The promise of hot sun, sandy beaches and beautiful scenery is enough to lure many planners to the islands of the Bahamas, Caribbean and Puerto Rico. But there are plenty of other reasons to plan a meeting or incentive trip in this area.
“Who doesn’t get excited about a visit to the Caribbean?” asks Carolina Voullieme León, director of Sales and Marketing at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. “A trip to a tropical island is a big motivator for incentive trips, and further excites corporate groups for their event. We tend to see attendees in high spirits and really enjoying themselves, which ultimately enhances the overall ambiance of their corporate event.”
“Nassau is an ideal meeting and incentive destination in the Caribbean that feels remote while also being easily accessible.” Braedan Quigley
Given that tourism is a major focus in the region, there are plenty of properties for planners to consider. The hospitality provided by locals is unmatched. Foodies will revel in the local cuisine, and attendees excited to learn about different cultures can do it without traveling too far from home.
Mabelle Catania, director of Sales and Marketing for the SLS Baha Mar in Nassau, provides a summary of the Bahamas’ geography and attractiveness to planners. “The Bahamas is an archipelago with more than 700 islands and cays starting just 50 miles southeast of the coast of Florida. It is a safe and welcoming destination. Easily accessible from many cities in the United States, the Bahamas are just a 35-minute flight from Miami and less than three hours from New York City. With hundreds of direct flights from major cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Denver, as well as Canada and the U.K., the Bahamas is an unbeatable location to host meetings and incentive groups.”
“Nassau is an ideal meeting and incentive destination in the Caribbean that feels remote while also being easily accessible,” says Braedan Quigley, director of Sales and Marketing at Grand Hyatt Baha Mar. “International companies with a global presence also appreciate its excellent international flight access and relaxed visa requirements for visitors from Asian countries. Corporate and incentive travelers seeking an international destination with its own distinct culture and vibe who also value modern amenities necessary for business travel — high-speed Wi-Fi, bilingual hotel staff, infrastructure to host large-scale events — appreciate the ‘best of both worlds’ atmosphere the Caribbean offers.”
The Grand Hyatt Baha Mar is an 1,800-room hotel that features the Caribbean’s largest casino, the Caribbean’s first and only flagship ESPA spa, the 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Royal Blue Golf Course and Racquet Club, six multilevel pools and more than 40 food and beverage outlets. The adjacent Performing Arts and Convention Center offers 200,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor spaces.
Norma Baumann, a senior account manager at BI Worldwide, worked with a large company to host its President’s Club at the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar last summer. The nearly 1,800 guests who attended had an outstanding experience.
“As we were planning a President’s Club event, the quality of lodging had to be suitable for our attendees,” she says. “With 1,800 luxury rooms, Grand Hyatt Baha Mar had the inventory to keep our entire group together, and the high-end resort feel was aligned with what we were looking for.” Guests appreciated the Bahamian-inspired artwork and colors in the airy rooms, many of which had ocean views and balconies for enjoying the nice weather.
“The convention center’s meeting space is incredible, as there is a lot to work with,” Baumann says. “The sales office provided excellent support throughout the planning process. We understand that the process takes a village, and their willingness to listen helped quell our worries for the event. While on property, we always had one direct on-site contact, who proved to be absolutely great. He was incredibly responsive and truly understood our program and what we were trying to achieve. We were also pleased with the resort’s catering capabilities — the presentation, timing and taste were fantastic.”
SLS Baha Mar features 299 guest rooms, 109 of which are suites, and several dining and drinking options, including Skybar, the only rooftop lounge in the Caribbean. It shares many of the amenities located on the Baha Mar properties, including the spa, casino, golf course, championship racquet club and luxury stores. The hotel itself has 12,000 sf of event space.
The Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) recently took 280 incentive travel professionals to Baha Mar for its annual SITE Classic, a fundraiser to support research and education in the industry. “Baha Mar is simply breathtaking — from the art-filled spaces to the views of fountains, beaches, palm trees and pools, and an overall vibe that ranges from the action of the casino to the serenity of the ocean breezes,” says Tahira Endean, CMP, CED, DES, the organization’s head of events. “The resort destination itself is fantastic, and the infrastructure to support incentive programs internally and with DMC and ground support exceeds expectations.”
The setting, food and overall hospitality provided by the staff were described as highlights of the hotel. The property also provided guests with some pretty memorable experiences, including flamingo yoga on the lawn, learning about and tasting local bush teas, and taking painting classes from the resident artists at Baha Mar’s art space, The Current Gallery & Art Center.
The group wanted to do a CSR activity, and they found a deeply meaningful experience in helping victims of Hurricane Dorian. “We worked with one of our DMC partners, Cacique International, who identified six shelters in need of helping hands,” Endean says. A large portion of the group spent one afternoon sorting clothing, building closets, warehousing food, cleaning and handing out supplies, and washing and walking dogs.
Outside of Nassau, the ethereal-looking Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas is another option for meeting planners. The resort features five hotels — one of which is similar in appearance to artists’ renderings of the Lost City. Offerings include: a casino, spa, golf course designed by Tom Weiskopf, 20 swimming areas, beach access, regular live shows and plenty of other entertainment options.
The insurance company WoodmenLife held its 2019 incentive trip at Atlantis. People who had reached the President’s Club level stayed for four nights; those at the President’s Cabinet level were given an entire week at the property.
“WoodmenLife is a very family-oriented company,” says Jodi Lilly, corporate meeting coordinator. “Atlantis attracted our group because of the multiple activities available to guests of all ages without having to ever leave the property.” For example, the resort has a 141-acre water park called the Aquaventure, has a water-play fort, multiple water slides and pools, and a lazy river. The resort is very focused on marine conservation, so there is an area that houses rescued dolphins and sea lions and engages in marine rehabilitation activities.
Everything about the event, which drew 750 people, went very well, according to Lilly. “All of our meeting rooms, events and food stations were set up on time and as requested. I also loved the two assistants that were designated to our group. Atlantis is very focused on providing authentic Bahamian experiences for their guests. From Junkanoo to local cuisine, everyone gets to learn something about the beautiful traditions they have here.”
According to Catania, temperatures are great year-round, she says, the islands experience their lowest temperatures from December to the beginning of March. Travelers wanting to find deals should book from September to mid-November.
“Those interested in local Bahamian traditions who also want to escape the cold should visit in December to experience Junkanoo, the largest street parade across the island, featuring traditional music and colorful, elaborate costumes,” Quigley says. Junkanoo bands can be hired to provide entertainment at events throughout the year.
The Caribbean also offers great airlift, a number of high-quality properties and interesting cultural experiences. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic has more than 1,700 guest rooms and 65,000 sf of indoor meeting space. This all-inclusive resort includes a casino, bowling alleys, escape rooms, award-winning golf course, fun activities for kids, a full-fledged spa and 13 different swimming pools.
“In Punta Cana, high season basically is the beginning of the year to just after Easter,” says Kevin Edmunds, vice president of meetings & incentives for AIC Hotel Group, which owns the property. He recommends visiting in May, before schools are out for the summer and tourism increases, and in September, when rates are favorable and warm weather is still abundant.
The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino has 414 recently-renovated guest rooms and suites, including the largest sleeping rooms on the island, and more than 26,000 sf of indoor and outdoor special event space. In the past two years, the property has made upgrades to the adults-only Tradewinds Club, dining facilities, Bazaar gift shop, fitness center and outdoor spaces. Updates to the porte cochere and ballrooms are planned for this year. The rooms and suites will get another face-lift in two years.
“The beauty of Aruba is that it’s located below the hurricane belt, which means that our weather is fairly constant year-round,” Voullieme León says. “Group planners especially love this since it significantly reduces the chances of unfortunate weather disrupting an event.”
The Marriott recently put together an experience where guests can re-create a traditional Aruban dish called keshi yena, which is a ball of cheese stuffed with spiced meat. “We’ve worked with groups to bring the outdoor setting of Aruba indoors and have even gone as far as to bring a jeep into a conference room and set up tables surrounding the vehicle with food displayed on the jeep,” Voullieme León says. “Carnival is an island-wide tradition that takes place every February, where the streets are filled with parades, over-the-top costumes and lively music. We re-create this on a smaller scale every Thursday at our La Vista restaurant for leisure guests, though we can incorporate the ‘Carnival’ theme into a private dinner or special event for a local touch.”
Half Moon, located on a 400-acre plot of beachfront property in Jamaica, recently plans to open a new luxury resort experience called Eclipse at Half Moon in spring. It will include 57 guest rooms and suites, four new dining venues and a spa offering massages and yoga classes.
“Jamaica is a stunning and culturally-rich destination with access to direct flights from North America, the U.K. and Europe,” says general manager Shernette Crichton. “With such travel ease, visitors may take advantage of what Jamaica and, in particular, Half Moon, have to offer. We are looking forward to introducing a new and highly-anticipated luxury experience that will surely cement Half Moon’s position as one of the Caribbean’s most iconic resort destinations.”
Both the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa and Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas have undertaken extensive renovations since they were damaged by hurricanes. The Renaissance, which is expected to fully reopen this year, made changes to its guest rooms, dining areas, lobby and other public areas, and outdoor landscaping. Local artwork and artisan products are highlighted in the updated spaces. The Ritz-Carlton, which reopened to full capacity in the fall, has made significant upgrades to its guest rooms, meeting space, lobby and dining facilities. There is a new, family swimming pool with a splash pad and luxury pool cabanas.
“Puerto Rico is a great place for groups because it offers diverse topography with beach, city and rainforest all within a pretty short drive; great authentic cuisine; friendly locals; and a rich culture that can be felt through its music, food, art and celebrations,” says Betty Gonzalez, communications manager for the Caribe Hilton. “San Juan is just a short flight from many major U.S. cities, including New York, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Boston. English is widely spoken. There’s no currency exchange and no passports required. Here, groups get the benefit of an exotic, tropical escape without the hassle of having to travel abroad.”
The Caribe Hilton remains one of the island’s most iconic properties. It was the first Hilton hotel outside of the continental U.S., and is the birthplace of the piña colada. Last year, the property wrapped up a $150 million renovation that included changes to all 652 guest rooms, pools and landscaping, the spa and its 11 dining concepts.
Late last year, Fairfax, Virginia-based NetHope, a collective that focuses on improving IT connectivity among humanitarian organizations, hosted its annual Global Summit at Caribe Hilton. More than 500 participants spent five days hearing from keynote speakers, attending breakout sessions and workshops, networking and engaging in community service projects.
“NetHope was drawn to Puerto Rico as a Summit destination given our work in the region during the response and recovery to Hurricanes Maria and Irma,” says event manager Elizabeth Bamber. “In March of 2018 — less than six months after the hurricanes — we conducted an extensive site visit to six hotels and determined the Caribe Hilton offered us the best of the best. Though the property was under extensive repair and renovation, the location and campus were unparalleled. The potential of what Caribe Hilton could offer for meeting space, guest rooms and amenities was clear.”
Bamber never regretted that decision. “Coming from a hotel background, I am very aware of the training and support it takes to create and sustain an excellent team of service professionals. Caribe Hilton has succeeded in delivering this team at every level and in every department. From the banquet and bar staff to the bellmen, concierge and front desk, along with housekeeping and the resort staff, I was extremely well cared for as a planner and our guests as attendees.”
One of the highlights of the event is always the NetHope Community Celebration, which highlights the organization’s partners as well as the culture, people, cuisine and music of the host community. “This year’s celebration — held on-property — was beautifully themed, with local musicians, regional cuisine and the Caribe Hilton’s signature piña colada,” Bamber says. Interactive DMC Puerto Rico was an important partner in sourcing and executing the celebration.
NetHope also offered attendees the opportunity to volunteer for service projects with local nonprofits. Activities included: home remodeling and repair, tree planting, farm labor assistance and helping to clean up and revitalize a school severely damaged by Hurricane Maria.
Bamber highly recommends the Caribbean as a whole in addition to the Caribe Hilton. “The region is well positioned with infrastructure and hotel and resort properties to accommodate a diverse slate of meetings, conventions and events,” she says. “Its natural beauty, rich cultures and welcoming citizens are an additional bonus to any planner or attendee experience.”
Puerto Rico is a prime destination for meetings, incentives, conferences and events — and will be more so especially when El Distrito opens in the spring. The district will feature a zip line, restaurants, bars, lounges, the first day/night disco and eight premium movie theaters. The 360,000-sf state-of-the-art entertainment, retail and dining project combines the best in art, music, technology and hospitality.
“A perfect visit to Puerto Rico isn’t complete without checking out the beautiful beaches, bustling Old San Juan city center, and El Yunque rainforest, which is home to lots of local wildlife,” Gonzalez says. “There are also great under-the-radar neighborhoods and towns like Santurce, Calle Loiza and La Perla that are worth visiting when you want to go more off-the-beaten-path. We’re known for having one of the longest festive seasons, with celebrations that run from Christmas though February. The entire city comes alive this time of year. C&IT