The Caribbean and The BahamasDecember 1, 2015

Fun in the Sun + Authentic, Exciting Experiences for Memorable Meetings and Incentives By
December 1, 2015

The Caribbean and The Bahamas

Fun in the Sun + Authentic, Exciting Experiences for Memorable Meetings and Incentives
A meeting setup on the beach at Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas. Credit: Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas

An event setup on the beach at Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas. Credit: Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas

Few destinations in the world generate the kind of excitement and motivation that visiting an island creates. Year after year for decades, the Caribbean and The Bahamas have been near the top of the favorite destination list of many planners and attendees, especially for incentive programs.

And for some companies, a Caribbean resort is a perennial go-to choice.

Aimia, a data-driven marketing and loyalty analytics company based in Canada but with multiple U.S. offices, plans a total of about 2,200 meetings, incentive trips and events each year. That includes more than 1,000 incentive programs alone, says Tina Gaccetta, the company’s vice president of client services and marketing.

“The Caribbean really offers a sense of different cultures and different experiences from what most people have experienced.” — Tina Gaccetta

They use destinations all over the world for their incentive programs. When they use the Caribbean, key reasons include the fact that “the Caribbean really offers a sense of different cultures and different experiences from what most people have experienced,” Gaccetta says. “And the Caribbean is also very convenient for people traveling from North America. The air access is generally pretty good. And there are some very high-caliber resorts that are perfect for incentive groups.”

In addition, there is the obvious factor of seasonality and warm, beautiful weather from late fall until spring, when much of the U.S. is cold.

“So for most of our programs that take place at that time of year, our people want sun and fun in the winter,” says senior account director Kelli Slonim, who works with Gaccetta on many of the companies most important incentive programs.

And for years, Aimia’s No. 1 choice of resorts has been the fabled Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas.

“And the reason for that is that it can accommodate the larger groups that we do in a single property,” Slonim says.

Aimia often uses Atlantis for multiple programs in the same year. Group sizes range from 100–150 total attendees to 2,400 participants.

Their most recent program was in November for 1,300 attendees. In October, Atlantis hosted a program for 2,400 Aimia participants.

“The key reasons we keep going back to Atlantis include the airlift into Nassau,” Slonim says. “It’s great. And the renovated and expanded airport is very easy to navigate. Atlantis also keeps reinvesting and reinventing itself. They are constantly improving the property. The room product is wonderful. They also have indoor and outdoor meeting space, which gives you a lot of flexibility in planning a program depending on group size. You can scale a program however you want, especially for large groups.”

Another major advantage Atlantis offers is the extraordinary list of activity options. “There is something for everybody to do, no matter what they are interested in,” Slonim says. “There are also a lot of activity options on Paradise Island and in Nassau as well. The convention services team at Atlantis is also wonderful. They are a great partner. And finally, there is always the weather. Even if there is going to be some rain that blows through, you know the sun is always going to come out. The weather there is just beautiful. And very dependable.”

Gaccetta adds that another distinct advantage of using Atlantis is its status as one of the most iconic resorts in the world. “Everybody knows Atlantis,” she says. “Everybody gets excited about going there. As a resort brand, Atlantis is probably one of the easiest properties in the world to advertise and promote. It really motivates people. It really creates a major buzz for an incentive program.”

In addition to superb room product in its more upscale Royal Towers and The Cove, Atlantis also deliver extraordinary dining options, including a Nobu sushi emporium. That means that upscale dine-around programs can be offered onsite with great logistical convenience, just like at one of the big box hotels in Las Vegas.

“The dining product is excellent,” Slonim says. “And the celebrity chefs that are there also add to the excitement of going to Atlantis.”

Yet another factor in the appeal of Atlantis for a growing list of companies in today’s market is its status as a premier family resort. A big portion of its business is family business, and that infrastructure, such as its famous water park and sea life exhibits, make it a perfect choice for groups that include children. “It’s really one of the rare places that can appeal to high-end executive groups who want a luxury resort experience and also to families with children, who want a family experience,” Gaccetta says.

The Exotic Side

Some Caribbean destinations are incredibly exotic and exclusive.

One is St. Maarten, a small island divided between a French side and a Dutch side.

Janet Glynn, corporate events manager at Woodland Hills, California-based BlackLine, a business technology provider, used The Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa last February for the first incentive program the company ever hosted. It was a four-day, three-night program for 50 attendees.

“We knew we wanted to do something tropical,” Glynn says. “And since this was our first incentive program and it was for our top salespeople, we wanted to do something special. One of our top executives, who goes on a lot of cruises, had been to the Caribbean a couple of times. That’s how we ended up settling on St. Maarten. But then the event team found The Westin St. Maarten on our own and decided it was the perfect fit for us.”

Because of the nature of the group, BlackLine opted to make a significant per attendee investment in the trip. “Going into this program, we knew it was going to be relatively expensive,” Glynn says. “But we were okay with that since the trip was meant to motivate and reward our top salespeople. We decided that St. Maarten and The Westin would be a good investment because of who it was designed for. We also felt, after we looked at everything, that not only was St. Maarten the right choice, but that we were getting good value for our money based on the type of program it was. It was designed for our very best salespeople and we wanted to make sure we did something that would really be seen as a reward.”

After experiencing St. Maarten, Glynn and her attendees agreed the company had opted for an ideal choice of destination. “St. Maarten is an interesting place, given the fact that there is a French side to the island and a Dutch side,” Glynn says. “That alone adds some unique interest to the destination and a different kind of experience. And it’s such a small island that you can really get involved in the cultures on each side. It’s also very picturesque. The thing that makes it special is just how beautiful it is.”

What made The Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa hotel so memorable was actually its extraordinary service, Glynn says. “The thing that made the hotel special was the attention and care that the staff gave us. We all just felt so well taken care of. The staff at The Westin also really knows what they’re doing when it comes to groups like ours. They really went out of their way to give us the type of service that you always remember. It was just such a pleasure to get the kind of service you get when everyone at the hotel goes above and beyond what you expect of them.”

The room product at The Westin also was superb, Glynn says. “Everyone had an oceanfront room. And our people just raved about how beautiful their rooms were and the view. The food-and-beverage was also very good. I also loved the fact that they serve local food. That also adds to the island experience.”

She also gives high marks to the hotel’s spa. “We gave all of our attendees one spa treatment,” she says “And that was another thing people raved about. The spa is gorgeous. And the staff there is also nice and very attentive.”

The bottom line for Glynn is that the destination and hotel worked spectacularly well for BlackLine’s inaugural incentive program. “We got a lot of positive feedback. Everyone said they loved it. St. Maarten is a great destination and it worked really well for us. And we loved The Westin.”

Bucket List Destinations

Dustin Sorge, director of national accounts at the Madison, Wisconsin-based Fire Light Group, an independent meeting and event planning company, is another veteran user of Caribbean destinations.

Twice in the last several years, he has used St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Earlier this year, he used The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas for a five-night, four-day incentive program for 55 attendees.

Two years ago, he used Marriott’s Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Beach Resort on St. Thomas for an incentive program.

Given the many options in the Caribbean, why did he choose USVI for those programs in collaboration with his clients?

“One big reason is that the USVI is a U.S. territory,” he says. “That means that you don’t need a passport and that the U.S. dollar is the currency. And English is the language. That makes travel easy. The USVI is also a bucket list destination for a lot of people if they have never been there.”

He believes that what he calls the bucket list factor, and the additional reality that USVI is so well known to virtually all Americans working in the corporate world, makes the destination highly marketable and promotable to groups. “All you have to do,” he says, “is put a couple of photos out there and the average person is going to say, ‘I absolutely want to go there. I need to qualify for that trip.’ ”

In terms of hotel options, Sorge says The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas is a particularly good choice for upscale, exclusive groups because the brand is globally associated with luxury and exemplary service.

“In the case of St. Thomas, it is a good choice because it’s on the other end of the island from the cruise ship port,” Sorge says. “So you don’t get the kinds of traffic and crowds you do around the cruise port.”

For the high-end group he took to USVI this year, he says, “The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas was the only property on the island that would have worked.”

The program included a meeting session for 25 people — half the group — that started with a breakfast on an outside terrace near the meeting room. Then the group convened in one of the smaller meeting rooms for their session. “I love the meeting space there,” Sorge says. “There is a lot of natural light. And the views are great. You can look right out over the bay. It’s just gorgeous meeting space.”

Sorge arranged offsite lunches and dinners, except for a spectacular opening night welcome dinner on the beach.

“For the welcome dinner, we built a bonfire and provided a buffet,” Sorge says. “People thought the food was excellent.”

One highlight of the trip was a full-day excursion to nearby St. John via a ferry whose departure point is close to The Ritz-Carlton.

Another highlight was a dinner at Asolare, which serves contemporary Asian-Fusion cuisine in an elegant open-air environment in an old St. John house with unparalleled sunset views of the Caribbean Sea.

For a memorable final day, Sorge rented two power catamarans and took the group to the British Virgin Islands, where stops included the exclusive and intimate Virgin Gorda.

Based on his two recent experiences in USVI, Sorge will definitely take more groups to USVI in the future.

“It’s just an excellent destination,” he says, “and one that delivers good value.”

Puerto Rico is another Caribbean destination that offers the distinct advantages of not requiring U.S. passports and using the U.S. dollar, which is the official currency.

And given the steady demand for Caribbean destinations among corporate meeting planners over the last several decades, Puerto Rico has worked hard to stay atop the list of preferred options for many planners.

In fact, awareness of Puerto Rico as a meeting destination and interest in it have risen strongly as the meeting market has surpassed even its pre-recession peak of 2008.

“Puerto Rico is once again becoming a popular global brand, known for its culture and authentic experiences, as well as being known as a tech-savvy destination,” says Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico. “We have also learned that experiential travel is still important to groups and that brand identity is critical to a meeting planner’s perceptions about the value and experience of the destination. So, we have concluded that now is the perfect time to capitalize on and reinforce that improved branding and use it as a platform to help us secure more meeting business — especially citywide meetings and others that use our convention center.”

New Development

In that spirit, Meet Puerto Rico has created a more sophisticated and aggressively service-oriented business model that has been rolled out this year.

The centerpiece of the new initiative is the Puerto Rico Convention Center, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2015. The facility is the largest in the Caribbean. Plans to link the convention center to the famous Old San Juan district of the capital are now underway.

A $289 million Puerta de Tierra project also is underway to build a boardwalk that connects Old San Juan to other popular tourism areas and gives pedestrians and cyclists easier access to the convention center district.

Demand for the destination also has led to the development and opening of several major new hotels, including the intimate, 114-room Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, which features a Spa Botanico and a Mi Casa restaurant from Jose Andres and is located along three miles of coastline in the former setting of the renowned Laurance Rockefeller property. The all-oceanfront, 100-room, 14-suite low-rise, low-density Ritz-Carlton Reserve brand property is one of two in the world. The property features three championship golf courses and is the site of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s eco-educational program Ambassadors of the Environment. Indoor and outdoor meeting space include a 4,558-sf meeting room, a boardroom and several private dining areas including Su Casa, a 6,000-sf, four-bedroom villa for private events.

The 416-room The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan is located on prime beachfront in Isla Verde and features dedicated concierge service; five onsite restaurants including Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Steak and Il Mulino New York, as well as a 12,000-sf spa, 24-hour casino and pool area with signature lion-head spouts and lush landscaping. Nine meeting rooms and more than 30,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space may accommodate groups of up 1,300 persons.

Las Casitas Village, A Waldorf Astoria Resort is an enclave of private villas located adjacent to the grand El Conquistador Resort, which offers 157 one- to three-bedroom luxury cottages complete with butler service, ocean views, full kitchens and an exclusive pool area. With myriad meeting and function space options for board meetings to beachfront gatherings, groups can enjoy activities such as golf at the Arthur Hills Golf Course, spa treatments at the Golden Door Spa as well as scuba diving, horseback riding and even taking a plunge at the onsite Coqui Water Park.

The St. Regis Bahía Beach Resort, Puerto Rico, which is nestled between a national rainforest and the sea on the northeastern part of the island, opened in late 2010 and immediately made Condé Nast Traveler’s Hot List. The St. Regis features a Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course, Remède Spa, as well as Jean-Georges’ acclaimed cuisine at Fern, just one of three on-property dining options. More than 26,000 sf of function space includes three outdoor venues, a boardroom, and the Astor Ballroom, able to accommodate up to 420 guests.

Following a $270 million renovation and expansion project, the 450-room Condado Vanderbilt refreshed the grandeur of the property when it first opened in 1919. The property has 15,000 sf of meeting space including an oceanview ballroom, private lounges and boardroom as well as outdoor oceanview breakout and reception areas.

Meanwhile, a number of the island’s existing properties ­— including the landmark Caribe Hilton, Condado Plaza Hilton, San Juan Marriott Resort & Casino, Wyndham Grand Rio Beach, InterContinental San Juan Resort & Casino and Embassy Suites Dorado del Mar Beach Resort — have completed renovations.

Other hotels have stayed abreast of the latest technology flourishes. For example, the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino has introduced an “Energizer Butler,” a new position that assists planners and attendees overcome the inconvenience of a forgotten charger by delivering extra battery life via wireless chargers.

For the group market, Puerto Rico also boasts a culinary scene that includes celebrity chefs and brave culinary twists on local favorite fare, not to mention the abundance of one-of-a-kind activities such as zip-lining through a rainforest tree canopy, kayaking in one of the world’s only bio-luminescent bays, strolling through the living history of Old San Juan, or even a rum-tasting tour of the Bacardi Rum Factory.

All-Inclusives Boasting Beautiful Beaches

An all-inclusive brand wildly popular with meeting and incentive planners is Sandals, which operates several “Luxury Meetings & Incentives Collection” resorts on seven Caribbean islands, including some of the region’s most popular destinations such as the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and Turks & Caicos, as well as exclusive and less well known locations such as Antigua and Grenada.

Although each property is distinctly original and tailored to its destination, all the properties offer modern meeting facilities, exceptional resort-style amenities, a vast array of land and water-based activities, personalized service — and some of the Caribbean’s cleanest and most beautiful beaches.

Sandals also offers a superb and innovative value proposition as a result of its all-inclusive pricing, which is further tailored to the unique needs of meeting planners.

Everything is included in a single price, including free transportation from and back to the airport, private group check-in, free meeting space and audio-visual equipment, coffee breaks, one complimentary group dinner for an event such as a welcoming reception or awards banquet, and concessions that start with just five rooms booked.

Kathleen Krawczyk, CMP, event planner at Chicago, Illi­nois-based Lawson Products, an industrial distributor of maintenance and repair supplies, is keen on Sandals and uses them for her meetings every other year. Sandals’ two Bahamas locations, the Sandals Royal Bahamian in Nassau and Sandals Emerald Bay on Great Exuma, are longtime planner favorites. “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,” says 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.”

The meeting properties include Sandals Ochi Beach Resort, Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa, Sandals Grande St. Lucian Spa & Beach Resort, Sandals Grande Antigua Resort & Spa, Sandals Royal Bahamian Spa Resort & Offshore Island and Sandals Emerald Bay, Golf, Tennis & Spa Resort.

Aztec Office in Middletown, Connecticut, has used a Caribbean property for one of the company’s most important incentive programs for each of the last two years, according to Ann Marie Hall, manager of human resources and employee development. Last year, the company hosted 25 attendees at Club Med in Turks & Caicos. This year, the program was held at Club Med Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic for 37 attendees. Both were President’s Club outings, which rewarded the company’s top inside salespeople.

She selected a Club Med property for the first time in 2014 for the value.

“One thing that appealed to us about Club Med is that they do their pricing strategy a little differently from most resorts,” Hall says. “We looked at a number of options, and one thing we found with Club Med is that you not only get very good group pricing, but also good offerings for what you pay. And we were specifically looking for an all-inclusive property. So when we looked at the options we chose, we found that Club Med offered the best value. For example, they don’t base their pricing on the premise that the Caribbean is one price and another destination for the same kind of resort is a different price. They offer brand-wide pricing, which tends to make them lower in cost than other all-inclusive resorts, especially in the Caribbean. And in my experience, that kind of brand-wide pricing, no matter which property you’re going to, is very rare.”

Another thing Hall likes about Club Med is that the company “is also very flexible and easy to work with,” she says. “For example, you can call a rep and they can tell you about any Club Med in the world. That means you don’t have to keep calling around to talk to someone at each location to decide which one you want to use. That makes decision-making and planning very easy. It saves a lot of time.”

For the 2014 trip, Hall chose the Turks & Caicos location simply because she had heard good things about the destination.

Adults Only

“And although we’ve done programs in the past that included families, sometimes when you’re doing an awards program it’s a good option to have an adults-only resort.” The adults-only status of Turks & Caicos does not represent a formal policy of Club Med, she points out. It is simply a market-driven reality driven by the exclusive and upscale status of Turks & Caicos as a destination.

Turks & Caicos also has the distinction of often being cited as having the best beaches in the Caribbean, Hall says. “I hear they have some of the most beautiful beaches anyone will ever see anywhere. And we have people that have traveled all over the world on their own, including all over the Caribbean. And they tell us that by far, Turks & Caicos has the most beautiful beach they have ever seen.”

The destination also is safe and clean. “That was another reason we picked Turks & Caicos for the 2014 program,” Hall says. “I looked at the travel advisories from the U.S. State Department, and I saw that Turks & Caicos did not have any warnings. It’s a very safe destination.”

Yet another factor that was important to Hall and her management was the roster of activities available at a Club Med. “They offer so many things, no matter your interest or your individual skill level, there is something that is perfect for you and that you will really enjoy,” she says “There is literally something for everyone.”

Her attendees enjoyed the resort so much, in fact, that Hall is taking them back for the President’s Club trip in 2016.

As a top-rated meeting and event destination, Grand Lucayan Beach & Golf Resort on Grand Bahama Island is renowned for its paradise-like setting, exceptional amenities and excellent venues. With 20 distinct meeting and event areas totaling 90,000 sf of both indoor and outdoor space, they can accommodate any function.

Grand Bahama Island boasts incredible snorkeling adventures and some of the world’s finest collection of beaches such as the private Lucaya Beach or Fortune Beach, where treasure hunters discovered a $2 million shipwreck. Attendees also can find complete privacy in Paradise Cove at Deadman’s Reef or swing by Xanadu beach for an icy local Kalik beer and some spicy local barbecue. Or, they can explore Gold Rock Beach at Lucayan National Park, which is known to many as the most spectacular beach of all.

With its stately Manor House, high-tech convention center and beautifully manicured event lawn stretching to the beach and sea beyond, it’s easy to see why groups choose Grand Lucayan for their most important meetings and events. The Grand Lucayan’s experienced event planners add a dose of Bahamian style, too.

Grand Lucayan has everything to make group meetings and events successful, from cutting-edge audio-visual equipment to a super-helpful staff. The sprawling conference center can easily be reconfigured and themed for formal or casual events. There’s a Grand Ballroom, plenty of intimate meeting rooms and even more space for functions outdoors. It is uniquely infused with a sophisticated Bahamian style — from post-meeting rum tastings to evenings with a local storyteller, right down to the intoxicating Bahamian accent heard island-wide.

Accommodations include Lighthouse Pointe, which is an all-inclusive resort where guests enjoy spacious, stylishly appointed guest rooms and exclusive access to four new restaurants, as well as all recreation, entertainment, meals and premium-brand beverages, gratuities, taxes and service charges.

Additional all-inclusive perks include entertainment such as a weekly Beach Barbecue event, Fish Fry and Bahamian Buffet; unlimited golf; free fitness and spin classes; swimming in the heated lap pool; activities from limbo dancing to yoga sessions; recreation such as ping pong, foosball and billiards; water sports including sailing, kayaking and snorkeling; and much more.

Additional accommodations include Breaker’s Cay at Grand Lucayan, an island-inspired retreat filled with light-as-air colors and crisp white bedding that create a setting of Caribbean-splashed comfort and the Lanai Suites, located in a secluded area of the resort, which boast oceanfront, one-bedroom suites showcasing furnished balconies or patios with panoramic sea views. C&IT

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