The islands of the Caribbean and the Bahamas offer planners destinations that provide everything needed for a successful conference — and a great deal more! Each Caribbean and Bahamas island has its own distinct personality and traits. Geographically, some are mountainous with dense forests spilling down to the sea while others are as flat as floating pancakes. They might be lush and tropical or desert dotted with wind-sculpted cacti and boulders.
Their cultures and histories began with indigenous tribes, but over centuries, varying degrees of French, English, Dutch, Spanish and African influences have created a rich and vibrant mélange, with each island offering its own take on food, language, music, architecture and traditions.
Most islands face the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Atlantic on the other, though a few are surrounded entirely by the turquoise Caribbean Sea. The 700 or so islands of the Bahamas are not in the Caribbean at all. Rather, they spread across warm Atlantic waters that happily provide the same tropical vibe.
What they all share in common are balmy waters with brilliant clarity, sweeps of inviting beaches and reefs, and wrecks offshore that attract schools of tropical fish, divers, snorkelers, sailors and anyone who simply wants to dip their toes in the sand and sea.
Best of all, for folks in the eastern half of the United States, doing so involves only a short flight to reach many of the islands, including the Bahamas, which start just 50 miles from Florida. For others, it’s a longer, but well worthwhile, journey ending in an alluring version of a tropical paradise that also delivers meeting satisfaction and ROI.
Here are three options for meeting planners to choose from. There are hundreds of others, making the Caribbean and Bahamas destinations that planners and groups can return to again and again, with each visit different from the last.
Perhaps its biggest draw is the fact that no passports are required for U.S. citizens, there are no currency issues to deal with in contracts, and though Spanish is spoken by most residents, so is English.
Puerto Rico was hit hard by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, which affected power on much of the island. There’s still restoration work to be done, but planners should know that almost all of the infrastructure critical to tourism and meetings has been up and running for months. Most hotels and resorts are back in business, and groups can enjoy Puerto Rico just as they always have.
Perhaps most important, it’s not just about recovery. New meeting destinations on the island are also being built. Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, provides a peek at what’s coming in the not-too-distant future.
“Puerto Rico has over 130 hotels, more than 4,000 restaurants and 189 sights and attractions open right now. The island offers state-of-the-art meetings and convention facilities — including the largest and most technologically advanced convention center in the Caribbean — and growing this business is one of our biggest priorities as major investments continue to be made in this sector. Coming Q4 next year, for example, is a five-acre hospitality and entertainment district built in partnership between Island Hospitality Partners (led by PRISA Group) and the Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority. The district is destined to be the Caribbean’s most vibrant and popular setting for events, conventions and performances of all types.”
American Airlines is one of the biggest players in the Caribbean in terms of airlift from the United States, and San Juan is one of its critical hubs. Not surprisingly, many of the airline’s employees live on Puerto Rico, and the company wants to show its support for the island. One effort: holding its global sales conference there in May, an event that drew 1,000 attendees.
“The island offers state-of-the-art meetings and convention facilities and growing this business is one of our biggest priorities.”
— Brad Dean
The conference was based primarily at the Sheraton Convention Center, but also used Hyatt Place, Hyatt House, La Concha Renaissance and the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. All of the hotels were chosen based on their proximity to the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan.
Lindsi Wyner, CMP, senior specialist, meetings and events with American Airlines, says giving back to the local community was part of the goal of the meeting. “With the number of American Airlines team members in Puerto Rico, it was important for us to take a meeting of this size there and give back to the community to help them rebuild.”
Wyner says the group didn’t have any problems with facilities being closed or inaccessible. “Nothing that we wanted to access or use was closed down. We stayed in the San Juan area, and everything was functional and open for business. We did not experience any power issues. All services that we required were available with no issues.”
The group used a variety of venues for meetings and functions. “Our meeting was held at the Puerto Rico Convention Center,” Wyner notes, “but we had our opening reception on the beach at La Concha resort. It was wonderful, and the hotel was accommodating, amazing to work with and completely on top of all of our needs.”
“The most important thing for planners to know,” Wyner says, “is how kind and wonderful the people of Puerto Rico are. They want the business, and they want to rebuild. It’s a fantastic island with many options and opportunities to pull off a successful meeting.”
The other advice she offers to those planning a meeting on the island is use Meet Puerto Rico. “They were so helpful in getting the logistics together for a meeting with so many moving parts. We also used a DMC, Destination Puerto Rico. They made everything so easy and assisted us with transportation, décor and entertainment, and it was all a huge success!”
Among the resorts reopened after the hurricanes is Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort, about 30 miles east of Old San Juan and less than 20 miles from the international airport. The resort’s multimillion-dollar upgrades include new dining outlets, such as Comfort Kitchen Restaurant and Iguana’s Pub, set to open by Thanksgiving. The resort also contributed significantly to restoration of the island’s premier tourist and local attraction, El Yunque National Rainforest, collecting $1 for every room night in March and April to fund restoration. The goal was $10,000. The actual result was a check for $16,000 to the National Forest Foundation.
In that spirit, the resort is offering volunteer opportunities for guests and attendees who add purpose to their visit by helping with aspects of the island’s recovery — lunch and transportation provided by the resort.
Set in the Southern Caribbean, the 19-mile-long island of Aruba is an autonomous country within the Netherlands. It sits about 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, which puts it far below the hurricane belt that impacts other Caribbean islands summer through fall. Its Dutch influence is clearly evident in the local food and architecture, and though residents do speak Dutch and Papiamento, a Creole language comprised of Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese elements, the fact is that most residents are multilingual and speak English and Spanish very well.
That’s just one of the reasons the Aruba Convention Bureau says the island is an excellent meeting destination. Others include ease of airlift, and the fact that U.S. attendees can pre-clear U.S. Customs and Immigration at Aruba’s airport, a broad choice of hotels flagged by the world’s leading lodging companies, stellar connectivity with technology options comparable to those in the United States, a mere 20 inches of rain each year so planners can depend on setting functions in gorgeous outdoor venues, spectacular beaches and, of course, a dedicated convention bureau that can assist with every aspect of conference and event planning.
Sergino Croes, CIS, business development manager with Eco Destination Management Services of Aruba and Curacao, a DMC, says Aruba has other assets as well. “Being an island where the tourism industry generates over 80 percent of the GDP, we care for this industry, and it is part of our culture and development. The great weather, the short distances and safety are key components to providing great experiences.”
Those experiences cover a broad range of options. Croes breaks it down into “Explore Our Waters,” “Explore Our Land” and “Explore Like a Local.”
On water, he says, there’s sailing, snorkeling, shipwrecks, windsurfing, kayaking and deep-sea fishing. Intriguing land experiences can be found on different sides of the island, where terrain varies. In addition to off-roading in quad racers, dune buggies and Jeeps, there’s horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking. Arikok National Park is an intriguing destination, as well. On the cultural side, groups can learn firsthand about the island’s aloe and make their own products, or they can make the island’s rich Carnival tradition part of a program. Groups can also arrange to have a local spice and herb expert provide a hands-on experience in which attendees make their own sauce.
One of the most fabulous events his group worked on, Croes says, was creating, planning and executing a VIP dinner in the caves at the south side of the island.
“The setting was just amazing, with a nice, four-course dinner, a saxophone player and a local artist who captured the setting and created an art piece on canvas for each top performer. This was the perfect way to push the eight top performers to maintain or improve their performance while also sharing the unique experience with other participants in order to motivate them to achieve this selected group. This has been, both in experience and in return on investment, a great event for the client and the participants.”
Although Aruba is an ideal destination any time of year in terms of weather, Croes notes that demand drives seasonal differences, meaning planners have the option of choosing value dates — June, August and September — if budget requires that, with no worries about hurricanes.
Although the Bahamas is comprised of some 700 islands and cays, only a few islands are really able to accommodate larger meetings. One of those islands — arguably the most well known and most developed — is New Providence, often referred to as Nassau, which is actually the name of the city on that island which also serves as capital of the Bahamas.
Just offshore from New Providence and connected by bridge is Paradise Island, home of the Atlantis Resort, staggering in its scale, design and acres devoted to an open-air marine life habitat. With more than 3,000 guest rooms and 500,000 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting and function space, Atlantis can accommodate groups of 15 to 4,000. Within its massive conference center, it offers a 50,000-square-foot ballroom — the largest in the Caribbean region, 34 meeting rooms, 15 boardrooms, thousands of feet of pre-function space and a great deal more.
The resort has multiple towers and lodging options within it. The Royal Towers is where Nailor Industries of Houston, Texas, has held its VIP meeting each March for the past four years. The event draws 225 attendees.
Charles Piserelle, director of sales for Nailor Industries, says Paradise Island and Atlantis offer “ease of access and what our group likes to do.” In fact, he adds, “It has just about everything a person could want in an island getaway.”
Although he says the destination presents no real challenges and points to ease of access as an attribute, Piserelle notes that “direct flights would make getting there just a little bit easier.”
Music to planners’ ears is Piserelle’s assessment of the staff at the resort. “The people I have worked with have always found a way to get me what I am wanting,” he says.
The group has used a variety of function venues, and Piserelle gives especially high praise to the F&B team at Atlantis. “All the places we have had our functions have been great,” he says, “and the food at these functions is by far the best at the hotel.”
Atlantis easily lends itself as a destination for family-friendly meetings, but not just because it offers a multitude of activities and programs for children of all ages. “The hotel is totally safe,” Piserelle notes. “If you are bringing your kids, you can just turn them loose, and they will be safe.”
Given the size of Atlantis, it’s easy for attendees to spread out and go in many different directions. For that reason, Piserelle offers this suggestion for planners who are considering bringing a group to the resort: “If you are trying to keep the group together, consider setting up a specific place to have drinks and food during the day.”
The Nailor group rents a cabana complete with a bartender and available food so that Nailor staff and customers can have ongoing quality time networking even while enjoying all that paradise offers.
Across the bridge in Nassau, along Cable Beach, sits the island’s newest resort complex, Baha Mar. Three hotels provide three distinct lodging options within the complex. Grand Hyatt Baha Mar was the first to open and is the largest with 1,800 guest rooms. SLS Baha Mar combines style and luxury with an upbeat, energetic vibe. Among its 299 guest rooms are 107 suites. Rosewood Baha Mar was the final hotel to open. In addition to 233 guest rooms, the Rosewood has four luxury beachfront villas, ideal for executives and VIPs on high-end incentive trips.
Baha Mar’s Convention, Arts & Entertainment Center features 200,000 square feet of art-filled indoor space and exquisite outdoor venues that can accommodate groups of all sizes. The convention center is easily accessible from all three hotels, meaning planners can offer attendees a variety of lodging price points and amenities all within the same complex. In total, there are dozens of restaurants, beachside food trucks and bars and lounges, as well as poolside and cabana service, plus a nightclub to entice attendees with chef-driven food and creative, contemporary beverages in eclectic daytime and nighttime settings.
Wherever in the Caribbean or Bahamas you desire to meet, there is an island that will meet your group’s needs. Chances are, it will increase meeting attendance and provide the perfect backdrop, whether your goal is networking, incentive rewards, increased sales, customer retention, team building, product development or buy-in to company transformation. C&IT