Puerto Rico has faced more than its share of recent challenges, from Zika fears to declaring a form of bankruptcy earlier this year. But a visitor to this island would be hard-pressed to see how these difficulties are taking a toll when it comes to the rich offerings of this destination, and its readiness to accommodate meetings groups both large and small.
"We are prepared to handle the unexpected," says Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico. "There's such a broad product base here, it can give groups anything from limited service to five-star properties, but what makes Puerto Rico different is the experience."
There is the stunning natural beauty of the El Yunque Rainforest -- the only tropical rainforest in the United States -- and the glowing, bioluminescent bays (Puerto Rico holds three of the five that exist in the world), as well as the timeless charms of Old San Juan. But beyond the perennial attractions, the destination is as vibrant as ever, with high-quality properties, terrific group offerings, and major new meeting developments underway.
When it comes to properties that tap into the local culture, the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino (pictured above) has groups covered. Set in the heart of trendy Condado, between the Old Town and the beach, the San Juan Marriott is ready for business, with 527 guest rooms and more than 10,000 square feet of meeting space, including an 800-person capacity Grand Ballroom divisible into four sections. It includes eight breakout rooms and an oceanfront terrace that can accommodate up to 150 for a cocktail reception or pre-meal event. For groups needing more room, the property is a 10-minute drive from the Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC).
Of course, there's plenty to do on-property before and after any meetings. Guests can relax on the beach with a piña colada in hand or take a dip in the heated pool (complete with slide and swim-up bar), or the more fitness-minded can break a sweat in the cutting-edge Wellness Center. In the evenings, guests can try their luck at the resort's casino, or put on their dancing shoes and enjoy some live music at the Red Coral Lounge.
Beyond its creative catering team, the San Juan Marriott's on-site dining options are myriad. For a local, Instagram-able culinary experience, it's hard to beat the resort's poolside lechon pig roast experience. Those who are not big fans of pig can enjoy the buffet of fresh dishes, from light salads to a make-your-own mofongo bar, at La Vista Beachside Grill. The cool, light sweetness of a gelato from the property's on-site Gelato & Co. is the perfect way to refresh after a sun-soaked day.
Speaking of Puerto Rican culinary experiences, just across the street from the San Juan Marriott, smaller groups will want to take advantage of the cooking classes available at Cocina Abierta. The restaurant serves elevated local dishes such as duck confit-stuffed mofongo and quail with yucca puree, as well as a wide range of customizable culinary experiences, taught by members of its team of more than 20 chefs. Groups can specialize in a particular area (such as cheese-making or Caribbean game), or take part in a multi-course demo/meal where members of the group can assist in preparing dishes they can then enjoy.
[--image id='pic 2'--]Overlooking two miles of pristine beach in the Isla Verde district (voted the best urban beach in the U.S. by USA Today), El San Juan Hotel, is at once a landmark legacy property and the luxurious new kid on the block. This is because this Curio Collection by Hilton property, originally opened in 1958, has undergone a $60 million, top-to-bottom redesign by Jeffery Beers International. This included a complete remodeling of its 388 guest rooms and suites, a new pool (bringing its total to four altogether), the addition of 22 luxury cabanas, new spa facilities, and a new three-story fitness building. It is also transforming its dining options, and is in the midst of unveiling not just new restaurants but a "signature restaurant collection." This include the existing restaurants Brava and Meat Market, as well as 15 bars (including the mixology-oriented Gold Bar and striking oval Chandelier Bar in the center of the lobby), and newcomers such as casual-elegant seafood restaurant Marea and elevated local dishes at Caña by Juliana Gonzalez. More dining options will continue to roll out in coming months, including the French-accented, oceanfront Aquarelle and sushi/noodle spot Yamato.
But as impressive as the new additions to the property may be, what's most striking about El San Juan is how it showcases its 60-year history, from massive Czech gem crystal chandelier that commands the lobby to the hand-carved mahogany ceiling tiles. The meeting spaces are infused with history, from the breakout rooms named after the high-wattage stars who have performed on property (Tony Bennett, Liza Minelli, and Frank Sinatra to name a few) to the 6,500-square-foot Club Tropicoro, which hosted these legendary performers and will be open following an extensive renovation by the end of the year. It boasts more than 40,000 square feet of event space altogether, including the 11,000-square-foot ballroom just off the lobby. With live music playing every night at the Chico Cabaret, stepping out of a meeting, visitors will find themselves transported into Latin-infused grandeur.
You can't talk about meeting in Puerto Rico without talking about the new District Live! complex. In between education sessions at a large-scale convention, grabbing a coffee or catching up on emails might be a typical way to pass the time. But in 2019, event attendees at the PRCC can check out a concert, pop in to a "day disco," or take a ride on a zip-line course. These are all part of the offerings being planned as part of the new District Live! entertainment complex under way.
The five-acre entertainment district, expected to open in early 2019, will feature a 170-room luxury hotel (with 6,000 square feet of meeting space), a 44,000-square-foot Plaza (offering the Caribbean's largest LED screen and outdoor presentation stages), an 18,000-square-foot "day and night disco," a 500-seat performance space, television and radio broadcast studios, and an eight-screen premium movie theater. All of it will be anchored by the 600,000-square-foot PRCC, providing visitors with an impressive array of attractions to complement the property's current event offerings (including a 39,500-square-foot ballroom, top-notch A/V, and original art displays). The convention center is also updating its public areas to include a bar-lounge area and branded-coffee cafe.
"It's going to make the whole district more appealing," says Segarra. "There will be more than a thousand rooms within walking distance, additional entertainment venues, and you'll be able to zip line and learn to salsa dance all in the same place."
It is being developed under a partnership between Island Hospitality Partners and the Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority. AEG Facilities, which took over the operations of the PRCC last year, will also be overseeing the management of District Live! If the all-encompassing attractions of the San Juan center sound similar to the hugely successful L.A. Live complex, that is likely because AEG is also the organization behind that entertainment district.