After several years of hand-wringing and speculation about whether the meeting industry would ever fully recover from its unprecedented downturn, many companies are putting the fun back into their meetings and events. And there is no better way to do that than with meeting at a beach resort.
Sharon Brown, owner of Sharon Brown Events in Noblesville, IN, is a longtime proponent of beach meetings. She has done them in Hilton Head, SC, as well as Florida and California.
“One of the reasons we use beach properties is that in many cases we are looking for a destination where attendees can get away from the office, get to know folks, network and relax and think outside the box a little bit,” says Brown, who has hosted multiple meetings at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa.
— Barbara McNulty, CMP, president of International Seminars in Fort Lauderdale, FL
But another important factor in favor of beach-based events is that they typically increase attendance as well as attendee enthusiasm and engagement. “Every planner for every event now is looking to drive attendance,” Brown says. “And one factor for attendees, in considering which meetings they will go to, is the difference between a meeting at a fun, relaxing location, versus one that is not as attractive. And for a beach meeting, attendees often bring their families for an extended stay.”
Linda Raterman, chief operating officer at Cincinnati Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Ohio, is another longtime fan of beach meetings. She has hosted one of her company’s most important and successful meetings in Hilton Head every Memorial Day weekend for the last 23 years.
“We try to combine business and pleasure, because for many doctors it is becoming increasingly difficult or challenging not only to manage your time off, but also the money you’re spending,” Raterman says. “So if you can combine a meeting with a vacation, that is appealing to many of them.”
The ability to come to Hilton Head over a major annual holiday and earn continuing medical education (CME) credits, while also enjoying a round of golf or tennis or the pampering of spa treatments, is a big lure for many doctors and others who attend Raterman’s annual event.
“They are choosing to spend their time and their dollars at our meeting,” she says. “So they are really looking for the biggest bang for the buck. And doing a well-established, popular meeting in Hilton Head every year helps us deliver that.”
Barbara McNulty, CMP, president of International Seminars in Fort Lauderdale, FL, also specializes in CME and other medical meetings — and sometimes uses Caribbean beach resorts to increase the wow factor. She agrees with Raterman that doctors and other medical practitioners today want to combine education with some rest and relaxation.
“The reason my clients do beach meetings in the Caribbean,” McNulty says with a laugh, “is that’s where people want to go.”
Although its beaches and pristine waters rival any in the world for natural beauty, Puerto Rico offers a unique advantage it shares with the U.S. Virgin Islands: it is American soil. The U.S. dollar is its currency, and no passport is required to get there.
With new luxury properties and landmark hotels, one-of-a-kind group activities, distinctive event sites and world-class cuisine and entertainment, Puerto Rico continues to gain popularity with planners who want a memorable, sophisticated destination at an affordable cost.
Kim Lyons, director of global accounts at ConferenceDirect in Morristown, NJ, has used Puerto Rico for several meetings in recent years.
The key factors in its favor, Lyons says, are its easy access, use of the U.S. dollar, lack of requirement for a passport and the fact that English is widely spoken.
“It’s just an easy destination,” Lyons says. “And everybody is looking for easy these days.”
Her clients — and especially pharmaceutical companies — like Puerto Rico because it represents something different from and more exotic than a typical beach destination. “And that’s especially true for clients that have exhausted the possibilities in Florida and are looking for some variety,” she says. “Everybody has been to Florida. But not everyone has been to Puerto Rico. So that just makes it a more special experience for a lot of people. And companies realize that means they will already have something of a wow factor, because it gives people an experience they’re not used to. And in turn, I find that builds a ripple of extra excitement.”
And, Lyons says, Puerto Rico delivers one essential benefit in spades: “It also has beautiful beaches.”
She also has high praise for Puerto Rico’s hotel product, which ranges from mega-resorts to intimate boutique-style properties. She particularly favors El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort; San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino and Gran Melia Golf Resort.
Another important benefit of Puerto Rico, Lyons says, is its value proposition. “I find that there is a lot of flexibility in Puerto Rico in terms of being willing to work within your budget,” she says. “Of course, that is true in many other destinations since the recession. But it is particularly true in Puerto Rico.”
And because the U.S. dollar is its currency, Puerto Rico also represents an opportunity to lock in pricing, even years in advance, which removes the potentially negative budget impact of any future currency exchange fluctuations. “That is a major bonus,” Lyons says.
Another distinctive attribute of Puerto Rico is its local food scene, which features fresh seafood.
“And that lends itself to beachside barbecues and parties,” Lyons says. “And you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a backdrop. The beauty of the beach is all you need.”
For her medical meetings and seminars, McNulty has had consistent success in Aruba and The Islands of the Bahamas. But, she cautions, when it comes to Caribbean events, a site visit is critical.
“It’s important to go check out the resort you’re planning to use, because there are some that are not that great,” McNulty says. “You also have to make sure they have beautiful beaches. And if they have a casino, that is an added plus for many attendees. A lot of people also want a golf course, so it’s important to see that, too. You just have to make sure the property really does have everything you and your attendees are looking for.”
In January, McNulty hosted a six-night seminar for 150 anesthesiologists and nurse-anesthetists at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino.
Why Aruba? “We actually asked attendees where they wanted to go, and they said Aruba,” McNulty says. “Our audience loves Aruba.” And that’s why her client has been back multiple times in recent years.
For the January meeting, the most memorable highlight for McNulty was the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino located on Palm Beach. “There are just all kinds of things going on,” she says. “There’s a lot to do. And for most of my attendees, just going to the beach is the best form of recreation there is.”
McNulty opened the event with a welcome reception on the beach. And once the meeting was underway, some attendees used their free time to play golf at a nearby course, while others simply lounged on the pristine white sand beach.
McNulty is also partial to mega-resort Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas. This December, she will host her 11th consecutive annual meeting there for 100–150 nurse anesthetists.
Atlantis is a unique ocean-themed destination on Paradise Island. It features a variety of accommodations, all built around a 141-acre waterscape comprised of more than 20 million gallons of fresh and saltwater lagoons, pools and habitats. The sprawling resort complex also includes Dolphin Cay, an interactive and education center created to enlighten visitors about dolphins.
The complex also includes Cove Atlantis, a 600-room resort, and restaurants from chefs including Nobu Matsuhisa, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Bobby Flay.
“Atlantis has a number of great restaurants,” McNulty says. “I also like the casino and the spa. The casino is fun, and the spa is spectacular.”
Another aspect that McNulty likes is its meeting and convention facilities, located under one roof. “The meeting space is great,” she says. “And it is a very clean facility.”
Why has Atlantis remained her venue for the meeting for a decade? “We do an annual post-meeting survey of attendees, and every year, they say they want to go back to Atlantis,” she says.
Beach meetings and incentive programs conducted in the lap of luxury also are a specialty at Sandals Emerald Bay in Great Exuma, Bahamas. This 245-unit oceanfront resort, lined by a mile-long stretch of white-sand beach and only 10 minutes from the airport, features nearly 20,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meetings facilities including the 5,500-sf Nautilus Ballroom. Other services and amenities include Wi-Fi Internet access, a Red Lane Spa and Greg Norman-designed golf course, seven restaurants and six bars, three pools including a half-acre infinity pool and three whirlpools.
In addition, water sports such as scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, sea kayaking, windsurfing and stand-up paddle boarding abound.
Another fine option for a memorable incentive program is Sandals Royal Bahamian resort in Nassau.
In April, a professional meeting planner for a global meetings and events company, hosted an incentive program of 124 attendees at Sandals Royal Bahamian. The planner says, “While I consider the group to be particular about their accommodations, event space, décor, food and activities, Sandals’ staff did not. They handled all of the details in stride and to the utmost satisfaction of the client. From a smooth arrival that was attended by heads of most departments and the hotel manager himself, to the onsite events, offsite challenges and a glamorous awards dinner, Sandals handled the details as if the group consisted of royalty.”
The veteran planner offers a few more examples of Sandals’ “royal” treatment. She says the extra efforts included “acquiring a sand wheelchair, inviting the clients’ VIPs to lead the Junkanoo parade, providing extra photographers at events, cooking the clients’ freshly caught fish and assisting with a passport lost offsite.”
Another important key to a seamless event, according to this travel planner, is to relax and leave the worry to the resort. She adds, “you never have to worry about finding help at Sandals. The department managers and hotel executives treat all tasks as their own — not just those within their department. They made my travel staff relax while making all of us look like heroes for such smooth operations. The clients were treated to beautiful surroundings and amazing service. For the first time in their incentive program history, they will repeat a destination and resort by returning to the Sandals Royal Bahamian.”
Grenada is another island retreat that is ideal for incentive programs and small corporate meetings. Located northwest of Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada is also known as the “Island of Spice” because it is one of the largest exporters of nutmeg and mace crops.
Sandals LaSource, Sandals’ newest resort, is located along the pristine Pink Gin Beach in Grenada. Scheduled to open in December 2013, LaSource features 225 elegant rooms and suites and meeting facilities. Lavish amenities include custom-built, contemporary furniture and marble floors. Top-tier accommodations include private infinity-edge plunge pools on the balcony.
Sandals’ first world-class steak house, and eight more restaurants will serve delectable specialties from around the world. Additionally, the new resort will offer unlimited land and water sports including scuba diving, snorkeling and stand-up paddle-boarding as well as optional pampering treatments at the Red Lane Spa.
Throughout the Caribbean, Sandals has played host to many of the biggest, brightest and fastest growing organizations in the world. Companies can inspire, entertain or educate their attendees at any one or more of the nine properties in the Sandals Luxury Meetings and Incentives Collection, which includes Sandals Grande Antigua, St. Johns, Antigua; Sandals Grande St. Lucian, Castries, St. Lucia; Sandals La Source, St. George’s, Grenada; Sandals Grande Riviera, Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Sandals Whitehouse, Whitehouse, Jamaica; Sandals Royal Plantation, Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Sandals Royal Bahamian, Nassau, Bahamas; Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, Bahamas; Beaches Turks & Caicos; Providenciales, Turks & Caicos.
While McNulty has a long history of loyalty to Caribbean resorts, Raterman has enjoyed successful meetings every year for almost a quarter century at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa.
“It has a resort feel, but it also feels like an intimate property,” Raterman says. “It feels like a boutique hotel and is quite charming. It’s also upscale, but without being overwhelming. It’s just a very nice, comfortable property that is family- and couple-friendly.”
That’s important to Raterman, because more than 60 percent of her attendees bring their family along for a vacation. “This year, at least 70 percent brought either their spouse or their entire family,” she says. “And Hilton Head has something to offer every age and demographic group, including children. You can play golf and tennis. You can hike and bike. And The Westin has a lovely onsite children’s program.”
Another nice amenity at The Westin is its fairly new poolside cabanas. “For a well-traveled audience, that is a nice amenity,” Raterman says. “You have comfortable chairs and a refrigerator and a large-screen TV. And that’s very nice for people who want more than a beach umbrella.”
Such a mix of amenities is key to the success of Raterman’s annual event. “Physicians have a lot of options in terms of how they meet their CME obligations,” she says. “So what we try to do is first of all realize that the destination is key. Secondly, the time of year is important, depending on a doctor’s specialty or sub-specialty. You don’t want to be competing with other meetings in the field at the same time of year.”
Raterman and her attendees also like Hilton Head Island because it is upscale and laidback, but not too secluded. “For us, Hilton Head has withstood the test of time,” Raterman says, “because it’s beautiful, but it’s also affordable.”
As a result, she says, the meeting draws a lot of repeat attendees, as well as international attendees from 14 countries.
And one of the big draws is the beach. That’s why every year, Raterman arranges a beach party buffet on Memorial Day on the spectacular outdoor deck at The Westin.
Many meeting destinations that have “beach” in their name such as Newport Beach and Long Beach, CA, Daytona Beach, FL, Myrtle Beach, SC, and Virginia Beach, VA, are a beacon for meetings that include a pre- or post-event family vacation.
Virginia Beach is famous for its boardwalk, which stretches three miles along the Atlantic Ocean and links live music venues, amusement rides and bicycle rental shops as well as a number of nautical sculptures, the most famous of which is the 34-foot bronze King Neptune — perfect for a family portrait at the beach.
Biking is only one of the myriad fitness opportunities available in Virginia Beach, which was recently named the No. 1 Fittest City in the U.S. Ranking of the fittest cities was based on fitness-related mentions, check-ins and use of fitness apps in U.S. cities with at least 200,000 Facebook users.
Boasting a LEED Gold Certified Convention Center, Virginia Beach offers a wide variety of meeting locations and accommodations for every need under the sun.
Beach meetings not only deliver unique benefits, but they also require some unique considerations.
One, notes Raterman, is the importance of genuine oceanfront rooms with a view.
“The Westin Hilton Head has one of the highest percentages of oceanfront and oceanview rooms on Hilton Head,” she says. “And when people choose to go to a beach destination, it’s important to offer that oceanfront, beach-view experience. And The Westin Hilton Head is uniquely situated to afford the majority of attendees that kind of experience — meaning good rooms. There are other hotels that have some, but some are on the ground floor and things like that. In terms of the physical layout and orientation of the property, The Westin Hilton Head really is somewhat unique.”
On a broader scale, Brown stresses that when planning a beach meeting, it’s important to do everything you can to take advantage of the beach location. “For example, you usually want to stage lunches outside or do receptions outside,” she says. “And when you do that, there’s a big difference between outdoor events and indoor events. When you do a reception on the beach, attendees tend to stay longer than they do at a reception in a ballroom. And that also means that as a planner, it’s easier for you to provide the wow factor without a lot of extra cost or extra effort. In that sense, beach meetings are easy to do, because attendees just walk out the door, and they’re on the beach.”
Beach meetings also offer an opportunity to adapt food and beverage to their location and serve lobster or other fresh seafood along with beach-themed specialty cocktails. “You really want to do whatever you can to highlight the area and the local cuisine,” Brown says. “And it’s nice whenever you can to get your food from local farmers or other local suppliers.”
Brown’s other tip is to do as many things as possible outdoors. “Plan at least one or two events outside,” she says. “You should also try to take advantage of the things that are unique to the destination. And make sure you promote those things so people can really enjoy their attendance at the meeting.”
But perhaps most important of all, Brown says, always bear in mind the singular advantage of a beach meeting from an attendee’s perspective.
“A lot of the meetings we do start early in the morning and go all day,” she says. “It’s nice, especially at properties I really like, such as the Hyatt Regency Mission Bay in San Diego or The Westin in Hilton Head, that people can take a break and go outside and get a breath of fresh air. During their 20-minute breaks during the day, they can take a few minutes to get a little sunshine and get their energy going. And that’s a real big advantage of beach meetings.” C&IT