new newsletter, Things Tourism, to serve as the new source of news related to tourism and development on Trinidad and Tobago. The former Tourism Development Company Limited has also been split into two new entities to market and promote the islands: Tobago Tourism Agency and Tourism Trinidad Limited, both new resources for planners and their groups.
Among the properties to consider: The 423-room Hyatt Regency Trinidad. In November, the property completed an extensive upgrade that included guest rooms, lobby, the spa, dining venues and its 43,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space. Guest rooms feature useful workspace and multifunction areas. The overall design enhances the hotel’s connection to Trinidad and the local community of artists.
Paradise Island and New Providence Island escaped damage from 2017’s hurricanes. The good news is that there are still deals to be had in part because of the perception that the entire region was affected, and in part because Baha Mar resort is new, having finally opened with two of its three hotels after long construction and legal delays.
The expansive Baha Mar resort’s first phase debuted last spring with the opening of the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, The Baha Mar Convention, Art and Entertainment Center and The Royal Blue Golf Club, featuring the only Jack Nicklaus-designed course in The Bahamas. The SLS Baha Mar opened last November and Rosewood Baha Mar is slated to open this summer.
Grand Hyatt Baha Mar’s two towers house 1,800 guest rooms and 230 suites featuring views of the beach, golf course, resort pools and fountain shows. Grand Hyatt Baha Mar manages The Baha Mar Convention, Art and Entertainment Center, the destination’s 200,000-sf indoor and outdoor convention facility, and connects directly to Baha Mar Casino, the largest casino in the Caribbean. Twenty various bars and restaurants will open in the Grand Hyatt under the leadership of executive chef Brent Martin.
On Paradise Island, Atlantis, continues to evolve, refresh and reinvent itself. The resort suffered no significant damage during the 2017 hurricane season. The Coral, one of the resort’s five distinct properties, was reopened in 2017 after a $20 million transformation. Resort-wide, Atlantis has put a renewed focus on programs that connect guests to Bahamian culture — such as the weekly Junkanoo Bahamian Fest & Feast and Art Walk in the new Marina Village that showcases the work of local artists and designers. Atlantis also announced the opening of five new outposts of popular Bahamian restaurants featuring fresh ingredients from local farmers and fishermen. The resort offers more than 500,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting and event space including the Atlantis Conference Center, with two ballrooms at 50,000 sf and 25,000 sf.
In December, Atlantis announced a new program that elevates the already ultra-luxury offered at The Cove, another of the Atlantis properties. It includes guests’ arrival via luxury, private wheeled or seaplane flights from Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and the Miami Seaplane Base. No traipsing through crowded airports. This service includes private departure lounges and private SUV pickup in the Bahamas, followed by VIP check-in service at The Cove, all perfect for incentive programs.
Finally, the resort has a menu of new experiences at Dolphin Cay, including paddleboarding, kayaking, and snorkeling — often in the company of the resort’s resident bottlenose dolphins. More programs are in the works, some appropriate for small groups.
The Caribbean and Bahamas remain a viable and important destination for North American groups, even as recovery moves forward. Planners have every reason to look toward these hospitable islands for 2018 bookings and beyond. C&IT