Whoever said that all “sun and sand” destinations are the same surely is not familiar with the variety of distinct islands of the Caribbean and the Bahamas — one of the world’s most popular incentive destinations. While there are some similarities, each island within this region offers unique cultures, landscapes and venues. Each island also has its own collection of resorts and hotels and seeks to further set itself apart by improving existing properties and adding new ones.
— Greg Saunders, General Manager, Grand Hyatt at Baha Mar, Nassau, Bahamas
In the Bahamas, Baha Mar, a resort complex that will include four luxury lifestyle properties, is scheduled to open in Nassau by the end of 2014. The beachfront destination will include the Grand Hyatt at Baha Mar, The Baha Mar Casino & Hotel, Mondrian at Baha Mar and Rosewood at Baha Mar. There will be a total of more than 2,900 guest rooms, a 100,000-sf casino and an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course. Baha Mar also will include an upscale shopping and entertainment district comprised of 60 restaurants, retail outlets, bars and lounges.
In addition, Melia Hotels International has taken over the nearby 694-room Melia Nassau Beach Resort and will rename it the Melia at Baha Mar after completing renovations scheduled for completion by the end of 2014. The property will remain open during the makeover.
Baha Mar also will be home to a state-of-the-art convention center with 200,000 sf of meeting and exhibit space. “The convention center is designed to do multiple meetings and keep them segregated into their own spaces,” says Greg Saunders, general manager of the Grand Hyatt at Baha Mar, which will operate the convention center. “We will be able to move people in and out without creating an intrusive environment for those who may already be in the convention center.”
Saunders says that another key to Baha Mar’s success will be the distinct differences among the four properties. “There is very little overlap between the way they segment their customers and the experiences they provide,” says Saunders. “The lifestyle brand of Mondrian is different from that of Rosewood, the Hyatt or The Baha Mar Casino & Hotel. Planners can select the experience they want.”
Baha Mar will step up the Bahamas’ ability to compete for bookings. “We look at our competitive set as being more than the Bahamas,” says Saunders. “We think we are providing an alternative to many facilities in the Caribbean, depending on the segment you look at. On the meetings and convention side, our event space and rooms put us in a position to deal with a market that has excluded many competitors due to the size of their properties.”
Large groups are among those already showing interest in booking Baha Mar. According to Saunders, “A good 20 percent of meetings we are seeing push 700 to 1,000 rooms and will need two or more hotels. A few groups we are talking to require around 2,000 rooms. A lot of meetings we are seeing are in the area of 250 to 500 rooms. Much of the business we are seeing is on the corporate incentive side.”
In all, Saunders is very satisfied with interest in Baha Mar from meetings, incentives and conventions. “We are seeing a lot of groups that have used the islands in the past that are perhaps looking for a new venue. We are also seeing business that is now looking at the Caribbean because there is product that didn’t exist before.”
Baha Mar will join other world-class properties in the Bahamas such as the 3,414-room Atlantis Paradise Island. The property has been renovating its Royal Towers with new furniture, color scheme and cabinetry. In addition, Atlantis provides more than 200,000 sf of indoor meeting space, including 30 breakout rooms and several boardrooms. Atlantis also features more than 40 restaurants and lounges as well as one of North America’s premier golf courses, the Tom Weiskopf-designed Ocean Club Golf Course.
According to Amie Devine, CMP, director of operations for the Hybrid Group LLC, a Chicago meeting and convention management company, about 2,100 direct sales company distributors from more than eight countries enjoyed a four-day meeting and incentive at Atlantis in October 2012. Nearly 100 of the top distributors arrived a day early for special activities and enjoyed the best that the Bahamas offers. Half of the group of 100 participated in a jeep excursion, which included a tour of a rum factory and exploration of the island. Meanwhile, the other 50 attendees went on a snorkeling excursion. Later in the day, the two groups met back at the beach, Devine says.
The group of 100 participated in teambuilding activities on the beach including a balancing challenge and an obstacle course competition, says Devine. Team and individual winners received prizes. Later that evening, the group of 100 attended a private reception and dinner at Atlantis, using outdoor function space near a pool deck. A Cuban cigar roller and native Bahamian dancers greeted guests.
The day after the top tier of 100 enjoyed their incentive program, about 2,000 distributors arrived at Atlantis for a general session, training and other activities. The highlight was a gala dinner. “We hired Junkanoo dancers to greet attendees as they entered the ballroom. A small Caribbean band entertained on stage during dinner,” says Devine. “After dinner, we brought in a marching band that paraded around the room with the dancers and guests. They paraded through the hotel and then went to a different ballroom to hear a motivational speaker.”
The direct sales company held its meeting and incentive program at Atlantis Paradise Island in 2011 and 2012. Attendance nearly doubled during the second year. “Every person who went in 2011 came back and told someone else about it,” says Devine. “This group loves networking, and they liked all of the different areas outside and inside for just hanging out with each other. We go to environments that are designed to encourage that like the Atlantis.”
Value is another reason why the direct sales company chose Atlantis. “We are very price sensitive, and resort fees are almost always built into prices,” says Devine. “We always look for rates that are under $189 including resort fees. October is not the peak season so you can get a lower rate. Plus, the Bahamas offers a rebate system, depending on how big your group is. It makes it very enticing. It was a good value.”
Good service also was a deciding factor. The Atlantis staff went above and beyond the call of duty to get registration supplies, branding items and other materials that were stuck in customs. The supplies arrived in the Bahamas on the Monday before the meeting, and Devine had hoped to get the materials that day, but was not successful. “An Atlantis staffer fought tooth and nail to get the stuff out of customs,” says Devine. “She was on the phone for two days solid, talking to customs as she walked the property doing other things with us. We got it out of customs early Wednesday, just in time to set up for the meeting, only because of her.” Devine says the direct sales company plans to return to Atlantis again in the future.
The Bahamas’ worldwide reputation as a paradise for boat owners also attracts groups. Horizon Yacht USA, a yacht building company based in North Palm Beach, FL, held an incentive reward for 50 customers and their guests earlier this year at the 542-room Grand Lucayan Beach & Golf Resort on Grand Bahama Island, only 55 miles from Florida.
The Grand Lucayan’s yachting facilities were a huge attraction because some attendees wanted to bring their boats. The Port Lucaya Marina, known as “Home of the Big Yachts,” is a full-service, 106-berth facility. One berthing wing features the Marketplace with restaurants, bars and entertainment. The other berthing wing offers the Port Lucaya Resort & Yacht Club, tropical gardens and an Olympic-size swimming pool. Elise Moffitt, the marketing coordinator for North Palm Beach, FL-Horizon Yacht USA, planned the event. “We wanted a different location that’s well-known among boaters,” says Moffitt. “We polled our group beforehand about what they thought of the hotel and marina, and they loved it. I did a site visit and found that the hotel offers a lot with the marina being centrally located with restaurants nearby.”
Moffitt was very satisfied with the hotel and marina packages. “They gave us good value,” she says. “They worked with us on blocking the number of rooms we needed and giving us a really good rate. The marina did the same thing. Because we booked so many slips, they worked with us to place boats together and make sure everybody got a good rate. They understood what we needed in both areas, and that was a big factor for us.”
Placing the boats near each other was a key to one of the group’s activities. “We did a ‘docktail party,’ which is a cocktail party on the dock, renting out a space just above the captain’s office,” says Moffitt. “We had live music with a one-man band. He sang and played steel drums. Then we went to the Flying Fish restaurant in Port Lucaya for dinner. The next day, we rented a ferry that took us to a private beach for a barbecue, swimming and games.” The incentive was a hit, so much so, that many attendees stayed over for an extended vacation.
In addition to the endless amenities for incentive groups, The Grand Lucayan Beach & Golf Resort boasts a conference center equipped with cutting-edge audio-visual equipment, and indoor and outdoor event spaces for all size groups.
Seeking to attract more meetings and incentives, the Grand Bahama Island Tourism Board is offering meeting planners generous rebates for bookings from June 1, 2014, through December 19, 2014.
— Robin Holsonback, Meeting Planner, BMW North America, Atlanta, GA
Puerto Rico also is reaching out to planners, touting its 1.3 million sf of meeting space, more than 14,000 guest rooms and world-class Puerto Rico Convention Center. In December, Meet Puerto Rico, the island’s CVB, welcomed 86 planners to its second annual four-day Puerto Rico Showcase & Travel Expo. The event included site visits to several properties and an educational seminar on using social media to promote meetings.
Meet Puerto Rico hopes to attract more first-time meetings as well as repeat business from companies such as Atlanta-based BMW North America, Southern Region. In May 2013, the company held a four-day meeting for 75 sales managers at the Caribe Hilton San Juan. It was the second consecutive year that the company used the property.
Airfare cost was a major reason for choosing Puerto Rico. “Our southern region covers a huge area of the United States and flights can be expensive,” says Robin Holsonback, meeting planner based in Atlanta, GA, for BMW North America, Southern Region. “For instance, flying from Atlanta to Little Rock, Arkansas, costs about $1,000 round trip, but you can fly from Atlanta to San Juan for less than $300. It’s very reasonable.”
Puerto Rico’s tropical weather was absolutely perfect during the group’s 2012 meeting. However, it rained every day during the 2013 meeting. To keep her meeting humming during the inclement weather, Holsonback juggled activities on the fly. “We had planned an outdoor welcome dinner and reception by the pool, so we moved it inside the hotel. We had three different teambuilding activities planned. Tuesday was supposed to be our teambuilding beach Olympics, and Wednesday was supposed to be the tour of the Bacardi rum factory and dinner at the Parrot Club restaurant,” says Holsonback. “But it rained Tuesday so we moved the rum factory and parrot club to that day because they were indoor activities, hoping that it wouldn’t rain Wednesday and we could do the beach teambuilding then. But Wednesday was a complete washout.”
Still, the meeting turned out to be a success. “However, it was a real stressor for me,” says Holsonback. “When you go to someplace like that, you want to embrace the weather and beautiful surroundings. But everybody wants to go back to Puerto Rico. They love it.”
Puerto Rico is improving several of its brand-name properties and adding others.
The San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellar Casino is undergoing an $8 million renovation that includes all 525 guest rooms. The refurbished rooms will feature new furnishings, tropical color tones and artwork. The property offers 10,783 sf of space in 13 meeting rooms. The property formerly known as the Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza hotel has been reflagged as the Condado Plaza Hilton. The property features 571 rooms and 41,000 sf of meeting space.
The Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino is renovating its 240 guest rooms, air conditioning system and Wi-Fi service. The largest of the hotel’s 10 meeting spaces is 2,695 sf.
The historic 232-room Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, which has completed several years of renovations, was scheduled to reopen every guest room by the end of 2013. The Vanderbilt features more than 15,000 sf of meeting space and 19 restaurants, lounges and bars.
Along the southern shore of Puerto Rico, the 225-room Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort celebrated its 20th anniversary recently by completing a multimillion-dollar makeover. The property offers 60,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function and exhibit space.
Among other properties outside of San Juan, the Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve property, premiered with 130 three-, four- and five-bedroom villa residences.
The Hyatt Place Manati and Casino is scheduled to open in January 2014 with 2,075 sf of meeting space and 10,000 sf of gaming space.
Like Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) are popular in part due to the fact that U.S. citizens don’t need a passport to enter these U.S. territories. The most well-known USVI destination is the island of St. John, known for its elegant beach resorts such as the 450-room Frenchman’s Reef and Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort, which features 60,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space. The hotel recently completed a $48 million renovation. The Westin St. John Resort and Villas is undergoing a $12 million makeover that will be completed in October 2014. The property offers six meeting spaces, the largest of which is 3,500 sf.
An enticing range of other islands offers a variety of excellent meeting and incentive properties. 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.
Corporate meetings and incentive programs conducted in the lap of luxury 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.
Sandals LaSource, Sandals’ newest resort, which opened in December, is located along the pristine Pink Gin Beach in Grenada. 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. Additionally, the resort offers land and water sports including scuba diving, snorkeling and stand-up paddle-boarding as well as optional pampering treatments at the Red Lane Spa.
There are many reasons why the Bahamas and Caribbean should be considered by meeting planners. The choice of popular islands is almost endless and includes Curacao, Aruba, Grand Cayman, St. Kitts and the Dominican Republic. The region is relatively close to the U.S. yet provides a chance to get away to a foreign destination, and it offers some of the world’s most luxurious resorts with more on the way. It has properties with significant meeting space and special venues as well as spectacular weather, fine dining and exotic outdoor activities. It’s no wonder there are so many satisfied attendees who want to return time and time again to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the many other islands of the Caribbean. C&IT
Baha Mar, the largest single-phase luxury resort project in the history of the Caribbean, is slated to open in December 2014 in Nassau, The Bahamas. Rendering courtesy of Baha Mar Ltd.
The beach in Port Lucaya in Freeport, Bahamas, was an ideal spot for a private barbeque, swim and games for the Horizon Yacht USA group. Credit: Horizon Yacht USA
Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, Bahamas, features unique event spaces for cocktail receptions. Credit: Sandals Resorts International
The Grand Lucayan Beach & Golf Resort on Grand Bahama Island has something for every size and type of group. Credit: Grand Lucayan
The iconic Fort San Gerónimo in Puerta de Tierra adjacent to the Caribe Hilton, located in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Credit: Caribe Hilton