Central and South America Break Out

Thanks to its emerging economy, Latin America is burgeoning as a meetings destination for U.S.-based groups. Business opportunities abound, to be sure, but meeting planners saythe continent offers values for groups willing to venture outside North America.

"Latin America is a hidden gem, and people are finally paying attention to how it can compete with the euro," says Agnes Canonica, a veteran meeting planner specializing in Latin America for event planning firms like George P. Johnson and EWI before striking out on her own earlier this year. 

Citing the continent as "the stepchild of group travel five years ago," Canonica says that now "everybody is focused there because it's outperforming in terms of growth. So there's a lot of marketing to Latin America, and as a meetingplanner, you better be helping your client position themselves in that market."

Ariba, a Sunnyvale, CA-based technology company that facilitates digital transactions, chose Latin America for its major annual sales incentive trip in 2010, sending a group of about 200 people to Punta Mita, near Puerto Villarta in Mexico. This year's contest reward is a trip to Costa Rica in January 2012, according to Traci Oziemblowsky, the company's director of global events. 

Despite the horrendous drug war in Mexico, Oziemblowsky says neither company officials nor incentive winners have voiced any concerns about taking a trip there. "It was not even an issue," she says. And given the nature of the meeting—a high-end incentive—price sensitivity also was not a factor in choosing Latin America over more expensive destinations. Besides, Ariba contracts with major luxury chains like Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton for the incentive, albeit in multiyear deals that yield, in effect, volume discounts.

"It all about the destination for this event," Oziemblowsky says. "Our audience is global—we have people from Asia and Europe—so these destinations are very attractive to them."

For groups more sensitive to price, Canonica says that "Panama is an unbelievable deal," with a healthy hospitality infrastructure in Panama City, including two InterContinental hotels, a Marriott, and a Sofitel. "You can do a dinner for $40 per person, including all taxes and gratuities," she says.

Canonica also cites Costa Rica, Peru, and Argentina as offering value. And she points out that a few years ago Mexico followed Chile in allowing foreign groups an automatic rebate on their master bill for the value added tax, rather than requiring them to pay the tax and then apply for a rebate, usually a long and involved process.

While Brazil remains popular both for business meetings and incentives, Canonica says the country no longer is the bargain it once was thanks to inflation. For a pharmaceuticalmeeting of about 375 physicians in Rio de Janeiro in April 2010, Canonica negotiated a price of about $200 per room at an upscale U.S. chain hotel. That same room today would cost more than $300, she says. 

Security is a concern, as well, especially in Sao Paola, a notoriously crime-ridden financial capital and Brazil's largest city. "When we do off-sites in Brazil, we often have a security officer riding on each bus with attendees," Canonica says, "and we have our own security detail at the hotel during meeting hours."