Sublime weather, tropical surroundings, and rich cultural influences from France, England, Spain, Africa and beyond — what’s not to like about using the Caribbean and Bahamas for memorable meeting and incentive programs?
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced many island nations to close to visitors in the early part of the year, many are now cautiously reopening. Island hotels and resorts are again offering one-of-a-kind settings and venues for socially distant group interaction, while amenities such as golf, spas and beaches that are now open provide other opportunities for networking and incentivizing. Air access to the region is also continuing to ramp up, with islands such as Puerto Rico, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Aruba, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic each served from multiple points in the eastern U.S. Each island and resort has their own COVID-19 requirements, so be sure to get clear instructions when planning a conference or event.
“The Caribbean is a welcoming destination for our meetings,” says Sandy Monkemeyer, senior vice president of Captive Resources, an adviser to member-owned insurance companies. “The weather, beaches and beautiful settings allows us the ability to provide fabulous outdoor dinners and abundant spouse activities.” Captive Resources meets internationally, and the company often chooses the Caribbean for its winter and spring meetings, when members are looking for warm-weather retreats. Monkemeyer says that Nassau in the Bahamas works particularly well, offering airlift from a range of cities, as well as a variety of upscale hotels with ample meeting and function space. For the annual board meetings, which range from 200 to 1,100 attendees, Captive Resources often chooses Atlantis, Paradise Island on behalf of the 40 groups with which it works. The 3,800-room resort, located on a separate island a few hundred yards off Nassau, surrounds a 154-acre waterscape with a water theme park, marine habitats and a white-sand beach. Meeting rooms are varied, ranging up to the 50,000-sf Imperial Ballroom, the region’s largest facility.
Accommodations are found in a series of individual towers, ranging from the four-story Harborside Resort, offering one- to three-bedroom villas, to The Royal, a 25-story icon on the horizon of Nassau. “For some of our groups, we need to provide members with multiple hotels rates,” Monkemeyer says. “This is easy to do at the Atlantis as we can block rooms in more than one tower and provide a more economical option when needed. Otherwise, you need to figure out what is most important to your group. If a particular type of room is your priority — such as adults-only, or luxury, or more economical — they have different towers and buildings to choose from to suit each need.
Adds Monkemeyer, “If you have a meeting component, as we do, you might wish to book a tower closest to the space you’ll be using most. If you decide a particular room product is to your liking but the meeting space is quite far away, you can work with the hotel and DMC to supply carts for your guests. It’s important to make sure you know exactly how far meeting space is from the hotel tower you are booking, and whether your guests may need assistance getting around. Atlantis is very large and, if guests are elderly or not in the best physical shape, you might want to provide extra help with transfers.”
When based at Atlantis, Captive Resources generally uses the restaurants and venues at the resort for its functions. “We often conduct a dine-around at the Atlantis, which allows us to stay on property,” Monkemeyer says. The resort features more than two dozen restaurants, ranging from casual al fresco options to fine dining repasts. “The guests feel they are ‘going somewhere’, but they don’t have to spend the time traveling, and we save on transportation costs.”
Although many of the 700 individual islands that make up the Bahamas are smaller, the archipelago is quite large, spreading across 500 miles of the Atlantic Ocean, east and south of Florida. While 2019’s Hurricane Dorian ravaged Grand Bahama Island and the Abaco chain, most of the Bahamas were unscathed or able to recover quickly. “Nassau, Paradise Island wasn’t even affected by Dorian,” says George Brice, vice president of the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board. “As a matter of fact, 2019 was the best year we’ve ever had in terms of meetings and incentives, with over 300,000 room nights booked for the MICE sector alone.”
A significant part of the Nassau Paradise Island increase can be credited to the addition of 2,200 rooms that opened two years ago at Baha Mar, a $4.2 billion complex featuring three resorts, a 100,000-sf casino and a Tournament Players Club golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. Baha Mar’s hotels brands include the 1,800-room Grand Hyatt, 299-room SLS and 237-room Rosewood Hotel. In all, the complex has more than 200,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space.
For meeting planners concerned about ongoing recovery efforts from the storms and the shutdown in Grand Bahama and the Abacos, Brice says meetings provide a great positive impact. Explains Brice, “We’ve been telling our clients, the donations to hurricane recovery are great, but help us help ourselves by booking more meetings, by bringing in more corporate events.”
In 2017, Puerto Rico suffered a severe blow from Hurricane Maria, a storm that left the island reeling for months. Today, San Juan is in excellent shape as far as the hurricane — and even a few minor earthquakes — and is in the early stages of recovering from the COVID-19 shutdown. San Juan is home to the Caribbean’s largest and most technologically advanced meeting facility, the Puerto Rico Convention Center. Centrally located between history-rich Old San Juan and the Condado district, the convention center has a 157,000-sf exhibition hall and the Caribbean’s largest ballroom at 39,500 sf, a facility sufficient to host groups up to 10,000.
Next door to the convention center is a new dining and entertainment complex, Distrito T-Mobile, which opened earlier this year. The facility includes a 105,000-sf concert and event venue with a capacity for 6,000 patrons, eight-screen cinema complex and a 175-room Marriott hotel, Aloft San Juan, which recently opened.
In all, four hotels are located less than a five-minute walk from the convention center, including the 503-room Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, which has the largest hotel ballroom on the island at 15,486 sf. The Sheraton has ample facilities for medium-sized groups, including meeting space flooded with natural light. A $10 million renovation is set for guest rooms, lobby and meeting facilities, to be completed at the end of this year. Two smaller properties a block from the convention center include the 126-room Hyatt House San Juan and 149-room Hyatt Place San Juan/City Center.
East of San Juan, but still situated along the beach-lined coast, the former Gran Meliá Hotel was relaunched last year as the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico. The 579-room resort features a 12,000-sf Rainforest Spa, subject of a $2 million renovation last year, and guests can spend the day on the green on one of two Tom Kite-designed 18-hole championship golf courses, home of the PGA Puerto Rico Open. The resort offers 31,208 sf of total function space and meeting facilities.
Located 45 minutes east of San Juan, the 400-room Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Golf & Beach Resort was the pick for the President’s Club gathering for the Finance of America Mortgage company. Katrina Orlando, the company’s events director, says location and cost were two of the determining factors for selecting Puerto Rico for the most recent meeting, but there was an altruistic motive in the selection as well. After doing a site visit to the island at the beginning of last year, she says, “Our focus turned to helping the island financially after the devastation they faced from the hurricanes.”
To handle its 300 attendees, Finance of America needed a resort with enough meeting space for two evening events. “They were one of the few hotels that had reopened after the hurricanes that could accommodate a group of our size,” Orlando says.
A third reason for choosing the resort was the service. Orlando says, “We knew our group would be pleased with the service levels at the resort. [They] take a great amount of pride in assisting their guests in any way they can.” Orlando notes that, during her site visit, the sales team at the hotel spent ample time going over their plans for the group, which included a Welcome Reception in the outdoor Marbella Garden, featuring 18 outside craft vendors, a steel drum band, buffet, Puerto Rican festival characters, and photo opportunities with birds and a snake. “The hotel and Dragonfly Adventures, our DMC, worked together to make sure our guests had unforgettable island memories,” Orlando adds.
An Awards Dinner was held at the resort’s 21,913-sf ballroom. “The ballroom was the perfect size for this event, with décor and technology handled by Dragonfly Adventures. The catering staff did an outstanding job of catering to our guests dietary needs,” she says.
Orlando lauds the resort’s events staff. “While we did have our own event signage, [their] team did a fabulous job of providing additional branded directional signs,” Orlando says. “Any time we had an idea or a question, [they] were there to help immediately, providing positive and cost-effective solutions. Our group housing coordinator was amazing at accepting our reservations and many changes toward the end of the process, including taking a reservation just hours before our program began for a last-minute guest, when the hotel was at capacity.”
Finance of America also hosted a meeting/team-building event at the Casa Bacardí rum factory for its top 20 sales people and leadership team. “Our DMC arranged transportation from the hotel to the Bacardí factory, and our lunch spread for the meeting,” says Orlando, who notes that she had to bring in A/V equipment. “Our guests were welcomed with a rum drink and then escorted to their meeting space for lunch and meetings, followed by a tour of the factory and a mixology class, where they learned how to make daquiris and mojitos.”
Orlando adds, “The staff at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar genuinely care about the guests, the property and their island. They allowed me to work ahead so that we could have peace of mind when we got closer to the event, which was a big deal. The service was on par with the service level I received at The Ritz-Carlton in Maui.”
One island over to the west, the Dominican Republic continues to be one of the Caribbean’s fastest-growing destinations. Hotel development has been largely focused on all-inclusive resorts, and 6,356 new rooms were added to the country in 2019, most of them catering to the high-end market. A majority of the hotels are found on the island’s east coast, and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana offers the Dominican Republic’s most extensive meeting facilities — 65,000 sf in all, including the 37,500-sf Fillmore Ballroom. Hard Rock International is amplifying opportunities for “meeting experiences that rock,” bringing interactive team-building experiences into the meeting space for the MICE audience. This includes next-level group guitar lessons, vocal instructors to teach karaoke skills and Scratch DJ Academy’s hands-on mix lessons, offering the basics of mixing, scratching and blending. Under the Hard Rock Safe+Sound program, which includes guidelines for temperature checks, masks, social distancing, constant cleaning and reduced capacity, attendees can feel assured their health and safety is paramount.
Of course, not all meetings need to be based at big resorts. For a planning meeting of the board of directors for an organization that consults on tax matters, Mallory Decker, president of BRAM Management Inc., took her group to St. Kitts, a lesser-known destination situated between St. Maarten and Antigua in the Leeward Islands. With 40 attendees from around the U.S., the group early this year stayed at the Park Hyatt St. Kitts Christophe Harbour. “St. Kitts is a gorgeous island that many of our board members had never been to,” Decker says. “It’s an easy flight from Miami and, upon arrival, we had a shuttle service pick up about 10 of us that arrived at the same time. The drive from the airport to the Park Hyatt is unbelievably beautiful — the topography is stunning.”
The 126-room resort, Park Hyatt’s first in the Caribbean, opened in November 2017, and has drawn raves for its design. Guest rooms start at a generous 527 sf and many have views of the neighboring island of Nevis, two miles across the channel. “The designer nailed it with its contemporary architecture,” Decker adds. “The view when you first walk in toward the entrance is jaw-dropping. The meeting spaces overlooking the beach and water were top-notch. It was so nice to walk outside the meeting room during breaks and smell the ocean air, with the beach just steps away.”
The Park Hyatt features several indoor meeting options, including the 3,712-sf Banana Bay Ballroom, plus outdoor spaces suitable for banquets catering up to 250 attendees. Decker noted that the location was remote, which made for some limitations. “I wish I’d known about the limited availability of stores nearby,” Decker adds. “I would’ve picked up snacks and such before arriving.” But, otherwise, the Park Hyatt catered most of the meals for the group without issue.
“The three on-site restaurants are absolutely delicious, and the seafood paella at Fisherman’s Village is a must,” Decker says. “We had one off-site meal at the Spice Mill Restaurant. It’s an easy walk from the Park Hyatt, and it offered fresh local seafood with a gorgeous view of the beach. It’s definitely worth checking out.” Decker continues, “One nice feature is where food is served at the Park Hyatt, in relation to the meeting rooms: Everything is open-air, so when you walk outside the meeting room, you’re looking at the ocean. Next door is where they served our buffets, and seating was available indoors or out; however, the inside opened up completely to the outdoors. All was covered and overlooking the beach, ocean and Nevis — a beautiful backdrop.”
Decker made Nevis her recommendation for a group excursion. “It’s a quick boat ride, just over 5 minutes, to Nevis, and it’s definitely worth it,” Decker says. “Arrange for a driver to tour the island, and complete the visit by going to Sunshine’s, a bar that a lot of celebrities visit. Order a Killer Bee — you won’t be disappointed.”
Another top Caribbean destination meeting planners look to is Aruba, and the 357-room Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino completed a renovation encompassing all aspects of the resort in 2017, including redesigned guest rooms, refreshed landscapes, and re-conceptualized menus and décor for the property’s five restaurants. Jay Smith, president of Sports Travel and Tours, says Aruba’s relatively easy access and warm weather have been key lures for an annual gathering of procurement specialists. They’ve been based at the Hilton Aruba for eight years running.
“The location is relatively easily accessible from most of the states our attendees reside in,” Smith explains. “The quality of the hotel, beach location, numerous activities, and the great restaurants nearby — all enter into the continuation of the program.” Smith also notes how the Hilton’s proximity to a restaurant complex across the street works well for attendees, as does the variety of room categories. “Many of the participants have an off-site dinner for eight to 20 people at local restaurants,” Smith says. “I generally hear great reviews about all the restaurants chosen — both for service and quality of food.”
At the company’s most recent event at the Hilton, the hotel arranged for a Super Bowl party, with big screens on the pool deck. “Sports Travel and Tours has been at this destination and hotel for so many years that there aren’t too many surprises,” Smith says. “This resort is all about staff and service. Our event coordinator was outstanding to work with and covered all the details. At the front desk, [the team] consistently worked hard to accommodate our room and bed type requests.” Smith says bedding arrangements is one area of the hotel that could improve. “For us, matching the bed types to our client’s needs is often a lot of last-minute work to make it all match,” Smith says. “I am hoping that the Hilton Aruba someday uses double/queens in their two-bedded rooms, which would help in-room assignments.” I&FMM