The Caribe Hilton is reopening in 2019 after a complete makeover, including all 652 guest rooms and suites and the modernization of 65,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space. It closed in 2017 after suffering damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Credit: Caribe Hilton
Despite a difficult few years for the Caribbean Islands hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, the region still managed to attract almost 30 million visitors in 2018, its second-best year ever, and the Caribbean Tourism Organization is forecasting 6-7 percent growth in tourism arrivals in 2019, as most of the damaged infrastructure in hurricane-impacted destinations returns to normal.
Puerto Rico, one of the major Caribbean destinations for meetings and exhibitions, was hit especially hard by the hurricanes, with arrivals down 45 percent last year over 2017 figures. Several Caribbean destinations, however, posted double-digit visitor increases in 2018, including Guyana, Belize, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Grenada, with some groups that were already booked into Anguilla, Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten and Puerto Rico managing to switch islands at the last minute.
This year, with improved Caribbean air connectivity, and with most of the hurricane damaged hotels now up and running, leisure travel and meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) activities are definitely increasing on all the islands.
Some of the properties mentioned in the Caribbean/Bahamas are part of the Marriott Convention & Resort Network (CRN) which has announced the launch of Mastermind, a peer-to-peer community for meeting planners. The new Marriott CRN has several properties in the Caribbean, including Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas, which has 3,400 rooms; JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa, with 448 rooms; Marriott Cancun Resort, with 450 rooms; and Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, with 525 rooms.
“Our digital platform debuted in May with a goal to help planners feel connected, empowered and inspired while building new skills and meaningful long-term relationships,” says Mike Wainwright, vice president of sales for the Marriott Convention & Resort Network. “With a diverse portfolio of venues in more destinations than any other company, we are committed to collaborate with planners on the journey to innovate. Meeting planners have the desire to push the envelope and inject creativity into meetings based on the changing demands of their customers. I am proud of our vision to have Mastermind provide a platform that brings these talented planners together to share knowledge, brainstorm and build lifelong relationships.”
As one of the most revisited destinations in the Caribbean, Aruba is a good destination for insurance and financial company incentives, conferences or retreats. Located in the southern Caribbean outside the hurricane belt — it was not affected by the 2017 hurricanes — the island is just a 2 1/2-hour flight from Miami, a 4-hour flight from New York City and offers year-round cooling trade winds with an average temperature of 82 degrees.
The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino offers 10,000 sf of meeting space, and the property’s Grand Ballroom can host up to 880 attendees with meetings space divisible into four sections. Nestled against the Caribbean sands of Aruba’s Palm Beach, the property offers modern, recently upgraded guest rooms and suites, deluxe amenities and four-star service. Planners can upgrade specific attendees by booking premier suites in the exclusive Tradewinds Club. The venue offers an array of dining experiences, including Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Atardi and La Vista. The 24-hour Stellaris Casino provides more than 10,000 sf of premium event space, so the hotel is also the ideal setting to hold a memorable event in Aruba.
Harris S. Fishman, CLU, ChFC, president and CEO of MassMutual Greater Philadelphia, visited the Marriott property with 30 attendees.
“It’s a great island with great food and weat[her,” Fishman says. “In fact, its south of the traditional Caribbean hurricane belt, making it a safe bet for groups even later in the year when hurricanes may form in the region. Everyone is extremely friendly and willing to do anything to make guests happy.”
Fishman likes the fact that his group can travel to Aruba on a direct flight, and that offsite venues are perfect for small group gatherings. “One night we dined offsite at Madame Janette near Eagle Beach, which is one of Aruba’s top restaurants, and the weather on the island is very predictable, sunny, warm and breezy just about every day.”
After sustaining extensive damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria back-to-back in 2017, San Juan is just about back to pre-hurricane levels in terms of infrastructure, and almost all hotels are back in operation, often with renovated and improved rooms, meeting spaces and landscaping. Most of the Puerto Rico members of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association are back in business, offering visitors more than 4,000 restaurants, 141 hotels and 189 attractions island wide.
“Our cruise numbers also remain strong, and we’re on a path to hit a record 1.7 million passengers during the 2018-2019 cruise season, surpassing by 17.7 percent the record number hit in 2015,” says Brad Dean, the CEO of Discover Puerto Rico. “We’re close to pre-Maria levels on air capacity and flight schedules, and we will have 15,000 rooms open by the end of 2019.”
The Puerto Rico Convention Center is the largest in the Caribbean. It can host up to 10,000 attendees in indoor and outdoor areas, and is located less than a 15-minute drive from San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Many of San Juan’s excellent beachside hotels are also just a short drive from the airport.
The Caribe Hilton, a Puerto Rico landmark since 1949 and Hilton’s first hotel outside the continental U.S., was hit hard by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Because of its location on a San Juan beachfront peninsula jutting into the sea, the property absorbed the full brunt of the two storms, which battered the property with heavy wind and rain.
After being closed since 2017 due to storm damage, the Caribe Hilton —the birthplace of the piña colada — is expected to open in mid-May, unveiling a more than $100 million-dollar restoration; a major milestone as the property celebrates its 70th year of operation, and as Hilton Hotels marks its 100th anniversary.
The San Juan property has completed a top-to-bottom makeover, including all 652 guest rooms and suites; reimagined food and beverage (F&B) concepts; fitness center, spa, tennis center and landscaping redesigns; and the modernization of 65,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space.
“The opening of Caribe Hilton in 1949 was a genesis of tourism that introduced travelers to the island of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean,” Danny Hughes, executive vice president and president of the Americas, Hilton, says. “The revitalization of this emblematic property is a continuation of that genesis, inspiring much anticipation and pride among the Hilton family, locals, guests and all who have an enduring affinity for this cherished San Juan hotel.”
In every way the hotel’s interior, exterior and landscaping will be better than ever, and with its 17 acres of stunning landscaping on the Caribbean Sea, within a five-minute drive of Old San Juan, the Caribe Hilton’s reputation as one of San Juan’s best meeting destinations will remain intact.
The 400-room Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort is nestled on 500 acres along a mile-long section of beach adjacent to the El Yunque National Forest and the Mameyes River, just a 40-minute drive east of the airport. The lush resort features the newly renovated 48,000-sf Oceanfront Conference Center, 7,000 sf of casino floor, two 18-hole golf courses, an expansive spa and fitness center, multiple lounges and entertainment venues, an international tennis center, a water sports center and two beachfront pools.
The property can host up to 3,300 guests in 24 flexible meeting rooms, including the nearly 22,000-sf Rio Mar Ballroom, one of the Caribbean’s largest. The property’s Destination Management Company helps planners organize any type of event for insurance and financial firms. The resort reopened on March 1, 2018 following its brief closure after Hurricane Maria, with an introduction of new culinary offerings in addition to the resort’s already eclectic range of restaurants and lounges, including the traditional “cocina criolla,” or Puerto Rican cuisine. The resort also opened the Caicu Rum Bar, a new venue featuring handcrafted, rum-based cocktails and a selection of rare private reserve batches.
In addition, Marbella’s $1.2 million renovation debuts as the resort’s modern restaurant with a sleek design. Additional resort venues include Palio, an intimate restaurant serving prepared Italian cuisine; Hole in One, offering drinks and bites served by the golf course; and Five O’Clock Somewhere Bar & Grill, featuring fresh salads, burgers, sandwiches and frozen concoctions served poolside. Private catering is available for group events.
The property, which offers community education around annual sea turtle nesting season in partnership with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, actively works to protect sea turtle nests by limiting access to the beach at sunset each summer. There is still plenty of beach access for guests, and they love being part of the sea turtle protection program.
“Our Wyndham Grand Rio Mar annual Assembly Weekend event is held in June, usually the first or second weekend of the month,” says Minerva Perez, meeting planner for Caribe Federal Credit Union. “The Annual Meeting of our members takes place during this event, and altogether about 800 people, including credit union members and their families, board of directors and others will meet at the property. We have been celebrating this event for eight years at the same property, and our room block has grown to about 100 rooms for attendees using the two-night, room/meetings/social activities package.”
“On Saturday morning we have a Board of Managers meeting for about 40 persons, held in one of the hotel’s conference rooms, with classroom-style setup,” Perez says. “We held a catered board of directors lunch following the meeting, and we include credit union employees staying at the hotel, including their families. It is a nice, fun event.”
Perez says the rest of the weekend is taken up by F&B functions and the Annual Meeting presentation. “On Saturday evening we have music, hors d’oeuvres and a refreshment party for all the credit union members, again with their families. Early on Sunday morning, we use a private registration area for members who are staying at the hotel, and for attendees who are not overnighting at the property but who are attending the Sunday Annual Meeting and social activities,” Perez says. “We offer an early, catered breakfast for about 300 members, and the Annual Meeting is held afterward, about 9 a.m. to noon, for about 400 attendees, theater-style, in one of the conference rooms.”
“Following our Annual Meeting event, we move to the large Rio Mar Ballroom where we host about 800 attendees and families for lunch and music. Although most of our attendees are coming from other regions of Puerto Rico, we do have members who fly in from the U.S. Virgin Islands and from the U.S. mainland,” Perez says. “The hotel is excellent for this type of event as it has different facilities according to the needs of the company, it is a convenient location to travel to from the San Juan metropolitan area by the main highway express lanes, and allows attendees to get to the property from downtown San Juan or the airport in less than an hour. Attendees also have direct access to the beach and the entrance to the El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Park system, which is an easy 13-minute drive from the resort. But the best of all is the resort staff, who always exceeds our expectations.”
A group of some 700 islands, Grand Bahama and Paradise Island provide some of the best conference facilities in the region. Fishing, scuba diving among sunken Spanish galleons, snorkeling and sailing are just some of the many adventure activities available to planners. While the Bahamas were touched by the paths of both storms, the majority of the island chain managed to escape significant damage. All major corporate group centers, Nassau, Paradise Island, and Grand Bahama, are fully operational.
Atlantis, Paradise Island’s Conference Center can accommodate up to 4,000 guests and features the Imperial Ballroom, with more than 40,000 sf of pre-function space, 30 breakout rooms, a large staging area and a huge banquet kitchen. The venue offers an onsite Conference Planning team that helps planners with every aspect of their meetings or conference programs, from contract signature to shipping and customs, A/V productions and island touring.
Atlantis features 500,000 sf of outdoor event space on Paradise Island, and meeting planners can select from 21 function spaces that may include Atlantis’ waterscape, marine habitats and beaches. The open-air venues offer planners unique meeting opportunities, as most attendees will appreciate the Bahamian landscape and the sultry Caribbean climate.
For smaller insurance and financial groups when intimacy is required, the property offers meeting attendees seven executive boardrooms with floor plans to accommodate a range of conference sizes, including private reception areas and adjacent kitchens.
According to the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism, all ports in the country are operating normally and none suffered damage due to Hurricane Maria, with very little damage from Hurricane Irma. While the island of Hispaniola managed to dodge direct landfall from both Irma and Maria, the storms passed close enough to its shores for their effects to be felt. Reports showed images of flooding and moderate wind damage along the northern coastlines of both countries, primarily in rural communities. The Dominican government, however, confirmed there was minimal damage to tourism sites, and all hotels in the Dominican Republic are open and welcoming groups.
The 1,991-room Barceló Bávaro Grand Resort is a two-resort, all-inclusive leisure and meetings complex that includes the family friendly Barceló Bávaro Palace and the adults only Barceló Bávaro Beach Resort, which was recently renovated. The resort has a convention center that offers nearly 38,000 sf of meeting space, and one of only two conference centers in the Dominican Republic with the capability of hosting groups of more than 5,000 participants. The centers feature more than 50,000 sf of meeting space and 13 flexible spaces that can be broken down into 24 smaller rooms.
Located in Punta Cana, the complex includes a large spa and fitness center, a PGA-rated 18-hole golf course, a waterpark and entertainment options including a casino and a Vegas-style theater. Both leisure and insurance/financial groups are offered 11 specialty restaurants as well as additional private catering for groups. Meeting planners will appreciate the property’s MeetBarcelo.com, a service that works with planners on every aspect of the group’s experience. A meeting concierge and the resort’s events staff will organize functions such as Dominican cigar- and rum-pairing lessons or a visit to a local sugar cane farm. In addition, a high-tech Wi-Fi system was also added in 2015 to enhance seamless connectivity. This platform is available throughout the resort’s convention facilities and can support up to 20,000 simultaneous devices.
The Equestrian Center at the Dominican Republic’s 185-room Casa de Campo Resort & Villas offers horseback-riding lessons. Groups can arrange for private guided rides at the resort’s cattle ranches.
Event planners seeking Cancun/Yucatan Peninsula meeting hotels can take advantage of the multiple meeting venues along the region’s pristine coastline. Planners could consider the colonial architecture an oceanfront location at the The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun, a good choice for financial and insurance planners. Featuring a 27,000-sf conference center, with both indoor and outdoor meeting spaces, the venue is also on a summit overlooking the Caribbean and one of Cancun’s best beaches.
Meeting planners at The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun have a dedicated Conference Concierge and professional meeting coordinators, all working to assist groups. The 11,200-sf Ritz-Carlton Ballroom can be divided into three salons, and meeting services include security, entertainment, floral and décor, transportation and audiovisual.
Marriott kicked off 2019 with a new addition in the Caribbean. The Renaissance Hotels brand debuted its new Renaissance Cancun Resort & Marina, anchoring the new marina in Puerto Cancun. The 180-room property, which Marriott is describing as a “lifestyle resort,” is the new centerpiece of the Puerto Cancun development, a project that includes a Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course, a shopping center, eateries, movie theaters and the largest marina in the area. The property’s design includes everything from underground art by local artists to the Mayan underworld of “Xibalba.” It’s a new kind of property for Renaissance, whose Caribbean portfolio had been focused mainly in the urban centers such as those in Willemstad, Curacao and Oranjestad, Aruba. The new Cancun property is about 10 minutes from the city center.
Marriott’s Caribbean focus is also evident in Cancun at their two major resorts, one next to another, totaling 897 rooms. The Marriott Cancun Resort offers 450 rooms, including 34 suites along with 12 meeting rooms spread over nearly 11,000 sf.
For larger groups, The JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa offers an additional 20,000 sf of meeting space and 447 guest rooms, including 74 suites, 18 breakout rooms and eight event rooms. The two properties are connected to each other via a short bridge. With nine restaurants and bars, expansive meeting space and views of the Caribbean, the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa is a great choice for insurance and financial corporate retreats, conferences and incentive groups.
Recently, both the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa and the Marriott Cancun Resort announced the completion of major property upgrades and renovations, which includes a transformation to all 447 ocean-facing guest rooms and suites at the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa, and a $25 million room redesign by its next-door neighbor, the Marriott Cancun Resort. Together, the properties are capable of hosting large-scale meetings and events for up to 2,000 attendees, along with smaller and more intimate receptions and board meetings.
On the western side of Mexico is Los Cabos, only a two-hour plane ride from Los Angeles, and where most of the new hotels accept U.S. dollars for payment. This was a region once filled with lots of cactus and empty beaches, but now about half of its 20-mile coastline is dedicated to deluxe hotel resorts with all the amenities and dining venues of the best U.S. properties.
The JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa opened in 2015 with 280 rooms and 19 suites. The property is attractive to insurance and financial planners not only because of its upscale leisure amenities, but its expansive meeting facilities include 20 event rooms, just more than 32,000 sf of total event space, eight breakout rooms and a highly esteemed catering department.
“We had our small, annual corporate and family meeting at the JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa in February 2019 with about 15 employees, a moderator, and six family members,” says one planner. “The property was a perfect fit for our group size, it is big enough to offer many amenities and the meeting spaces we needed, and small enough so we did not feel overshadowed by very large groups staying at the hotel. We also wanted to be on a Mexican beach, and the hotel is known for its high-quality service, rooms and culinary offerings. We also needed to be near an excellent golf course, all the partners love to play golf, and we have found that golf has been a great team-building activity for us.”
The group enjoyed the reception they received upon check-in, as well as the dining venues at the property. “Upon arrival, our group received a very warm welcome from the hotel team that looked after us, using a private library area for expedited check-in and providing us with refreshing drinks,” the planner says. “The first night, we enjoyed a delightful welcome dinner at the Nak Grill & Bar restaurant. The next day, the breakfast was at the Úa Culinary Artisans restaurant where the buffet was spectacular, as was the lunch. We also went offsite, with a pre-arranged menu for the group at a dinner in Arbol, the newest evening dining venue at the Las Ventanas al Paraiso Hotel, a Rosewood Resort about a 25-minute drive from the JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa. Set above the sea, Arbol opens to a shimmering pool and breathtaking views.”
“On Friday, the JW Marriott team helped us arrange breakfast at one of the ‘Matku’ meeting rooms, allowing us to save time and to be able to finish the ambitious agenda we had,” the planner says. “That afternoon, we played at the resort’s Puerto Los Cabos Golf Club, an 18-hole course designed by Jack Nicklaus. We enjoyed having a chef and bartender provide snacks and drinks while we were out on the course. We had dinner afterward at the property’s Café des Artistes, which was an incredible culinary experience. On the last day we had booked a luxurious catamaran and went for a sightseeing tour along the Baja Coast.”
The Four Seasons Resort Los Cabos at Costa Palmas is to open in mid-2019, part of the new Costa Palmas community on the East Cape of the Gulf of California, a somewhat isolated region known for its scenery. The property will have 141 guest rooms, as well as 3,250 sf of event space, with the ballroom accommodating up to 260 attendees.
The 1,000-acre development, about a 35-minute drive north of San José del Cabo, includes multimillion-dollar homes and an Amanvari Resort expected to open in 2020. The Costa Palmas development will also contain a Robert Trent Jones II–designed golf course, 18 acres of organic farms, nearly 2 miles of swimmable white-sand beaches, and a marina capable of holding private yachts up to 200 feet. I&FMM