Danger Zone? Another Look at Latin America

Despite the misperception of widespread violence, Latin American destinations are giving planners compelling reasons to book events

Readers Recommend
Brazil: Riocentro (1,076,738 square feet); Colombia: Cartagena de Indias Convention Center (204,500 square feet); Mexico: Cancun Center (152,852 square feet)

• Cancun CVB
• Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach Cancun Resort & Spa
• Mexico Tourist Board
• Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, Cancun
• Yucatan Convention Bureau

Violence along the United States–Mexico border has reignited concern among travelers and, therefore, meeting and incentive planners, about the safety of travel to and from the country. And Mexico is not the only Latin American country plagued by problems—Brazil, Colombia, and other Central and South American nations with pockets or histories of violence are finding they are written off entirely, even though the tourist areas within these countries are, by and large, very secure.  

Education and Experience
The reality is that areas of appeal to the meetings and incentive market are quite removed from these happenings. Colombia, which has rallied against recent incidents as well as lingering fears of guerilla group FARC, went so far as to start using the slogan “The only risk is wanting to stay,” in promotional campaigns to show that it is open for business. 

“We have had really good events in the past few years — The World Economic Forum and others — that show people it’s a safe place,” explains Claudia Davila, Miami, FL-based executive director of corporate tourism for Proexport Colombia. Davila says tourism executives are also ramping up fam trips in order to bring as many planners and media to the country as possible — a strategy she says is the best way to combat perception problems. 

“When they go, they realize they feel safe,” she explains. But not every planner can visit, so the board asks for testimonials from groups meeting in Colombia, which are made available to other planners considering the destination. Davila and her team also arm planners with a variety of statistics to demonstrate the safety of tourist areas in Colombia so they can present accurate information to management. 

The Cancun CVB is taking a similar approach, increasing fam trips and encouraging testimonials from groups. “It’s hard if you hear it from us that it is safe, because we represent the destination,” explains Fernando Cervantes, groups and conventions director for the Cancun CVB. The bureau also runs seminars and road shows, all in an effort to face the concerns of potential travelers head on.  

“We talk about the issue, we don’t turn away from it,” says Cervantes. 

“We have issues like any other city, but nothing to do with drug lords or anything like that.”

Part of the problem for Mexico is that some recent warnings are vague in explaining exactly which areas of the country are experiencing problems. “Travel warnings say ‘Mexico,’ then specify what areas. People just see ‘Mexico’ and don’t come,” says Cervantes.  

“It is becoming a problem, not with the meeting planners per se because they are seasoned travelers and know what is going on, but with the guests and executives,” he explains. “We have had a number of cancellations and a reduction in numbers, although it’s not as bad as it could have been,” he says.   

“It’s a shame because it’s such a beautiful country. It’s a shame that they are having these problems,” says Davila of what Mexico is dealing with. “In a way [it’s the same as what Colombia has faced]. People don’t know the details, they are just scared of going.” 

Those who do travel to cities like Cancun are finding the trips to be problem-free. “I have booked several speakers for July in the Cancun area,” says Andrea Gold, president of Gold Stars Speakers Bureau in Tucson, AZ. “The client has held incentive meetings there multiple times since last fall, without incident. They have had positive experiences.”

Brazil, which has not been the target of a U.S. State Department warning, still suffers from perception problems based on stories of everything from petty theft to gang violence. Officials understand that the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and the 2014 World Cup provide opportunities to showcase the country, its infrastructure, and how safe it is for incoming guests. A banner in Rio declares “A new city is being born” and plans call for the creation of a cultural district, improved highways, light rail development, airport enhancements, and 300 new hotels, among other projects—all in advance of the two sporting events.  

Groups visiting now will find a country that welcomes guests—tourism is vital to Brazil’s economy —- while encouraging the use of an ounce of caution and a heap of common sense.  

“I was in Rio in 2007,” says Susan Bond, a Phoenix-based planner with MorEvents. “We had five security guards with our group at all times offsite from the hotel.”

She says that the group of about 300 explored public areas like Sugarloaf Mountain without problem, but kept one security person per bus at all times. “I did feel safe but took warnings from our security seriously, especially since I was in charge of the entire group,” she says, adding that it was important to set a good example for group members. 

Bond’s colleague took a group to Rio during Carnival this year. The group hired security for all offsite events and felt safe throughout the trip.
The group had a global board meeting in Sao Paulo a month later, and all transfers required bulletproof cars or vans and security personnel—a precaution the group does not take when visiting other countries. The planner, however, traveled by regular taxi and, again, felt safe during the stay. 

Bond notes: “We were told that any taxis the hotel called for you were safe, but not to get in a taxi just anywhere.”

Teachable Moments 
And that is the lesson for any planner—ask questions of the CVBs and hotel staff, then heed their advice. And do research on your own; don’t just listen to stories from others who may have visited during different times and under different government leaderships. 

“I ask that anyone who is considering an incentive or meeting in Latin America doesn’t discount Mexico, or any other region, because of what you may have heard or read somewhere, sometime,” says Eli Gorin, Bay Harbor Islands, FL-based vice president of global client relations for ABTS Convention Services; Gorin has extensive experience planning meetings in Latin America. “We should educate ourselves on all the facts, both positive and negative, and make an informed decision from there ... and once a decision has been made, we educate all stakeholders involved.”

Much of that information can be obtained through local CVBs, which are ready and willing to discuss safety concerns with planners and provide additional details on the area. Details like the fact that the murder rate in Mexico’s Yucatan state, home of the famed beaches and Mayan ruins, is two per 100,000—similar to the murder rates of Wyoming and Montana.  

For Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico, efforts to right the ship seem to be paying off. Colombia improved its ranking with ICCA in 2010, rising to number 34 on the international destinations list, from 39 in 2009. Other, even higher ranking Latin American countries on the list are Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Chile.

Brazil enjoyed $5.92 billion in tourist spend in 2010, the highest ever and an 11 percent increase over 2009. Both the incoming sporting events and its role as an emerging market indicate good things for Brazil in the coming years. 

And Mexico, long a popular destination for meetings and incentives, is working to simply educate planners and the general public on the realities of what is currently happening within the country. Tourism officials are also moving ahead with extensive projects—the private sector invested some $3.526 billion in tourism projects in 2010, a 19.2 percent increase over 2009. Those included a $500 million investment from InterContinental Hotels Group, which plans to develop 47 hotels in Mexico over the next three years. 

So when planners are ready to explore these Latin American gems, know that the hosts will welcome you with open arms and, likely, some brand-new facilities and hotels.