There’s a palpable magic to meetings set on tropical islands that can’t be duplicated on the mainland. Islands provide idyllic spots for playing and relaxing — ideal for incentive programs — but they also facilitate productivity, team building, education and any other ROI companies require. Best of all, meetings in the Bahamas and Caribbean are back.
This balmy, compact island in the southern Caribbean is the setting for a saga that planners these days can relate to, and proof that no matter what COVID-19 throws at us, perseverance and strong partnerships can overcome it. Julie Johnston McManus, president/owner of World Travel International Inc., works often with corporate and incentive planners. Pre-pandemic, she was involved with a program for 200 incentive award winners at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. Her experience encapsulates what planners have faced the past two years. “This was to be an in-person sales incentive trip for 200 with a beach party and meeting space, booked for April 2020. We had to cancel and rebook the entire group for October 2020. As the pandemic raged on, the group was again rescheduled for April of 2021. Each time, the Marriott was gracious enough to allow us to reschedule without charging penalties. I cannot describe the amount of work this was for everyone involved. I had to reissue air tickets as well,” McManus says.
When Aruba wouldn’t allow a group that large to gather in the meeting space or have a beach party, it was back to the drawing board. That’s when McManus and Amanda Warner, senior sales executive for Marriott in the Caribbean and Latin America, began brainstorming on how to salvage the program. “Amanda and the Marriott group came up with a new program called ‘Celebrate your Way.’ This allowed accounting to keep it as a group, now down to 120, but people would travel as individuals in a nine-month time frame with costs still covered by the master account. A $250 room credit was issued to make up for the loss of the beach party. Individual airport transportation was arranged as well, and I reissued a fourth set of air tickets.”
Among the helpful resort staff, McManus says, were the on-site senior sales manager and her assistant. “They did a wonderful job of coordinating the room requests and the shuttle service to match whatever flights I had scheduled. They also assisted with the COVID-19 antigen tests required for guests to return to the United States.”
The result after two years of cancellations and changes? “Our guests came back thrilled. They loved the room accommodations, service, beach and location. They enjoyed the restaurants and were able to walk to the shops and local restaurants as well. There’s a beautiful walking/bike trail that goes for several miles along this incredible beach right behind the Aruba Marriott. Everyone was friendly and all health and safety protocols were followed to the letter. The entire group felt welcomed and secure at the resort, on excursions or while exploring the fabulous shops, restaurants and casinos. Everyone was so glad we didn’t give up and figured out a way for them to still receive their incentive.”
McManus can’t say enough about Marriott and its sales team. “I strongly encourage any corporate travel leaders looking for a wonderful experience to give [Marriott and the sales team] throughout the Caribbean and Latin America a chance to show what excellent service looks like. Throughout this challenging process, we never panicked and were able to come up with solutions. I didn’t just have a sales rep; I found a friend willing to fight for me and my business.”
As to what makes Aruba ideal for meetings and incentives, Darysse Croes, account executive with De Palm Tours Destination Management Services, points out that most resorts are just 10 to 20 minutes from the airport, U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere and there’s everything from adventure to pure relaxing available. “We have UTV tours, for example, as well as a natural pool safari and catamaran sails,” she says. “Carnival is huge on the island. An easy way to incorporate carnival is to include it in the welcome or farewell event. Bringing in a brass band instantly captivates guests, and attendees have an opportunity to dance alongside the carnival dancers in their elaborate and colorful costumes.”
Croes advises groups to experience local culture via walking tours and through the island’s diverse food, thanks to some 70 nationalities represented on Aruba. “But for a magical evening under the stars,” she says, “there’s Ayo Rock Formations, a one-of-a-kind venue surrounded by Aruba’s nature. Ayo Rock Formations’ towering stone boulders create a sense of awe and an understanding of why the area was once considered a sacred site by the island’s original inhabitants. Rock drawings dating back thousands of years are found at this site. The boulders create a beautiful backdrop for an event. We bring everything in from tables to chairs, décor, entertainment and lighting, creating a beautiful setting in nature.”
Croes emphasizes that Aruba is safe. “Attendees are able to leave their hotel and roam the island freely and really experience Aruba’s beautiful sights, amazing cuisine and friendly people.” Additionally, she says, “The Aruban government has done a great job managing the pandemic. We’ve received very good feedback from the programs we’ve carried out so far. Guests felt really safe with how Aruba and all stakeholders are handling COVID protocols. Aruba is definitely ready.”
Just 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, Puerto Rico is rich in cultural heritage, compelling history and diverse beauty — and it’s a U.S. territory, so no passports are required. Significant renovations include Fairmont El San Juan Hotel, San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, Punta Borinquen Resort and El Conquistador Resort.
Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, says the island is poised for a busy and successful rest of the year. “We’re excited and optimistic about the state of meetings for 2022. Puerto Rico hosted some 67 events in 2021, from conventions and sporting events to trade shows and conferences. We have an exciting lineup of future events and trade shows throughout 2022, including Connect Spring Marketplace. And of course,” he adds, “the exciting Distrito T-Mobile entertainment complex has been a game changer in terms of how meeting planners view the meeting and entertainment options around the Puerto Rico Convention Center, which itself has undergone substantial renovation and added robust hybrid capabilities.”
One meeting that took place this year is the annual conference of The Guardians Inc. and its alliance of successful entrepreneurial business leaders. The conference, with 500 attendees and 100 speakers, exhibitors and vendors, took place in mid-spring. Next year’s conference is even larger. Paul Michael Raspa Jr., The Guardians Inc. COO, says, as a Puerto Rico-based company, there’s a strong commitment to “enriching the island, its citizens and its economy.” And, he adds, “The warmth, beauty and diverse geography make it an easy sell to our attendees, speakers and vendors. Who wouldn’t want to spend a week at a private resort in the Caribbean? Puerto Ricans have an innate sense of hospitality, care and adaptability. That creates a special environment for participants, but also for event producers.”
The group held its 2021 event at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan. “We were the first large group since the start of the pandemic. We made a profound economic impact. The hotel was able to bring back 30 people off furlough to serve our participants. In turn, the hotel personnel and local citizens made such an impression on our participants that we made the commitment to return for many years to come,” Raspa says. “This year, [we ventured] to the east side of the island for a more secluded and exclusive experience at El Conquistador Resort. The property is gorgeous, the views are stunning. The Guardians [were] the first large-scale conference for the hotel since Hurricane Maria in 2017. We’ve also already contracted for our 2023 event at the El Conquistador Resort. The property is expansive and diverse enough for us to create two exceptional and distinctive conferences without having to relocate.”
Raspa says the team at Discover Puerto Rico brings tremendous value for event planners. “From site selection and facility negotiation, to resourcing the best local vendors, to incorporating the genuine flare of the island, Discover Puerto Rico is committed to serving event producers. They don’t just sell the island. Each member of the team believes this is ‘their’ island, their homeland, for which they are proud, enthusiastic and unapologetic. Discover Puerto Rico is a partner in our success.”
El Conquistador Resort, Raspa notes, is one of the largest properties on the island. “There are three distinct sections, which allows meeting planners to create an ‘off-site experience’ while remaining on property. All have been recently renovated and upgraded. The main building includes multiple ballrooms, breakout rooms, restaurants, pools and amenities. The marina area has restaurants, a water park and oceanfront lodging. Palomino Island is a private oasis 10 minutes off the coast with dining, white beaches and outdoor function space. The guest rooms are well appointed, and the views are stunning.” He calls the staff a pleasure to work with. “Some of the resort’s event planners and sales representatives have been on staff for 20+ years, bringing a wealth of experience and knowledge of the property.”
Raspa says people are clamoring to again meet face to face. “There is power for meeting in person. Our attendees crave the opportunity to collaborate and build professional relationships with others in ways that online conferences cannot replicate. Our attendees are asking for in-real-life events and they’re showing up. Our mainland U.S. events have strong registration numbers as well. Those who want to meet in-person — pandemic or not — will meet.”
He advises planners to leverage Discover Puerto Rico, local DMCs and local vendors. “They’ve figured out how to navigate this pandemic and make unforgettable events on the island. Doing it on your own or with foreign vendors will be far more challenging.”
Made up of 16 major and countless smaller islands, a group can visit The Bahamas repeatedly with a different experience each time. New properties include Sandals Royal Bahamian on Nassau and the reopening of The Cove, Eleuthera, while Ritz-Carlton announced plans for a new Ritz-Carlton Reserve on Eleuthera.
No one is more of a cheerleader for these islands than the Honourable I. Chester Cooper, deputy prime minister and Bahamas minister of Tourism, Investments and Aviation. “The Islands of The Bahamas are an ideal setting for an array of meetings and group opportunities,” he says. “We’re seeing an uptick in interest in this sector as our beautiful country can accommodate groups of all shapes and sizes. Our partners and meetings experts are available to ensure every need is met and no detail is left behind. Everything from accommodations and meeting spaces, as well as experiences and activities, are at your fingertips and can be seamlessly executed.”
Suzanne Houghtaling, founder and CEO of Sunsplash Events, DMC Event Production Company, has been involved with Insight Global’s annual Incentive Rewards Conference at the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar in Nassau for 10 years. “We began with a 200-person group; it has grown now to 2,800 to 3,200 persons.”
Among the Bahamas’ assets is ease of flights. “It’s very close to the U.S., with more than enough nonstop flights from all major U.S. hubs. There are many fabulous hotels to choose from, ranging from smaller boutique properties to the larger Grand Hyatt Baha Mar and Atlantis, Paradise Island.”
About Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, Houghtaling says, “Our client chose Grand Hyatt Baha Mar because of the many activities on and off property, as well as the perfect white beaches and shallow, crystal-clear water. The new water park with its lazy river, wave pool, many water slides, surfing pool and poolside gambling offers something for everyone.” And, she says, “There are several pools, as well as food-trucks, and food and drink outlets throughout the property. The Grand Hyatt has an energetic casino, many fine dining options and the service is superb. Conference facilities also stand out. There’s a standalone conference center close to the hotel rooms, with indoor and outdoor spaces.”
Houghtaling says one thing planners should know is that tips are included in almost all hotel charges. “There’s a 12% VAT added to everything. We do tip locals, such as taxi drivers and outside servers, about 20% to 25%. If you have to ship in conference materials,” she continues, “be sure to use the hotel’s preferred suppliers or connect with your DMC, as there are quite a few logistical steps you should be sure to follow. I also suggest allowing at least one day for guests to venture out and experience our local culture, and a night to have dinner on their own to try some local hot spots. Reservations are strongly recommended.”
Atlantis, Paradise Island offers more than 500,000 sf of meeting space, a casino, golf course, retail complexes, more than 20 restaurants, an aquarium and the largest water park in the Bahamas. The 3,401-room resort recently announced plans for a multimillion-dollar renovation. Enhancements include the redevelopment of The Beach Tower and all Royal Tower guest rooms and suites, and a reimagined Atlantis Casino. Renovation of all guest rooms and suites in The Royal East Tower will be complete later this summer, closely followed by newly renovated rooms and suites in The Royal West Tower.
The Royal’s world-famous Bridge Suite is on track for total renovation and completion next year, and looking beyond 2022, Atlantis will open a brand-new “oasis within an oasis,” resort dubbed Somewhere Else. Replacing the current site of The Beach Tower, this unique oceanfront escape, opening in 2024, will offer 400 guest rooms and suites alongside top-tier dining venues, lushly landscaped grounds, multiple pools, recreation areas, upscale amenities and live performances — all within easy reach of the myriad of dining and entertainment options synonymous with Atlantis.
Although Nassau and Paradise Island have plenty to keep groups busy, Houghtaling encourages attendees to venture out for snorkeling and island hopping to some of the many out islands and cays or, for example, to Exuma for swimming with the famous pigs. Who wouldn’t want to swim with pigs?
The three major and many smaller islands that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) are a U.S. territory, making planning, contracts, currency and entry easy for U.S. citizens. Utah-based Christy Froehlich, CMP, principal/owner and senior planner at Precision Planners. After two rebookings, she recently brought an incentive group from a California-based company to St. Thomas in mid-spring to The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, which has come back better than ever after a two-year shutdown and property-wide renovation following the 2017 hurricanes.
Froehlich gives many reasons for choosing the USVI for this fully in-person meeting. “Ease of access and airlift were big decision factors,” she says. “The client loves that we’ll get that Caribbean, far-away feeling, yet at the same time the convenience of being in the U.S. for currency, language and COVID purposes is very attractive. There are so many recreational activity options and unique special-event venues that it has been very easy to create a spectacular program. This particular incentive trip [was] a five-night pattern, and I had a hard time deciding how to fit all the St. Thomas experiences into the agenda.”
Froehlich’s client likes The Ritz-Carlton brand “for its continuity in product offerings and service level,” with the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas especially attractive. “The fact that the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas is a ‘new’ product given the massive $100 million renovation that took place after Hurricane Irma was very attractive,” Froehlich says. “Brand new rooms, meeting spaces and restaurants are so refreshing.” And there’s the fact that The Ritz-Carlton beach is available as function space and for evening events.
“From my perspective as the planner,” she continues, “I love that Cruz Bay Sports is on-site, and that the majority of ground transportation and daytime activities [water and land-based] are arranged through them. It’s so convenient. The flexibility and understanding from the hotel’s perspective were greatly appreciated in such tumultuous times.”
Froehlich says flexibility and creativity during the pandemic made it one of the best experiences among all of her 2020-2022 rebookings. In terms of meeting space at the resort, Froehlich points to some pros and minor cons. “Pro: Beautiful spaces that are all newly renovated and incorporate lots of natural light. Con: The hotel is quite spread out. Walking from one end to the other is a jaunt. However, the hotel’s bell staff stands ready to transport guests in golf carts whenever requested.”
To planners, she says, “Just book it. The planning has been a snap, aside from the multiple COVID rebookings. The client [was] very pleased with how excited the attendees [were] to attend this event. The ROI relative to their meeting spend will be particularly tangible this year.”
Bottom line: Islands offer planners alluring destinations where culture, history, activities and fantastic settings create the foundation for meeting success. Magic and ROI are not mutually exclusive. C&IT