Year in and year out, the Caribbean — and in particular the Bahamas — ranks as one of the world’s most popular destinations for both meetings and incentive programs. Mere mention of the words “Caribbean” or “Bahamas” conjures images of a relaxing, rejuvenating experience that also delivers a dose of exotica that is convenient and cost-effective.
And the region continues to boost its long list of options.
Among the biggest news at the moment is the $3.5 billion Baha Mar resort complex in the Bahamas, making its debut late next spring as the largest single-phase project in the history of the Caribbean.
Set on 1,000 acres along 3,000 feet of Cable Beach in Nassau, the hugely ambitious project — primarily financed by a $2.45 billion loan from the Import-Export Bank of China — will include the 1,000-room Baha Mar Casino & Hotel with a 100,000-sf Las Vegas-style casino; a 700-room Grand Hyatt; a 200-room Rosewood; and a 300-room SLS Lux. The resort also will feature 200,000 sf of convention facilities, a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, an ESPA spa, and 40 restaurants, bars and clubs.
Another new hotel that is generating a lot of enthusiasm is the 343-room room Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa, formerly The Westin Casuarina, which is located in a prime location along Seven Mile Beach in tony, exclusive Grand Cayman. The name change included a multimillion-dollar renovation that reinvented the property from its lobby to guest rooms to meeting space.
Named to Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List, The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa offers easy access to Grand Cayman’s best attractions, including scuba diving, shopping and golf.
Westin Grand Cayman has seven meeting rooms and more than 8,000 sf of indoor and 50,000 sf of outdoor function space, which can accommodate groups of up to 500 people. Along with outside meeting and event space, the hotel offers the Governor’s Ballroom, which has 5,800 sf with western exposure through floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Caribbean Sea. On the south end of the resort, the Galleon Ballroom offers an additional 2,600 sf of space, with a prefunction area ideal for registration, breakfasts and breaks.
Marriott International has opened the 150-room JW Marriott Santo Do-mingo in the Dominican Republic. The hotel is located in the Piantini financial district and outside Blue Mall, which features restaurants and high-end shops. “Santo Domingo remains one of the most vibrant cities for new development in the Caribbean,” Marriott said in a statement. Facilities at the new JW Marriott Santo Domingo include the Vertygo 101 Lounge with a restaurant, bar and glass floor terrace that rises 101 feet above the city below. It also features the Winston Grill & Patio restaurant and complimentary in-room Wi-Fi.
Sandy Monkemeyer, senior vice president at insurance company Captive Resources in Schaumburg, Illinois, is a heavy user of the Caribbean. She books board of directors meetings for client companies into Caribbean destinations about 60 times each year between January and June.
Monkemeyer uses the Caribbean during high season, she says, “because we really want to take full advantage of what the destination and hotel have to offer so people can have a good time in addition to conducting their business. The Caribbean gives us a good opportunity to accomplish all of those things.”
Caribbean getaways also generate positive feedback from her well-heeled attendees. “And that’s especially true when there’s 10 feet of snow in the Midwest and we send them off to a warm Caribbean island for five days,” Monkemeyer says.
Her regular rotation of destinations includes Grand Cayman, the Bahamas, Aruba, Nevis, St. Kitts, Barbados, St. John, Puerto Rico and St. Maarten, as well as less familiar islands such as Curaçao.
“What our people love about a place like Curaçao, which is really now coming into its own, is that when they tell their neighbors they’re going to Curaçao, people don’t always even know where that is,” Monkemeyer says.
“When it comes to many other Caribbean destinations, their neighbors and friends can say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been there, done that.’ So we also like places that most people have never been to. That gives the meeting a little more cachet and makes people feel special.”
“So we also like places that most people have never been to. That gives the meeting a little more cachet and makes people feel special.” — Sandy Monkemeyer
Monkemeyer’s favorite hotels include Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas, Ritz-Carlton in Grand Cayman and Hyatt Aruba. “Our attendees are always extremely pleased with the Hyatt Aruba,” she says. “We’ve been using them for ages, and they always do a great job for us.”
She also likes The Ritz-Carlton and Marriott in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin islands. “We like both of those properties very much,” Monkemeyer says. “It’s just a question of which one fits a particular group better.”
Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas is an ocean-themed resort offering 3,400 guest rooms including The Cove, a resort within a resort that features 600 oceanview suites. Atlantis is also known for having the largest open-air marine habitat in the world. The conference center can accommodate up to 4,000 attendees and includes the 50,000-sf Imperial Ballroom, 40,000 sf of prefunction space, 30 breakout rooms and three boardrooms. There are 21 outdoor event spaces — totaling 300,000 sf — that take advantage of tropical settings including, of course, the beaches, lagoon, waterscapes, marine habitats and more. And with 21 great restaurants on-property (including chef Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill and Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s Nobu), planners can stage an exceptional dine-around program without ever leaving the resort grounds.
The fundamental reasons why the Caribbean is a perennially popular destination are fairly obvious.
“One big reason why the Caribbean is so popular with U.S.-based companies — especially incentive programs that take place in the first and second quarter of the year, as a lot of incentive programs do because they’re recognizing people for their performance during the previous year — is that it’s an ideal option for many companies that time of year,” says Kara Katen, director of operations at Event Travel Management in Denver. “And that is especially true for those companies that want to get away from a brutal winter back at home. So they want to go somewhere that people can head to the beach. The weather in the Caribbean is very consistent in the first and second quarter. And the accessibility of the islands is also very good, so people can get there in a timely fashion.”
Katen’s colleague, Katarina Stastny, senior account manager at Event Travel Management, adds, “The Caribbean is a great destination because it’s close to the U.S. and provides easy access. There are direct flights to the various islands from different U.S. cities. It’s closer than going to Hawaii. And it’s also more affordable than Hawaii. And it offers beautiful beaches and beautiful weather. You also get to experience different cultures and cuisines, which also make it a great experience”
This past spring, Monkemeyer used the 317-room Westin St. Maarten Dawn Beach Resort & Spa for five board meetings.
“The Westin St. Maarten has a nice variety of meeting space, with a total of more than 20,000 sf, which is a huge factor for us,” she says. “They also have very nice outdoor areas that we use for receptions and dinners. If you go into the local town, the downtown area also has a lot of nice smaller restaurants that allow us to break attendees down into small groups and do dine-arounds. And the quality of the food is very good in those restaurants.”
Because Monkemeyer likes to offer fun activities as part of her agenda, a catamaran cruise and snorkeling are typically included.
She likes The Westin St. Maarten so much that she is now planning a 650-attendee meeting for next year.
“Another one of the big pluses about St. Maarten is the airlift,” she says. “And that’s particularly important during shoulder season.
“On some of the islands, airlift gets infrequent and it can be a problem for some people to get there. But places like St. Maarten, Aruba and Grand Cayman have airlift that is pretty steady and pretty good during the year.”
For a five-day incentive program for 56 attendees last April, Katen selected the legendary Half Moon a RockResort in Rose Hall, Jamaica, which features 197 rooms and suites, 31 luxury villas and 27,000 sf of meeting space. Half Moon also features an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed golf course, a 68,000-sf Fern Tree at RockResorts spa and six restaurants.
“We decided on Half Moon because we did not want a traditional all-inclusive resort, which Jamaica and some other Caribbean islands are known for now,” Katen says. “We also chose Half Moon for several other reasons. One is that we really liked the layout of the property and the different categories of accommodations they offer.”
Because of Half Moon’s assortment of accommodations, Katen also was able to create a hierarchy among qualifiers. “The people who were at the top of the list in terms of their sales had the better rooms,” she says. “But everybody’s room was fantastic.”
Katen also liked Half Moon because there are so many things to do onsite. “The resort is very spread out, so even if it’s crowded, you never feel like you’re fighting for a pool chair or space on the beach,” she says. “We also liked the fact that onsite there is golf, a spa, an equestrian center, tennis courts, volleyball and a dolphin lagoon. There is just so much to do on-property that you don’t have to feel like you have to go anywhere else to have a great time.”
Another factor in Half Moon’s favor, Katen says, is that “It’s not your typical Jamaican beach resort. It has a vintage old school feel about it. And it’s not a party-style hotel. It’s a very sophisticated environment. And that’s exactly what this group was looking for.”
Airlift into Montego Bay also was a factor in choosing Jamaica as the destination. “We chose it based on its accessibility from all over the world and the cost of the airfares,” Katen says. “We try to avoid red-eye flights whenever we can, and that was another advantage of Jamaica. It has good airlift and generally offers convenient schedules and flying times, especially from the U.S. and Canada, but also for our international attendees from Europe and Asia. And the airlift also allowed all of our people to get in early enough on the first day to enjoy that first day and not lose it to travel, which is also something that we look for.”
Highlights of the program included a reception on a terrace that overlooks a croquet lawn. “We had an instructor come out with a couple of coaches to teach people how to play croquet,” Katen says. “It was just something out of the ordinary. Everyone dressed in white so we could make it as close to a real croquet tournament as possible. It was very elegant. People loved it.”
Because of the uniqueness and difficulty of the game, Katen created the evening as a teambuilding exercise — literally and figuratively. “It really set the tone for a week of camaraderie and networking,” she says.
The group also made an offsite trip to Dunn’s River Falls and James Bond Beach, from the movie “Doctor No” in Ocho Rios. “And afterwards, we went for a traditional Jamaican jerk lunch.”
Attendees also were given the opportunity to choose between a round of golf, a spa experience or river rafting on the Martha Brae River as à la carte leisure activities.
“The whole program was just a great experience,” Katen says. “I liked Half Moon so much that I would definitely take another group there.”
Lance Abbott, president of BevCap Management, a McKinney, Texas-based insurance company, hosts two board meetings each year. His first-ever excursion to the Caribbean was a three-day meeting for 40 attendees at fabled, 166-room Caneel Bay situated within Virgin Islands National Park on St. John.
“I had vacationed in St. John before,” Abbott says. “So I suggested it to our board. We have a meetings committee, and they talked about it and decided to go, based on my personal recommendation and the reputation of Caneel Bay.”
Although it was a serious board meeting, one of the reasons for selecting the destination and hotel was to build in some R&R. “We chartered a large 60-foot catamaran and did some island-hopping for the day, including going over to the British Virgin Islands, which are beautiful,” Abbott says. “About half the group chose to do that and the other half went hiking on St. John. Others just hung out on the beach. We also had folks who just relaxed, including some who used the spa.”
The Caribbean, and especially an exclusive property such as Caneel Bay, perfectly fits the culture and objectives of BevCap’s board meetings, Abbott says. “One of the things we try to do when we book our board meetings is that we try to find something that you might not expect,” he says. “We look for unique properties. For example, we’ve been to places like Calistoga Ranch in the Napa Valley area in California.
“We just like unique properties that provide a unique experience. And one of the things we liked about Caneel Bay is that it’s a small property, so we could be sure there would not be large meetings going on while we were there. We also liked the fact that there are no phones in the rooms, no TVs. And to us, those kinds of things make it a nice getaway.”
Abbott staged a dinner on the beach one night. “They served fresh lobster and had carving stations,” he says. “It was just a great experience to be right there on the beach as the sun set over their dock. And they created a very intimate event, which to us is another difference from going to a large hotel where there are lots of people around.”
The actual board meeting was held in the historic estate house on the resort property. “It is just a great venue,” Abbott says. “It’s an open air area with beautiful tropical plants and flowers, with the surf down below. It’s just a great environment for a small meeting.”
One of the reasons board members and other invited guests, such as key vendors, like BevCap’s meetings, Abbott says, is that “we choose nice locations. And our people have a chance to do something different from your typical Chicago or Las Vegas meeting.” I&FMM