The arc of islands that curve from the Bahamas in the Atlantic Ocean down through the Caribbean Sea to South America offers planners superb beaches, rich culture, history, plenty of activities and resorts able to meet diverse needs.
Located below the hurricane belt, Aruba has nearly year-round idyllic weather.
Jay Smith, president of Sports Travel and Tours, likes Aruba. In February, he booked two liquor-industry sales incentive groups on the island, both at the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino, which completed a $25 million renovation to guest rooms, public areas, pools, the beach and restaurants in December.
“I’ve hosted programs at a few resorts in my 25 years of bringing groups to Aruba,” Smith says. “The Hilton has been one client’s requested hotel, in part because one of the main point people had been to the hotel when it was a Radisson and enjoyed the property.”
Smith says the Hilton staff excels. “As a meeting planner, you are important to them, and they work hard to address any issues and make a program work. Audrey Wolfe, director of catering and convention services, is a wonderful asset. Even under pressure times, Audrey is still working.”
Among his program highlights is a sunset beach function, which he calls impressive. “The food is top-notch and we have had a variety of menu options. The AV, he adds, “is brought in from outside; you do need to work with the staff to make sure you/they get the AV the way you want it.”
In addition to functions on site, the group played golf at Tierra del Sol and had a dinner or two at local restaurants.
While Aruba temperatures average 82 degrees year-round, winter weather in U. S. cities can cause flight problems. “Possible alternatives are something to have in place before the moment of impact,” Smith cautions. Fortunately, when delays occurred this winter, the hotel helped, adding nights to the end of the trip for attendees who missed the start.
Winter is Aruba’s prime season. “You need to be patient with hotel staff to achieve the end results of your programs,” Smith says. “They get very busy; you need to stay on top of details that you as the meeting planner must make sure are covered.”
Smith suggests a minimum of four nights for a program so attendees really enjoy the experience. Beyond that, “Aruba offers great people, wonderful weather and a place you probably won’t go to just once.”
Seven hundred islands across 100,000 square miles offer enormous diversity. Most well known are Grand Bahama and Nassau and Paradise Island, but there are many possibilities.
Bimini is the closest Bahamas island to the U.S. mainland — just 50 miles east of Miami. Ernest Hemingway and Martin Luther King Jr. both found profound inspiration here.
Barbara Becker, V.P. administration with Fields Auto Group in Glencoe, Illinois, brought 58 attendees to the Hilton at Resorts World Bimini last May. “Although it’s not the easiest place to get to, it’s worth the wait. The rooms are beautiful, the staff very accommodating and the casino is now open. Transportation once you land is easy. Leave the planning up to the RWB staff and they take all the worries away.”
The group liked the resort’s pricing and the fact that it opened recently and just completed phase-two upgrades in June. “We like things shiny and new,” Becker says. The staff was also a positive. “Everyone from the manager to the lady cleaning the floors has a positive, friendly attitude — exactly what you want when away from home.”
Becker suggests planners “trust the staff; they know what will work for your group size and what won’t.” She has brought groups large and small to Bimini, though with groups over 30, she says, they mainly stay within the resort. “It’s so beautiful and the food is wonderful, especially if you like seafood. You don’t need to leave to get just about anything you’re looking for.”
On Nassau, Melia Baha Mar is a possible site for a New England manufacturing company’s incentive program. Nell Nicholas, senior director, global sales, HelmsBriscoe, says, “Nassau is a great fit for this program. The clients prefer easy, inexpensive airlift from New England cities. Though they love all-inclusives, they like to get off property and there are lots of offsite activities here.”
The resort is next to the in-progress Baha Mar development, which Nicholas says shouldn’t deter planners. “Although the infrastructure of Baha Mar isn’t complete, the Melia is easily accessible and a wonderful all-inclusive option with proximity to great golf and offsite water activities. The grounds are lovely and the buildings are beautifully appointed. Once all the Baha Mar facilities are up and running, it will be a fabulous resort complex.”
Nicholas says the Melia offers a great value for the money, “and raises the bar in this area for all-inclusives. If you’re a Melia resort frequent traveler, you’ll be well acquainted with the restaurant offerings and consistently good Royal Service.”
For those considering the Bahamas, Nicholas adds, “The one advantage I cannot overemphasize is the knowledge, dedication and assistance the CVB offers to planners.”
Baha Mar, the $4.2 billion integrated resort development located along the pristine beaches of New Providence in The Bahamas, opened its first phase in April. The first-phase opening includes the preview of the 1,800-room Grand Hyatt Baha Mar; Baha Mar Casino; Royal Blue Golf Club; The Baha Mar Convention, Art and Entertainment Center; Peter Burwash International tennis courts and facilities; multiple restaurants, bars and lounges; select ESPA spa experiences; the resort’s extensive pool and beach areas; and the entry show lakes and fountain shows choreographed to music, film and lights.
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. Baha Mar’s phase-one unveiling is followed by phase two with the debut of SLS Baha Mar in fall 2017, and the final phase will introduce the enhanced and expanded Rosewood Baha Mar in spring 2018.
Atlantis Paradise Island Bahamas is a destination oceanside resort with 2,317 guest rooms in five lodging options, more than 500,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting space, Aquaventure — a 141-acre water park — open-air marine mammal habitat, spa, golf course, casino, 40 restaurants and more. New at Atlantis is an app giving attendees access to mobile check-in, itinerary management, a direct link to guest services and more. Three new restaurants also opened, including 77° West, specializing in Bahamian-influenced South American cuisine, and there are multiple new dolphin experiences. In more news, after a $20 million transformation, the Coral Towers will reemerge July 16, 2017 as The Coral at Atlantis with all new guest rooms, lobby , F&B concept and adults-only pool. Centrally located on the property, The Corals will connect to the Atlantis Conference Center, casino and Marina Village.
For groups, Atlantis recently introduced the new Junkanoo Bahamian Fest & Feast teambuilding program designed to immerse participants in the Bahamian culture. Junkanoo is a major cultural festival of the Bahamas, celebrating life and freedom with a street parade of music, dancing and festive costumes. Teams design their own costumes and compete in a dance competition during the Rush Out. The experience includes:
A glorious mix of dense jungle and sweeping beaches, the Dominican Republic has multiple resort areas — La Romana, Bavaro, Samaná Peninsula, Punta Cana —and remote adventure options, including stunning Parque Nacional del Este.
Dozens of resorts line Punta Cana’s beaches. There’s golf and water sports galore, excellent dining and nightlife. Kip Lambert, chief culture officer for Destinations Inc., chose Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana for a February incentive trip of 1,600 from a U.S.-based network-marketing company.
The Dominican Republic “perfectly met the criteria for this group in four important ways,” Lambert says: “Inexpensive airlift from across North America; an exotic factor that piqued the interest of attendees and helped them strive to meet the incentive’s goals; the all-inclusive option, including a resort credit attendees used for deeply discounted tours, spa and golf; and high-adventure activities for a young demographic.”
He calls the resort perfect for large groups and says the staff “can handle whatever you throw at them.”
The events team stood out. “It’s the best of any team we’ve worked with in the Hard Rock chain or the Dominican Republic,” Lambert says. “Fred Boutouba, general manager, is incredible. He greeted each coach upon arrival and gave instructions about the check-in process. Additionally, the resort gave us, the planners, extra surprise performers for our arrival/check-in experience — stilt-walkers with LED light suits, a roller-skating dancer who roamed the lobby engaging guests, a rock band playing outside the group lobby and beautiful décor to really dress up the group lobby, all at no extra cost.”
With such a large property, Lambert says, there could be issues with assigned rooms far from meeting space, but there weren’t. “The solution is a continuous shuttle system around the property that rarely seemed overburdened. I don’t recall any complaints about this from our attendees and their guests.”
Outside the resort, Lambert held an exclusive dinner for the very top performers at one of Cap Cana’s beaches. “We’ve done this exclusive event for years,” he says. “This location scored 99 percent satisfaction and 4.5 stars in a post-event survey.”
Lambert’s advice to planners is to purchase the Dominican Republic entrance visa in advance to be included in final travel documentation. “These can be preprinted or saved as a PDF and sent out electronically. At bare minimum, let your attendees know about the visa so that they can skip the potentially long lines at the Punta Cana Airport.”
He also recommends a site visit. “Fred Boutouba and his staff will roll out the red carpet and make your visit very productive and expedited so you can make quick selections and have time to enjoy the resort.”
A U.S. territory since 1898, Puerto Rico offers rich culture, evocative history and no passports for U. S. citizens. Among its natural treasures is exquisite El Yunque National Forest.
Last April, NatureServe Inc., a Virginia-based organization providing data, tools and services related to wildlife conservation, met at the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino for a Biodiversity Without Boundaries conference. Don Kent, Ph.D., says the hotel offers “a convenient location and great facilities,” and standouts at the resort include “the staff, meeting rooms, food and VIP breakfast patio.”
Additionally, he says, “Meeting rooms are clustered on the second floor, easily accessible via elevators from the guest rooms or escalator from the lobby. Planners should be aware that there is a casino,” he adds, “but it was not a distraction for us.”
Kent notes, “Puerto Rico is a relatively easy travel location for U.S. attendees, both in flights and permissions. The island is also blessed with natural beauty and served us well for field trips. Many of our attendees extended their stays to snorkel and see the sights.”
About a dozen field trips were included within the conference, arranged in conjunction with partner, Para La Naturaleza.
Thanks to the resort’s great staff, Kent says there were no challenges organizing the conference, but he offers one suggestion for planners: “I recommend starting with Meet Puerto Rico to gain inside knowledge, assistance and discounts.”
In Puerto Rico news, Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico has completed a multimillion-dollar renovation to its 240 guest rooms, public spaces, meeting and pre-function spaces, and added a lobby café/evening tapas lounge.
El San Juan Hotel & Casino is undergoing a $60 million phased renovation to restore the glamour for which the property was once known. Updates to the common areas (lobby and restaurants) and all of the guest rooms have been completed. Upgrades to the spa and entertainment venue, Tropicoro, will be finished by the end of the year.
A 6,000-seat concert and entertainment venue, slated to open in 2019, will anchor District Live!, a hospitality/entertainment area by the Puerto Rico Convention Center, which will include a 170-room luxury hotel with 6,000 sf of meeting space.
Just 37 square miles, this island has two distinct cultures, governments and spellings. St. Martin, on the north, is French, while St. Maarten is Dutch.
The Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa is on the Dutch side, and was ideal for an East Coast-based building supply company’s customer appreciation trip in February. “While it was not the least expensive suggestion we provided,” says Susan M. Robertson of Docherty Incentives & Meetings, “the location, coupled with the quality of the room product, food, beverage and service fit what the client was looking for to achieve his goals of rewarding his top customers.”
Dual cultures enhance the island. “You have two cultures and countries that come together as one,” Robertson says. ”The tax-free shopping on the Dutch side is a bonus for shopping enthusiasts. The small town of Grand Case on the French side, with its multiple excellent restaurants, is considered the ‘gourmet capital of the Caribbean.’ ”
Other worthy sites she recommends include “Sunset Beach Bar & Grill, where you can literally feel the jet propulsion as aircraft come and go alongside this beach and bar, and The Loterie Farm, a secret hideaway nestled in the hillside of Pic Paradis where you can wine, dine, climb, hike and glide over the treetop canopy. The island,” she says, “is truly an ecotourism and gastronomical experience you’re not likely to forget or find elsewhere.”
Booking a program in high season yields positives, including good airlift with non-stops from multiple cities. There’s also Carnival Night on Tuesdays in Grand Case from mid-January to mid-March, where visitors and residents gather to experience what Robertson calls “amazing culture, live music, local crafts, art and gastronomy that combines French cuisine and flavors of the Caribbean.”
At the Westin, Robertson says, “The No. 1 thing that impressed me is the staff, starting at the top. GM Daniel Beddor is very hands-on. He was present everywhere, every day, and took the time to speak with as many guests as possible to ensure all needs were met or exceeded. He was in the restaurant at breakfast, in the gift shop, in the lobby, at our events. This also flows through the staff, from my conference services coordinator to my banquet staff, banquet captain, to the restaurant manager and staff, to the front desk. All truly cared and were in the know of what activities my client planned or what attendees were doing off and on property. I can’t tell you how many resorts I’ve had programs in where we never see, let alone meet, the general manager. The dedication of this staff shows and is appreciated.”
The group held two events outside. “They were spectacular,” Robertson says. “The food was delicious and our AV needs were easily met.”
As with any program, she says, there were some challenges; however, “The Westin did everything within its power to appease me and/or find solutions. I would not hesitate to put another group in this hotel. They do an outstanding job.”
In October 2016, Liza Passantino Maguire, V.P. with CIMAX Inc., brought a sales incentive group from New Jersey-based Sparta Systems to The Westin. “Our clients look for a destination with not just the usual sunshine and activities, but where there are also great accommodations and exceptional service,” she says. “We also look to balance value against the ultimate product, and the island and hotel met those parameters, then exceeded them onsite.”
Like Robertson, Maguire points to the GM. “I can honestly say that, after over 26 years planning, the GM at this hotel was a big reason we booked it. And he was there every day of the program, carrying through on every promise and more. He’s exactly the type of GM we wish were at every client event. Additionally, Paola Morales, CSM, was also right there making sure our every need was attended to.”
Maguire recommends contacting Westin’s in-house DMC, calling them “fabulous to work with.” She believes working with an experienced DMC is “key to having your visions realized. We had gorgeous evening events created per our specifications, with not one stone unturned regarding service.”
She also notes, “There are very different vibes in different parts of this island, and as planners we know what our clients are looking for. I would make sure to do a full site visit and take into account staying at the exclusive Westin, but planning for excursions to different parts of the island.”
Among the excursions she recommends is a dine-around in Grand Case. She also says planners should be aware that the hotel is on the Atlantic. “The beach and waters were not rough since it’s in a cove area,” she says, “but keep that in mind when planning watersports. Take the group off-property to enjoy a day elsewhere if that is an important factor.”
Timing also makes a difference. “Flights in October were probably the only challenge we faced,” Maguire says. “There are limited non-stops at that time of year. Otherwise, the destination has everything you could want.”
These three islands are remarkably different, but each offers striking natural beauty plus resorts and facilities able to accommodate all kinds of groups.
St. Croix, one of the few islands completely surrounded by the Caribbean, is home to The Buccaneer, family owned and upscale. It was on the short list for a spring 2017 incentive program for a global technology company, HelmsBriscoe’s Nicholas says. “St. Croix is a good fit for this group due to easy access from major U.S. airports, short distance from the U.S. mainland, no passports required and lots of water activities. It’s the best of both worlds,” she adds. “It has a wonderful tourism infrastructure to meet the demands of the most discerning world traveler and pristine beaches and resorts offering serenity and tranquility.”
The Buccaneer works on all levels. “It offers onsite dining options and recreational activities (including golf), fabulous water views, comfortable accommodations and the ability to board a catamaran cruise directly from the resort beach with no need for ground transfers,” Nicholas says. “What is especially meaningful to our stakeholders is that The Buccaneer ranks high on TripAdvisor with excellent reviews.”
Ample function space is a necessity. “With several outside reception locations available, I can move my group from one night’s welcome reception location to another location for the closing night,” Nicholas says. “They’ll have two completely different outdoor dining experiences and I never have to leave the property to accomplish that.”
It’s a must to explore the island, however. “Be sure you take advantage of the water sports and activities,” Nicholas says. “St. Croix is all about the beautiful Caribbean waters. An absolute must is uninhabited Buck Island, offering world-class snorkeling and diving an hour’s cruise from The Buccaneer. Several cruise options are available and can be coordinated directly with the property.”
One caveat for planners: St. Croix’s scenic roads. “Although road quality is very good, St. Croix still has that ‘country road’ feel,” Nicholas notes. “Winding roads can be slow. When you ask for distances, say from town or the airport, be sure to ask in miles and time.” C&IT