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Caribbean Destination Report

October 1, 2003
on Corporate & Incentive Travel Magazine

Flying high above the Caribbean in a jumbo jet, the islands below look like emeralds and pearls set in a sea of jade. The view from 10,000 feet, however, is just a hint of the motivational treasures that wait for planners below.

The Caribbean is home to hundreds of islands, and each one is unique. Some are expansive others are tiny. Many are actually deserted or sparsely populated. Whether your participants want a remote, Hemingway-esque experience ... trolling for marlin from a chair bolted to the deck of a yacht ... or a sophisticated night of gaming in a European-style casino that would fit right in at Monte Carlo, you'll find a wealth of alternatives available in the Caribbean along with sophisticated and bountiful meeting space for your group. Indeed, the ocean of options that awaits you in the Caribbean in many ways reflects the diversity of the islands themselves, which boast Spanish, Dutch, French, English, American, and African traditions, blended together over time.

While each of these island gems … some tropical and some mountainous, some sophisticated and some rustic … has its own special charms, what they share in common is their strong appeal to planners of meeting and incentive programs that are looking for its pristine beaches, world-class lodging, gaming, sumptuous island cuisine, and of course the perpetual sun. The sublime year-round climate doesn't hurt much either. Plus the many international-brand resorts - Fairmont, Hilton, Sandals, Sheraton, Westin, Radisson, Marriott, Hyatt, InterContinental, Wyndham - will ensure that your attendees will leave the Caribbean feeling a lot more like John D. Rockefeller than Robinson Crusoe.


Aruba's meetings industry, and tourism generally, is enjoying a surprising pattern of solid growth. According to the Aruba Tourism Authority, tourism for the first seven months of the year increased 3.66% compared to last year. It may not sound like much, but that translates into nearly 10,000 more participants a year, and in this economy, many destinations would be delighted to show any improvement. One major factor contributing to Aruba's success include Continental Airline's recent additional service from the George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Continental now flies direct from Houston, TX, every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. Additional seats have also been added on US Airways flights. And news is also spreading that Aruba has more to offer than many planners realized. Visitors, for example, can explore caves that were once used as pirate hideouts, and some of the world's most fascinating shipwrecks that lie just off the shores of Aruba.

Activities were an important consideration for Danielle Bennett, who is in charge of incentive programs for residential security company Brinks Home Security, Inc. of Irving, TX. Bennett recently chose Aruba for her 104 attendees, thanks to its year-round comfortable climate, Dutch-influence culture, and warm waters. After checking into the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, her participants headed for the oceanfront 18-hole championship golf course, Terra del Sol, designed by golf pro Robert Trent Jones. Jutting from Aruba's northwest point, the course has vast, inspiring ocean views. Unique challenges your golfers will find here include iguanas and occasional wandering herds of goats. The group rode four-wheelers across a hilly, deserted stretch of Aruba.

"Our Aruba participants enjoyed their ATV excursion so much that they went back and did it a second time," she said.

Puerto Rico

The return of meeting business closer to U.S. shores has lent a whole new luster and appeal to Puerto Rico, as reflected in the island's activity. One reason for Puerto Rico's strong appeal is that as a U.S. territory, it offers passport-free travel and the use of U.S. currency. The biggest infrastructure news coming out of Puerto Rico is the progress on the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan. Bookings are already being accepted for 2005 and beyond. The convention center will contain almost 600,000 square feet, including a 159,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 40,000-square-foot ballroom. The convention center is the key element in a 115-acre project that will ultimately include hotels, casinos, restaurants, and entertainment venues. An 850-room convention center hotel is in the works for 2006 as well.

No doubt many of those attending events at the new convention center will be staying at the historic Caribe Hilton, which is nestled between old and new San Juan. The Caribe Hilton recently added a new 11-room executive conference center. In all, the Caribe Hilton has 22,000 square feet of dedicated conference space, and its largest meeting room spans some 18,032 square feet. Also, the Caribe Hilton is planning to add 264 suites next year, as well as a new casino. An impressive newcomer to the Puerto Rico hospitality scene will be the new $152 million, 416-room resort in Rio Grande, located about 25 miles east of San Juan. To be called the Fairmont Coco Beach Resort, and managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc., it will have 30,000 square feet of meeting space and a 12,000-square-foot Willow Stream spa. Guests can also play 36 holes of golf. Not all the action is taking place in the San Juan region, however. Ponce, located on the southern shore of Puerto Rico, is the island's second largest city. Just 4 miles from Ponce, work is underway on a 600-acre waterfront resort that will be known as "Costa Caribe Golf & Country Club." Scheduled for completion in spring of 2004, the $120 million project will include 27-holes of championship golf and over 100 duplex golf villas, as well as a $5.6 million bridge that will connect its facilities to the Ponce Hilton & Casino. In the fall of 2004, the Ponce Hilton & Casino will complete an additional 100 guest rooms and suites. Convention facilities are suitable for up to 1,400 participants, and the Ponce Hilton recently opened a new 18-hole championship golf course.

Transportation to Puerto Rico is convenient. Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport is serviced by major airlines offering direct flights from many U.S. cities into San Juan. The InterContinental San Juan Resort & Casino is less than two and a half miles from the airport. Located on the trendy Isla Verde beachfront, it offers 13 meeting rooms accommodating up to 600 participants. Magdalia Pérez found this easy access essential to her program's needs. An administrative assistant with Puerto Rico-based Ortho Biologics LLC, Pérez recently brought a group of general managers and directors to Puerto Rico for a four-day corporate meeting. Her hotel of choice was the Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Golf Club, with its 24,000 square feet of conference and banquet facilities. Many of its meeting rooms are adjacent to vast glass hallways with views of the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to the ease of transportation, Pérez applauded the excellent team-building programs available in Puerto Rico, many of which, not surprisingly, center around the hotels, beach, and ocean. The Westin Rio Mar, for example, helped Pérez to organize a beach raft building event. "Raft building was so much fun," said Pérez. "You can imagine the managers and directors trying to keep the boats from falling apart in the water."

U.S. Virgin Islands

The U.S. Virgin Islands are a prime example of why so many groups choose the Caribbean: You can enjoy an exotic destination just a few hours away by plane, without even leaving U.S. territory. That convenience was why the Virgin Islands were selected for a recent program for 500 top sales persons from Birmingham, AL-based Southern Living at HOME. Jerry Vitale is the national sales director for the company, which sells home products directly to consumers through a network of sales representatives. Vitale says he brought his program to St. Thomas because of "its tropical atmosphere and laid-back feeling." Vitale's group filled Marriott's Renaissance Grand Beach Resort, while 200 other participants stayed next door at the sumptuous Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort. By booking the entirety of the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort, Vitale was able to obtain preferred rates for attendees staying at the more expensive Frenchman's Reef & Morningstar Marriott Beach Resort. All activities were held at the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort, where the staff worked seamlessly to help make the combined crowd from both facilities comfortable.

"They made it happen," said Vitale. "They added extra bars and extra tables when they had more people than they could have ever dreamed about. They knew what they were doing," said Vitale. Though the resorts are in different sites on the island, Vitale said that logistically it was no problem to shuttle participants between them. And each resort also has its special charms. "The resort is at the center of this little bay," Vitale said. "It's about as private as you could possibly get. You look out on the hillside and see little homes, the authentic looking homes of St. Thomas, so it feels like you're part of the island, instead of looking out to see a line of hotels along the beach," Vitale explained.

Vitale's group held a dinner on the beach at the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort for their closing night ceremony. The attire made for an interesting fashion combination. "Everybody dressed in black and white, and came out barefoot onto the beach," said Vitale. Under the starlight, with live island music playing, the group also watched a spectacular, privately presented fireworks display arranged by the hotel. "We had one of the finest activities that we've done in our closings, and we've done five," said Vitale. And at the Frenchman's Reef & Morningstar Marriott Beach Resort, Vitale added, the hotel has ocean views with "miles and miles where all you can see is that blue water." Despite the views, the resort is far from isolated, however. It's actually near St. Thomas's famed duty-free shopping, and the busy cruise ship ports of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas. Along with taking advantage of St. Thomas' natural beauty when planning special events, Vitale recommends that meeting planners book enough time on the island for their group to explore the nearby British Virgin Island of Tortola, and the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John. These islands are a brief ferry ride from St. Thomas. Realize as well that there's a lot more to do in the U.S. Virgin Islands beside visiting beaches as white as a powdered donut.

Of course, many of your participants would be perfectly content to lounge under the sun and sip a cool drink. But there is variety in store for those who seek it. For those with a refined palette, for example, the first temperature-controlled wine room in the Caribbean recently opened at Caneel Bay Resort on the island of St. John. Called The Wine Room at Turtle Bay, it's located at the Turtle Bay complex, which was built within the walls of a 17th-century plantation house. The Wine Room exudes its own history, romance, and Caribbean charm. The Wine Room presents its visitors with three glass-enclosed, temperature controlled cases holding more than 1,000 bottles of wine. The facility also seats up to 10 for private events. If your participants prefer more activity, they may wish to explore the new East End Marine Park in St. Croix. St. Croix is already known for its excellent diving and has abundant underwater marine life. The East End Marine Park will protect and preserve a 60-square mile area along St. Croix's easternmost tip, including colorful reefs teeming with aquatic life. Your scuba-certified participants will thank you for letting them know about of this opportunity. Also, fishing is allowed in select areas. No matter how your participants spend their day, at some point they'll need to relax. With this in mind, you should know there is a veritable spa boom underway in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The newly opened Ritz-Carlton spa at the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas is but one example. Part of a $75 million expansion, the spa spans 6,100 square feet, with treatments that include reflexology, Shiatsu, Swedish massage, and facials, to name a few. You may also wish to keep in mind that the Ritz-Carlton provides you with 10,000-square-feet of indoor/outdoor venue options for events. The Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort & Spa on St. Thomas, meanwhile, has opened a 10,000 square foot spa facility. The spa's hydrotherapy rooms feature plunge pools, "blitz" showers that fight cellulite, and Ocean Waterfall Treatments. Also, the Buccaneer resort on St. Croix has opened its new Hideaway Spa. When this resort opened in 1948 it was one of the first in the Caribbean. The Buccaneer specializes in marine body polish treatments including seaweed toning wraps, sedona mud, and algae gel wraps. So when you visit the U.S. Virgin Islands, these days, neither you nor your participants should have trouble unwinding.


Jamaica is known as the home of Bob Marley, reggae, dreadlocks, and the often-heard phrase, "No problem man." It is also experiencing a brisk pace of new-builds. Jamaica already offers planners more than 13,000 hotel rooms, spread across Kingston, Negril, Montego Bay, and Ocho Rios. The opportunities to combine fun with pleasure seem endless. As if Jamaica weren't already laid-back enough, its all-inclusive resorts with hassle-free pricing make things even more relaxing for planners and participants. Tom Cawthon is a case in point. He's director of finance with the Houston, TX, division of Pulte Homes, Inc., a large residential homebuilder. Cawthon recently brought 50 couples on three different trips to the 190-room Sandals Royal Caribbean in Jamaica's famed Montego Bay ... a favorite haunt of balladeer Jimmy Buffet.

"From the lowest paid to the highest paid workers, we wanted to have a trip that would be affordable for everyone," said Cawthon. "We wanted to make it a team building event and make it fun," Cawthon added. Part of what contributed to the relaxing experience was the layout of the Sandals Royal Caribbean itself. "The resort seems to be the perfect size," he said. "It was large enough that the group was able to enjoy the activities, but small enough that it felt like we were almost the only guests there."

Cawthon's participants learned they could take a 10 minute shuttle to Sandals Montego Bay, a 244-room resort, to sample an equally impressive line up of food and beverages. Attendees staying at either resort can visit the other one under their all-inclusive agreements. At Sandals resorts, groups of 10 or more rooms have complimentary use of any of the conference facilities. With the opening of the 360-room Sandals Whitehouse resort in the fall of next year, meeting planners will have yet another option. Sandals Whitehouse will be nestled in 45 acres of wooded forest at Parker's Bay, Westmoreland, about a 90-minute drive from Jamaica's Donald Sangster International Airport on Jamaica's southern coast. When open, the resort promises access to a large, private white-sand beach with over half a kilometer for strolling, with mesmerizing views of the Caribbean Sea. And if it's luxury you're looking for, the Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort certainly fits the bill, sitting on 5,000 acres in Rose Hall, Jamaica. It's only about 15 minutes from the Montego Bay airport. A two-time winner of AAA's five diamond award, the Ritz-Carlton offers planners 25,000 square feet of versatile meeting space. Planners will want to keep their eye on a new project just west of Ocho Rios, where the Piñero Group, one of the leading tourism chains in Spain, is about to break ground on the single largest hotel development in Jamaica's history: Three hotel properties with 600 rooms each, and a conference facility with a minimum of 15,000 square feet. The project, which is expected to take three years to complete, is another indication that hoteliers envision a bright future for Jamaica programs.

The Cayman Islands

The Cayman Islands are growing in popularity in part because they're so easy to get to, just about an hour's flight south of Miami, and non-stop service is available from Houston, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, Atlanta, and Orlando, to name just a few. Many planners don't realize that The Cayman Islands are the fifth largest financial center in the world, after London, Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong. That means the standard of living is unusually high, with an average household income $68,000. Among the larger hotels with a significant meeting space are the the Westin Casuarina Beach Resort and Spa, Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman, and the Marriott Beach Resort ... all of which have professional meeting managers and staff to oversee every detail.

The Westin Casuarina has seven meeting rooms that range from the largest at 5,600 square feet, which seats up to 650 participants, to the smallest, 351 square feet, for boardroom-style set ups of 15. Charlene Young, meeting planner with Toyota/Lexus Motor Sales USA, Inc., headquartered in Torrance, CA, recently brought a group to the Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman Resort and Villas. Young praised Grand Cayman for its consistently fine weather, a gift from its nearby neighbor, Cuba. "What's nice about the Caymans is the Cuban mountain ranges shield it from a lot of bad weather," Young explained. She added that Grand Cayman's reputation for quality hotels and resorts, excellent cuisine, cleanliness, and general safety were important as well. The hotel offers easy access to the various water sports, from diving or parasailing, or taking a boat trip to the popular Sting Ray City, a bay where visitors can swim, feed, and pet live sting rays in the water. The group also did a catamaran sail boat excursion out to Rum Point, where the Hyatt operates a restaurant on a little strip of land. New to the island later this fall will be The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, a 365-room resort hotel. It offers a Greg Norman-designed, nine-hole golf course and the island's largest full-service spa, salon, and fitness center.

The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman also will have the Cayman Islands' largest ballroom, with 9,130 square feet. Curaçao The island of Curaçao is just 35 miles north of Venezuela, conveniently positioned just outside of the hurricane belt. Known for its eco-tourism, Curaçao is just a 2-1/2 hour flight from Miami. One asset for planners in Curaçao is the 150,000-square-foot World Trade Center Curaçao, located in the attractive Parasasa beachfront area. The Kura Hulanda Conference Center in Willemstad consists of three buildings seating up to 260. And the Hilton Curaçao is opening another 6,000 square feet of meeting space this month. So whether you select Curaçao, Aruba, or another Caribbean gem, your participants will return to the office more productive than ever ... assuming they don't spend too much time fantasizing about their trip to the Caribbean.

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david southgate
writing for living.