Meeting in Margaritaville: All-Inclusive Resorts Aren't Just for Tourists Anymore

When you hear the phrase "all-inclusive," do you picture bleary-eyed tourists parked the whole day at the lobby bar while their kids are outside screaming by the pool? If so, you should sit down for a serious talk with Michael Schron.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, says Schron, a New York City-based meeting planner with Robert P. Schron Associates, holding a meeting at an all-inclusive property "is great for corporate bean counters." Why? Simple: "It's a predictable expense. So much is built into the price" -- not just accommodations but food, drinks, entertainment, taxes, gratuities, transfers, and activities -- "that they can know in advance what the whole thing will cost."

The all-inclusive resorts found throughout the Caribbean and along the Mexican coasts have long been popular with leisure travelers as well as incentive winners. Now, they're starting to catch on with the meetings set; this past year alone, Schron did three corporate meetings at all-inclusives, include a training meeting for home builders at Dreams Los Cabos and a management retreat at the Paradisus Puerto Rico.

But is a tropical paradise with umbrella drinks galore the right setting for your group? Not always, experts caution. Here's the lowdown on when, and why, you should consider an all-inclusive resort for your next meeting, what types of events they're best suited for, and what questions to ask before you sign on the dotted line.

Strangers in Paradise

"There's one word that screams out at you when you look at all-inclusives," says Schron. "Value." Which is precisely why Eli Gorin, an independent meeting planner based in Aventura, FL, recently took a 150-person international sales meeting for a cosmetics company to Cabo San Lucas.

Though the meeting was in June, when temperatures in Cabo can reach the three-digit mark, the Presidente InterContinental Los Cabos Resort offered Gorin such an "outstanding" package -- $120 per person per night, with the fourth night free, including all meeting space, a cocktail reception, in-house AV, VIP upgrades, and one themed dinner -- he couldn't refuse. "It was a pretty tremendous deal," says Gorin. "When I saw it I was in shock."

Notwithstanding his initial worries about the heat, it turned out to be a non-issue, Gorin says, as many of his attendees hailed from other Latin American countries and were accustomed to tropical climates. In fact, the destination choice even proved motivating: "Most of the people who attended would never have had the opportunity to go to Cabo normally. It's a fantastic place."

It Takes a Village

It's not much of a stretch to imagine President Bush hanging out, having fun at a Club Med, and it's even easier to picture Bill Clinton at one. But Jimmy Carter?

Believe it or not, the man who did almost as much for the cardigan sweater as Mr. Rogers is one of Club Med's best clients, says Kate Moeller, a spokeswoman for the French resort company in Coral Gables, FL. "We also do meetings for Renault and Coca-Cola, but one of the largest meetings we do each year is The Carter Center's annual fundraiser," says Moeller. "They used to do it at our Crested Butte [Colorado] village until we sold it, and now they're doing it at our newest village, the Cancun Yucatan."

Club Med's all-inclusive pricing is "important for us, absolutely," says Jay Beck, event coordinator for The Carter Center, based in Atlanta, who plans the medium-sized gathering (its guest list is capped at 300). "We're a nonprofit, so we're not out to spend a lot of money on something that won't directly benefit the people we're trying to help." (Those people include Jamaicans fighting political corruption and Sudanese working to eradicate Guinea worm disease.)

Beck also appreciates the intimacy afforded by taking over an all-inclusive: "We rent out the village so we don't have other guests wandering in, and we can create the ambiance of a family reunion for our guests." He's held this meeting at properties that were not all-inclusive, but less successfully: "In my experience, with every other hotel you go to, even if you take over the property and the meeting rooms are all yours, you'll still be bumping into people who aren't in your party in the lobby, the restaurants, and so on. We're trying to build lasting friendships with our supporters, and when there are [other] people around, things can get muddled."

Beck's meeting is fairly straightforward: educational programs about the Center's work, a charity auction, and ample opportunity for the Center's supporters to "share good times" and "hang out" with Jimmy and Rosalynn. Gorin says that it's precisely this type of get-together, without a lot of high-end frills or off-property activities, that works best at an all-inclusive: "If your meeting requires a lot of extra services, the surcharges can really add up."

Gorin is quick to add, however, that not all properties insist on every surcharge. "That's why I loved the Cabo property -- they worked so well with us. The banquet manager set us up on the lawn one evening for dinner and didn't charge us, because we'd built up a good relationship with him."

Know Before You Go

Successful Meetings asked independent planner Eli Gorin, of gMeetings in Aventura, FL, what planners should consider when deciding whether or not to hold a meeting at an all-inclusive. Gorin (who spoke to us from the all-inclusive Presidente InterContinental Resort in Cancun, where he was handling a meeting of about 70 employees of a technology distributor) offers the following advice:

DO THE MATH. Budget is your most important criterion, says Gorin. Break out all your costs and compare the all-inclusive price to what you'd pay a la carte. "If the resort package includes all your meeting space and extras like a themed dinner or cocktail reception, it can really be worth it."

DETERMINE YOUR PROGRAM. Is it a fairly basic meeting, or is there a lot of customization? All-inclusives usually charge additional fees (approximately $5 to $25 per person per extra) if, for instance, you want to do a private function on the beach, take over a restaurant, or have a late-night private party with an extended open bar. Many charge extra for premium menu items like prime rib or lobster. And if you're doing a lot of off-property dinners, it may not be worth it, says Gorin, since dinner is the most expensive meal of the day.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. If you're doing a meetings-heavy program without much free time, consider an adults-only resort, Gorin suggests. Conversely, if attendees are allowed to bring guests, they might prefer a family-friendly property. If your attendees like to drink, all-inclusives can be very economical, adds Gorin, since alcohol is useully one of the more expensive budget line items. But if they're the types who turn their noses up at Bacardi and insist on sipping the higher-end stuff, you could wind up paying an extra $45 per person for access to premium liquor brands.