The allure of beautiful Puerto Rico as a meetings destination shines bright, attracting wellness seekers rejuvenated by year-round tropical weather, warm local hospitality, and diverse culinary and cultural experiences — all within easy access from mainland USA. No need for a passport, customs check, currency conversion, or international phone plan when flying or cruising to the “Isla del Encanto” — Island of Enchantment. Infused with a unique culture in a festive atmosphere set in colorful surroundings, Puerto Rico offers old- and new-world charm with plenty of opportunities for relaxation, celebration and adventure.
About 100 miles long, 35 miles wide and comprising seven unique regions, Puerto Rico is the easternmost island among the Greater Antilles. Most visitors enter the island by way of the capital city, San Juan — parts of which are a UNESCO World Heritage site — rich in 500 years of indigenous, European and African influences. And where better to enjoy the home of the piña colada or savor mofongo —the ultimate comfort food of deep-fried plantains mashed with garlic and salt-fried pork or pork cracklings with butter or oil? Yet, beyond the traditional foods and craft cocktails that define the essence of Puerto Rico’s flavors, the cuisine scene’s constant evolution invites discovery around every culinary corner, cementing Puerto Rico’s status as a foodie paradise.
“We are proud the island is listed on Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel list for 2022, proving interest in Puerto Rico is still strong,” says Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico. “To meeting planners looking to book upcoming meetings on the island, I recommend immersing your group in many of the experiences we have. Immerse in our culture. Planners constantly tell us that they are so glad they built in free time for their attendees to explore the island or planned pre- and post-days into their itineraries. They also tell us how warm and friendly our residents are — so be sure to find that local tour guide or utilize one of our amazing DMC partners to customize an authentic experience your attendees will never forget.”
When it comes to local attractions, El Yunque Rainforest — the only rainforest in the U.S. forest system — pink salt flats and three of the world’s five bioluminescent bays offer abundant opportunities to renew body, mind and spirit. Outdoor activities on the island include the longest zip line in the Americas — “El Monstruo” at Toro Verde Adventure Park, scuba diving at several sites across the island’s waters, golfing and rainforest hiking among the plethora of available options.
For guided tours, Dean recommends SPOON, “Puerto Rico’s highest-quality culinary and cultural tourism company, to learn about Puerto Rico’s history, architecture and gastronomy,” as well as “sample both modern and traditional Puerto Rican cuisine and cocktails.” And in celebration of San Juan’s 500th anniversary, Dean cites “a new walking tour that takes attendees down the cobblestone streets to explore colonial architecture and secret pathways to learn about the island’s history as one among several transformational experiences unique to the island and traveler.”
Dean cites more than 163 hotel options on the island, and nearly 14,500 hotel rooms open and operating that are endorsed by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), including a total of eight, 5-star properties and 15, 4-star properties.” In addition to world-class hotels and resorts, meeting spaces range from the 600,000-sf Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC), to intimate coffee haciendas, historic homes, family-operated paradores, museums and rum distilleries, and all provide endless possibilities for creating magical, memorable events.
Described as “the largest and most technologically advanced meeting facility in the region,” the centrally located PRCC is “also one of the greenest,” Dean says, “with a 20,000-panel solar array and numerous other initiatives focused on sustainability.” With state-of-the-art video conferencing capabilities, an on-site lobby lounge, 152,700-sf exhibit hall and 15 meeting rooms that can be reconfigured into 28 breakout rooms, PRCC provides meeting space for 10 to 10,000 attendees. In addition, PRCC serves as anchor to the vibrant Convention Center District, with the recent opening of Distrito T-Mobile, a 5-acre complex that offers a multisensory, audiovisual and technologically advanced experience, combining the best in global retail, destination dining with 12 eateries, art, entertainment, music, technology, and hospitality, notes Dean, with proximity to San Juan neighborhoods and Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.
Meeting services at PRCC include a dedicated Sales & Destination Support Services Team to assist with all meeting needs, such as site selection, transportation, marketing and group excursions, plus advice on activities — cultural, team building and volunteer projects that support corporate social responsibility (CSR).
The iconic Fairmont El San Juan Hotel’s prime location is one of the hotel’s unique attributes, notes Tara Leigh Dickie, director of event sales & services. It can be found on 2 miles of award-winning Isla Verde Beach, just five minutes away from Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and 15 minutes away from historic Old San Juan. “If these walls could talk,” Dickie says, “they would share stories of 1960s society headliners crooning in the nightclub, and generations of locals celebrating life’s greatest milestones in the ballrooms.” She adds, “Fairmont El San Juan Hotel offers guests genuine Puerto Rican hospitality and a luxury lifestyle experience complete with a luxe full-service spa, world-class fitness center, retail shops, lively entertainment and non-stop gaming action at the newly renovated Foxwoods El San Juan Casino.”
The property operates under Accor’s ALLSAFE certification label and PRTC’s Health & Safety Seal. A variety of newly renovated guest rooms at Fairmont El San Juan provide several options, from suites to poolside to oceanfront villas. “In the Banyan Villa Room, the essence of Puerto Rico’s rainforests surround our guests,” Dickie says. “A one-story room features one king bed, an oversized dual-head shower, and a private terrace with direct access to the pools and beautiful gardens. Floral aromas waft over from the gardens, while guests can also enjoy the island’s nature from the comfort of their private enclosed terrace.”
With nearly 30,000 sf of versatile indoor/outdoor meetings space, a ballroom, theater and nine meeting rooms, conference organizers have a host of options for scheduling their meetings, from intimate board retreats to full-scale galas. “Our Fairmont hospitality is well known with event planners around the world,” Dickie says. Meeting attendees can immerse themselves in traditional San Juan culture from the moment of arrival, while hotel ambassadors can assist with logistics, such as airport transfers, spouse tours, off-site events and more. “Visiting delegates will have an array of exciting options without having to leave the property,” Dickie says. “Our advice: Be sure to allow time in their busy schedules to enjoy it all.” That includes the casino, with 15,000 sf of non-stop gaming action, including nearly 300 slot machines and 14 tables featuring favorites such as craps, roulette and blackjack. Guest fitness programs range from group exercise classes to private yoga instruction, to Sound Therapy and Float Fit, a group paddleboard workout.
In dining, “Crudo Sushi & Asian Plates at The Lobby are very popular right now,” Dickie says. “Here, guests have the opportunity to savor signature cocktails, sushi and more delicious Asian dishes, all by the radiant aura of our Czechoslovakian crystal centerpiece. Among our signature rolls, guests can indulge in the classic EL SAN JUAN roll made of pork recaíto, maduros, refrito and chicharrones.”
Echoing what many in the travel and tourism industry think, Dickie recognizes that “People are ready to meet again, as they have missed human interaction after all this time in quarantine and isolation,” she says. “They are tired of looking at faceless boxes on a computer screen, and are excited to go back to connect personally again with others at a beautiful location like Fairmont El San Juan.”
Another iconic venue on the island is the Caribe Hilton Hotel. Vionesse Serra, president of Serra & Serra Group, has coordinated several medical education events at the venerable resort. “The Caribbean is undoubtedly one of the most complete and attractive tourist destinations worldwide,” Serra says. “For our event, we sought a hotel that also had a historical background representative of our island. The Caribe Hilton brand is synonymous with Puerto Rico, and we wanted our international guests to have a first-class Puerto Rican and Caribbean experience at a Puerto Rican icon.”
Letty Rivero, director of sales & marketing at Caribe Hilton, cites the property’s outstanding event features, which include 652 recently renovated guest rooms with balconies, garden or ocean views and Serenity beds. “[There is] more than 65,000 sf of versatile meeting space, which incorporates two ballrooms and plenty of picturesque outdoor event spaces, inclusive of the resort’s beach, sprawling oceanfront pool area, sweeping gardens, gazebo, terraces and more,” Rivero says. “In addition to plenty of outdoor space, the hotel provides groups with the option to keep accommodations within one building or wing of the hotel to minimize interactions with other guests. Our meeting and event space is big enough to accommodate convention-sized groups, yet the property offers a true leisure feel so groups get the best of both worlds and enjoy San Juan in style.”
With so many planners seeking “unique local experiences representative of the destination’s heritage and culture,” Rivero says, “Caribe Hilton continues to look for innovative experiences that do just that. Two very popular experiences happen to be the mofongo-making and the piña colada demonstration. Caribe Hilton is the birthplace of the famed cocktail, after all.” Additional on-site group amenities include a secluded beach, oceanfront swimming pools, snorkeling and ‘snuba’ diving — a combined snorkeling/scuba diving experience for novices — Zen Spa Océano and tennis clinics at the Monica Puig Tennis Courts. The hotel’s 11 restaurants cover local and international cuisine from traditional Puerto Rican cuisine to Italian and a world-renowned steakhouse.
“We’re proud to say our team can make just about any meeting a reality,” Rivero says. “Our ‘Yes’ attitude further drives this messaging home. We enjoy seeing visions come to life before us.”
Based on her group’s experience at Caribe Hilton, Serra couldn’t agree more: “One of the most outstanding was the XXIX Annual Congress of the Ibero-Latin American Society of Diagnostic and Therapeutic Neuroradiology (SILAN). This event was attended by about 400 people from various countries in Latin America, Europe and the United States. The support we received from the hotel staff to manage the transfers and stays of our guests at that time was exceptional.”
When Ron Hersh, president of World of Travel, had to move his event location for 75 attendees from Curaçao due to COVID-19 restrictions in early 2022, the group headed to Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort. “The responsiveness from booking to each component of the meeting was excellent, and made for a smooth program,” Hersh says. “The group made use of golf, the casino, all food outlets and meeting facilities, and the facility, pools, beaches and level of service was top-notch.” He adds, “The feedback was excellent from all attendees. The ease of entry to Puerto Rico now and the lack of testing returning to the USA makes this a very timely selection. With no need for passports, it also opens up a wider market for marketing to members.”
Ease of travel ranked high when planning for the NHDA’s annual leadership retreat as well, according to Heather Hall, director of meetings and events. “We wanted travel to be as easy as possible for our attendees given the constantly changing travel restrictions due to COVID. With our attendees traveling from the U.S., and Puerto Rico being a U.S. territory, we thought this option would be a great choice, “ Hall says. “The hotel had an on-site transportation company that made it easy for guests to get to and from the airport, along with travel to Old San Juan for a day trip. There was also a desk dedicated to helping guests book any excursions they wished to do during their stay. The Wyndham Grand Rio Mar property offered everything we needed — beautiful meeting space, numerous restaurant choices and on-site amenities for our attendees, such as golf and spa.”
With 400 spacious rooms for up to 2,300 guests in a range of accommodations, more than 48,000 sf of flexible indoor meeting space — including 24 meeting rooms — and an additional 58,000 sf of outdoor space, Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico provides the perfect setting for hosting memorable meetings in paradise. An on-site destination management company is also available to handle meeting planner needs. Guest rooms, designed in soothing palette colors, reflect the surrounding island environment to promote an ambiance of “tropical tranquility.” Private balconies offer ocean, pool or rainforest views, while additional amenities include plush bedding, and BABOR skin care and bath products.
For on-site activities, Wyndham Grand Rio Mar features two 18-hole championship golf courses: the Ocean Course, designed by award-winning golf course architects Tom and George Fazio, situated between the El Yunque Rainforest and Atlantic Ocean; and the River Course, designed by two-time major champion, Greg Norman, that follows along the Mameyes River. “Some attendees also booked tee times — a great opportunity to catch-up with other business associates in attendance,” Hall says. “Several of our attendees used the spa during their free time, and could not stop raving about their experience.” With a 7,000-sf sanctuary of signature wellness services and luxurious botanical treatments at Mandara Spa, it’s easy to see why. Special features include Oceanfront Meditation, a Relaxation Room and steam rooms.
Additional activities include an on-property casino offering a variety of slots and table games, as well as the resort’s state-of-the-art tennis amenities featuring 13 tennis courts. Also on-site, 2-miles of beach, a 20,000-sf sundeck, and three lagoon-style pools offer more options for play and total relaxation. “The newly constructed Beach Deck provided a great location for guests to enjoy ocean views, adding an extra-special touch to our event,” Hall says. Private cabanas are also available.
With nine restaurants, including bistros, bars and cafes, dining options abound at Wyndham Grand Rio Mar, whether seeking Italian cuisine and seafood with a Caribbean twist at Palio, or scenic vistas overlooking golf courses at Iguanas Cocina Puertorriqueña. Another guest favorite, Roots Coastal Kitchen, offers Caribbean comfort food such as guava barbecue spare ribs. Or, for those who prefer a beach vibe, the Tiki Hut’s scintillating food fare offers a tropical theme with Caribbean-inspired dishes. “The restaurant options were superb at the resort” Hall says. “From newly reopened Palio — the Italian/steak place, to Roots, a casual farm-to-table dining option, to Iguanas located at the Golf Course Club House with authentic Puerto Rican flavors offering spectacular views of the mountains and resort. The restaurants also provided opportunities for our guests to host small group dinners with their colleagues. Our attendees raved about the service and food options throughout their stay.”
About the group’s overall food and beverage service, Hall found: “The food choices were great. Extensive banquet menus provided numerous options for our group receptions and dinner.” When planning the meeting menu, “I always try and choose options from the menu that offer a local flair,” Hall says. For this group, “The ceviche shots and the lobster medallions with tuna tartare were huge hits and standouts with our attendees. We chose the Taste of Puerto Rico buffet for our group dinner, which offered our guests a great variety of authentic Puerto Rican-flavored dishes to enjoy. I cannot say enough about the banquet events staff at the Wyndham,” Hall says. “Superb to say the least. From the beginning of the planning stages to the very last guest check out … the convention services manager and my daily contact made sure every detail of our contract was executed. [The] entire staff was wonderful to work with. They were professional, attentive and ready to handle any issue that came up. I would choose this beautiful location again just to work with [the staff].”
For other planners considering Puerto Rico as a meetings destination, Hall says: “It’s a great choice for those looking for a tropical location with minimal travel restrictions. With travel requirements changing literally sometimes by the day, keeping your attendees updated with the most up-to-date information helped alleviate any stress with traveling they may have had.” Hall continues, “I was able to do a site visit six months prior to our event, and it was very helpful with the planning process.”
As far as attendee feedback of their experience at Wyndham Grand Rio Mar, Hall says: “Our attendees had nothing but positive things to say about this property and the event. The resort staff was top-notch, [there was] beautiful meeting space that had giant windows to enjoy the views, a variety of restaurants to enjoy and amenities within their reach, including spa and golf.”
The one thing Hall would do differently next time? “I’d definitely consider a group excursion to Old San Juan if we were to return. Several of our attendees visited on their own and had such a great time.” C&IT