Caribbean: Puerto Rico and the USVI Are Heating up for Meetings

Baha Mar might have hit a snag, but new developments continue elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort

WHERE TO…
MEET - Casa de Campo Resort (Dominican Republic)
From a 5,000-seat amphitheater to two conference centers with more than 15,000 square feet of space in total, this sprawling resort near the Dominican Republic's La Romana region caters to meeting groups of all sizes. In July, Casa de Campo hosted the annual Successful Meetings University Caribbean hosted-buyer event.

STAY - Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino (Aruba)
In July, the former Radisson Aruba Casino, Resort & Spa in Palm Beach reopened as the 355-room, 15-acre beachfront Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino. The property has a variety of accommodations in one of the island's most desirable locations, as well as nearly 40,000 square feet of meeting and event space.

EAT - 1919 (Puerto Rico)

If you're looking for a top-notch fine-dining experience in the Caribbean, consider Michelin-starred chef Juan Jose Cuevas' 1919 restaurant, at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cuevas' acclaimed menu possesses a strong farm- and ocean-to-table focus, no doubt influenced by his four years spent at the famed Blue Hill Restaurant in New York.

Lately, the biggest tourism news in the Caribbean relates to Baha Mar, the $3.5 billion casino resort in the Bahamas, and the region's largest-ever hospitality project. Currently, the multi-hotel project is in the midst of a bankruptcy battle, and has missed two scheduled opening dates. As of press time, there still hasn't been any resolution as to how Baha Mar will proceed, if it will be completed, or whether the Bahamian government will liquidate the resort.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, however, new developments and updates to existing properties continue.

For example, also making headlines is the current economic situation in Puerto Rico. In July, Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico, told Successful Meetings, "We want to be available for meeting planners' concerns and questions, and educate them on what's happening."

He also noted that while the current economic situation is a challenge for the central government, the commonwealth's tourism industry is still going strong. Meet Puerto Rico saw a robust fourth quarter, surpassing its booking goals and estimating that the economic impact of meetings, conventions, incentives, and exhibitions will surpass $100 million for the destination.

In January, Judy Rogers, manager of administration for the International Good Additives Council and a meeting organizer with Kellen, an Atlanta-based association management firm, brought a group of approximately 40 meeting attendees to Puerto Rico. The group met at the 400-room Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort (pictured), which is in the final stages of completing a multimillion-dollar renovation. Next year, they plan to return to the Wyndham.

When asked if she or her clients had any qualms about returning to Puerto Rico given the current economy in the U.S. territory, Rogers says, "I really have no concerns. I think if it got to a point where the Wyndham had concerns, they would certainly let us know. As of now, I don't see it as a problem."

Rogers especially noted that the hotel's convention services staff made a lasting impression on her attendees. "Everyone was very impressed. It's a destination that's truly enjoyable for all, and that made it a pleasure to go into the meeting."

Last December, Puerto Rico welcomed the reopening of one of its most beloved properties -- the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, located in San Juan's upscale Condado district. The 319-room hotel, originally built in 1919 by Frederick William Vanderbilt and originally designed by Warren and Wetmore, architects of New York's famed Biltmore Hotel and Grand Central Station, it underwent an extensive $200 million renovation. This included the addition of two adjoining 11-story Suite Towers, and an infinity-edge pool overlooking the ocean, as well as three more pools, and a 10,000-square-foot spa. The property also has 25,000 square feet of remodeled meeting and event space.

A Look at Hyatt's First All-Inclusives in Jamaica
In March, Montego Bay saw the opening of Hyatt Zilara and Ziva Rose Hall, Hyatt's first dual-branded, all-inclusive property in Jamaica. Divided into two hotels -- the family-friendly Ziva and the adults-only Zilara -- it offers 620 sleek guest rooms, two fitness centers, a spa, complimentary golf, 24-hour room service, 16 restaurants, and free airport transfers.

The resort is spread across a 1,200-foot private coastline and contains 18,000 square feet of flexible space, including 30,000 square feet of outdoor and beachside venues.  

-- Josh Lieberman

ESSENTIAL Tool Box
CONVENTION CENTERS & FACILITIES
Puerto Rico Convention Center (600,000 sf); Atlantis, Paradise Island (200,000 sf); Montego Bay Convention Center (142,000 sf); Barcelo Bavaro Convention Center (123,784 sf); Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino (35,000 sf); Windward Passage Hotel, St. Thomas (35,000 sf)

ROOM TAX
Varies by destination

READERS RECOMMEND
Pinnacle Awards Go To:

 Aruba Convention Bureau
 Bermuda Department of Tourism
 Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino
 Atlantis, Paradise Island
 Casa de Campo
 El Conquistador
 Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort
 La Concha, A Renaissance Resort (Puerto Rico)
 Marriott San Juan Hotel & Stellaris Casino
 Paradisus Punta Cana Resort
 Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino
 Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort (Curacao)
 Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel and Casino
 Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort


USVI: Always Something New
The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) continue to offer strong draws for groups. On St. Thomas, there are a number of new attractions. Green Cay, also known as Sanctuary Bay, saw the recent opening of the new Abi Beach Bar. Accessible exclusively by boat, it offers views of the Caribbean and reasonably priced food and beverage.

The Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden also opened this year. Home to more than 1,000 orchids, palms, and other exotic flora, this park-like setting offers paths, benches, decks, and a gazebo. Group admission rates are available and soon, events may also be hosted on the property.

The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, also debuted three new year-round group excursions led by Ambassadors of the Environment, the resort's eco-cultural program designed by Jean-Michel Cousteau. They include a guided snorkel at night, stargazing, and observations of nocturnal animals that roam the property.

The U.S. Virgin Islands is also seeing a culinary renaissance, especially on St Croix. In early 2016, USVI culinary ambassador and St. Croix native chef Digby Sridiron is opening Balter, a farm-to-table restaurant and farmers' market. Also on St. Croix, Bon Baggy Sailing is offering five-course farm-to-table dinner cruises prepared by locally renowned chefs that depart from Frederiksted Pier.

Questions or comments? Email [email protected]

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.