As the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic eases into the rear-view mirror and site inspections ramp up, entry protocols from one country to the next have been an impediment for meeting planners looking to research options abroad. But in the Bahamas/Caribbean region, things are looking up.
Joe Lipman, New Jersey-based president of Summit Management Services, had an ingenious solution that allowed him to efficiently canvass meeting locations on seven different Caribbean islands in one week. With two events to plan in the region — one just three months away — on just two days’ notice, he and his wife booked a Royal Caribbean cruise out of San Juan. The itinerary for Explorer of the Seas called on smaller islands that conveniently top the list for many planners seeking a tropical backdrop for their meeting or incentive program.
“I booked my cabin on Friday at noon, and was onboard the ship Sunday afternoon,” says Lipman, who handles insurance, financial and pharma clients. Denise Hunter, of Destination Hospitality Link, assisted Lipman with some of the hotel and transfer arrangements. “I chose a cruise specifically so I could see these islands, because I cannot recommend something for my clients that is not fully open. I needed to see it for myself, and the ship and ports allowed me to come back knowledgeable and ready to make budgets and presentations. I did not have to pack and unpack, spend thousands of dollars on airfare, or waste countless hours flying. I visited six islands, plus an overnight in Puerto Rico, to understand the requirements of the islands as far as COVID goes for the immediate future. Ultimately, I can really be helpful to my clients in making a decision.”
Lipman notes that two of the region’s destinations opened for tourism well ahead of the others: the Dominican Republic and Mexico’s Caribbean coast areas, such as Cancun and Riviera Maya. Additionally, both of these destinations are dominated by all-inclusive resorts, which has strong appeal to many planners for helping control costs. While all-inclusive properties are found on many other islands, Lipman was eager to find traditional European Plan (EP) hotels that offer accommodations only and could compete on price.
“Mexico and the Dominican Republic have managed to incorporate excellent food at higher-end resorts that is really world class and make it fully inclusive,” Lipman says. “Their rates are really, really good, and I’m only paying a surcharge for the big bash on arrival. Places like Puerto Rico, Barbados, St. Kitts and St. Thomas are very much EP hotels only. They’ve tried to create a meal and drink package, but when you add that on, your pricing is way over the other side of the moon. I’ve found I have to be very creative. For instance, I’ll take the room rate, include breakfast, provide a per diem for meals and put it on a master account.” He continues, “What we saw that week was nations anxious for tourists to come back. They’ve all been through a very tough time with COVID, and they need the tourist dollars to come back. They’ve rebounded, they’re ready for our guests to visit, and they’re willing to negotiate. They understand they’re in competition with two countries that were open first, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.”
Among the islands Lipman called on for a day, St. Kitts was a standout. “It’s a beautiful island,” Lipman says. “I like it because it seems like the government is really taking care of the roads, that they’re working with the people — they’re happy and proud. It’s a pleasing destination, and the St. Kitts Marriott Resort & The Royal Beach Casino is a phenomenal property; the rooms are in great shape, the pools are nice, and they’re putting money into things.”
Following the cruise, Lipman checked out El Conquistador Resort, located on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico. The 750-room hotel, the island’s largest, was distressed and abandoned following Hurricane Maria in 2017. Two years later, a group of Puerto Rican businessmen took on a renovation of the iconic property, which is projected to cost $220 million when completed. A soft reopening took place last year, and 299 rooms are now open, with an additional 75 Deluxe Marina Rooms slated to open soon. “I was there in April 2018, and they were feeding FEMA workers after the storm,” says Lipman, adding that he has been using the property for meetings for 25 years. “Today, it’s a totally pristine and new resort. I love a ballroom that you can put a 747 in; that’s how big it is. With the new carpet, the finishings and air walls, it’s going to be conducive for meetings. It’s got everything you could possibly imagine. It’s ideal for groups in the 200 to 500 range, but you can do an event into the thousands and still feed them and do your meetings.”
While fully operational today, the hotel’s convention center is scheduled for a renovation in late summer, and the 303-room Vistas building will be completed by early next spring, according to Luis A. Méndez, the resort’s director of sales and marketing.
Puerto Rico has had a succession of challenges, dating back to the Zika virus that emerged in 2016. Hurricane Maria in 2017 caused $90 billion in damage, there were earthquake swarms in 2019, and then COVID arrived to wreak havoc with the island’s vital tourism industry. But Puerto Rico has emerged from the pandemic with flying colors: The island has a higher vaccination rate than any mainland U.S. state, and hurricane damage that blighted San Juan a couple years after the storm has been cleaned up.
Most of the island’s hotels have had at least a face-lift since the hurricane, and some have gone much further. The San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is completing the renovation of its 513 guest rooms this year, and last November, the hotel debuted a $2.9 million redesign of its 7,000-sf Grand Ballroom and foyer. In all, the San Juan Marriott features 14,000 sf of meeting space.
The iconic Fairmont El San Juan Hotel completed back-to-back renovations on either side of the hurricane, totaling $125 million. Opened in 1958, the beachfront resort was designed by modernist architect Morris Lapidus, famed for the Fontainebleau Miami Beach and Eden Roc Miami Beach. The lobby, a time-honored gathering place for sanjuaneros, has an unexpected European feel, with acres of hand-carved cherry mahogany paneling and a sunken lobby bar. Floating above is a hand-blown, Czechoslovakian oval chandelier, said to be the third largest in the world. In its heyday, the hotel’s Tropicoro stage drew such legends as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett and Liza Minelli.
The setting proved optimal for Equitable Financial Life Insurance Company, which used the resort for its Top of the Class gathering in March, according to Jennifer Boyce, senior manager, experiential marketing for the company. The event celebrated the top 65 Equitable producers and managers within the Tax-Exempt Group Retirement Market, a unique group of financial professionals dedicated to serving employees in the education, police, fire and health-care sector. “The Caribbean was an ideal meeting location because we were looking for a beautiful destination with good weather in March,” Boyce says. “San Juan has good airlift from all around the U.S. and the cost to travel was reasonable.”
Boyce notes the Fairmont El San Juan offered flexible meeting options for the event, which drew a total of 100 attendees. With almost 30,000 sf of meeting space, the hotel has a 10,040-sf Grand Ballroom, along with breakout rooms tucked away from guest areas with meeting spaces named for some of the resort’s past crooners, such as (Paul) Anka, (José) Feliciano and (Rita) Moreno. “The outdoor spaces for evening functions were perfect, and the Grand Ballroom for the general session was just what we needed, Boyce says. “The Fairmont El San Juan worked very hard to ensure all attendees had a great experience. I did not personally encounter any challenges, and they did a wonderful job of being responsive to all of our group’s needs from the moment we booked to the time we checked out.”
The renovation of the resort, along with the Fairmont relationship — which started in 2020 — has built on the hotel’s mid-century glamour while updating many of the features today’s upscale market demands. The Club Tropicoro stage has been refreshed, and its terraced seating areas can be leveraged for smaller events, while the Chico Cabaret stage offers another private lounge in the style of a Manhattan speak-easy. The resort’s most recent addition is 13 renovated Banyan Rooms, one-story villas positioned next to a 300-year-old banyan tree. And the glamorous casino, closed since the hurricane, has received a $12.5 million restoration and just reopened under the Foxwoods banner.
New to San Juan is the 177-room Aloft San Juan hotel, which opened in 2020, but gained full steam with the debut of the adjacent Distrito T-Mobile entertainment complex last August. Aloft’s 3,524-sf Grand Salon can be broken into four sections, with large windows for natural light. The WXYZ Bar offers cocktails and light meals next to the lobby, and offers work and networking space through the day, becoming a livelier music space at night. Meanwhile, Distrito T-Mobile offers 12 dining options and the Coca Cola Music Hall, a mixed-use performance venue with space for more than 6,000 attendees. With the neighboring 600,000-sf Puerto Rico Convention Center — the most technologically advanced facility in the Caribbean — and three additional hotels, the island now has a thriving, walkable convention center district providing planners the ability to stage large-scale gatherings.
Another Puerto Rico icon is the Caribe Hilton, located a half-mile from the convention center, on a 17-acre property at the entrance to the peninsula containing Old San Juan, the oldest city in America flying the stars and stripes. Originally opened in 1949, the hotel is a Caribbean classic, and where the piña colada was first conceived. Hurricane Maria provided the incentive for a $150 million renovation of the 652-room hotel, which reopened in May 2019, just in time to toast its 70th anniversary.
“Our company has always looked to host events in the Caribbean, due to its accessibility and weather conditions,” says Carter Sims, director of marketing for Captive Alternatives (CapAlt), an insurance consultancy that brought its 150-attendee annual meeting to the island last November. “We thought Puerto Rico would be the ideal location to host our annual meeting, since no passport is required. It’s a great place for groups because it offers diverse topography with beach, city and rainforest all within a pretty short drive; great, authentic cuisine; friendly locals and a rich culture that can be felt through its music, food, art and celebrations.”
Sims notes that San Juan is a short flight from many major U.S. cities, English is widely spoken, there’s no currency exchange and no passports are required for U.S. citizens. “Here, groups get the benefit of an exotic, tropical escape without the hassle of having to travel abroad. It was an easy decision when we came across the Caribe Hilton and its amenities.” Sims continues, “The Caribe Hilton features more than 65,000 sf of versatile meeting space, which incorporates three ballrooms and plenty of picturesque outdoor event spaces, inclusive of the resort’s beach, sprawling oceanfront pool area, sweeping gardens, gazebo, terraces and more. 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. The 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.”
Sims says the hotel’s operations team ensured the conference ran smoothly, providing assistance with stage setup, and sound and video equipment. “Having a flexible operations team for catering and A/V equipment is a must, and at the Caribe Hilton, they offered much more,” Sims says. “We wanted to create a very laid-back atmosphere, and the team at Caribe Hilton helped to perfectly execute our ideas.”
Grand Cayman was locked down tightly in the early stages of the pandemic, but has been gradually opening its doors since December, and can now show off a renovated Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. During the first year of the pandemic, the resort relied on a steady stream of guests who spent a mandatory two weeks of quarantine on arrival in The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s cosseting embrace. Last June, the resort used the destination’s strict protocols to close its doors, embarking on a $50 million renovation that transformed guest rooms, meeting spaces and public areas. The face-lift was designed to retain a sense of place, while “imbuing a more youthful and chic spirit,” and playing up sophisticated British West Indies style. The resort features 13,000 sf of event space, including the 9,000-sf Royal Ballroom with an adjoining terrace, and additional indoor and outdoor meeting space.
For its annual conference this year, the Barbados-based Insurance Association of the Caribbean Inc. (IAC) will be bringing attendees from more than 40 countries around the world. Easy air access is important, which is a major reason the group chose Nassau, Bahamas for its upcoming summer event. “The Bahamas is an ideal location, as most attendees use Miami as a hub airport,” says Janelle Thompson, B.Sc., PG. Dip., M.Sc., CEO of IAC. Further, the group selected Atlantis Paradise Island — located a 25-minute drive from the Nassau airport — to host its projected 450 to 600 attendees. “It is ideal to have a property that has conference facilities so that attendees don’t need to shuttle back and forth from the hotel” to a convention center, Thompson says.
The 3,401-room Atlantis boasts the largest hotel-based meeting facility in the Caribbean region, with more than 500,000 sf of meeting space. The 171-acre resort also includes a casino, golf course, retail complexes, more than 20 restaurants, an aquarium and the largest water park in the islands, themed around the lost city of Atlantis. Its towers house a variety of room products, ranging from the iconic, family-friendly Royal Tower to the adult sophistication of The Cove; from the condo-style Reef Tower to the less-costly Beach and Coral towers built in the 1960s and predating the Atlantis concept. There’s also Harborside Resort, a time-share option overlooking the resort’s marina.
“Having a convention center is a plus,” Thompson says. “Also, having a range of rooms with various price points appeals to attendees, as you have your pick from five properties at one location.” For planners utilizing the convention center, Thompson recommends housing attendees at the Coral and Royal Towers, which provide faster access — a shorter walk — to the conference area. Although Thompson notes that A/V pricing is on par with other properties, she echoes a common observation about Atlantis: “Banquet menus are a bit pricier than most, especially once service charges and taxes are added.”
It’s also worth considering ongoing room renovations, a project that started in 2018 with an overhaul of the Coral, Cove and Reef buildings, but was then delayed due to the pandemic. The east wing of the Royal Tower is scheduled to be completed soon, with the west wing to be wrapped up the first quarter of next year. “For a larger business conference, it is absolutely necessary to do a detailed site inspection to ensure that the space allocated is suitable,” Thompson says. “With such a large convention center, which is more than often shared, you will want to ensure that you get the best possible space to suit your group’s needs, and to ensure that any breakouts are in close proximity to each other.”
Thompson also recommends working with the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism for assistance with hotel selection, site inspections, visa and immigration clearance, and airport meet and greet. “For the larger properties, the earlier you book, the better.”
Thompson looks forward to sharing the broader region with the association. “Being a Caribbean based group, this is a good opportunity to showcase to international attendees what the Caribbean has to offer in terms of hospitality, culture, food and accommodations,” she says. I&FMM.