As more and more corporate groups are staying close to home either out of concern for optics, budget or flight schedules, the white sands and dazzling emerald waters of the thousands of Caribbean islands couldn’t beckon any louder.
However, for planners who are having to deal with hotels that are gaining the upper hand in most markets as business picks back up, Caribbean hotel rooms and meeting spaces are increasingly harder to come by.
“A lot of hotels won’t give up space for groups because they want to keep it for leisure travelers,” says Kathleen Krawczyk, CMP, event planner at Chicago, Illinois-based Lawson Products, an industrial distributor of maintenance and repair supplies. “They’re outpricing themselves. Prices have gone out of control. I’ve seen hotel prices rise $300 more a night in two years. They’re so full with leisure travelers, if they didn’t get the group business, it doesn’t really hurt them, so they’re either telling us these are their rates or they don’t have the space.”
But while meetings and incentives have long whisked attendees to more exotic Caribbean isles such as Aruba, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Barbados, and Turks and Caicos, a string of property openings and renovations in the nearby Bahamas and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are benefiting planners in many ways.
Overall travel to the Caribbean islands bounced back to pre-recession levels as early as 2012, when 25 million visitors flocked to the islands. The destination has grown its arrivals at a rate that outpaces the world average, but the U.S. territories are actually some of the best faring of the bunch. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced a 7 percent increase in visitors in 2012, when the global average was 5 percent, and Puerto Rico has been growing its meetings business at a significantly higher rate.
Though some of the main traffic to the Caribbean comes from North America, many planners find that when they do a site visit or plan meetings in non-native English-speaking areas, the language barrier is higher than they’d like.
“I was pleasantly surprised by (Spanish-speaking) Cancun and the Dominican Republic,” says Donna M. Walker, CMP, meeting planner at Batesville, Indiana-based medical technology company Hill Rom. Walker primarily plans one or more incentives per year in the Caribbean. “They’ve really turned those destinations around with some of the new restaurants and hotel upgrades, so when I went to site and I hadn’t been there in a few years, I was really impressed, but the language barrier is huge.
“It’s challenging, because the properties are beautiful, but you can’t really venture off of the property because there’s not really anything to do outside, like a so-called town, where on the other islands there’s a shopping area,” she explains. “It’s one of the things we mentioned to our contacts when we were down there. When they’re trying to recruit U.S.-based customers, they need to keep that in mind.”
Beyond the language barrier, despite the fact that Caribbean islands cater to Westerners, whether from nearby North America or the various European countries that oversee different island groups, meeting planners do not always find the experience as they would expect back home.
Unlike many meeting planners who stick to the Caribbean for incentives, Darrieux Harvey, CMP, meeting planner at Chantilly, Virginia-based Internet service provider Arin, oversees the board and advisory council meetings for her company’s territory in the Caribbean as well as North America, so she plans several meetings there each year.
“The Caribbean islands are a little bit difficult to plan a meeting in, because they don’t plan as far in advance as we do here,” she continues. “If I send an RFP a year out, they look at it like, ‘Why are you sending this so far out in advance?’ I think it’s key for organizations to send planners on a site visit, because I know that when I first started going to the Caribbean, I would say I needed 200 set like this, and they would say absolutely, but I would get down there and see that you couldn’t even get 50 in the room.
“I’ve been all over — Jamaica, Barbados, Nassau, San Juan — and the American territories are easier to plan meetings in because it’s America,” she says. “You don’t have to deal with some of the things you usually deal with in the Caribbean, like a lack of air conditioning.”
For meeting planners, the islands of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas, where English is widely spoken, offer the beaches, tropical food and weather you come to the Caribbean for, but with the level of meeting services you expect at home. And a new wave of hotel openings and renovations, focused on a Caribbean sense of place with modern luxury, are creating a sleek new style for island meetings.
With a mix of polished resorts and easy-to-visit towns, the Bahamas have been a top choice for corporate meetings and events for decades, but a new development opening in stages from the end of this year through the end of next is changing everything.
Set on 3,000 feet of beach on Nassau’s Cable Beach, Baha Mar, branded as the new Bahamian Riviera, will incorporate four separate but adjoining luxury resorts: Rosewood, SLS Lux, Grand Hyatt and The Baha Mar Casino & Hotel. The $3.5 billion venue spreads over 1,000 acres and is just 12 minutes from the airport.
The headliner of the show, the Baha Mar Casino and Hotel, will encompass 1,000 guest rooms and suites, 23 private residences and a 100,000-sf casino. Second in size, but in many ways more intriguing for meeting planners, the Grand Hyatt includes 700 guest rooms and a 200,000-sf convention center. The flexible space, outfitted with state-of-the-art AV, will include three ballrooms and 16 breakout rooms.
The Rosewood will feature 200 beachview rooms and suites along with five beachfront villas along with state-of-the-art event spaces for meetings and catered events. The SLS Lux will comprise 300 high-design guest rooms and event spaces for small, high-end events.
In addition to the entertainment options in the hotels, the resort will feature an 18-hole championship Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, which will become the highest-level course in Nassau when it opens. After the initial stages of the resort launch, in addition to adding future hotels, Baha Mar plans to open a second golf course.
While this addition to New Providence, home of the capital Nassau, has drawn many eyes and press, neighboring resorts and resorts on nearby islands continue to provide superior service to meeting planning clients.
Sandals’ two Bahamas locations, the Sandals Royal Bahamian, also in Nassau, and Sandals Emerald Bay on Great Exuma, are long-time planner favorites. “I’ve been using Sandals every other year,” says Krawczyk. “We try to offer something people wouldn’t book themselves; something I feel comfortable with that has a wow factor. We don’t like to repeat if we don’t have to, and I don’t mean to keep coming back to Sandals, but I love that property.
“We try to offer something people wouldn’t book themselves; something I feel comfortable with that has a wow factor.” — Kathy Krawczyk
“The first thing we look at is something that is truly all-inclusive,” she says. “With Sandals, everything is included from transportation to a welcome reception for two hours and a private cocktail hour. Our coffee break is even included. We look for the most we can get with the dollars that we’re spending.”
Krawczyk has found that the CSR component of her meetings is also easy to check off with Sandals events. “Whenever we do Sandals, we make it into a group thing where we donate to the Sandals Foundation. This year everyone brought schools supplies and some medical stuff down, and donations. We matched the donations and presented them with a check, and the kids who received the school supplies came to the banquet that evening.”
Across the bridge from New Providence island is Paradise Island, which boasts the mega ocean-themed and gaming resort Atlantis, known for having the largest open-air marine habitat in the world. Atlantis offers 3,400 guest rooms including The Cove, a resort within a resort that features 600 oceanview suites. The conference center can accommodate up to 4,000 attendees and includes the 50,000-sf Imperial Ballroom, 40,000 sf of prefunction space, 30 breakout rooms and three boardrooms. There are 21 outdoor event spaces — totaling 300,000 sf — that take advantage of tropical settings including, of course, the beaches, lagoon, waterscapes, marine habitats and more. And with 21 great restaurants on-property (including chef Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill and Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s Nobu), planners can stage an exceptional dine-around program without ever leaving the resort grounds.
For meetings where you want to dip your toe in the Caribbean but keep the meeting element front of mind for attendees most days, Puerto Rico offers a mix of Caribbean sensibility and North American business sense.
“The CVB in San Juan is very good,” says Harvey. “What I do generally when I send my RFPs for meetings in the Caribbean is that I partner with the convention bureau to send them. They’re good at making sure my RFP goes out. I’ve found on the other islands that I have to do a lot of legwork on my own. In Puerto Rico, I have support so I can get around and deal with the hotels or if I need to travel.”
The 580,000-sf Puerto Rico Convention Center is the largest facility of its kind in the Caribbean and features the largest ballroom in the region at 39,500 sf. A 152,700-sf exhibition hall and 54,949 sf of meeting rooms, which can be broken into 28 breakout rooms, round out the center’s indoor space, but the growing convention district has much more to offer.
Spread over a 113-acre area formerly used as a U.S. Naval and Coast Guard base, the convention district is one of the largest waterfront development projects in the U.S. The adjacent 503-room Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel and Casino with its own 35,000-sf conference center is currently the main hotel in the conference district, but the Hyatt House San Juan, with 126 studios and one- and two-bedroom suites is set to open this month.
In addition to the big wave in the conference district, two major renovations in other parts of the island are revamping Puerto Rico’s meeting hotel offerings. In Rio Grande, the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa is completing a multimillion-dollar renovation at the end of this year that will enhance its 48,000 sf of meeting space, 10 dining establishments, 400 guest rooms and suites, and public areas. Uniting all the new elements is a renewed focus on Puerto Rico’s indigenous history and architecture, from its rain forest to characteristic cobblestone streets.
El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in Fajardo, has just completed an overhaul of all public spaces and meeting levels. While its ballrooms and terraces already afforded visitors views of the ocean and El Yunque rain forest, the resort has refreshed all carpeting and furniture on the meeting levels and added new windows, paint, curtains and lighting in the ballroom to better unite the spaces with their surroundings. The resort’s 100,000 sf of meeting space includes 16 breakout rooms, two adjacent conference centers and a private island for outdoor events.
In San Juan, Hilton has recently brought another property into the fold, The Condado Plaza Hilton, with 571 rooms and 41,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including a 24,480-sf ballroom. Uniquely positioned as the only hotel in the city overlooking both the Atlantic Ocean and Condado Lagoon, the hotel is the fourth Hilton property on the island.
A $38 million investment in upgrading Puerto Rico’s airports and an increase in scheduled flights from major mainland carriers has also made arriving in Puerto Rico even more convenient for corporate travelers. Delta added daily non-stop service between Chicago and San Juan, and expanded its daily service between JFK and San Juan.
JetBlue matched Delta’s daily Chicago-to-San Juan initiative, expanding from its previous U.S. non-stop routes departing from Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Hartford, Jacksonville, JFK, Newark, Orlando, Tampa, Washington, DC, and West Palm Beach.
While Puerto Rico is a large enough island that you can almost forget you’re on an island when not in view of the beach, in the U.S. Virgin Islands — comprised of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas — it’s nearly impossible to get far from the shore, and the islands’ group activities offer unique ways to take advantage of the area’s connection to nature.
Though St. John often looks like the wild, unpopulated island next to cosmopolitan St. Thomas, The Westin St. John Resort has long added an air of sophistication. It has upped the ante with a $50 million makeover, which started last January and continues through January of 2015 when the resort will debut complete refurbishments of all 96 guest rooms and suites, the addition of 146 Starwood Vacation Ownership villas, and updated public and meeting spaces.
On all three islands, local groups are launching new outdoor activities ideal for teambuilding with a strong sense of place. On St. Croix, Mount Victory Camp ecolodge runs sustainable living workshops teaching attendees how to build a fire and make a bow and arrow from scratch in the wild, while Ridge to Reef Farm, focused on providing the USVI with local produce, offers naturalist-led ecology and agroforestry tours.
St. Thomas’ Ritz-Carlton has partnered with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program on special ecological explorations of the island, and thrill seekers can get an entirely new perspective on the island with Iron Man-style flyboarding 30 feet above the waters of St. Thomas’ Lindbergh Bay. On St. John, the Adventure Center now offers night kayaking with clear-bottom kayaks affording a clear view of the turtles, sharks and sting rays that inhabit the bay.
While Puerto Rico has experienced a sharp uptick in non-stop flights over the past couple years, the USVI is now taking its turn. Beginning in December of this year, Delta will offer a new non-stop route to St. Croix. American Airlines also has entered into an interline agreement with Seabourne to offer easier access between St. Croix, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico.
As airlines are now increasing airlift to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and hoteliers are increasing available rooms and meeting space, planners have a window while supply outpaces demand. But as the siren’s call of short, non-stop flights to pristine white sand beaches is heard by more groups seeking to lock down prime meeting space years in advance, it surely won’t be a very big window. C&IT