It’s no secret that Mexico has experienced its share of challenges in recent years. During that time, some companies shied away from the destination, while others relocated meetings they had initially booked there due to safety concerns. But thanks to a combination of a newly elected president (Enrique Peña Nieto) in 2012, an increased focus on safety and security, and significant investments being made in new properties and infrastructure, groups are once again heading south of the border with confidence.
Cecilia Cruz, executive director for the meetings industry for the Mexico Tourism Board in Washington DC, explained that Mexico’s new government is working hard to address areas of concern to make tourism in the country world class. “We are increasing security and doing many, many things in the cities, in the venues and in the resorts. I know it is one of the things that meeting planners care about. We also care very much about it. I think it is one of the most important things we’re working on.”
Adam Lawhorne, CITE, CIS, is CEO of Chicago-based Meeting Incentive Experts which operates offices in Los Cabos, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. “We are a planning company within a DMC, so we do both,” he explains. “We help bring people to the country, show them around, give them ideas on the hospitality and wonderful destination Mexico is, find out their objectives and see which destination fits best for them.”
Lawhorne cited the significant investments being made in new resorts and infrastructure in Mexico as evidence of the progress the country is making. “The people that are investing in the country are not just Mexicans, but also Europeans, Canadians and Americans. I don’t think they would invest that kind of money if they thought they were going to have a problem with violence and safety concerns. With this new president that has come in and the infrastructure and things that are changing and really getting better in Mexico, people are seeing a difference when they come down for a site inspection.”
Major U.S.-based hoteliers, such as InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Marriott, Hilton and W, among others, are making investments in meeting quality hotels. IHG alone will have invested $500 million in 47 new Mexico properties by the end of this year.
And major Mexican and international hoteliers such as Fiesta Americana, Grupo Presidente, Barceló Hotels & Resorts, Palace Resorts, Riu Hotels & Resorts and AM Resorts have made significant investments in new hotels and renovations of existing properties to stay abreast of their American competition.
For example, Grupo Presidente — which operates hotels across Mexico in destinations including Cancun, Los Cabos, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Ixtapa and Merida — has undertaken major renovations at its Presidente InterContinental Mexico City Polanco and the Presidente InterContinental Cancun Resort.
There also are new convention center facilities in Cabo San Lucas, Tijuana and Puebla.
Michelle Machado, senior manager, marketing promotions for Herndon, Virginia-based XO Communications, recently brought a 150-person group of contest winners and their guests to the Sandos Cancun. “We were looking for a beach location that was pretty easy to get in and out of, and we also were looking for an all-inclusive-type property. Those are hard to find here in the states, so we thought the next best thing would be Mexico. A lot of us have had experience there and really liked it, so it was a good option for us.”
Prior to booking the event, Machado and her colleagues discussed safety issues and did a lot of research. “It seems that it’s more in the border towns (that problems were occurring), and not the resort communities, and so we decided to go ahead and go through with it, and we’re glad we did because we had a really great experience there. We didn’t have anyone bring up anything that caused anybody concern about someone’s safety. There were no incidents whatsoever.”
She described what she liked about the Sandos Cancun, an upscale, all-inclusive resort offering 214 guest rooms, five gourmet restaurants and bars, and an award-winning spa. “It’s a beautiful property. The beachfront was absolutely gorgeous — turquoise waters and white sand, and it was as clean as it could be. The food was really good. The property has a lot going on. They do a barbecue by the pool every afternoon. Our group really loved that. There were a lot of food options. The customer service is over the top. They’re just very good and will do anything to make sure your stay is pleasant.
Another factor in XO Communications’ decision to book its event at the Sandos Cancun is that it’s family friendly. Some all-inclusive properties are adults only.
“The proximity to activities was great,” she continues. “You are pretty much in the heart of town. You can walk to the main shopping areas. And they have this bus service. About every two minutes a bus passes you and it’s comparable to one U.S. dollar to hop on. They’re very safe and they seemed to be running from first thing in the morning to late into the evening. It was also easy to get in and out from an airport perspective.”
Machado planned a welcome reception the first evening. “It was just beautiful. They set it up in their gazebo area, and we had some beautiful Chinese lanterns and lights. It was just a really nice setting as the sun was setting on the beachfront. They did a nice job accommodating our private event.”
The destination and the resort were a big hit with Machado’s group. “Since we’ve gotten back, I’ve had a number of my folks ask me if I could get a discounted rate to go back with their families for a summer vacation,” she says.
Lawhorne explains that Cancun had to rebrand itself after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which turned out to be a good thing. “They did a $20 million beach renovation in 2010, and now the beaches in Cancun are 30-40 yards deep from the hotels. It’s something that Cancun has never had before. The beaches are wonderful to do events on, from teambuilding to theme parties, and we have all this room now.”
He also noted all of the new hotels that are coming into play. “They’re renovating hotels and turning them into deluxe all-inclusives because that seems to be the craze in Mexico, even for meetings, so the planner doesn’t get a bill at the end of the program and say ‘look at how much money we’ve spent on food and beverage.’ Now they know what it will be upfront. We have a client who was doing a meeting in Chicago for 450 people…and they moved it to Cancun because it was cheaper.”
Palace Resorts completed a $55 million renovation and expansion of its landmark, 2,409-room Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort in Cancun. The expansion included the addition of the new 140,000-sf Moon Palace Arena, which joined the resort’s existing 55,850-sf Lower Level Universal Ballroom, 36,000-sf Upper Level Universal Ballroom and the 26,800-sf Galactic Ballroom.
Spanning south of Cancun along the country’s Caribbean coast, Riviera Maya is a popular meeting and incentive destination known for its eco-adventures and more than 80 miles of coastline. “Cancun and Riviera Maya are so different,” Lawhorne states. “They’re basically two destinations with one airport. You have the whole corridor, which is about 60 miles long all the way down to Playa del Carmen and Tulum, which has beautiful new hotels, from all-inclusives to deluxe E.P. hotels that are really good for meetings and incentive programs. They’re world-class hotels like Rosewood (Mayakoba) and Banyan Tree (Mayakoba). And then there’s Secrets (Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun).
“The one hotel that is unbelievably gorgeous, is Nizuc (Resort & Spa). It’s a five-star hotel with five-star dining options, a beautiful beach…a huge spa and a beautiful convention center. It’s absolutely gorgeous. If you’re looking for a top class meeting destination, that hotel would blow away a Four Seasons anywhere in the world. It’s a pretty amazing property.” The 274-room Nizuc Resort & Spa, which just opened in March, is located on the Nizuc peninsula at the gateway of the Riviera Maya, and less than 20 minutes from Cancun International Airport. Set on 29 acres, the luxury resort offers multiple pools, six restaurants, a 30,000-sf spa, two exclusive beaches and easy access to the region’s natural wonders, archaeological sites and attractions. All of the resort’s accommodations are suites or villas.
This month, Hard Rock International opened the world’s fourth all-inclusive Hard Rock property with the debut of the 1,264-room Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya. In addition to 88,915 sf of meeting and event space, the hotel features expansive outdoor pools, a private beach, nine world-class restaurants, and eight bars and lounges.
Barceló Maya is a 2,751-room family-friendly resort comprised of five all-inclusive hotels and one of the longest stretches of private beach access in the area. Two of the hotels, the Barceló Maya Beach and the Barceló Maya Caribe, are currently undergoing a $48 million renovation. Phase one of the project has been completed, and the second phase is scheduled to be wrapped up by the end of 2014. The Barceló Maya complex also features one of the largest convention centers in Riviera Maya.
Lawhorne says that Los Cabos was voted the safest destination in Mexico last year by the secretary of tourism. “It’s really going through a growing spurt right now,” he explains. “We’re going to be adding about 1,000 hotel rooms in the next year, which is tremendous. We have a new Secrets project…in Puerto Los Cabos, which is a new area right by San Jose. It’s a large, large area with a new marina that opened a couple of years ago. There’s room for about five hotels that are being planned right now.” AMResorts opened Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf & Spa Resort in December with 500 suites, 16,000 sf of meeting space and access to the Puerto Los Cabos community’s amenities, including the full-service marina, and a Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman-designed golf course.
“Another great thing about Los Cabos,” Lawhorne continues, “is our new international terminal.” He notes that the new terminal can handle large aircraft, and it also has air-conditioned jetways, along with six baggage claim areas and an improved traffic flow through customs and immigration.
Lawhorne credits the G20 summit, which was held in Los Cabos in 2012, for many of the area’s recent improvements. “We have a new convention center now which is green certified.” The $100 million, 72,000-sf Los Cabos Convention Center, which opened in 2012, features solar panels and the largest green wall in the world. “Right now, with the new hotel builds and the convention center, we can now do citywides, which is really important for Cabo. We’re also adding more and more air lift.” He noted new service from Austin, Orange County, Dallas and San Diego as examples.
The Sandos Finisterra Los Cabos Resort opened last year. Formerly known as the Finisterra Hotel, the property has been transformed into a 288-room all-inclusive luxury resort. Of particular interest to groups staying at the resort during the time frame of January through April, will be the top floor suite that has been converted into a whale-watching bar.
Also opening last year was the all-inclusive, 619-room Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos. Located just minutes from San Jose del Cabo, the AAA Four Diamond beachfront property offers all-suite accommodations, eight restaurants, a spa, nightly entertainment and more than 35,000 sf of meeting space.
“I want meeting planners to know that we are considering Puerto Vallarta/Nayarit a new destination altogether,” Cruz states. “The two governments of those states are working together to make one destination, so we have more connectivity to this side of the country. We have good, good, venues in Puerto Vallarta, and also we have five-star hotels there, and more in Nayarit, so it is becoming one of the best destinations for meetings.”
“Puerto Vallarta is one of the cities that has had a really tough time,” Lawhorne notes, “it has had some bad negative press, but things are really turning around. Planners are really starting to see the value for Puerto Vallarta, the cobblestone streets, the beautiful history, all the shopping, all the great dining. Now there are two new hotel builds, and there hasn’t been any new hotel builds for 10 years. We have the first Hilton all-inclusive (Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort). We have a beautiful convention center that was built (seven) years ago. We have a new Secrets (Vallarta Bay, Puerto Vallarta), an all-inclusive. All of these are on the beach, all of them are within five to 10 minutes from downtown and five to 10 minutes from the airport, which is a great thing for a meeting. Both of these hotels are wonderful. They’re really complementing the destination.
“The history of Puerto Vallarta has always been that there was nothing bad going on within the city,” he continues, “but if you went outside the city, there were some problems, but those have been corrected. I think that’s making people feel safer. I’m seeing more pharmaceutical companies, more real estate companies, health companies, computer companies.”
Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, has more than 21 million residents, making it the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. As the economic and business center of the country, Mexico City offers multiple world-class convention centers and more than 50,000 hotel rooms along with big city amenities such as art galleries and museums. It also offers easy air access with direct flights to and from cities around the globe.
The new 260-room Hilton Mexico City Santa Fe opened this spring in the Santa Fe business district of Mexico City. The hotel provides more than 8,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including a ballroom; a business center with six boardrooms; and a rooftop-level event space.
The St. Regis Mexico City unveiled three new meeting spaces last fall. The Madelaine Ballroom includes a terrace accommodating up to 400 guests, and two Orchid rooms provide space for more intimate events with up to 30 guests each. Guests staying at the property, which offers 189 rooms and suites, can take advantage of the brand’s signature 24-hour butler service.
Cruz encourages planners to see what’s new in Mexico for themselves, citing Mexico Tourism’s “Live It to Believe It” campaign, launched last fall. “This campaign is really about inviting everyone to Mexico,” Cruz says. “If you don’t go, you can’t imagine how beautiful and how amazing it is — and not just our beaches and sun. We also have good venues and good cities and good infrastructure for all of the MICE segment. I invite the meeting planners to go and visit Mexico and live it to believe it. We will welcome them when they want to go and visit on a FAM trip or come to our road shows so they can know Mexico and do business in Mexico.” C&IT