Enticing weather, tropical surroundings and a variety of cultural influences lure meeting planners to the Caribbean for memorable events of all sizes. Island hotels offer one-of-a-kind settings and venues for indelible group interaction, while amenities such as golf, spas and gorgeous beaches await.
While not all islands have expansive meeting facilities, those that do offer venues that can compete head-to-head with many stateside facilities for services and technology. And, air access to the region is better than ever, with islands like The Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Aruba served from multiple airports in the eastern U.S.
To stay abreast with the latest from one of the region’s most important meeting sites, I ventured to Puerto Rico in early December, 15 months after Hurricane Maria carved a destructive path through the island. It marked my eighth visit to San Juan over the last two decades and, given the wealth of dire reports coming out of the island, I was prepared to see a destination that was not primed for visitors, much less for substantial meeting business.
But I found most of San Juan in excellent shape. In fact, the city looks even better than it did seven or eight years ago, when the island had been hit hard by a different storm, the economic crisis. And, resort areas outside the city such as Rio Del Mar and Dorado Beach are looking as beautiful as ever.
San Juan is home to the region’s largest and most technologically advanced meeting facility, the Puerto Rico Convention Center. Centrally located between history-rich Old San Juan and the Condado district, the convention center has a 157,000-square-foot exhibition hall and the region’s largest ballroom (39,500 square feet), a facility sufficient to host groups up to 10,000.
I was surprised to hear that the complex, which opened in 2005, was fully operational just 48 hours after the hurricane.
“The convention center served as the command center for FEMA and as headquarters for the Puerto Rico government,” explains general manager Jorge Pérez. “The amount of energy was quite impressive. We served 10,000 breakfasts, lunches and dinners daily for the first month after the storm.”
A modest facelift is currently in the works at the convention center, bringing in new carpets and color schemes that will be completed by June. Next door, a dining and entertainment complex, District Live!, is under construction. The facility will include a 105,000-square-foot concert and event venue with a capacity for 6,000 patrons, an eight-screen cinema complex and a 175-room Aloft Hotel by Marriott, scheduled to open later this year. In all, four hotels will be located less than a five-minute walk from the convention center.
One of the first to book a major meeting in San Juan following Maria was American Airlines, which set its annual 1,000-attendee Global Sales Conference in the city last May, just eight months after the storm.
“We wanted to connect with our team members there and give back to the community,” says Lindsi Wyner, CMP, senior specialist meetings and events at American Airlines. “Given that the island had just been devastated, everyone was very up-front about the state of everything. The biggest challenge was our concern with regard to power, security, etc.”
Wyner made several site visits in the four months leading up, to ensure that the island would be comfortable and safe.
“We held the bulk of the event at the convention center, as none of the hotels could hold a group our size,” she adds. “We had conversations with the team at the convention center in regard to our needs and the high-level visibility of this meeting, but we felt confident that they could meet our expectations, and the space was perfect for us.”
Wyner says American Airlines didn’t use much of the facility’s technology, working instead with PSAV to bring in a production team to oversee the AV and run the show.
She spread the group among five hotels, including the 503-room Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, located opposite the convention center. With the largest hotel ballroom on the island (16,290 square feet), the Sheraton has ample facilities for medium-sized groups, including meeting space flooded with natural light. A soft renovation for the rooms and meeting facilities is scheduled for the hotel in Q3 2019.
Wyner also used two smaller properties across from the convention center, the 126-room Hyatt House San Juan and 149-room Hyatt Place San Juan/City Center, which opened in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Remaining guests were booked into the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino and La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort, both located in the Condado area, a 10-minute drive from the convention center.
“We held our opening reception at the La Concha resort, and they blew us away,” she says. “Their level of service was top-notch. They worked with us to make the event special, their food was fantastic, and we could really tell how excited they were to have us. They shared our desire for a successful event.”
One of the island’s original resorts, built in 1958, La Concha is awash in period Tropical Modernism architectural details. The 483-room property received a $220 million renovation in 2007 to reopen as a Renaissance-flagged resort. But many of the original meeting facilities remain, including an elegant, 5,576-square-foot ballroom and breakout rooms that face the ocean. One beach-level space, the Atlantiko Room, has been divided and encompasses a new nightclub, Fifty-Eight, with the remainder of the space opening onto the sea — no cookie-cutter meeting spaces here. Rooms in the Ocean Tower are currently undergoing a full renovation, while Suites Tower accommodations have received their facelift and are fully operational today.
Nearby, the 404-room San Juan Marriott housed relief personnel during Puerto Rico’s initial recovery, but the main tower reopened to leisure guests last April. The hotel’s 123-room Cabana wing suffered extensive water damage during the storm, and a full renovation was completed in December. The main tower will be renovated in stages this August through December, and the hotel’s 7,000-square-foot ballroom will also get a touchup. Several breakout rooms overlook the beach and rolling surf.
For Wyner, using a DMC, Destination Puerto Rico, was key to the event’s success. “They were awesome,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to use a DMC. They have knowledge and expertise that you can’t find anywhere else. When you are bringing 1,000 people to an island, to be housed in five separate hotels, with the meeting at a separate location, holding a reception offsite and doing eight separate community service events, you need help.
“Destination Puerto Rico could not have provided us a better support system. They handled all of our transportation, décor and entertainment. They were affordable, and we never felt that we were being taken advantage of. They know the island better than you do, and they can guide you to make the best decisions for your attendees, your events and your budget. We could not have pulled off an event like this without them.”
Other Puerto Rico properties ready for meeting and convention business include El San Juan Hotel, home to the most gorgeous lobby in the Caribbean, lined with acres of hand-carved cherry mahogany. The 388-room hotel, now part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, completed a $65 million renovation in 2017, and has been used for relief personnel since the storm. But a grand reopening was held in December, and the resort’s old world elegance and glamour shines anew. The El San Juan features almost 40,000 square feet of meeting space and sits less than a mile from the international airport.
Located 45 minutes east of San Juan, the 400-room Wynd-ham Grand Rio Mar Golf & Beach Resort has more than 100,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space, including a 20,913-square-foot ballroom. The hotel’s restaurants have received a full makeover: At the end of last year, Marbella was renovated, and the new casual restaurant Roots Coastal Kitchen features farm-to-table dining; Palio Seafood & Steakhouse will reopen with a new Italian concept later this year.
Just 26 miles west of the San Juan airport lies Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. Sitting on the hallowed grounds of a famed Laurance Rockefeller-built resort, the 114-room Ritz-Carlton Reserve reopened in October, following a full refresh of facilities and landscaping, including a reimagined signature restaurant, Coa, and a new Omakase & Ceviche Bar. The historic Surf Room serves as the resort’s ballroom, offering 4,558 square feet of meeting space with floor-to-ceiling windows encompassing a 180-degree sea view.
Some of Puerto Rico hotels are still undergoing renovation. The 652-room Caribe Hilton celebrates its 70th year with a re-opening scheduled for this spring. A total of 65,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space awaits at the Caribe Hilton, all refreshed this year. The airport-adjacent Ritz-Carlton San Juan is still deep in renovations; a reopening date has not been announced. And, reopening dates for El Conquistador and Las Casitas, both Waldorf Astoria resorts, have also not been announced.
But for Wyner, the island proved ready for her group of well-traveled professionals months ago. “The hospitality in Puerto Rico is top-notch,” she notes. “They are helpful and kind and were grateful to have the business.”
One island over, the Dominican Republic is one of many Caribbean destinations that were not impacted by storms this year or last. While hotel development has been largely focused for the last several decades on the Punta Cana area, the capital city of Santo Domingo has business infrastructure and air connections to make it a smart meeting option.
Safeguarded by imposing stone walls 15 feet deep, the city’s Colonial Zone is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — it was the first European city in the new world and cobblestone streets and architectural landmarks provide authentic historical ambience.
“The Dominican Republic is one of the countries that has been experiencing the most economic growth in Latin America in recent decades,” suggests Ben Sauvage, DMC, DMCP, CMP, CIS, CEO of Florida-based Connect. “Santo Domingo was a surprise in every way. It truly is the most developed and vibrant capital of the Caribbean.”
The U.S. Meat Export Federation selected the capital city for its Latin American Product Showcase last June, basing the group at the 300-room Renaissance Santo Domingo Jaragua Hotel & Casino, the city’s top meeting hotel.
Oversized guest rooms still look fresh following a 2016 makeover, and the Renaissance has more than 23,000 square feet of indoor meeting space, including the tiered La Fiesta Theater with seating for up to 1,200, and the 7,729-square-foot Anacaona Ballroom.
Additional space is found outside on a sea-facing lawn and next door at the Sheraton Santo Domingo Hotel.
“We were able to give a high-level experience to the group,” adds Sauvage. “A five-star hotel with excellent service, a conference room that met the space and technology standards, and multiple historical and cultural options for leisure at a very short distance that added authenticity.”
He also noted that the contracting process with the Renaissance Jaragua was smooth, making the planning process easy, and that the hotel’s food and beverage options were diverse. But for a memorable closing night event he looked to the Colonial City.
“We did a panoramic walking city tour with cultural surprises along the way,” says Sauvage. The walk ended the Hodelpa Caribe Colonial, where they were welcomed by the national folkloric valet in the entrance against the rhythms of merengue.
“We had the final dinner at a beautiful Spanish patio in the Hodelpa,” he says. “The staff was very flexible with the short notice changes and the chef was open and creative — they put big grills outside, and the meat was great. The Colonial City is beautiful enough there was no need to invest in big décor, though a tent is mandatory because the weather in the Caribbean is unpredictable. It rained, but everything went great.”
Sauvage added one caveat to working in the Dominican Republic. “The shipping process is too slow, items were delayed.” He recommends buying supplies in Santo Domingo, or otherwise arranging to have all items shipped well in advance through the local DMC.
Another top Caribbean destination planners look to is Aruba, and several of the island’s Palm Beach resorts have seen recent improvements.
The Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino recently completed a renovation encompassing all aspects of the resort, including redesigned guest rooms, refreshed landscapes and re-conceptualized menus and décor for the property’s five restaurants.
The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino saw a refurbishment of guest rooms, as well as to its Tradewinds Lounge and Ruth’s Chris venue, and a facelift for the Amsterdam Ballroom.
A $21 million redesign at the 359-room Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa & Casino updates the accommodations with a chic look while adding modern amenities. The resort’s Regency Club Lounge has been moved from the top floor to the ground level for easy access from the pool, beach and casino.
Scheduling a major event at a brand-new hotel is bound to encounter a few bumps along the way, but for Veronica Tostado-Span, SCPM, marketing manager solutions, architectures and engineering group at CISCO Systems, the new 1,800-room Grand Hyatt Baha Mar in Nassau, Bahamas, presented an opportunity for the company’s biannual meeting of 1,200 partners.
“It was the perfect storm for us,” she explains. “We’ve done Hawaii, Riviera Maya and Miami, and the next for us to try was the Caribbean. But we started planning late, just six months ahead. The Grand Hyatt Baha Mar had just opened, and the dates we needed were available.
“Atlantis is a meeting planner’s dream, as it offers every type of traveler or earner something to do, whatever their interest may be.”
— Michelle Harris
“Something else that was really important was air accessibility because we have people from 42 different countries attending, from the Americas, Europe and Asia. So, we were looking for an accessible destination, we looked at security, at services like ground transportation, and of course, the overall experience with food and beverages.”
“We wanted someplace where we could contain the group and have everything in one place,” adds Tostado-Span. “We invaded the whole resort, and it worked very well.”
The Baha Mar complex sprawls over 1,000 acres along Cable Beach, just west of Nassau on New Providence Island. After construction delays, the $4 billion project opened in 2017 with the Grand Hyatt, followed by the 299-room SLS Baha Mar and 233-room Rosewood Baha Mar last year. But the Grand Hyatt hosts the bulk of the meeting facilities, which includes three nautical-inspired ballrooms and a 2,000-seat entertainment venue — more than 200,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space in all.
Flexible space was requirement of CISCO’s Partner Connection Week, for an important component is one-on-ones between executives and partners — 567 individual meetings in all. “We needed to be able to have them float, and for that we used the whole fourth floor,” explains Tostado-Span.
“We asked for a lot of different things that they’re not used to. For instance, we branded the whole hotel, which sometimes is really hard. Some hotels might say ‘not here, not there,’ but we were even able to brand the suites. Hyatt said yes to 99 percent of our crazy requests, from ice cream carts to massage chairs on the convention floor. We had a beach party, and they brought everything we needed, including building fire pits. Working with someone that is so open makes our work easier and more pleasant.”
One cautionary note Tostado-Span shared was to watch out for transportation costs from the U.S. to The Bahamas. “Everything has to come from Miami,” she explains. “That was something we did not expect. I thought the event was going to be cheaper than doing it in Miami, but our AV costs went through the roof, because it all had to be flown in.
“But Baha Mar was the perfect size for us, and The Bahamas were a beautiful location,” Tostado-Span concludes. “This was their first big multiday event, and it was a real commitment from them to go into this hand-in-hand with us. But it was a partnership, and we created something really good.”
The direct selling organization Thirty-One Gifts also looked to The Bahamas for its Leadership Incentive Trip last September. Drawing 2,300 attendees, the company needed a large facility to host its group, and chose the 3,400-room Atlantis. The 171-acre resort, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, includes a casino, golf course, retail complexes, more than 20 restaurants, an aquarium and the largest water theme park in the Caribbean.
“Atlantis is a destination that so many dream of visiting,” says Michelle Harris, director of events for Thirty-One Gifts. “Offering this site as an incentive destination provided amazing results.”
Located on Paradise Island, a smaller outcrop off New Providence connected by bridge to Nassau, Atlantis is a resort city that compares to the best of the larger Vegas theme resorts — just add sea and sand.
Recent renovations and additions to Atlantis include two new restaurants at The Cove, the luxury wing of the resort, with a newly designed poolscape and cabanas; a new lobby and guest room design for the Coral Tower; while full room renovations are to be completed this month at The Reef tower. A kids concierge is now available at The Coral for children to customize their vacation, while babysitting services can now be booked through the Family Trip Planner on property.
“Atlantis is a meeting planner’s dream, as it offers every type of traveler or earner something to do, whatever their interest may be,” adds Harris, who notes that size was a determining factor for the group. “There are numerous on-property activities: the beach, water slides, entertainment, a casino, the aquarium and more.”
Thirty-One Gifts did plan an offsite excursion for a select group. “We held an event on Pearl Island for 275 people. Our DMC, Equilibrium, assisted in creating a unique and memorable experience for our earners. We offered lunch, music, fun drinks, massages, snorkeling, speedboat rides and a variety of water activities.”
Harris called out Sharon Jacques, a “wonderful, dedicated and determined national sales manager. The staff is extremely helpful and accommodating and has the guest and meeting planner at top of mind, all the time. Anything you ask or need, they figure out a way to help or simply just take care of it.”
Although Atlantis accommodated Thirty-One Gifts with an all-inclusive package, Harris still cautioned on setting reasonable budget expectations.
“The prices of F&B at Atlantis can be quite high,” she explains. “Go in knowing what you are willing or able to spend. Be open and transparent with your attendees concerning their out-of-pocket expenses.” C&IT