Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: July/August 2011
Meeting, Incentives And Traveling In The Caribbean
By: David Gordon

As a film buff, it’s safe to say I watch dozens of films in any given year from new releases to old classics — a habit picked up from my father. In addition to great storytelling, I’ve found myself drawn to movies with majestic imagery of the outdoors, especially tropical settings such as the Caribbean. Maybe that’s because I spent part of my childhood in Florida.

On my 25 minute bus ride to school each morning I often caught myself in some sort of catatonic state mesmerized by the white sandy beaches and beautiful blue green waters of the Gulf of Mexico — it looked so peaceful, especially compared to the chaotic scene inside the bus of 40 pre-teenage kids screaming at the top of their lungs to be heard in conversation. Last year watching Tyler Perry’s, Why Did I Get Married 2, I imagined that was me walking out of the ocean front condo on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera — minus of course the dysfunctional marriage.

But one of my favorite scenes of all time is the final scene in the movie Shawshank Redemption. It’s the scene where Morgan Freeman’s character Red is walking along a beautiful unspoiled beach to meet his friend Andy, played by Tim Robbins. The storyline would have you believe that was Mexico, but it was really on St Croix’s Sandy Point in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  As the movie winds to a close I found myself transported back to the days of my childhood and my first trip to the Caribbean in my early twenties. All I could see were beautiful beaches, resorts, people, food, music and cultural experiences that left me longing for my next trip to the Caribbean, which if I had my way would be about an hour from now.

Images of the Caribbean shouldn’t be experienced vicariously through a movie projector — that’s cheating and nowhere near as stimulating or fun. From the Bahamas to Trinidad and Tobago and everything in between paradise is just a few hours away.  Lets start by looking at three of the top destinations in the Caribbean — Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and the United States Virgin Islands (USVI).

Trinidad and Tobago is actually two islands (one nation) just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela. The capital and largest city on the island of Trinidad is Port-of-Spain.  Flight time from Miami to Piarco International Airport just outside Port-of-Spain is three hours and 30 minutes. That’s less time than it takes to fly from New York City to Los Angeles or Las Vegas. This is a full-service international facility easily accessible from the U.S. mainland, South America and Europe.

Port-of-Spain is a modern city with one huge advantage — it’s location in paradise. This city has transformed itself into a top meeting and convention destination with the opening of the 428-room Hyatt Regency along the brand new International Waterfront and features the largest conference center in the Southern Caribbean.

There are over 1,600 hotel rooms in Trinidad. In addition to the Hyatt Regency you’ll recognize the international brand names such as Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre, The Cascadia Hotel & Conference Centre and the Crowne Plaza Hotel. All three have meeting facilities.  In just the last four years Port-of-Spain has hosted some rather impressive gatherings. In 2008, it was the 12th Annual Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Investment Conference and the 15th Annual Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association Cruise Conference and Trade Show.

In 2009, many of you might remember the 5th Summit of the Americas, one of the first international events attended by our then new President, Barack Obama. The 20th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was held later that year and the 10th Annual Trade and Investment Convention was held in 2010.

The lush green landscape, nightlife, food and culture make Trinidad one of the best buys for the total experience of any place in the world. If your event takes you to Trinidad in late July, the week long Emancipation Celebration is a must, leading up to Emancipation Day on August 1. Or try Carnival Trini-style the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

And speaking of culture, Trinidad and Tobago gave the world the gift of the steelband. It is the only percussion instrument created in the 20th century. If you leave here without enjoying at least one steelband performance — and they are not hard to find, you should be ashamed of yourself. While most people focus their time on Trinidad, and that’s understandable, Tobago should not be forgotten. From Trinidad it’s a 15-minute flight or if you prefer the open water it’s a two-and-a-half hour ferry ride.

If you are looking for a more intimate setting this is the place. Visitors or convention goers can add it to their experience in Trinidad or simply hold their smaller gatherings here. Trust me when I say you’ll appreciate the peace and tranquility of Tobago. Tobago has miles of unspoiled beaches on the Atlantic or Caribbean side of the island, with numerous bed and breakfast properties, cottages or traditional hotels to choose from. There’s golf, tennis, swimming and a blend of all the modern conveniences you would expect at a property all the way down to isolation if that’s what you choose.

Both islands have a reputation for sumptuous, mouth-watering culinary fare, with the flavors of India, Africa, China, Syria and Europe combining to create a taste that is unique and representative of the country’s ethnic diversity. Take a scenic drive to Maracas Bay and indulge in the local delicacy of bake and shark - fried shark fillets topped with spicy chutneys and sweet sauces. By virtue of its ethnic mosaic, the destination is home to the largest pre-Lenten Carnival in the Caribbean, along with a range of colorful festivals throughout the year, including the Hindu festival of Divali, the largest celebration of its kind outside India, and Hosay, a four-day parade of drummers and tadjahs (colorful miniature temples). Emancipation Day celebrations occur over a two-week period and reflect the African influence on Trinidad and Tobago. The Tobago Heritage Festival chronicles the adventures, achievements, and memories of the numerous contributors to Tobago's cultural development during the pre- and post- Emancipation Period.

Here are some quick facts about Trinidad and Tobago. It’s an English speaking country. Their currency is the Trinidad and Tobago Dollar (TT$) and at press time the exchange rate was just over $6(TT) to the U.S. dollar, which means bargains galore. The U.S. dollar is widely accepted at all locations. Just over 200 miles north of Trinidad and Tobago is Barbados. There are non-stop flights to Grantley Adams International Airport from Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, New York and several European, Caribbean and South American destinations. The Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Conference and Cultural Centre (formerly the Sherbourne Conference Centre) is a 164,000-sq. ft. facility in the capital city of Bridgetown. This state-of-the-art facility can hold up to 1,200 people in its largest configuration.

And within a short distance lies over 1,400 hotel rooms. Accommodations range from 4-start luxurious resorts to guesthouses and homes. And like most Caribbean nations, their currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a favorable exchange rate of $2 to $1 at of press time. It’s a lush green island of sheer natural beauty. As they say in Barbados ”Long Live Life.” We often hear the term in residential real estate, location – location – location. The three islands that make up the U.S. Virgin Island (USVI); St Thomas, St Croix and St John couldn’t be more unique, complimentary and close — two-and-a-half hours from Miami.

St Thomas is a beehive of activity, shopping, swimming and nightlife trapped in a tropical paradise. St Croix is a blend of rural peace and tranquility. St John is simply unspoiled natural beauty at its finest and a place where if you choose isolation it’s yours for the taking. The USVI has all the beauty of the Caribbean and the conveniences of the United States. English is the official language, the currency is the U.S. dollar and all electrical products are the same as those on the mainland. Passports are not required for U.S. citizens.  In addition to the golfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, horseback riding and sightseeing, St Thomas in particular is known for shopping along Main Street in the capital city of Charlotte Amalie. U.S. citizens can spend up to $1,600 duty-free, double that of other Caribbean island destinations.

Ok, what about the meetings and conventions? On St Thomas you have several wonderful properties to choose from including The Ritz-Carlton, Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort and Spa and the Windward Passage. These properties are perfect for small gatherings of 500 or less. And don’t forget to ask about setting up events and meetings outdoors, this is after all the tropics.

Here are some tips to help meeting planners navigate the Caribbean.
First let’s dispel the myth of “difficulty.” I’ve heard them all and most are not true. You know what I’m talking about — it’s too difficult to plan, or its too expensive, or we can’t get our equipment into the country. The lists of excuses are endless.

Pre-planning is mandatory, just as you would any other event — our advice, start early. Don’t wait until six months before and try to rush things through as if you were doing your event in the U.S. That is a disaster in the making.

Think of materials or supplies that need to be shipped. Each country has different customs rules and regulations in regards shipping items. The local tourism boards, convention and visitors bureaus and all hotel sales staffs know the requirements and will make this process as smooth as possible. Part of the planning stage should also include time for your members to obtain passports. While the USVI does not require one all other countries of the world do, and in this day and age why wouldn’t you have one?

Looking to save a little money, all countries mentioned in this article and several others in Caribbean nations are participants in the Tax Information Exchange Agreement (TIEA), which means your event is tax deductible as if you held your gathering right here on American soil. The timing of your event could also lead to incredible savings. Low or off-peak season in the Caribbean is actually over the summer in large measure because it’s also hurricane season. If you have a little flexibility this is a great time to save money on hotels. A second option is shoulder season — May, June, October or November.

Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and the southern Caribbean are outside the hurricane belt making them year-round destinations. All meeting planners should have insurance to protect them against the unforeseen weather problems, just make sure your policy includes hurricane coverage. The most difficult time is December to April, the height of tourist season. If you are fortunate enough to locate a great property at this time you will pay dearly not just for the hotel but airfare as well. If you must go at this time of year shop around, there may be pockets of times within high season where you can cut a deal.

Also beware that expatriates who live in the Caribbean typically travel home during June and July and could affect the availability of air travel. If you are wondering how Trinidad and Tobago has captured the attention of the world and played host to so many events, the answer is simple. Representatives of this magazine have attended dozens of meetings and conventions all over the world in recent years and the people of Trinidad and Tobago have been at almost all of them promoting their destination as only the proud people of their nation can. Hurry, your gathering in paradise awaits you.