Mr Flexible Space
Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: September/October 2010
African-American Guide to Meetings, Incentives & Traveling in the Caribbean
By: Sonya Stinson
In the laid-back, fun-loving Caribbean, meetings are becoming serious business.

“The Caribbean has been experiencing a growing interest in the meetings market, with more corporate meetings taking place in the region as well as a growth and expansion of conference centers that can attract and accommodate larger conventions,” says Richard Kahn, president of KTCpr, a public relations firm specializing in travel and tourism.

Capturing that business became more of a challenge when the economy went south. Lots of U.S. companies decided that incentive trips and board meetings in a tropical retreat are a luxury they couldn’t afford.

“There is no doubt that incentive trips and small corporate meetings have decreased during the past two years as a direct result of the economic downturn,” Kahn says. “What is encouraging, however, is that those incentive programs that are still active are generating interest in the Caribbean because the region still provides the luxury rewards that incentive packagers need.”

The cost-conscious event planner will certainly appreciate the fact that a meeting in a Caribbean destination may be tax-deductible for U.S. businesses and organizations.

“There are currently about a dozen or more destinations that have signed reciprocal agreements with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and attendees at meetings in these destinations are allowed to deduct appropriate expenses associated with those meetings,” Kahn says.

Of course, with so many spectacular sights, fun activities and a vibrant cultural vibe, even a meeting or convention in the Caribbean can never be all work and no play. So it can’t hurt to entice potential delegates with some of the unforgettable experiences that await them.



A trip to Jamaica might offer a chance to climb into the cascading waters of Dunn’s River Falls, listen to some ghost stories on a tour of the historic Rosehall Great House or take a slow ride on a river raft along the Martha Brae. For a pre- or postconference adventure in St. Martin, they could dive in and explore the wreckage of the HMS Proselyte In Martinique, they might enjoy an evening at a glitzy casino or a tasting tour of a local rum distillery.

A sailing or surfing excursion off Tortola, snorkeling at The Baths off Virgin Gorda and dining on Anegada’s famous lobster are just a few things to look forward to on a trip to the British Virgin Islands. The itinerary for a gathering in Puerto Rico could include a stroll through Old San Juan or a trip to El Yunque Rainforest. A dolphin encounter at Blue Lagoon Island is an option for kids and spouses who are traveling with meeting delegates to the Bahamas — or a great outing for someone enjoying a leisurely incentive trip.

TARGETING THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN MARKET


Many Caribbean destinations have made a point in recent years to market themselves to African-American meeting groups and other travelers.

“Most of the Caribbean destinations have been courting the African-American meetings market for years and continue to do so as a natural part of the marketing mix,” Kahn says, although he adds that it’s difficult to get a clear reading on how successful those efforts have been.

“I do not have any statistics showing which destinations are getting more African-American meetings because most of the statistics do not separate ethnic backgrounds, but only record where the meetings are coming from,” he notes.


Puerto Rico Convention Center

The U.S. Virgin Islands employs a two-fold strategy for penetrating the market for African-American meetings, according to Chantal R. Figueroa, deputy commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We target key players in this market via direct, face-to-face marketing initiatives and via the media they consume,” Figueroa says. “As one example, we maintain a presence at events like the Black Enterprise/Pepsi Golf & Tennis Challenge. Additionally, we’ve worked with well-known radio personalities like Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey to promote the destination to their listeners. We also advertise in regional Black-owned publications across the country.”

PRACTICAL PLANNING TIPS


Preparation and knowledge are the keys to organizing a successful meeting in the Caribbean.

“Each destination is different, and the meeting planner must know all the legal particulars, logistics, customs, taxes, fees, insurance, regulations, holidays, transportation issues, electric and water differences, and on and on,” Kahn says. “There is nothing difficult and no reason not to proceed, but the meeting planner must not take the details for granted.”

As Kahn points out, customs and immigration regulations vary when it comes to bringing materials and equipment to the islands. “These [requirements] need to be checked and in some cases filled in advance with the customs agents,” he says.

Contacting the official tourist board in your country of interest might be a good way to start the planning process. “The tourist boards are good sources for assistance, and they will be able to direct meeting planners to the proper authorities for all their needs,” Kahn says. “In some cases the governments have specific agencies for convention services. In other cases [the function] might rest within the tourist board or not at all. But there is always help available for the asking . . . and [local experts] always should be consulted in advance to avoid problems on site.”

Kahn mentions Aruba, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, St. Maarten, Cancun and the Riviera Maya as some of the destinations that are most ideal for a large event. For smaller gatherings like board meetings and corporate retreats, just about any island is a great choice.

Many major U.S. airports offer direct flights to some of the largest Caribbean cities, so a trip to a tropical paradise can take just a few hours. With the exception of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, a passport is required for entry.

One of the biggest draws for travelers to any Caribbean destination is that the weather is warm virtually year-round. Bermuda, which is a member of the Caribbean Tourism Organization though it actually lies well north of the Caribbean Sea, has a temperate climate with two main seasons: beaching season from April to September, and golf and spa season from September to April.

“The water is a little bit cooler, but it’s still very comfortable to play golf, tennis and all of the other activities that we have,” says Ann Shutte, director of global operations for the Bermuda Department of Tourism.



Hurricane season in the Caribbean generally runs from June through the end of November. Hurricanes are rare events for Southern Caribbean destinations like Curacao, Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago, and even in places where they are more frequent, the odds of having one the storms ruin your trip are fairly low. Still, it’s smart to take whatever risk there is into account when planning an event in the region and to be well aware of airline, hotel and conference center policies on refunds.

MEETING AND EVENT VENUES


Kahn points to several recent developments that have added to the Caribbean’s choices of venues for large meetings. “Several years ago Puerto Rico opened a fantastic convention center, and this January Jamaica will open a brand new state-of-the-art conference center in Montego Bay,” Kahn says. “Hotels such as the Marriott St. Kitts and the Westin Dawn Beach in St. Maarten are two examples of excellent conference hotels that cater to large meetings as well.”

The 580.000-sq. ft. Puerto Rico Convention Center is the largest in the Caribbean, accommodating groups of up to 10,000.

In Jamaica, the charming Halfmoon, Montego Bay resort has long been a popular event venue, while the capital city of Kingston is home to the Jamaica Conference Centre.

After a $10 million renovation, the former Bataliere Hotel is expected to open by the end of 2011 as the Radisson Hotel & Spa Martinique, providing that island with one of its premier meeting venues.

Major meeting sites in the Bahamas include the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort, which has 300,000 sq. ft. of event space, and the Radisson Our Lucaya Resort on Grand Bahama Island, with 90,000 sq. ft. of event space.

The British Virgin Islands’ Scrub Island Resort offers more than 7,000 sq. ft of indoor and outdoor space for group functions.

For the U.S. Virgin Islands, the largest meeting facility is at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef Resort, which can accommodate up to 800 people. Other options include the all-inclusive Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort & Spa, The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas, the Westin St. John and the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa.

“In addition to the fantastic meeting spaces at our local properties, the USVI has unique ‘off-site’ venues for group functions,” Figueroa says. “On St. Thomas, the recently restored Old Stone Farmhouse, which dates back to the 1750s, is set in a wooded valley close to the 11th hole of the Mahogany Run Golf Course. Villa Norbu, located cliff-side, faces the vast Atlantic Ocean adding to the serene ambiance. Oceana sits on the water’s edge with breathtaking sunset views and is great for groups because of its extensive wine list, which features roughly 200 selections.”

“On St. John, groups can have cocktails in the Caneel Bay plantation sugar mill ruins, followed by dinner at Equator Restaurant, which sits on a hill above the ruins affording spectacular water views,” Figueroa continues. “St. Croix’s history comes alive in the Whim Plantation – a 12-acre museum that hosts off-property gatherings. The 16 acres of exotic flora at the St. George Botanical Garden offers a colorful backdrop for any reception. A rich history surrounds the location of the gardens as they are built upon a pre-Columbus Indian settlement and the ruins of a sugar plantation. Fort Frederik is another good choice. It’s a U.S. National Historic Landmark in Frederiksted that was built between 1752 and 1760 by Denmark.”

The Hyatt Regency Trinidad in Port of Spain has hosted some impressive events since its 2006 opening, according to Cheryl Andrews, president and CEO of Cheryl Andrews Marketing Communications, which represents the two-island nation. In April 2009, the hotel was the site of the Summit of the Americas, which, as Andrews notes, drew “every head of state from this hemisphere, from Hugo Chavez to Barack Obama.” The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting came to the Hyatt in November 2009, bringing Queen Elizabeth, and the heads of state of Canada, Australia and all of the countries in the British Commonwealth.

“While most of the delegates stayed at the Hyatt, there were so many people for both events that they had to bring in two major cruise ships,” Andrews says.

The oceanfront hotel boasts two ballrooms of 35,000 sq. ft. and 13,000 sq. ft., along with a spectacular view. “It opens up to a piece of the bay that visitors to Port of Spain never had before,” Andrews says.

The largest meeting space in Bermuda is at the Fairmont Southampton, where a ballroom and about a dozen meeting rooms can accommodate up to 1,500. One of Bermuda’s most interesting event settings is the Dock Yards, which was formerly a British naval base.

“There is a wonderful natural amphitheatre there for large meetings,” Shutte says. “We also have lots of forts, churches and outside venues where you can do more intimate meetings. You can do things on the beach and in other natural environments, whether it’s at a golf course or a botanical garden. We also have a wonderful art gallery that can be turned into a meeting or dinner environment.”

If views and experiences like that sound like an ideal compliment to keynote speeches, workshops and strategic planning sessions, maybe it’s time to consider booking a meeting in the sunny, breezy and enchanting Caribbean.
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