Yes, there’s sun, sea and sand offering an irrefutable lure for meetings planners considering the Caribbean for events. But Nicola Madden-Greig, president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA), says the region’s value to the MICE sector goes well beyond tropical marketing images.
“Coming to the Caribbean, you get a cultural experience that is unmatched,” Madden-Greig says. “Our people are warm and friendly, and whether it’s in the air or in the water, there’s so much in terms of attractions and natural beauty you can experience. Even though you may have a meeting inside, there are so many outstanding events that can take place outside.”
To celebrate the 60th year of its founding, CHTA will be bringing its annual conference and marketplace to San Juan, Puerto Rico in mid-fall. Brad Dean, chief executive officer for Discover Puerto Rico, promises San Juan will be refreshed and substantially rebuilt since CHTA’s last conference in the city, held just four months after Hurricane Maria wrought a path of destruction on the island in 2017.
“We’ve been refurbishing and rebuilding many of the hotels since the hurricane, with significant investment in infrastructure, particularly around the Puerto Rico Convention Center,” Dean says. “With Distrito T-Mobile, we now have a walkable convention center district with multiple hotels, 12 gastronomic concepts and an innovative nightlife complex.” Distrito T-Mobile is a 5-acre entertainment and retail district complex adjacent to the Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC) that opened last year, offering entertainment, dining, shopping, a 177-room Aloft San Juan hotel and the Coca Cola Music Hall, a mixed-use performance venue with space for more than 6,000 attendees. Including the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, Hyatt Place San Juan and Hyatt House San Juan, there are now thousands of rooms within a two-minute walk from the 600,000-sf convention center, the most technologically advanced facility in the Caribbean. “All of this gives planners unprecedented control, allowing them to stage an epic gathering,” Dean says.
But Dean doesn’t expect meetings or their attendees to stay within the confines of the Convention Center District. “Puerto Rico is celebrating its 500th anniversary, and planners are able to weave in some of the historical attractions, such as El Morro, for example,” Dean says. The Castillo San Felipe del Morro citadel, built by Spaniards and dating to the 16th century, is a World Heritage Site guarding the entrance to San Juan Bay. “If you’re meeting in the Condado or the Convention Center District, you’re just an Uber or taxi ride away from Old San Juan, another unique asset,” Dean says. “We’re hearing more and more from clients that they’ve got to maximize on-site attendance, so when you look at the proximity of what we have for unique experiences, Puerto Rico becomes a very compelling package for planners, whether we’re competing with other Caribbean islands or U.S. mainland destinations.”
El Yunque National Forest, located 45 minutes from San Juan and 3,000 feet above sea level, is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. The island’s bioluminescent bays are another attraction well suited for an evening event, and ToroVerde Adventure Park is the largest adventure park in the Caribbean, offering a variety of team-building options, including El Monstruo, which, at 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles), is the third-longest zip line in the world.
Dean also cites San Juan’s connectivity to the mainland U.S. as another advantage, with 100 daily flights from 24 different cities nonstop. “By enhancing the air service, that’s made it easier and more cost-effective for planners to stage events in Puerto Rico,” Dean says, noting that the lodging sector has added mid-tier hotel product, making the destination more attractive from a cost standpoint. “In terms of hotel cost, if you look at average daily rate, we’re right near the average for major-tier destinations. And, as a result of funding we received last year, we’ve increased the incentive we’re able to offer planners who bring in groups,” he says. “We recognize that, in comparing us against mainland destinations, there may be some situations when there’s a bit of additional costs, such as shipping booths or materials. Now we’re able to provide financial incentives to offset those costs.”
For groups using 100 or more rooms, meetings booked by the end of May — for 2023 and beyond — are eligible for the incentives, which range as high as $20 off per room for events from June through December. Visit the Discover Puerto Rico website for more information.
While meetings planners may cite the annual June-November hurricane season as a reason to avoid summer and fall months, for CHTA’s Madden-Greig, setting a meeting in San Juan in October does not give her pause. “While hurricane season is something to pay attention to, I have done many, many international events during hurricane season,” Madden-Greig says. “Most hotels have a cancellation policy in the event of a storm, and there are very good rates in the off-season months — as much as 50% less.” Madden-Greig points to San Juan’s recovery following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. “We had our last event in San Juan in January 2018, right after the hurricane,” Madden-Greig says. “The island’s ability to recover and deliver was excellent. When you consider a pandemic, or the ash fallout in Europe, you have to have built into your contract the ways to remedy, so that if anything happens you have recourse.”
Madden-Greig, who runs a small chain of hotels in Jamaica, cites a unique advantage the region has over many traditional meeting locations: destination wedding infrastructure. “The Caribbean has good DMCs — full-service companies that provide both transportation and off-site logistics for these events. Some of the weddings are large-scale, and the companies build huge stages, they do pyrotechnics, and provide photo and videography services.”
John Woolcock, the Jamaica Tourist Board’s manager of groups & conventions, says his island has seen strong growth in the convention sector, with a number of hotels, particularly in all-inclusive brands, adding ballrooms and other facilities to attract MICE business. “Hotels like Sandals Montego Bay have completely refurbished, and they put in a brand new convention center,” Woolcock says. The 3,000-sf facility has its own lobby and modern kitchen, and can seat up to 300 attendees. “You also have amazing great houses that lend themselves to unique off-site venues for an evening event or welcome reception. These have become a strong part of our product offering.”
Woolcock cites Jamaica’s history, culture and geography as leading assets for meetings planners to leverage. “The sun-sea-sand experience is only part of it,” Woolcock says. “In Jamaica, you’re looking at the third-largest island in the Caribbean, with an elevation up to 7,402 feet and amazing rivers and waterfalls. And the culture is very strong, with African roots and the East Indies reflected in our cuisine and culture. When you think of Caribbean music, you think of reggae music. Where did that come from? Jamaica.” Woolcock also notes that Jamaica has a tax treaty with the U.S. dating to 1981. “Anything that can be written off taxes in the U.S. can be written off when doing a meeting in Jamaica. It has been a strong selling point for us.”
The island has two convention centers: The Jamaica Conference Centre in Kingston and the 85,000-sf Montego Bay Conference Centre, built in 2011. But most events utilize the island’s beachfront resorts along the Northern Coast, between Negril and Ocho Rios. Most of the resorts operate on an all-inclusive basis, building in many of the extras that can make a budget spiral.
The 295-room Iberostar Grand Rose Hall hotel offers the largest resort-based meeting facility, with a 45,370-sf convention center. Other hotels with meetings spaces exceeding 10,000 sf include Moon Palace Jamaica; the Hyatt Ziva/Zilara Rose Hall; Secrets Wild Orchid Montego Bay; the Royalton Blue Waters Montego Bay, An Autograph Collection All-Inclusive Resort; and Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa.
The 210-room Half Moon, one of Jamaica’s iconic resorts since its opening in 1955, used the pandemic to refresh its Hibiscus section. The resort also opened a new hotel-within-the-hotel, Eclipse at Half Moon, which offers its own restaurants and bars sitting on the beach at the center of the 400-acre property. In all, the resort has more than 15,000 sf of meetings space. “Eclipse is a fabulous new area for Half Moon,” says Vashti Henriques, MBA, CMP, and president/CEO of Meeting Consultants LLC. Henriques first visited Half Moon 40 years ago, and has been bringing meetings and incentives to the hotel ever since. “I do meetings from Cannes to Hawaii, and they know how to facilitate things at Half Moon in the event of any inconvenience. The food is always fantastic and fresh, and the service is tremendous. They have outdoor venues, and you can have your opening reception or an awards event with dinner and dancing outside on the terrace.”
For 15 years, Henriques has been bringing a regional meeting of the National Medical Association for Continuing Medical Education to Half Moon, and will be back again in late spring. “We block 50 rooms, but we usually wind up with 100 or more rooms,” Henriques says. “We’re not in high season, so there’s not a worry about rooms not being available.” The meeting will also be a hybrid, telecast live, and the resort provides all the A/V services, while working to accommodate a demanding group. “We have a couple of doctors who are vegetarian, and the cooks will do something special for them.” Henriques adds, “If you take a site visit, you’ll be hooked. They’ll give you an honest impression of what you can do with a group, whether it’s on the beach or in the conference center. Be sure to go on a Friday, when they have their barbecue event. It’s $50, but such a value, with the entertainment included. I went straight for the shrimp and, honestly, I think I ate $200 worth of shrimp alone.”
Fred Lounsberry, CEO for the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board, says all of the islands of the Bahamas have their own unique personality, culture and entertainment. “These are the friendliest people in the world, and it’s a more relaxed atmosphere — an island experience instead of a city experience — while still providing great facilities for serious business,” Lounsberry says. “When it’s time for a break, whether it’s a half day or full-day out, they’re going to enjoy beautiful weather, beaches and fishing, instead of a theme park or museum. And our water is second to none in the world. I’ve been with the promotion board for 17 years, and I never get tired of seeing that water.”
While the Bahamas are a decidedly international destination, Nassau is just 185 miles from South Florida. “One of the first questions we get, is, ‘What’s the air service?’ But proximity is one of our best assets,” says Lounsberry, who notes that nonstop flights are available from most major Eastern-U.S. airports. It’s also convenient: Nassau’s Lynden Pindling International Airport was the first airport outside of the U.S. to implement TSA PreCheck, allowing eligible travelers to pass through security more quickly, along with Global Entry for expedited clearance. “Los Angeles is one of our top-10 markets for visitors, which might seem strange, but when you think about it, we’re about the same distance from the West Coast as Hawaii,” he says.
Nassau Paradise Island also has two of the largest meeting facilities in the Caribbean region, starting with the 3,401-room Atlantis, Paradise Island, with more then 500,000 sf of meetings space. The 171-acre resort, now part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, includes a casino, golf course, retail complexes, more than 20 restaurants, an aquarium and the largest water theme park in the islands.
Another large convention resort in the Bahamas is Baha Mar, a complex that sprawls more than 1,000 acres along Cable Beach, just west of Nassau on New Providence Island. The $4 billion project opened in 2017 with the 1,800-room Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, followed soon after by the 299-room SLS Baha Mar and 233-room Rosewood Baha Mar. The Grand Hyatt hosts the bulk of the meetings facilities, which includes three nautical-inspired ballrooms and a 2,000-seat entertainment venue — 85,000 sf of meetings space in all. The Rosewood features an additional 27,000 sf of meetings space.
Last year, the island also saw the debut of Margaritaville Beach Resort Nassau, located at the entrance to downtown, with two towers totaling 300 rooms. It’s also an option for groups, with 40,000 sf of indoor and outdoor space, including the 5,000-sf Compass Rose Ballroom. A dedicated sales and events team is available to coordinate custom concepts. “Pre-pandemic, MICE business represented 20% of our room nights on Nassau Paradise Island,” Lounsberry says. “So it’s a very important sector for our tourism. Obviously, everything went away during the pandemic, and the MICE segment has been the last piece to come back, but we’re seeing real strength for 2023 and 2024. We’re very upbeat about what’s coming.”
While the Caribbean’s major meetings destinations — Puerto Rico, Nassau Paradise Island, Jamaica — offer facilities to host events of almost any size, don’t overlook the smaller destinations that can provide a memorable backdrop for more intimate gatherings. For instance, Barbados, located 3.5 hours from Miami, has been cultivating tourism since 1751, when George Washington traveled to the island to convalesce with his tubercular brother Lawrence. Major meetings facilities today include the posh Sandy Lane hotel for very high-end gatherings, along with Sandals Royal Barbados, and the Hilton Barbados Resort, offering 10,200 sf of meetings space. Later this year, Wyndham will reopen Sam Lord’s Castle, which promises special events venues in the 19th-century castle.
Barbados also boasts a noteworthy dining scene, and the island is marketed as the “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.” “We’ve got more restaurants per capita than any other island in the region,” says Eusi Skeete, director, USA with Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. “From fine dining to a shack on the beach, we have so many local chefs who use our local products, and people can come here and really get a taste of Barbados.”
Skeete points to sustainability as a distinguishing element for Barbados. “It’s not just the environment, but the social and economic components of sustainability are a key part,” Skeete says. “We’ve got rum distilleries using solar panels, we’re protecting our reefs, and we’ve banned single-use plastics. It’s not a fad or a trend, but something we believe in — not just in word but in deed.”
Skeete adds that his island “really works” for meetings and conferences. “Our infrastructure works, moving around the island is easy, we’ve got the fastest internet service in the Caribbean, and Barbados has the highest literacy rate,” Skeete says. “When executing any kind of program, one of the things that will resonate is that attendees have the key things they need at home, but you have them in a tropical paradise. In Barbados, visitors are integrated into the island experience, you’re not stuck behind the walls of a resort. From taxi drivers to someone you meet randomly on the street, there’s a genuine warmth and engagement everywhere you go.” | AC&F |