Sun & Sand On DemandJune 24, 2020

Island Retreats Offer Idyllic Hideaways and More for Planners and Attendees By
June 24, 2020

Sun & Sand On Demand

Island Retreats Offer Idyllic Hideaways and More for Planners and Attendees
The Hotel El San Juan - Curio by Hilton, recently renamed the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel, offers nearly 40,000 sf of flexible space.

The Hotel El San Juan – Curio by Hilton, recently renamed the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel, offers nearly 40,000 sf of flexible space.

As retreats go, nothing beats having your convention or event on an island replete with sandy beaches, turquoise water and fun in the sun. Take a look at the following destinations for examples of everything island style.

Holiday Inn Club Vacations Incorporated set its 2020 summit at Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort. Betsy Lemus, manager, brand performance, says the island was chosen “for its natural beauty, tranquility and great teambuilding options incorporating the history and culture of Puerto Rico. Our summit takes place each January and, because our leaders are based throughout the states, we seek warm-weather destinations that are unique.”

Lemus worked with Innovation DMC and Discover Puerto Rico to put the meeting in place. “I truly enjoyed working with the folks at Innovation DMC. They guided me and provided me with multiple options and exceptional support throughout my planning,” Lemus said. “They understood our goals and needs, and focused on ensuring they were met. Most importantly, the event could not have taken place without the support of Discover Puerto Rico, which assisted in arranging site tours at the hotels I was interested in visiting.”

The group experienced much that Puerto Rico offers. “We provided the team with different excursion options to choose from, including an Old San Juan Tour, El Yunque Rainforest, a Chinchorreo, a catamaran tour and golf at the resort. Some team members booked a Bioluminescence Bay kayak tour on their own,” Lemus adds. “We conducted our last meeting at Casa BACARDÍ distillery in the BACARDÍ Family Museum, followed by a fun mixology class. During our welcome reception, we had a tropical trio play, and one evening we had a Puerto Rican street fiesta (Noche Jibara), which incorporated a steel band, Bomba show, cigar roller and, of course, Puerto Rican traditional food: rice with gandules, chicken breast stuffed with mofongo, ripe plantains, tres leches and tembleque. Our bar was hosted by Rums of Puerto Rico, a special touch as well.”

The Wyndham was a hit. “It had everything we were looking for in one location,” Lemus says. “The multiple options of meeting-room settings we needed, on-site amenities, F&B and nearby attractions our attendees were able to explore on their own made this a great choice. And though the resort initially seemed big for our group of 60, it was perfect.”

The resort’s A/V services easily met their needs, and the overall attendee response to the F&B was that it exceeded expectations. “The staff and service were wonderful. Staff was always attentive to our needs and always available throughout our event,” Lemus notes. “Our team members appreciated the caring hospitality the staff provided.”

In the realm of things that cannot be predicted, Puerto Rico experienced an earthquake prior to the event. “This caused some concern,” Lemus says. “But my frequent communication with the resort, DMC and Discover Puerto Rico contacts assured me we would be safe and that the resort was operational and not affected. This, along with my leader’s research and assurance, made our group more at ease. Although the island was going through some challenges, the resilience, care and hard work of the people was visible, which made our event a success.”

Several hotels opened on the island late last year and early this year, including the chic Trópica Beach Hotel and Aloft San Juan hotel. Additionally, the renowned El San Juan Hotel became a Fairmont property.

Margaritaville Beach Resort Nassau is expected to open this year. It will offer a water park and 40,000 sf of meeting space.Margaritaville Beach Resort Nassau is expected to open this year. It will offer a water park and 40,000 sf of meeting space.

Heather Gottula, CMP, program manager with Trane Technologies Meeting Services, says the Bahamas made total sense for the company’s incentive program with 1,300 attendees. “It’s an international incentive destination and it’s in proximity to and has multiple flights daily from major U.S. cities.”

She notes that resort Baha Mar in Nassau was chosen before Hurricane Dorian devastated parts of the Bahamas, and while that caused concern prior to the November program, it also provided opportunity. “The majority of attendees are in the customer service industry and wanted to give back, so the program incorporated a fund allowing guests and sponsors to donate to relief efforts.”

This was the program’s 20th anniversary, and Gottula says Baha Mar was chosen as an upgraded location. “The resort is home to three international hotel brands — Grand Hyatt, SLS and Rosewood — and features 200,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting spaces; more than 40 restaurants, bars and lounges; and an abundance of activities throughout the resort.”

Gottula worked with local DMC Equilibrium Events Bahamas, “whose knowledge and expertise were incredibly helpful. Equilibrium’s staff were friendly, on time for events, organized and cost conscious.”

The group used the majority of space at the resort convention center and its outdoor function area. “Baha Mar has a great layout with the convention space being separate, yet connected to the resort. Due to the number of attendees, there was high demand for Wi-Fi,” she says,” and we were able to add internet through the hotel, which nicely supported our event.”

Gottula notes that the F&B program was highly successful in part because budget and menu planning started  months in advance. She says, “That allowed us to stay in budget without any surprises. And with the resort’s wide variety of menu offerings, the group was able to eat all meals on property for three days with no repetitions.”

The traditional Bahamian offerings paired with a traditional Junkanoo band were an attendee favorite.

The resort was a positive partner. “Baha Mar partnered with us to offer mixology and cooking classes for afternoon activities, which received great feedback. And we provided a credit to guests to use on-property, which was a big hit. Not only did the credit allow attendees to experience the resort destination and all its offerings, it also gave the group a chance to spend money that went directly back to the hotel and the local staff,” Gottula says.

The convention center and planning team were a plus, too. “They made this a seamless process and fantastic experience. The team was incredibly dedicated to checking in on our group and utilizing WhatsApp for quick answers and requests,” Gottula adds. “The large amount of space allows for a variety of functions and creativity, and given all the space, there was always a backup plan in case of weather.”

To planners considering Baha Mar, Gottula says, “Give your group plenty of free time. Once guests arrive and see how beautiful the resort is and all its amenities and outdoor offerings, they’ll want limited time indoors. However, some activities and dining options could be considered expensive, so work closely with your CSM on your budget and have clear lines on costs upfront.”

It’s likely attendees will want to go off-property in free time, Gottula says. “It’s important that attendees are aware to be safe and use their best judgment when leaving any resort for a day or night trip. We always recommend they carry extra cash for cabs.”

One caution: Although there are frequent flights into Nassau, they fill fast. “Give attendees advance notice so they can book reasonable airfare,” Gottula says. “Additionally, many attendees will want to add on pre- or post-extension trips. With Baha Mar’s high occupancy, that should be worked through with the hotel far in advance and considered while contracting.”

Not far from Baha Mar, Margaritaville Beach Resort Nassau is slated to open this year. The resort’s 284 guestrooms are in two towers, 129 of them residential condominiums. Amenities include a waterpark, spa, high-tech entertainment center, 12 food and drink outlets and 40,000 sf of function space.

Also in the Bahamas, Atlantis, Paradise Island boasts a 30,000-sf spa; a 141-acre water park; an open-air marine habitat with more than 50,000 aquatic animals representing more than 250 marine species; and hands-on experiences at Dolphin Cay. Atlantis’ Conference Center encompasses 200,000 sf of indoor meeting spaces, including the 50,000-sf Imperial Ballroom, which has the capacity for groups of up to 4,000. The Conference Center also has 30 breakout rooms, three boardrooms, a large staging area and a banquet kitchen equipped with additional pantries and state-of-the-art facilities for groups of all sizes. Additionally, there are 300,000 sf of outdoor event space with multiple meeting facilities.

A teambuilding activity at St. Lucia’s Sugar Beach.

A group of 35 radiologists met in Bermuda for a continuing medical education conference in October. “We selected the destination because of the island’s proximity to East Coast hubs,” says Lori Ehrich, CMP, HMCC, manager of professional education and events at Penn Medicine/Department of Radiology. “The fall meeting tends to draw attendees from the East Coast who can get to a destination in one flight. Bermuda seemed a bit more ‘exotic’ than going to Florida.”

Attendees register only for the medical portion of the conference, four half days of meetings from 7 a.m. to noon daily. “The remainder of the time, they’re on their own,” Ehrich says. “Many used the public ferry and public transportation to visit other parts of the island, including the caves.”

Ehrich was sold on Bermuda during a FAM hosted by the tourism board. “The FAM trip was in November, which I learned was the start of ‘winter’ season — yet the weather was still mild. However, many service schedules change in November, including the hotel’s shuttle to the beach club,” she says. “That’s why I selected mid-October for our meeting. I selected the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club because it was located just a few blocks from downtown so attendees could easily walk there, plus the hotel’s extensive art collection is interesting and would appeal to our attendees. They’re sophisticated travelers who like to explore new areas and have new experiences. There are other stunning hotels on the island but they felt remote, and Fairmont has a great reputation.”

The group’s meeting space needs are very straightforward. “A simple classroom with a high ceiling is important. We like a large screen to project our medical images. The attendees are all radiologists getting their continuing education, so the projected image along with the skills of the speaker are most important,” Ehrich says. In addition to classes, there was a welcome reception on a balcony off the hotel’s restaurant, Marcus’, which she calls “a perfect get-together.”

Ehrich points out that while the hotel, managed by Fairmont, has a couple of lovely pools, the beach club is a 25-minute ride away — hence the reason it’s important to know whether all hotel services, including shuttles and restaurants, will be up and running when you meet. “We enjoyed Bermuda and the hotel’s location on the water and marina was gorgeous,” she says. “We had several beautiful sunsets. Our meeting was not an incentive piece of business with group activities provided complimentary to participants. Our guests are individual travelers deciding how much they want to spend to have different experiences. If price is a factor, people may stay close to the hotel and never see other parts of the island. They miss out on the beauty Bermuda offers, though. The island is small, but with a 25 mph speed limit, it takes a while to get places. “

Attendees should also know, Ehrich notes, that tourists cannot drive on the island by law, with the exception of scooters and eco-friendly, mini-electric vehicles that hold a max of two people.

Bermuda has several hotel development projects on tap. Bermudiana Beach Resort, Hilton Tapestry, with 78 suites, is slated to open this year, while the 121-room St. Regis Bermuda Resort and 84-room Ritz-Carlton Reserve will open in 2021 and 2022, respectively. A new terminal at Bermuda L.F. Wade International Airport also is expected to open this year.

Guests at Casa de Campo Resort in the Dominican Republic have access to a golf learning center.Guests at Casa de Campo Resort in the Dominican Republic have access to a golf learning center.

Hosts Global is the corporate entity overseeing a collection of DMCs around the world. Understandably, its annual Global Forum showcases the creativity and services of DMCs. Last year, the group convened at Paradisus Palma Real Golf & Spa Resort in Punta Cana. “The Dominican Republic, specifically Punta Cana, was a good fit for us as it matched all our needs — ease of guest arrivals and a property where we could host all our meetings, we’re space intensive, and also give the guests a ‘wow’ experience,” says Marty MacKay, DMCP, regional president, Global Alliance, Hosts Global. “While the meeting was educational, it had an incentive feel with high service expectations.”

Paradisus Palma Real is close to the Punta Cana International Airport and, as MacKay notes, blends ample meeting space with the feel of an incentive property, and there are a wide range of activities in the area, which Hosts tapped into via locally based Connect DMC. “There are so many options for tours on the island from cultural to active, foodie tours to the ultimate R&R,” MacKay notes. Among the popular options were a catamaran sail as well as a post-convention trip to historic island capital Santo Domingo.

The group used all the meeting space, but the biggest draw, MacKay says, “was the ballroom with the full-size video projection on the wall. It really made for an impact when guests entered the general session and allowed us to do some out-of-the box video without added cost.”

The hotel staff MacKay notes, “really outdid themselves and even managed to pull one event inside at the last minute due to rain and still wow the guests. Our group also did several CSR events with the hotel, and staff was really helpful in instituting a sustainable meeting.”

Paradisus Palma Real is an all-inclusive, MacKay adds. “You need to be willing to work with the hotel on locations for meals and ensure you know what will be private and what is a better experience for the group if public, such as the breakfasts.”

The conference was held last year, during the PR crisis the island was experiencing with reported deaths in the country — the kind of unforeseen challenge that demands excellent on-site partners. “The hotel, tourism board and local DMC worked on ensuring the safety of our guests and were willing to implement new procedures for us,” MacKay says. “The program was a huge success.”

The Dominican Republic isn’t a one-destination island. Around the eastern point from Punta Cana lies another resort area, La Romana, and one of the country’s best-known resorts, Casa de Campo Resort & Villas. That’s where John Lie-Nielsen, CEO of Florida-based One Park Financial, brought a group of top performers for a special weekend.

“We were kicking off our Founders Circle Award Weekend for the first time in our company’s history. Founders Circle Award winners are our top performers who have worked incredibly hard and consistently beat their metrics while being cultural role models for others in our company,” Lie-Nielsen says. “We have a few offices in the Dominican Republic and in Miami. That’s where our “Grovies” (what we call our employees) are located, so we wanted to keep it tropical, convenient and make it a truly amazing weekend for our top Grovies to remember.”

What stands out about the island, Lie-Nielsen says, are the “Incredibly friendly people, world-class beaches and some of the best food in the Caribbean.” He says Casa de Campo was chosen for its beauty, variety of activities, luxury and proximity to the company’s local office. Resort highlights include personal golf carts, top-notch service, beachfront restaurants, a wide range of activities, and the award ceremony set at nearby Altos de Chavón, a stunning re-creation of a Mediterranean-styled village perched above the Chavón River.  Of the food, Lie-Nielsen says, “It completely exceeded our expectations and not our budget.” The event was a huge success. “It was as special as we wanted it to be for our Founders’ Circle Award Weekend.”

Casa de Campo has completed a $12 million renovation, including enhancements to pool areas, new deluxe patio and balcony rooms, a new beach club, golf learning center and new taqueria in Altos de Chavón.

St. Lucia may not be the well-known meeting destination other islands are, yet there are reasons for planners to consider it. Erwin Louisy, managing director of Barefoot Holidays St. Lucia LTD, a Hosts Global member, can think of many, starting with warm and hospitable people. “St. Lucia is also within easy access of the United States and serviced by major U.S airlines,” she says. “It has an array of four- and five-star resorts in stunning locations, historical and unique venues for off-property events, and cultural, musical and high-end entertainment. There’s also the majestic Piton mountains, culinary experiences with renowned island chefs and both soft- and high-adventure activities.”

It was the ideal meeting destination for her group, based at Sugar Beach, A Viceroy Resort. “The hotel provided easy access from the international airport and the accommodation pricing was suitable to the budget and allowed guests to participate in island activities and off-property dining experiences,” Louisy says.

A scavenger hunt was set up, giving attendees the opportunity to discover local culture and the lush interior of the island via 4×4 vehicles. “Participants followed clues that took them through our rich island vegetation, banana and coconut plantations, and outskirts of our rainforest. They also interacted with island people and experienced their kind hospitality,” Louisy says.

For the opening reception, attendees were welcomed to a bloom-filled flower market as they descended from their villas.

“The florists invited them to choose blooms and assisted them in crafting personal arrangements that were later sent to the villas and displayed for the duration of their stay. Led by folkloric dancers, they made their way to a beachside Caribbean-themed dinner,” Louisy says. “The sound of the waves and steel-band music set the mood for this immersive experience.”

The closing gala was set at a traditional cocoa plantation transformed into a rustic-elegant dinner setting.

“The island’s renowned Police Band provided an eclectic blend of music from classical to Calypso to traditional rhythms. Stilt walkers, choral groups and cultural entertainers all came together to make this a one-of-a-kind evening,” she adds.

Louisy has tips for planners considering St. Lucia: “U.S. citizens need passports. And while the U.S. dollar is widely accepted, we recommend that attendees exchange a small amount for purchasing goods from local vendors. If you’re going to ship materials,” she notes, “a local customs broker must clear them. And any items that will be ‘consumed’ on the island, such as insect repellent and sunscreen, will incur customs charges.”

Aruba, which sits outside the hurricane belt, enjoys blissful weather year-round.Aruba, which sits outside the hurricane belt, enjoys blissful weather year-round.

In the interest of providing high-quality products and services to visitors, the Aruba Tourism Authority and a partner have launched the Aruba Quality Seal program. The seal indicates local businesses that meet Aruba’s “highest-quality standards,” the authority says. Planners can learn more from the tourism authority and Aruba Convention Bureau.

A few of Aruba’s convention hotels include the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, which offers 24-hour gaming; 10,450 sf of event space, including the 8,520-sf Grand Ballroom capable of hosting 880 attendees reception-style, and 450 for a banquet. The H2Oasis pool area is for adults only, and can accommodate 250 for a reception or 180 for a banquet.

The Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino offers 15,000 sf of renovated indoor facilities and 24,000 sf of outdoor event space, which includes a beach venue. Its largest indoor venue, the 8,100-sf Morris Lapidus Grand Ballroom, can fit up to 900 for a reception, while the 8,000-sf Active Pool Deck can handle 700 reception-style and 550 banquet-style.

The Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa and Casino, offers 33,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting and event space. The largest space is the 5,290-sf Regency Ballroom, which can accommodate 400 for a banquet and 600 for a reception. Its casino includes 13 gaming tables, 221 slot machines, 19 video poker machines and a casino bar serving hand-rolled cigars and exotic drinks.

The Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino offers just more than 40,000 sf of meeting and event space, including the 15,120-sf Crystal Ballroom, which can hold 1,400 for a reception and 1,000 for a banquet. It boasts that its Renaissance Convention Center is the largest, most modern facility of its kind in Aruba.

The region encompassing the Caribbean, Bahamas and Bermuda is wildly diverse, from desert to dense tropics, flat to mountainous, and an aesthetic that might be British, French or Dutch, not to mention indigenous. “Something for everyone” is often an overstatement; not here. C&IT


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