The Caribbean — and the almost endless list of options it offers — has been wildly popular with meeting and incentive planners for more than a half-century. And although its use declined during the deep recession of 2008–2010 and the optics era of destination selection in the wake of high-profile meeting industry scandals, it now has returned to its preeminent position as a go-to choice for many companies, especially those who want to reward their top people with a restful and relaxing program at a luxurious property.
And there is a choice for literally every taste and budget, from the exclusive to the affordable and from the exotic to the familiar.
Since the recession five years ago, all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean have become particularly popular with meeting planners. Although there is an ever-increasing number of all-inclusive operators in the region, the dominant force is Sandals Resorts, which now has seven properties in its native Jamaica, three in St. Lucia, two in the Bahamas and one in Antigua — with new Sandals resorts in Grenada and Barbados. The brand touts itself as the best value in the region, since all food and beverage and water sports activities are included in a single per-attendee cost.
As for individual destinations, Priceline.com recently named Puerto Rico the top Caribbean destination for travel in 2015. The island, a U.S. territory, offers the unique advantage of not requiring a passport for entry, which makes travel to the island much easier.
Puerto Rico also boasts one of the most acclaimed meeting hotels in the entire Caribbean, the landmark Caribe Hilton, which is conveniently located on 17 tropical acres near Luis Munoz Marin Airport in San Juan and the Puerto Rico Convention Center. The hotel features 65,000 sf of meeting space.
Although not as well known as islands such as The Bahamas, Puerto Rico or Jamaica, Aruba — located in the southern Caribbean just off the coast of Venezuela — is an excellent choice for discerning planners.
Tim Zula, director of special events and trade shows at Miamisburg, Ohio-based software vendor Esko, chose the Radisson Aruba as the venue for the company’s most important program in 2013. The six-day, five-night trip drew 80 attendees.
“At the time we were planning the program, our president was looking for a destination within the Caribbean that we considered pretty exotic, some place that most of our people probably wouldn’t go to on their own,” Zula says. “Or maybe a place they would want to go to, but not have the opportunity to go.”
When he was assessing the destination, Zula discovered that Aruba also offers solid value.
“Cost is always a consideration for us,” he says. “And when we looked at not only flying people in from the U.S. and Canada, but also from Latin America, we found all of the flights to Aruba to be very reasonable, with the airlift from various places also being very good. So those things became strong factors in our selection of the destination.”
Another important factor in Esko’s decision-making when it comes to destination selection is the importance of its flagship incentive program. “This is a program for our salesforce,” Esko says. “And they work very hard. We set very strong goals for them. And so the destinations we choose for this group have to be worthy of what they have achieved throughout the year. And we thought Aruba was just a perfect destination.”
Zula discovered the Radisson by accident while on a site visit. “When I went down, I had three properties that had been recommended by HelmsBriscoe, the third-party company we use to help us,” he says. “So I looked at all three hotels, but I didn’t really feel comfortable with the first two. The third one met all of my expectations, but it was a little far down the beach from where most of the activity is that goes beyond just the beach.”
On the third day of his visit, he was walking on the beach and just happened to take notice of the Radisson as he strolled past. “I just walked in and took a look at the place and instantly called my HelmsBriscoe representative and said, ‘I’ve found a fantastic resort, and I need to talk to these people.’ I met with the staff the next day and they comped me a room that night. And it was just perfect in terms of what we were looking for.”
Foremost among the factors that clinched the deal, he says, is that “The Radisson has an exotic island feel beyond anything else I had seen on the beach in Aruba. They have a garden area that has immaculate vegetation. They have little waterways throughout the property that just help give it that tropical feel. And the lobby reception area is very open and green. It’s just a very inviting property.”
The Esko incentive program also includes meeting sessions, and the Radisson’s meeting space also perfectly fit Esko’s needs.
Based on the experience he had, Zula gives the hotel high marks for everything from its food and beverage service to its overall service.
“The F&B was excellent,” he says. “Every meal was immaculate. And overall, the service was impeccable. From the time I first noticed the hotel and just walked in, they were courteous, helpful and totally professional. It was one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever had and that is particularly important because this is our premier incentive program and top achievers.”
In fact, Zula, his management and attendees were so unanimously pleased with the Radisson Aruba that the company is going back for the 2015 program in late January.
Emily Dunn, director of groups, meetings and events for Aladdin Travel and Meeting Planners in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a longtime and enthusiastic user of Caribbean destinations. Among her favorites is The Bahamas.
Every year except one for the last decade she has used fabled Atlantis, Paradise Island for a continuing medical education meeting for 100 physicians and nurse practitioners.
Dunn favors The Bahamas because it is a relatively inexpensive destination and easy to get to, she says. “And the flight options are really attractive,” she adds. “The airlift is good enough to get most people there with one connecting flight.”
But most of all, given the voluntary attendance for her meeting, The Bahamas is a consistent draw. “The meeting is always in January or February, and most of our attendees come from the East Coast and the Northeast, as well as Canada,” Dunn says. “So from an attendance perspective, it has been a very successful destination for these meetings.”
She also is loyal to Atlantis because it offers some unique attributes.
“One nice thing about Atlantis is that you have multiple options in terms of price points at the same resort,” she says. “You have high-end options, but you also have lower-end options.”
“One nice thing about Atlantis is that you have multiple options in terms of price points at the same resort. You have high-end options, but you also have lower-end options.” — Emily Dunn
Those options range from the exclusive The Cove to The Reef, Royal Towers and Coral Towers — each at a separate and distinct price point: value-oriented to exclusive ultra-luxurious experiences. All guests receive complimentary access to Aquaventure — the 141-acre water park, beaches, pools, aquariums and restaurants. “The primary attendees are physicians, but they also have a wide range of incomes,” Dunn says. “And that means some of them also have lower paying jobs in a particular field. So we want to make sure they can find the value they need.”
For example, for their most recent meeting, Dunn says, rooms were available for under $300 per night in Coral Towers.
Because of the importance of the medical presentations at her meeting, Dunn also takes comfort in knowing that Atlantis boasts top-notch technology. “For these meetings, most of the attendees are radiologists, and they’re looking at images that have to be well projected in a very dark room for them to be able to see what is being talked about,” she says. “And the technology capabilities at Atlantis are just excellent, as is the support.”
However, despite the serious content presented during half-day general sessions, it also is important that attendees unwind and have fun. “So it’s also attractive to our physicians and other attendees that we also choose great spots to do the meetings and give them enough free time to enjoy themselves,” Dunn says. “And that’s especially important for the people who bring their families, so we make sure to build some R&R into the meeting, because they are also working hard during the meeting sessions.”
As a planner, Dunn also has great respect for the level of support services Atlantis consistently provides.
“And one reason for that is that they have encouraged all of their in-house planners to get their CMPs,” she says. “That really shows their commitment to and investment in having the best people. And for the past five years, I’ve worked with the same two women to plan my meeting. That kind of consistency and longevity is almost unheard of these days, and it has allowed me to really form a relationship with them and the hotel. And that means we work together really, really well.”
From an attendee perspective, Atlantis also earns accolades. One key reason: its vast and varied infrastructure, which includes a roster of excellent restaurants, including the celebrity chef restaurant Nobu; the Mandara Spa Atlantis; and the world-class water park Aquaventure. “That range of amenities is really what makes Atlantis different from any other hotel in the Caribbean,” Dunn says.
And its size and scope also provides room for growth from year to year. “And because they have a lot of meeting space, we’ve also been able to change meeting rooms at the last minute if we need to,” Dunn says. “And that’s something that you cannot necessarily do anywhere. The hotel has been very good at working with us to make sure everything goes well, and part of that is the flexibility they can provide because of the size of the resort.”
In 2015, the dominance of Atlantis will be tested by the new $3.5 billion Baha Mar resort complex that will make its much heralded debut after several years of growing anticipation. Baha Mar will welcome guests beginning March 27, and online reservations are available now for Baha Mar Casino & Hotel, Rosewood at Baha Mar and SLS Lux at Baha Mar. The Grand Hyatt at Baha Mar will open shortly after. Hailed since its inception as the largest single-phase project in the history of the Caribbean, the mega-resort is set on 1,000 acres along 3,000 feet of Cable Beach in Nassau, which they are touting as the New Riviera. The resort also will feature 200,000 sf of convention facilities, a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, an ESPA spa and 40 restaurants.
Although Baha Mar has generated more publicity, another Bahamas project made its debut first, with the opening last July of the $24 million Resorts World Bimini Bay Casino, a joint venture between developer Rav Bahamas and casino operator Genting Malaysia Berhad.
Known for decades as a high-end luxury fishing destination, Bimini is now an ideal location for small incentive groups and conferences.
New good news for planners: According to various published reports, The Bahamas will cut its 10 percent hotel tax to 7.5 percent in an effort to woo more visitors.
Although the Caribbean can claim many exotic islands, perhaps none is more exotic than relatively little-known St. Maarten. The small island actually consists of two countries, the French St. Martin to the north and the Dutch St. Maarten, which occupies the southern third of the island.
Barbara Suggs, corporate events manager at Ricoh USA in Tucker, Georgia, near Atlanta, chose The Westin St. Maarten Dawn Beach Resort & Spa for a five-day incentive trip last July for 220 service technician attendees and their guests.
“Every other year, we choose a beach destination,” Suggs says. “And in the other years, we do a U.S.-based program. For the 2014 program, we looked at St. Maarten because of the beauty of the island and the numerous activities there are to do there. And the friendliness of the people was also a factor.”
She did a site visit in October 2013 and only looked at The Westin St. Maarten. “We have a third-party, Ohio-based consultant we work with for this program called Aimia,” she says. “I’ve been working with them for five years, and they manage the entire trip. They had recommended The Westin as the property to use. But before we actually sign a contract, I do a site visit to go see the hotel and make sure that everything is OK.”
There were several key factors that led Aimia and Ricoh to select The Westin St. Maarten. “The first was pricing and the concessions we were able to get,” Suggs says. “The hotel also has a nice location that is away from everything. It’s secluded. And the beach is just beautiful.”
A deciding factor for Suggs was the treatment she received on her site visit. “Everyone at the hotel was very responsive, from the top management all the way down to housekeeping,” she says. “Their people are exceptional.”
She also was pleasantly surprised by the room rate she received. “We got a fantastic deal,” she says. “And that really surprised me now that everyone knows hotels are back to a seller’s market. For us, it was just a matter of timing, because we were going in the off-season, and they really wanted our business, so they did what they had to do to bring us in.”
Among the highlights of the trip was The Westin’s F&B service. “The food and beverage service we got was outstanding,” Suggs says. “We got a lot of positive remarks on our survey about our food, which was Caribbean-style food and very high quality. It was extraordinary.”
Likewise, the overall support services Ricoh received also were exemplary.
“The service we got, whether that was from the banquet staff or from room service, was also excellent,” Suggs says. “Everyone was very attentive to us. No one’s glass was ever empty. And even the service around the pool during the day was truly excellent.”
Most important for Suggs was the fact that the staff clearly understood the trip represented a very important incentive program for a major U.S. company and treated the group accordingly. “That was definitely the standard,” Suggs says. “But from what I saw, they also treat all of their guests that way. For example, staff members knew people by name — not just in our group, but for guests in general. And they were very friendly and enthusiastic. And I credit the management of the hotel for that level of service. I believe that everything starts at the top and flows down through the staff. And the top management at the hotel is also very involved with the guests and getting to know them. And when the employees see that, in my experience they emulate their management.” C&IT