With economies that depend largely on tourism, Caribbean nations and the Bahamas have been especially impacted by the pandemic. Fortunately for corporate groups, the region’s destinations, resorts and meeting venues have been very proactive in implementing the needed health and safety measures to help the industry regain its footing. And along with resort reopenings, there are new properties coming online that will create more options for meeting and incentive groups. Post-pandemic, demand for the ever-popular Caribbean nations and the Bahamas will surely surge, and its destinations thus benefit from the added lodging.
But while the recovery at this point looks promising, it may not be fully realized this year, according to George Brice, vice president of group sales for the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board. Many group clients that had moved their 2020 dates to 2021 are now moving them to 2022. “I see 2021 as the year of rebuilding,” Brice says. “So we are definitely going to be down in 2021. Some of our hotels say 50%, some 40%, one 30%. Leisure business for 2021 is what’s going to keep us afloat. But 2022 looks good right now. Most of our major hotels will be up 10% to 20% for that year. So we’re optimistic about the future, starting in 2022.”
The Bahamas’ most well-known destinations are the capital city of Nassau and nearby Paradise Island, home to the Atlantis resort. Pre-pandemic, the destination’s meetings business was certainly on an upswing. Brice asserts, “2019 was our best year ever when it comes to groups. We had 312,000 group room nights, and that’s because of the booking incentive [focused on drawing off-season group business]. Now, because of funding, we haven’t started up the booking incentives yet, so what you would find is hotels are giving more concessions.” In addition, he says, “We are really flexible with the contracts, with the cancellation and the attrition. We have to be, because the [host organizations] want to come, but the participants might not want to take the chance.”
Brice cites plenty of interest in the Bahamas, noting that clients have regularly been reaching out to him to ask, for example, “How safe is it to travel to [the] Bahamas?” and “What’s the protocol?” Visit nassauparadiseisland.com and click on Health & Safety or travel.gov.bs to see the latest safety protocols. Among them are the following:
The resort that is the biggest draw in the Bahamas’ group market, Atlantis, Paradise Island, and the second-biggest draw, Baha Mar, have each instituted their own robust health and safety protocols related to COVID-19. In addition, outdoor events — a particularly attractive choice in the Bahamas — facilitate social distancing, and thus “You will find us doing our best to take advantage of outdoor spaces during the pandemic,” Brice notes. “Both Atlantis and Baha Mar have massive outdoor spaces.”
Indoor social distancing guidelines are in place at all of Atlantis’ popular recreational venues and restaurants, including Atlantis Casino, the Marina, Mandara Spa, Ocean Club Golf Course, Nobu, Todd English’s Olives, Crystal Court shops, Marina Village, Aquaventure and Dolphin Cay — the world’s largest open-air marine habitat. For details on the resort’s Clean & Safe Promise, visit atlantisbahamas.com and click on the Learn More button.
In 2007, the 2,317-room Atlantis added the 600-room resort within the resort, The Cove Atlantis, as well as approximately 100,000 additional sf of new conference facilities. The resort’s Conference Center includes the 50,000-sf Imperial Ballroom, more than 40,000 sf of pre-function space, 30 breakout rooms, five boardrooms and a large staging area. Twenty-one outdoor function spaces provide diverse options for planners looking for that kind of experience for their attendees.
In early 2020, Audubon, Pennsylvania-based Globus Medical held its Global Sales Meeting at Atlantis, bringing in 300 to 400 attendees. “The meeting space options within the conference center are endless, not to mention the auxiliary event space found throughout the remainder of the property. You never have to repeat a specific venue within the property. The meeting will always feel fresh and exciting to the returning attendees,” says Kathleen Radicioni, group manager, meetings for Globus Medical. The group utilized the entire Grand Ballroom and smaller breakout rooms nearby. “The layout of the Grand Ballroom allows us to utilize the center for our General Session while maintaining the exterior ballrooms to utilize as breakout rooms,” Radicioni says. “Logistically, this is an absolute must to accommodate our agenda. We utilize approximately eight breakout rooms in constant rotations throughout the entire three days of our meeting. Having breakout space adjacent to your General Session is a convenience you simply don’t want to forego.”
Atlantis’ collection of event venues goes well beyond traditional meeting space. “Our favorite event space that we’ve utilized is definitely the Café at Great Hall of Waters, located on the lower level of the lobby in the Royal Tower,” she says. “As you walk down the stairs into your event, your eyes are met by the magnificent aquarium windows that Atlantis is known for. Literally, lining our entire Product Fair, are windows into the giant aquarium, full of the most stunning sea life, including the great manta ray. All of our attendees instantly turn into children, and it’s beyond satisfying to watch the awe in their faces.”
The Baha Mar complex consists of the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, SLS Baha Mar and Rosewood Baha Mar, complemented by the nearby Meliá Nassau Beach. The Grand Hyatt is the largest property, at 1,800 guest rooms and 200,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space, including the 82,000-sf Baha Mar Convention, Arts & Entertainment Center, whose largest space is 29,000 sf. The scenic property is accented by gardens and Bahamian art, and affords plenty of ocean views. All Baha Mar guests will be required to take a complimentary COVID-19 Rapid Antigen Test upon arrival. In addition, Baha Mar’s “Commitment to Your Wellbeing” implements new hygiene and sanitization practices across Baha Mar Resort, Baha Mar Casino and The Performing Arts & Convention Center that exceed CDC recommendations.
Brice says all of the Bahamas’ resorts reopened in March, and will be joined by the new Margaritaville Beach Resort. The 300-room property has scheduled its grand opening for mid summer. The destination is fully reopened and nonstop flights have resumed at Lynden Pindling International Airport, renovated and expanded about six years ago. Classic off-site venues in Nassau, such as the historic Government House, the official residence of the Governor General of the Bahamas, and Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant — boasting the Caribbean’s largest wine cellar — are ready to host groups again.
The centerpiece of Puerto Rico’s meetings industry, the Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC), has also been at the forefront of health and safety best practices during the pandemic. ASM Global, which operates the PRCC, deployed its VenueShield program at the facility last July. Measures taken under the program include added food safety, air quality control, surface cleaning, physical/social distancing, temperature checks, thermal cameras and much more. “I had the honor of being part of the global team that designed this new program that we launched for this new phase of economic reopening that allows for in-person events,” says Jorge Pérez, general manager of the PRCC, in a statement. “We are proud that, in addition to having our input, the program is broad and comprehensive, and includes the best practices in the industry worldwide … We have invested resources and time in adapting the facilities, as well as training our staff and service providers to follow these guidelines, and thereby help us maintain a healthy and reliable environment for all.”
The PRCC has also implemented sustainability initiatives that include:
The 600,000-sf center includes a 152,700-sf exhibit hall divisible into three spaces, a 39,500-sf ballroom divisible into two spaces, 36,400 sf of meeting space, a 12,800-sf outdoor terrace, and 14 meeting rooms that can be divided into 29 breakout rooms.
In 2019, Puerto Rico hosted T-Mobile’s Winners Circle recognition award trip. Most of the 1,433 attendees, including winners, guests and leadership hosts, flew in from the United States.
Ever since Hurricane Maria blew through San Juan, leaving behind widespread destruction and a devastated local economy, T-Mobile has sought to help the local economy. Considering how many T-Mobile employees and customers call Puerto Rico home, the organization wanted to do what it could to help the ravaged destination get back on its feet — and bringing a high-profile incentive program to San Juan seemed like a good way to do it, according, to T-Mobile’s corporate communications group. Highlights of the program included an act of charity aligning with T-Mobile’s sponsorship of Little League Baseball, where the company presented that organization’s Latin America director a big check to support rebuilding baseball fields destroyed by the hurricane — an emotional moment which was heightened by a surprise appearance by Major League Baseball All-Star and Puerto Rico native Carlos Beltran.
Via off-site activities, the group also did its part to stimulate the island’s tourism economy — while showing off some of the best parts of the island culture. Activities included extreme zip lining, rum tasting and tours of the El Yunque National Rainforest. A full nightclub takeover and visit to a family run ranch offering ATV and horseback rides helped bring a major stimulus to the recovering local businesses. Almost every part of the program was customized and branded in T-Mobile’s signature magenta, from merchandise and apparel giveaways to digital billboards placed around the island. For the final-night event, T-Mobile leveraged Vivo Beach Club and turned it into their “Club Magenta.” A video of “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon — who had just brought his own show to the island to help stimulate recovery — introduced DJ Khaled as the surprise entertainment for the evening. [He played] until the early morning as winners danced, surrounded by T-Mobile branded LED walls and atmospheric magenta lights. Local T-Mobile Puerto Rico employees also were invited to join, according to the group. T-Mobile’s Winners Circle guests and staff lodged in four hotels: the InterContinental San Juan, now the Royal Sonesta San Juan; Fairmont El San Juan; Sheraton Puerto Rico; and La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort.
Another major hotel option for groups is the Caribe Hilton, located near historic Old San Juan. The 652-room property is the largest in the city and houses 65,000 sf of function space. An oceanfront pool area, gazebo, gardens and terraces are among the many outdoor spaces available to groups. Meetings at the hotel follow all protocols of the Hilton EventReady with CleanStay program.
For groups that want to explore two of the island’s main natural attractions — the beach and El Yunque National Rainforest — a fine lodging choice is the 400-room Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort.
On-site diversions include a 7,000-sf casino, two 18-hole golf courses, a 7,000-sf spa and fitness center, international tennis center, water sports center and three beachfront pools. The resort is also well prepared to host business sessions with a 48,000-sf oceanfront conference center.
And with regard to COVID preparedness, groups can have peace of mind given that the hotel is following both the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s “Safe Stay” guidelines and those set forth by Wyndham Hotels & Resorts’ Count on Us initiative.
For fully vaccinated travelers on domestic flights, visitors will be required to upload an official vaccination card as proof of vaccination through the Travel Declaration Form portal.
For non-vaccinated travelers arriving on domestic flights, visitors will be required to provide evidence of either a PCR molecular or antigen COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of arrival.
If the traveler arrives without a test, they must upload either a PCR molecular or antigen COVID-19 test taken on the island, within 48 hours of arrival, or they will receive a $300 fine.
If the uploaded result is negative, the quarantine is lifted. If the result is positive, the person must isolate and follow the local isolation protocol at his/her own expense.
For more visitor health and safety guidelines, visit discoverpuertorico.com/promise.
The 21-mile-long island of Aruba is home to some of the world’s most famous beaches, such as Palm Beach and Eagle Beach. Notable attractions include the California Lighthouse, built in the early 20th century; the Gold Mine Ruins at Bushiribana, built in 1872; and various caves and scenic rock formations, including a natural bridge.
Located on the Palm Beach Strip, the 357-room Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino offers groups memorable views with private balconies or patios in every guest room. The resort also takes advantage of its scenic location with the beachfront eforea Spa, two large pools, a freshwater lagoon and 24,000 sf of outdoor function space. Indoor meeting space spans 15,000 sf and includes five meeting rooms and the 8,100-sf Grand Morris Lapidus Ballroom, divisible into three spaces.
Also attuned to its natural surroundings is the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa and Casino, whose 359 renovated rooms afford ocean, garden and pool views. Set on Palm Beach, the resort offers more than 33,000 sf of function space. Early last year, the resort hosted a customer meeting for P&N Distribution, a New Jersey-based wholesale HVAC distributor.
“The Palm Beach area, where the Hyatt is located, is very walkable, and our clients and their attendees like the fact that participants can walk to stores and restaurants,” says Pam Spanjer, CMP, president/owner & founder of Meetings Plus, which organized the program.
She found the resort very conducive to outdoor meetings. “Group dinners and receptions were held by the Hyatt pool and on the Hyatt’s beach. Beautiful sunsets and attentive staff made the evenings exceptional,” Spanjer says. “The natural environment with the lush foliage at the Hyatt are a plus. As a planner, you don’t need much to dress up an outdoor area at the Hyatt, aside from string lights and few ambient torches.”
The hotel’s event staff assisted in staging a special event for the group that showcased the local culture. “The Hyatt has been extremely helpful with several of our groups in planning a carnival-themed evening,” she says. “We have offered this on the beach and previously on the Hyatt’s event deck. The hotel’s conference services team works with a carnival dance troupe, complete with grand ornate costumes, music and dancing.” She adds, “It’s a showstopper — especially for participants that are new to the concept. Lots of photo ops and tons of fun. We worked with our DMC, Eco, to enhance the experience for our attendees with beads, maracas and magnificent carnival masks.”
The Aruba Convention Bureau also facilitated the execution of the meeting. “The CVB often offers a promotional credit to groups, which assists in underwriting some of the costs of the program, or in our situation, enhancing their overall experience in Aruba. The CVB is also helpful with excursion recommendations,” Spanjer says. One of those excursions was very easy to arrange, and a crowd pleaser. “We took the group on a snorkel sail. They loved it. The seas are fairly calm, the water color is so clear, and the sea life is abundant,” she says. “Truly an easy excursion, operationally, with a great response from attendees. You can walk to several piers from the Hyatt for this activity. No boarding buses.”
All visitors to Aruba are required to submit a negative Molecular COVID-19 test result for entry. For more details, visit aruba.com.
The Caribbean and Bahamian region and its meetings industry have faced severe challenges in recent times, from hurricanes and COVID-19. But just as the region weathered several literal storms, so it will weather the pandemic. The deployment of the vaccines globally, together with the various health and safety initiatives of the local governments, convention facilities and resorts, will eventually bring island meetings back to their 2019 prominence. C&IT