Celebrating Colombia

Meeting in Colombia
Cartagena will be the site of this year’s Successful Meetings University (SMU) Caribbean & Islands event, being held from Oct. 26 to 29 at the Hilton Cartagena Hotel. Hosted meeting and incentive planners are expected to attend, along with a roster of tourism supplier partners from the entire Caribbean. Together, they’ll spend four days experiencing the best that Cartagena has to offer as a MICE destination, from its scenic beaches to its majestic Old City. If you are a planner who is interested in attending SMU Caribbean & Islands, please apply online at bit.ly/SMUCarib2013 no later than Oct. 11. Space is limited. 

Whenever friends ask me about my recent summer vacation to Colombia, and why I wanted to go there in the first place, they'll always say, "Why Colombia?" My response: "How much time do you have to talk?" 

The list of reasons why I went, and all the reasons why I want to go back, is long. Similarly, the features that make Colombia so attractive to meetings groups is equally long. Easy airlift from the U.S.; top-notch hotel accommodations; uniquely Colombian cultural experiences; favorable exchange rates; and outstanding hospitality are just a few of the reasons why. Here's a closer look.

MICE Ready
Over the past few years, Colombia has grown into a major MICE destination with cities like Cartagena de Indias, Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali. Last year, the country hosted 138 international association meetings and rose three spots on the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) rankings, placing 29th in the world for the number of international association meetings held. 

Getting to Colombia, and traveling throughout the country, is especially easy from the U.S. No visa is needed. From Miami, a 2.5-hour flight takes you to Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean coast; a four-hour flight will take you to Bogotá. "There are more than 30 direct flights daily from the U.S. to Colombia," says Claudia Davila, U.S. tourism director for Proexport Colombia. These include direct flights from the U.S. on such carriers as JetBlue Airways, United, American, Delta, and Spirit.

In total, there are more than 30 convention centers and more than 200 hotels that cater to MICE groups within Colombia. The number of MICE-ready hotels in the country continues to grow. In the coming months, 14 new hotel projects are expected to be in development, and by 2014, Proexport Colombia expects an additional 6,964 rooms to open. 

The variety of unique meeting venues is also a major draw, says Davila. "You can have a cocktail reception in the Medellín Botanical Garden, or on the actual wall of the Old City in Cartagena," she explains. "You can have a dinner in the Gold Museum or the Botero Museum in Bogotá, too. The venues are very unique; these are not the same hotel rooms that you see everywhere else."

Davila says that Colombia's affordability, coupled with outstanding hospitality, make it even more appealing to meetings groups. "The level of service that you get when you have a meeting in Colombia is something you don't get anywhere else," she says. "At most hotels, breakfast is always included, and the cost to rent A/V equipment is 80-percent lower than it would be in the U.S. Food-and-beverage costs are often as much as 50-percent lower than they would be in the U.S."

Battling Misperceptions
One issue that lingers, however, is concern about the country's safety, even though Colombia has transformed itself from its violent past in the 1980s and early '90s. "When people ask me if [Colombia is] safe, I tell them, 'If it's not safe we wouldn't be promoting it,'" says Davila. 

"That's old news … we have grown out of it. We are a new country - let me take you and show it to you. You need to experience Colombia for yourself." 

Frances Hartogh, associate director and director of outreach for the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation, did just that, scouting out the destination prior to bringing her organization's Special Institute on International Mining and Oil and Gas Law, Development, and Investment conference this April, which brought more than 350 lawyers from around the world to Cartagena. During her meeting, she says she "felt very safe" and that her delegates felt much the same. "Things have really been remedied in the last 10 years to the point that even our insurance company had no problem with us traveling there," says Hartogh. "Even walking around by myself at night, I felt comfortable. A number of our members rented bicycles and rode around Cartagena and the traffic seemed very safe … No one reported any difficulty whatsoever." 

Cartagena, in particular, is one of the country's most popular - and safest - destinations for tourism and meetings, says Gabriela von Thuronyi de Londoño, general manager of destination management company Gema Tours S.A. "The security in Colombia has changed completely, and Cartagena never had security issues. The geographic layout of the city, and its short distances, have made Cartagena one of the safest cities in Colombia." For this reason, and many others, planners like Hartogh often choose Cartagena for their meetings. Here's a closer look at the city's newest developments and accommodations.

The Jewel of the Caribbean
This appellation for Cartagena is an apt one. Its Walled City, often referred to as the Old Town or Old City as well, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. "Cartagena has one of the best-maintained old sections in Latin America," explains von Thuronyi de Londoño. "Inside the Walled City, you find narrow streets with beautiful houses, flowered balconies, churches, and museums that take you back to the colonial era." 

The city is also a melting pot for Colombia's diversity of cultures, offering groups uniquely Colombian experiences that can't be replicated in any other Caribbean destination, says Camilo Duque, leisure tourism director - USA for Proexport Colombia. "On a typical Caribbean island, it's beautiful and incredible to get some R&R, but when you're in Colombia and Cartagena, you get much more - including a deeper cultural and natural experience."

"In Cartagena, you can have a meeting in a street plaza," adds Davila. "You can experience things you can't experience in other places, like having a scavenger hunt in the middle of the Old City of Cartagena. There are just so many things."

Likewise, the diversity of accommodations in Cartagena is expansive, from beautiful boutique hotels and historic properties to modern resorts. More hotels are slated to arrive in the near future, too, including the Iberostar Cartagena de Indias (2013); the InterContinental Cartagena de Indias (2014); and the Hyatt Regency Cartagena (2015). 

Within the Old City, there are a number of properties ready to host groups, many of them with deeply rooted historic ties but offering the latest in guest amenities and technology. The Charleston Santa Teresa Cartagena, for example, was built in the 17th century as the first Carmelite convent within the Walled City. Now a luxury hotel, the Santa Teresa is divided into two separate wings - a colonial one that dates to the 17th century and a Republican wing built at the beginning of the 20th century. Inside each of its guest rooms - of which there are 63 standard rooms, 10 Twin Junior Suites, 10 King Junior Suites, five Grand Suites, and one Presidential Suite - guests will find an iPad for their use, among other hi-tech features. Two conference rooms on site can accommodate up to 220 delegates and for off-site activities, groups can rent the hotel's Charleston Pershing 62 yacht for private parties and outings. The Santa Teresa's courtyard was the site of one of Hartogh's evening receptions during her April conference.

Another historic luxury property within Cartagena's Old City is the 122-room Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena. Like the Santa Teresa, it was originally constructed as a convent in 1621 and, for many years, it was used for a variety of different purposes, including a hospital, which inspired the setting for Gabriel García Márquez's Of Love and Other Demons. Since 1995, it has operated as a luxury hotel and offers a total of six meeting rooms for a capacity of up to 300 attendees. Small groups of up to 20 can participate in special gastronomic activities on the property, including wine, cheese, and whisky tastings inside the hotel's 1621 Restaurant liquor cellar.

In March 2012, Casa San Agustin, an intimate 30-unit boutique property, reopened after an extensive renovation. The property is architecturally unique in that it comprises three colonial buildings and an ancient aqueduct. Accommodations feel more like a home than a hotel room, with wooden-beamed ceilings that are as high as 25 feet tall. On-site meeting spaces, like the 624-square-foot Salón Marqués de Villa Alta and the 484-square-foot rooftop solarium, are best suited for smaller groups. The salon has teleconferencing capabilities and a video-beam projector, and can seat up to 40 attendees, classroom-style.

Outside of the Walled City, you'll also find excellent MICE hotels. During my trip to Cartagena in June, I stayed at the 341-room Hilton Cartagena Hotel, which sits on the tip of the El Laguito Peninsula, only a 10- to 15-minute drive away from the Old City. Throughout its more than 30-year history, the Hilton Cartagena has seen a tremendous amount of change and has also hosted a number of famous guests, including President Barack Obama in April 2012. The hotel itself possesses extensive meeting and event facilities - 26,398 square feet in total - and its grand ballroom can host up to 1,500 people. Last November, the hotel completed a multimillion-dollar renovation that affected 288 main tower guest rooms and also upgraded the resort's pool facilities.

The Hilton Cartagena also served as the host hotel for Hartogh's April conference, and she says she was impressed by the service she received. "Early on, it was evident that everyone had more than two devices that they were working off of, so [the Hilton] instantly added more Wi-Fi capability for us and, in just a matter of hours, they had that fixed," she explains. "That showed me that they have what it takes to run a modern conference." 

Beyond Cartagena
Colombia's capital city, Bogotá, is also attracting meetings groups from the U.S. and around the globe. In Bogotá, boutique hotels like the 58-room Charleston Hotel Casa Medina and the 64-room Hotel Charleston Bogotá cater to business travelers with modern meeting facilities and contemporary, hi-tech guest rooms. Larger properties, like those from the JW Marriott, Sofitel, Marriott, Sonesta, and Hilton are also found in Bogotá. 

Ultimately, however, the true test of the success of any meeting destination - or any trip for that matter - is whether or not you'll return. For Hartogh and her foundation, and for myself, the answer is a resounding "yes." 

"There was uniform enthusiasm among all of my delegates to return to Cartagena in 2015," Hartogh says. "I'm so thrilled I get to go back there."