Meeting in Puerto RicoOctober 1, 2013

A 'Smooth' Experience for Planners and Attendees By
October 1, 2013

Meeting in Puerto Rico

A 'Smooth' Experience for Planners and Attendees
One of Puerto Rico’s most recognizable landmarks, El Morro is a historic fortress located on the northwestern-most point of Old San Juan. Credit: ©

One of Puerto Rico’s most recognizable landmarks, El Morro is a historic fortress located on the northwestern-most point of Old San Juan. Credit: ©

“Smooth.” That’s the new tag line for the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau (PRCB) because they say meeting on the island is a smooth experience from start to finish.

Earlier this year, the bureau launched Puerto Rico Smooth Meeting University (PRSMU), an online education portal for planners that offers a series of online courses on planning meetings in Puerto Rico. Topics include meeting hotels, the PRCC, the island’s rich culture and history, golf, dining and nightlife.

Upon completion, planners earn a “Puerto Rico Smooth Meeting Specialist” designation, explains Neil Mullanaphy, senior vice president, sales for the bureau. “Puerto Rico University offers busy planners a thorough understanding of Puerto Rico as a meetings destination and a centralized location for planning and booking tools,” he says.

“I believe that when people arrive to register and see the ocean while they are doing it, they are put in a great mood to enjoy the rest of their stay.”

— Ludwig Krammer, Director of Operations, Bucom International Inc., Chicago, IL

Meeting in Puerto Rico is so smooth, it is like meeting in the United States as Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth whose residents are American citizens. “We are part of the U.S. and relatively close in distance,” says Janet Santana, sales manager of RST Puerto Rico, a 35-year-old San Juan DMC. “You don’t need a passport to come, it’s cheaper to come to Puerto Rico than to Europe or someplace else overseas, and we have the same currency. There are many flights here from the mainland U.S. Our beautiful island and tropical weather year-round is an incentive, especially for people from the northern states.”

Indeed, commonalities between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. are a big attraction for corporations. For example, Innovage, a Foothill Ranch, CA-based wholesale supplier to companies worldwide, held a series of three back-to-back incentive meetings for about 1,600 employees in 2012 and 2011.

Ease of entry into Puerto Rico was a significant reason for choosing the destination, says Innovage president Marty Tenebaum. “The big thing for us is the passport. That’s why we picked Puerto Rico. A lot of our people are young, they might not have passports, and they can’t get it quickly. And some people can’t get passports for different reasons,” says Tenebaum.

Hotel and Resort Variety

Most important, Puerto Rico has an increasing variety of luxurious and technologically updated hotels and resorts. “We have every kind of hotel, all the way up to seven stars, for every kind of clientele, in the Condado and Isla Verde areas and all over Puerto Rico,” says Santana. “We have every major hotel chain, and most of them have more than one hotel here. Rates have been flat or increasing slightly for the last two years. But what’s happening now is, instead of increasing room rates, a lot of hotels are raising what they call resort or hotel fees.” However, groups can still find good value, adds Santana.

In addition to value, Puerto Rico offers ample meeting space. The Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC), the largest and most modern convention center in the Caribbean, has 36,200 sf of meeting rooms and a 39,000-sf ballroom. The PRCC and the hotel’s meeting spaces offer a combined 1.3 million sf of meeting space. The future is bright as a new multi-use, urban waterfront project is under development in the Puerto Rico Convention Center district, which also will include a World Trade Center, a link to Old San Juan and more  hotels as well.

A U.S. corporation held an incentive at one of Puerto Rico’s premier meeting hotels, the El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort that offers more than 100,000 sf of event space. The company brought approximately 1,700 salespeople, executives and contractors and their partners to the hotel in two separate groups for three-day stays during the same month.

While the company’s vice president of meetings and conventions has used other properties in Puerto Rico, he is partial to the El Conquistador, which is located in Fajardo, about 38 miles east of San Juan. “We have used the hotel five times over the last 20 years or so, he says. “It has a better resort feel, and it’s not in San Juan proper. In a lot of people’s minds when you go to an island destination, you don’t want to be in town, so to speak. You want to be removed from other properties, and the El Con gives us that.”

The group took full advantage of the hotel and its 100-acre Palomino Island. “We did business meetings and receptions on property and did private receptions on the island for some of our business partners. There was a special reception for a small elite group of about 50 higher level qualifiers and their partners. We took them to a house (Hacienda Siesta Alegre, a private horse ranch) in the (El Yunque) rain forest along with the CEO and other executives of the company. It is a very unique structure in a unique setting with a great view of the water.”

The group plans to return to the island next year for several reasons. “When you go there, it’s like you are leaving the states, but you’re not,” says the planner. “Import-export is easier than going to other islands in the Caribbean. We send a great deal of material — equipment related to the meetings and sessions, and gifts and awards. Taking that to some places other than Puerto Rico, you are paying duties, import fees, etc. With Puerto Rico, it’s less expensive and more convenient. They have the same customs and mail systems.”

He also cites good value as a reason for repeatedly choosing Puerto Rico as a meeting destination. “They have been pretty good on price, but they are starting to escalate like everywhere else in the world. I don’t think they are escalating quite as quickly as certain parts of the mainland U.S., though,” the planner says.

Puerto Rico also is a popular destination for corporate meetings that attract attendees from around the world. A U.S. pharmaceutical company recently held a four-day incentive program including several strategy planning sessions for about 200 salespeople from about 30 countries. The meeting took place at the Condado Plaza Hilton, which has 41,000 sf of function space and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and the picturesque Condado lagoon. It was the first time that the company’s salespeople from different countries took an incentive trip together. Previously, each country handled its own incentives.

Ludwig Krammer, director of operations for Bucom International Inc., a Chicago-based meeting, incentive and event planning firm, handled the arrangements for the event. Krammer’s innovative approach to registration paid off: “We used an outdoor terrace for registration. We didn’t register them at the desk,” he says, “because I believe that when people arrive to register and see the ocean while they are doing it, they are put in a great mood to enjoy the rest of their stay.”

During their stay, the group held several meetings, including about 12 breakout sessions each day. However, there also was enough free time to participate in several planned outdoor activities — for a purpose, says Krammer. “We wanted to give people from different countries the chance to get to know each other and socialize outside of meeting rooms. They rode four-wheelers in the rain forest, did horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, fishing, boating and catamarans. They had the evenings free and one night did a dine-around.”

The meeting ended with an awards banquet at the Condado Plaza Hilton ballroom. “We set up AV equipment and opened the banquet by showing a three-minute collage of pictures accompanied by music of everything that happened during meetings and activities.” The presentation was a big hit with attendees, Krammer adds.

Getting the Best Deals and Dates

The variety of hotels and amenities in Puerto Rico are a boon for planners like Carmen Torres, the Puerto Rico director for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, who plans 10 to 12 meetings on the island annually for groups ranging in size from 150 to 1,500 attendees.

“We use The Caribe Hilton, The Condado Plaza Hilton, the El San Juan Resort and Casino, and El Conquistador because they have the double rooms that I need,” says Torres. “There are relatively few hotels in Puerto Rico that have double rooms and the meeting space and breakout rooms that I need for the classroom-style sessions we have. I especially prefer the Caribe Hilton because they have about 30 breakout rooms — we have about 16 breakouts every day — and because they have almost 500 rooms with two beds.”

The hotels also are able to meet Torres’ important technology and audio-visual equipment needs. “We prearrange to get cable or wireless Internet access, depending on the computers we use,” says Torres. “The hotels provide the AV equipment and sound system. They have some very good suppliers that we work with. They are quite affordable, and they are there from early in the morning until late at night. If there is any problem with the equipment, they are very responsive.”

Torres’ groups typically meet over a weekend, mostly during low season, April through November, and sometimes during high season, late December through March. The veteran planner knows Puerto Rico hotels as well as anybody and shares her strategy for getting the best deals and dates:

“I ask about occupancy during ‘soft’ weekends so we can get a better price, and that’s when I try to book rooms,” says Torres. “I book meetings during low season, but also in low occupancy periods during the high season. During the weekend starting January 31 next year the occupancy dips temporarily at hotels, so I already booked a 700-person meeting for that weekend. That approach has worked for me so far.”

And it works through effective negotiating. “They are very good negotiators but so am I,” says Torres. “I tell them what my budget is and what I want, and either we can make it happen or we can’t, and I just go to another hotel. But usually they are very accommodating. I have one person at each hotel that I deal with, and I have long-time relationships with them.”

Torres leaves no stone unturned while sealing the deal with a hotel. “We have a lot of pre-meeting meetings with the hotel, and my staff is constantly in touch with their hotel staff,” says Torres. “We are constantly communicating through phone and email. For example, we talk to chefs to compare menus to make sure they aren’t repeated from the previous year. They are extremely accommodating. They usually supply a person who is with us from early in the morning on the first day through checkout on Sunday,” says Torres.

Hotel News, Attractions and Unique Venues

The 571-room Condado Plaza Hilton recently changed its name. It was formerly branded as the Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza hotel. The 225-room Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort situated on the southern shore in Ponce, has completed a multimillion-dollar renovation as part of its 20th anniversary celebration.

Among other properties, the 130-room Dorado Beach, A  Ritz-Carlton Reserve, has opened with three-, four- and five-bedroom villa residences. The historic 232-room Condado Vanderbilt Hotel will open all of its guest rooms by the end of this year after several years of renovations. The property has more than 15,000 sf of meeting space and 19 restaurants, bars and lounges. The 104-room Hyatt Place Manati and Casino, is scheduled to open in January 2014 with 10,000 sf of gaming space and 2,075 sf of meeting space.

Additionally, The Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino is renovating its 240 guest rooms, Wi-Fi services and air conditioning system. The hotel has 10 meeting spaces, the largest of which is 2,695 sf. The casino has 309 slot machines and 12 gaming tables.

Puerto Rico’s plethora of unique meeting venues and attractions are always high on the to-do list of corporate meetings and incentives. Earlier this year, Santana customized an activity itinerary for a five-day incentive for 220 people from a U.S. company.

The activities were jam-packed with the island’s highlights. “We did dine-arounds in different restaurants in the Condado and Old San Juan metro areas,” says Santana. “We took them on tours of El Yunque Rain Forest, El Morro Fort and Old San Juan. They were divided into teams and did a teambuilding beach Olympics on the beach of The Ritz-Carlton.  We did a balloon toss, relay race, limbo contest, hula-hoop, beach ball relays and coconut toss. The winning teams received trophies and medals. They also did a tropical-themed dinner in a ballroom with salsa lessons from professional dancers. We brought in couches, flowers and a five-piece salsa band. We do a lot of these types of events for companies.”

Historical sites suitable for receptions and events include the San Cristobal and El Morro forts built hundreds of years ago. Other venues include La Casa Blanca, built in the 1500s as a home for the island’s first governor, and the Dominican Convent, which can host more than 300 guests for a reception. There also is Hacienda Siesta Alegre, a horse ranch in the mountains, and Ballaja Barracks, once home to Spanish soldiers.

Anyone who thinks that all major Caribbean “sun and sand” destinations are similar has never been to Puerto Rico. Meeting in Puerto Rico is like meeting in America’s Caribbean state — familiar enough to be comfortable, but foreign enough to be intriguing. No other Caribbean destination offers Puerto Rico’s mix of modern meeting infrastructure and customs spiced by a distinctive Latino culture. Planners can’t go wrong with La Isla del Encanto. Especially when they need a “smooth” experience from start to finish. C&IT

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