Puerto Rico is culturally diverse, has enticing gastronomy and lively music, and offers plenty of fun experiences to enjoy. Plus, hotels and venues have invested millions in renovations and improvements. The weather is warm year-round — averaging about 85 F. So, it’s no wonder meeting planners have long considered the island a favorite destination for meetings.
Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, says since the island is a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico offers a variety of value propositions for those seeking a unique meeting destination. “The island has international flair with a rich, vibrant culture and standout nature offerings, while still providing domestic access and the benefits of no passport, currency exchange or a phone plan alteration for U.S. citizens,” he says. “This is not to mention that because of the island’s near-perfect weather year-round, there’s a plethora of venue options, both indoor and open-air, across the island.”
In other words, Puerto Rico offers the perfect balance between business and pleasure. There is the ease of doing business in a U.S. market along with the beauty and climate of a Caribbean destination. There’s no passport required for U.S. citizens, the dollar is the island’s currency, and English is widely spoken throughout the island.
Michelle M. Stys, CMP, owner/president of mc2 production services llc, a meetings and events company in La Jolla, California, notes Puerto Rico has consistently been one of her top recommendations for meetings and incentive trips since 2013. “I have planned and executed an incentive trip for … years to the Ritz-Carlton Dorado Beach for a luxury automobile manufacturer’s top 50 sales winners and guests,” she says. “It’s my favorite trip every year, and one that I look forward to … It’s one of the few programs that our client will not change destinations, as their winners look forward to this particular award annually.”
The reasons are simple, Puerto Rico is tropical, exotic, offers easy airlift with major airlines, boasts exceptional golf, hospitality and service, and best of all, there are plenty of cost-effective options for luxury hotels and activities.
Ute Michaelsen, head property casualty facultative, Swiss Re Management Corp., one of the world’s leading providers of reinsurance and insurance, recently held an annual meeting in Puerto Rico. “We were looking for a true ‘away from the office’ experience that was different than your typical city off-site,” Michaelsen says. “Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., easily accessible by air from major airports, and has a reasonable flight time. The large hotels meet business standards and offer additional amenities that are more associated with tourist resorts like on-the-beach dining and pool bars etc.”
They selected the Intercontinental San Juan — now the Royal Sonesta San Juan — to host the meeting, and were assisted in their planning by Discover Puerto Rico and the hotel itself. “The hotel assisted and/or directed us with our needs — food and beverage, presentation needs and meeting logistics,” Michaelsen says. “They also connected us with a company that provided the team-building activities. One could say it was a one-stop shop.”
Those team-building activities are not your typical events either, which the Swiss Re Management Corp. team loved. “We participated in a catamaran excursion and a scavenger hunt in historic San Juan,” Michaelsen says. “The latter afforded the opportunity to get to know the history of the island, interact with its locals and practice some Spanish.”
A variety of beach sports activities are also on offer, including fishing, snorkeling, etc. Hiking trails are within reach in the mountainous areas of the island. Local restaurants can be rented exclusively for corporate parties, and musicians or performers can be hired for a tailored entertainment program. “Our team loved the getaway feel of being on an island; a warm and inviting area,” Michaelsen says. “The mix of business and vacation guests gives an event a more casual flair. Likewise, the dress code can be relaxed and the food offerings can range from formal to very casual. This allows for more variety in the daily program at different price points. The business trip can be extended by adding personal days, which is also a welcome perk for many.”
Debi Tracy, CMP, CH, E-RYT, senior event designer with Think Wellness NY, enjoys holding meetings in Puerto Rico because the people are warm and folksy, and hospitality seems to be in their blood. “There are so many beautiful venues, many historical sites and the food is as amazing as the beaches,” she says. “You feel like you are in another world, yet can communicate easily since so much of the industry staff is bilingual.”
Tracy has planned numerous pharmaceutical medical education meetings and held others for financial companies as well. She appreciates that meeting attendees from more than two dozen cities can fly to the island on a non-stop flight, and its less time to travel there than from one coast to the other in the U.S.
From a traditional convention center environment, to luxury hotel conference rooms, to more unique venues such as historic casinos and world-famous rum distilleries, Puerto Rico has a variety of options to entice and inspire. For instance, the Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC) is the most technologically advanced in the Caribbean, with a total of 600,000 sf, high-end video-conferencing capabilities, an on-site lobby lounge, 15 meeting rooms and 29 breakout rooms. “Most recently, the venue also added broadcast capabilities to meet the growing need for hybrid meeting options,” Dean says. “This can be set up in any of the meeting rooms or breakout rooms and includes livestreaming, video broadcast and interactive video editing.”
At the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort, meeting planners coming to the hotel can provide a memorable and diverse attendee experience, and the destination is known for increasing attendance. The venue offers safety and security with large indoor and outdoor spaces, it has the largest conference facility of any hotel in Puerto Rico, direct access to a banquet kitchen, drive-in access to the ballroom and hybrid meetings capability.
Although COVID-19 canceled large events, it’s only a matter of time before large meetings are back enjoying all the venue has to offer. Wyndham Grand Rio Mar offers extensive team-building opportunities that allow groups to immerse themselves in the destination while staying very close to the resort. The property also has an unmatched beach location and has nine restaurants, three different pools, two championship golf courses and more than 48,000 sf of indoor event space.
Marriott International boasts a variety of lodging options on the island, including the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, a first-class business hotel in a tourist destination. The hotel has an ample foyer with natural light and a modern 40,000 sf of meetings space. Both indoors and on its outdoor sundeck, the hotel accommodates up to 1,900 attendees for conferences or seminars held next to the PRCC.
Understanding the challenges planners face today, Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino has implemented new meetings technology, such as livestreaming support and touchless options via Marriott’s Meeting Services App. There are also additional operational resources, such as room set-up charts to support social distancing, and enhanced cleaning protocols for all meetings and events spaces. Marriott’s food and beverage concepts have evolved, too, as it has implemented new approaches to buffets and the dining experience in general, including banquet menus and service adjusted, for instance, to eliminate self-service buffets.
An additional notable venue on the island is Distrito T-Mobile. “Opened in 2021, this expansive space is destined to be the most vibrant and popular setting for events, conventions and performances of all types in the Caribbean region, offering a multisensory, audiovisual and technologically advanced experience,” Dean says. “This includes an exhilarating urban zip line, virtual reality gaming center, a variety of restaurants, bars and lounges, and the island’s first day/night disco. This is not to mention the Aloft hotel on its grounds — the first in the Caribbean.”
Although Puerto Rico is known for its beautiful beaches, the island’s culture — a blend of Taíno, African and Spanish roots — results in a variety of unique experiences, world-renowned culinary options and unparalleled nature experiences that provide a wide range of activities to enjoy outside of meetings.
One of the things Stys loves about the Caribbean Island is that people are so passionate about the culture. San Juan, the capital and largest city, is famous for its hotel strip, beach bars and casinos. Its Old San Juan neighborhood features colorful Spanish colonial buildings and El Morro and La Fortaleza, massive centuries-old fortresses. “Old San Juan offers a European destination feel, with unique walking tours, cultural tours and history,” Stys says. “Culinary tours and cooking classes are always popular, and there’s hiking, historical site tours and water activities also in demand.”
Tracy notes the El Yunque National Forest is an amazing experience that can be easily done with groups of attendees as an activity. “There are also water sports for the more athletic and adventurous, along with cruises, sailing and water tours,” she says. “Bioluminescent Mosquito Bay is not to be missed, nor are the Gozalandia waterfalls and the many beaches and smaller islands. Strolling through Old San Juan is one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon into evening dinner.”
Puerto Rico has more than 70 museums across the island, ranging from classic to modern options, including Museo de Arte de Ponce, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, and Museo de Arte y Diseño de Miramar (MADMi), among others. Yet, Puerto Rican art goes far beyond the walls of museums. Visitors will stumble across impressive street art in various parts of the island, including in the Santurce neighborhoods of San Juan, where muralists globally flock to contribute their works.
For those who appreciate architecture, Dean notes visitors can walk the historic cobblestone streets of Old San Juan while visiting the historic El Morro fortress within the UNESCO site, taking in the 500-year-old history amid the colorful buildings of the Spanish colonial era, or visit the Museo Castillo Serrallés, a mansion in the city of Ponce, built in the 1930s, among other notable experiences only possible in Puerto Rico. “In their spare time, meeting attendees can also follow the Taína Route, an informative tour that highlights the role that the Taíno had on Puerto Rico’s heritage,” Dean says. “It offers a glimpse into the Taíno’s ceremonial centers, tombs, caves and petroglyphs across the island.”
There’s also plenty of nature and outside adventures to enjoy during the downtime. Puerto Rico is home to three of the world’s five bioluminescent bays located La Parguera, Fajardo and Vieques. These rare ecosystems happen when microscopic, single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates grow in quantities big enough to produce a “glow-in-the-dark” effect when they are stimulated by movement.
Like Tracy, Dean also points to El Yunque National Forest, which, as the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest System, is an excellent experience for those looking to be immersed in nature. Visitors can take a hike on one of its many trails, go horseback riding, swim in natural pools beneath waterfalls, or simply relax and enjoy the scenery. “The Cabo Rojo Salt Flats, whose beautiful pink-and-red tones contrast with the turquoise color of the Playuela, are part of the Cabo Rojo Wildlife refuge, and have been recognized as an important wildlife habitat,” Dean says. “For those looking for a unique thrill, Puerto Rico is home to the longest zip line in the Americas — El Monstruo [2.5 kilometers, or 1.5 miles] — located at Toro Verde Adventure Park.”
Then there’s the cocktail culture, which many attendees enjoy learning more about. Puerto Rico is the birthplace of the piña colada, and is known as the rum capital of the world, with much to experience in both cocktails and craft spirits. Casa BACARDÍ, for example, is the largest rum distillery in the world, which produces about 85% of BACARDÍ rum. The island also offers tours of the Ron del Barrilito facility. This is the oldest Puerto Rican rum, and, here, visitors can learn the about history and unique craftsmanship of the brand.
The COVID-19 pandemic obviously had a tremendous impact on Puerto Rico, but the meetings and events industry remains a top priority for the island, and Discover Puerto Rico works directly with the island’s officials, adapting its offerings to meet the new needs of meeting planners. “For example, we’ve held virtual FAM [or familiarization] experiences for meeting planners to keep them informed in an effective and efficient way,” Dean says. “One of them was focused on how to host a hybrid meeting from Puerto Rico — and was a hybrid meeting itself — to demonstrate the robust hybrid meeting spaces in our Puerto Rico Convention Center and a sneak peek of El Distrito T Mobile.”
In keeping up with the virtual realities of present day, the PRCC has also developed 360-degree videos for planners to virtually explore the venue and see its different levels, as well as its popular terrace. “We’ve also partnered with Travefy, an itinerary managing tool that creates custom agendas rich in multimedia content which can be experienced virtually and, ultimately, in person,” Dean says. “It also includes geomapping and flight trackers, among other aspects, that make it seamlessly interactive and engaging.”
To ensure the safety of residents and visitors alike, Puerto Rico acted quickly at the onset of COVID, becoming the first destination to implement an island-wide curfew, as well as thermographic cameras at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan. The island is also enforcing local measures developed by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), alongside U.S. Travel Association (USTA) guidelines, such as social distancing, mandatory face coverings in public areas, and a variety of mandates for businesses and hotels — including reduced capacities and high standards of cleanliness in accordance with CDC and EPA guidelines. For the latest guidelines and regulations, visit discoverpuertorico.com/info/travel-guidelines.
“We are proud to [have been] the first U.S. destination to receive the WTTC’s Safe Travels Stamp, and trust our rigorous efforts in health safety will set the stage for a strong recovery,” Dean says. “As we look to the future, our local industry has also implemented a series of measures in place to ensure the health and safety of all future meeting attendees.”
For example, the PRCC now has the impressive GBAC Star Facility Rating, the first venue with such a rating in the Caribbean. Additionally, as an ASM Global managed facility, it implemented the new VenueShield Environmental Hygiene Program, with measures including the use of PPE, food-safety measures, air-quality control, surface cleaning, and physical/social distancing, among others. “Distrito T-Mobile … has also developed new safety-first concepts, including technologically advanced equipment, and refined health protocols, to guarantee the safety of all visitors and employees,” Dean says. “Safety has, and will continue to be, our main priority.” I&FMM