We think of the Caribbean as a single, relatively contained destination, yet it’s an incredibly diverse and expansive destination comprised of some 32 countries and more than 7,000 individual islands spread across more than 1 million square miles. The majority of islands have coasts on the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
The vastness of the region should offer perspective for those who hold any preconceptions of devastation from hurricanes Maria and Irma last fall. According to The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, the reality is that 70 percent of Caribbean destinations were unaffected by the storms, and of the islands that were affected, 50 percent of CHTA-member hotels are open. Though islands that sustained damage are in various stages of recovery, much progress has been made in the six months since the hurricanes struck. (For the latest travel and hotel updates, visit the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s Travel Update website caribbeantravelupdate.com.)
While a wide range of cultures have influenced the islands of the Caribbean, the most predominant are French, English, Spanish, Dutch and, of course, various indigenous populations that were on these islands long before Western cultures sailed in.
The Bahamas are not in the Caribbean at all but in the western Atlantic Ocean. Still, they are often a port of call on Caribbean cruises and we associate them with the more tropical Caribbean Sea than the sometimes-chilly Atlantic. Only 30 to 40 of the 700 Bahamas islands, atolls and cays are inhabited, but that still gives groups a multitude of places to meet.
Wherever groups land, there will be rich culture, history, tantalizing cuisine, music and traditions to experience, to say nothing of meeting space and plentiful offsite opportunities. Every island is truly one of a kind, but what they all have in common are inviting turquoise waters and sweet beaches — always a draw for winter-weary workers.
Here’s an update on some of the most popular destinations.
Aruba, which suffered no physical damage from Maria or Irma, lies far to the south, one of the closest islands to Venezuela. Aruba is an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and its Dutch heritage is front and center. It was the island of choice for Harris S. Fishman, CLU, ChFC, president and CEO of MassMutual Greater Philadelphia, who planned a company trip there last year with 30 attendees.
One of the island’s attributes, notes Fishman, is that it offers direct flights from Philadelphia. Additionally, he says, “It’s a great island with great food and weather.” In fact, it’s 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.
Fishman believes visitors are warmly welcomed on Aruba. “Everyone is extremely friendly and willing to do anything to make guests happy,” he says.
The MassMutual Greater Philadelphia group was based at Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, set on the northwest end of the island along Palm Beach. The two-mile-long beach offers excellent swimming and snorkeling as well as water sports concessions. Location is one of the reasons Fishman likes this Marriott, but he’s a repeat visitor who also appreciates the resort’s “excellent facilities and great service.”
He says the “hotel staff and event planners were great to work with and very accommodating.”
In addition to using resort facilities, the group dined offsite at Madame Janette near Eagle Beach, listed among Aruba’s top restaurants, which Fishman calls “excellent.”
Fishman can’t think of any challenges that came up while organizing or executing the meeting in February. His suggestion for planners is to consider Aruba for a meeting because it is “a great island with predictable weather and friendly people.”
Puerto Rico’s road back from the 2017 hurricane season has been a long one, but today, tourist areas are welcoming meeting groups.
“Puerto Rico is open for business and ready to receive groups and conventions”
— Alma Pedrosa
Alma Pedrosa, CDME, acting president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico says, “Most of our hotels and tourist attractions are available to welcome group delegates, as our international airport and port, as well as other attractions, have been operating normally for a few months.”
Pedrosa notes that some hotels are still undergoing renovation, and will eventually open with something new to offer visitors, but emphasizes that major conventions are already returning. The first of 2018 was the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association Marketplace at the end of January. She also reports that the destination welcomed the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in March. “And we are proud to report that many of our clients have rebooked their business for 2018 and beyond,” she says.
“We feel proud of our people, our offerings and our determination. Puerto Rico continues to position itself as an ideal destination for meetings and conventions, offering the Caribbean’s largest and most technologically advanced convention center, a wide variety of hotels for all types of budgets and groups, together with a sophisticated business meeting destination.
“Puerto Rico has always been one of the most desirable meetings and conventions destinations,” she says, “and we look forward to the future with enthusiasm. We are moving into a new phase with astounding opportunities for our clients and we are thrilled to have them come and rediscover Puerto Rico!”
Meet Puerto Rico reports that 87 percent, 130 out of 148 endorsed hotels, are open and operating. The Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort reopened on March 1, 2018 following a multimillion-dollar renovation and refresh. Also among the open hotels are San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, AC Hotel by Marriott San Juan Condado and La Concha Hotel, a Renaissance Resort. Upcoming openings include: El San Juan Hotel, which is renovating guest rooms, villas, pools, public spaces and landscaping, will reopen October 1; Melia Coco Beach, November 1; St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, October 29; and Caribe Hilton, January 2019. Still closed as of press time with no confirmed opening dates yet are The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan Hotel, Spa & Casino and El Conquistador Resort/Las Casitas Resort. While the Condado Plaza Hilton is undergoing a comprehensive renovation, some services and amenities are currently available.
San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International airport is receiving more than 100 flights per day from all the major airlines. Most attractions, ground transportation, golf courses, casinos and restaurants (1,885 of them to date) are open.
Visit www.meetpuertorico.com/nav/media for the latest updates.
Among the major hotels open for business is the InterContinental San Juan. Nell Nicholas, senior director, global sales, with HelmsBriscoe, can attest to how well the hotel worked out for her a few years ago when she brought a global financial consulting group for a meeting that drew approximately 300 attendees. The resort features a beachfront location and excellent spa among other things, and the island is ideal for what the group wanted.
“Puerto Rico is a perfect island for this group,” Nicholas says. “There are several daily flights from cities all over the United States, especially from the Northeast. This is a two-night program only, so quick flights from the Northeast are really important. In addition, lots of restaurants with varying price points, as well as gaming, are also important to this group, and Puerto Rico has both.”
“Puerto Rico offers hotels in every price range and a wide range of categories. From eco-lodges to five-star luxury resorts to convention properties, Puerto Rico has it all.”
— Nell Nicholas
In terms of the hotel, Nicholas says, “The InterContinental offered a newly renovated property and the perfect size for our program needs. The location near great shopping, restaurants and nightlife was a big bonus.”
She also notes that the resort met the group’s needs for meeting space, which was a critical component for this annual winter event. “The size of the meeting space was important to us. As our group grew, the hotel accommodated our needs with ease. And the newly renovated meeting and function space does not require a lot of décor, which makes this property a great bang for your buck,” she says.
Although the hotel is in a busy part of San Juan, Nicholas cautions planners not to be misled by the location. “The amenities, staff and overall vibe will give your guests the impression they have been to a fabulous ‘far away’ resort,” she says. “The pool deck, for example, offered a great cocktail reception space, and we felt the exclusivity of the property, especially around the firepit, pool deck and indoor/outdoor bar.”
One potential downside, Nicholas notes, is that some prefunction space, particularly that off the main ballroom, is a little dark. “I believe that is a perception from the ceiling height. Be sure to ask the ceiling height in all the meeting spaces you require,” she suggests. One other thing to know in advance: taxi fares can be expensive, even for relatively short rides.
“Even though there are several lovely properties near the airport, the taxi rides to/from the airport are very expensive for the distance you travel. It might be worth your while to arrange group transfers. Even the shortest cab ride will cost more than you expect.”
Of course, one of Puerto Rico’s biggest draws is the fact that it’s a tropical island with Latin culture and history so you get the experience of traveling to a foreign port, yet it’s a territory of the United States so no passports are required. That’s a huge plus in terms of getting on and off the island with ease.
The U.S. Virgin Islands were among the hardest hit by the Category 5 Irma and Maria hurricanes last fall. Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands, said in a recent statement, “While there is more work to do before we return to a full state of normalcy, we are greatly encouraged by the progress we have made to date. …We believe visitors will be amazed to see how well the destination is bouncing back, and we invite travelers to visit the USVI this season for a memorable Caribbean vacation experience — even while we continue to recover and build back stronger and better than ever.” Nicholson-Doty cited the following progress in the recovery efforts:
Among the USVI properties that are closed include Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort in St. Thomas, which hopes to reopen December 2018; The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, with an expected reopen date of January 2019; The Westin St. John Resort & Villas will remain closed at least through January 2019; Caneel Bay on St. John will be closed for the entire 2018 season and there’s no current reopen date; and as of press time, the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa on St. Croix was still closed.
On the good news front in St. Thomas: Emerald Beach Resort reopened in November; and Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove reopened in February. On St. Croix, The Buccaneer welcomed guests back November 1.
Planners will find that the three main U.S. Virgin Islands offer a different kind of cultural experience. St. Croix, the largest of the three at 84 square miles, is one of the few Caribbean islands completely surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, and it’s home to Cruzan and Captain Morgan rum distilleries. Almost two thirds of St. John, the smallest island at just over 19 square miles, is national park land. Virgin Islands National Park includes many acres of land as well as submerged areas with underwater signage and snorkel trails. St. Thomas, at 31 square miles, is home to many of the USVI’s most well known resorts as well as to Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Red Hospitality & Leisure provides resort, eco-tourism and destination services on St. Thomas. Chris Batchelor, president of the company, and his staff have worked with many insurance and financial groups over the years and they know the island of St. Thomas well.
“Our area is known for calm waters, sugar-sand beaches and some of best activities in the Caribbean,” Batchelor says. “From boat excursions to five-star dining and turnkey meeting and teambuilding events and activities, we can deliver a wide assortment of programming to fit any group’s needs.”
“For North American guests who don’t hold passports, the U.S. Virgin Islands present a unique and easy-to-get-to tropical paradise.”
— Chris Batchelor
In addition to no passports needed, the USVI, by virtue of being part of the United States, is an ideal destination for other reasons. “As a U.S. territory, the U.S. Virgin Islands are easy to do business with. And airlift is available from every major domestic carrier,” Batchelor notes.
Paradise Island and New Providence Island escaped damage from 2017’s hurricanes. The good news is that there are still deals to be had in part because of the perception that the entire region was affected, and in part because Baha Mar resort is new, having finally opened with two of its three hotels after long construction and legal delays.
The expansive Baha Mar resort’s first phase debuted last spring with the opening of the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, The Baha Mar Convention, Art and Entertainment Center and The Royal Blue Golf Club, featuring the only Jack Nicklaus-designed course in The Bahamas. The SLS Baha Mar opened last November and Rosewood Baha Mar is slated to open this summer. Rosewood Baha Mar will feature 185 oceanview rooms and suites, five beachfront villas, four signature dining spaces, an exclusive Rum Room and eight meeting and event spaces, including a 4,950-sf ballroom. The Library Lounge will serve Bahamian-style afternoon tea and unique tea cocktails. Designed in an elegant British Colonial style, the resort is expected to “epitomize Bahamian refinement and sophistication.”
Grand Hyatt Baha Mar’s two towers house 1,800 guest rooms and 230 suites featuring views of the beach, golf course, resort pools and fountain shows. Grand Hyatt Baha Mar manages The Baha Mar Convention, Art and Entertainment Center, the destination’s 200,000-sf indoor and outdoor convention facility, and connects directly to Baha Mar Casino, the largest casino in the Caribbean. Twenty various bars and restaurants will open in the Grand Hyatt under the leadership of executive chef Brent Martin.
On Paradise Island, Atlantis, continues to evolve, refresh and reinvent itself. The resort suffered no significant damage during the 2017 hurricane season. The Coral, one of the resort’s five distinct properties, was reopened in 2017 after a $20 million transformation. Resort-wide, Atlantis has put a renewed focus on programs that connect guests to Bahamian culture — such as the weekly Junkanoo Bahamian Fest & Feast and Art Walk in the new Marina Village that showcases the work of local artists and designers. Atlantis also announced the opening of five new outposts of popular Bahamian restaurants featuring fresh ingredients from local farmers and fishermen. The resort offers more than 500,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting and event space including the Atlantis Conference Center, with two ballrooms at 50,000 sf and 25,000 sf.
In December, Atlantis announced a new program that elevates the already ultra-luxury offered at The Cove, another of the Atlantis properties. It includes guests’ arrival via sumptuous, private wheeled or seaplane flights from Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and the Miami Seaplane Base. No traipsing through crowded airports. This service includes private departure lounges and private SUV pickup in the Bahamas, followed by VIP check-in service at The Cove, all perfect for incentive programs.
Finally, the resort has a menu of new experiences at Dolphin Cay, including paddleboarding, kayaking, and snorkeling — often in the company of the resort’s resident bottlenose dolphins. More programs are in the works, some appropriate for small groups. I&FMM