More than just Ricky Martin and pina coladas,
Puerto Rico is proving its mettle as a worthy
choice for groups seeking a relaxing Caribbean escape.
BY TOBY SALTZMAN
On a vast plateau outside the Cuartel de Ballaja, the 19th century
military barracks of the Spanish Armada, the La Bomba singers spice
up the Latin beat with maracas and tambourines. The Plena dancers
twirl in, their skirts flaring to the salsa rhythm. One by one,
mysterious characters appear and mingle with the crowd. Stella,
the serpent lady, with her live (though docile) python, slithers
in. Caruso, the cigar roller, dishes out fat cigars. Fantastic vejigantes
(carnival characters wearing huge papier mache masks) mingle about.
And when the giant stilt walkers enter, the music revs up and the
500 incentive winners and their spouses from a Canadian pharmaceutical
firm fall into a conga line that snakes through tall doors into
the neo-classical courtyard. Under a starlit sky, they celebrate
the president's awards over a culinary feast and, later, dance the
night away to Latin beats from the bossa nova to the merengue.
Just about every meeting, conference or incentive program held
in Puerto Rico includes elements of Spanish music and culture, says
Paul Ferguson, president of Travel Services Inc., a Puerto Rican
destination management company. And this rich cultural mosaic is
but one of the reasons why this tiny U.S. territory has emerged
as a desirable destination for meeting and incentive groups from
around the world.
Once burdened by a perception that it could not meet the needs
of conference and incentive groups today planners confidently bring
groups here knowing that as a U.S. territory Puerto Rico offers
sophisticated resorts, quality service, and all the necessary meeting
requirements while still providing the flair of the eclectic Latin-Spanish-African
The smallest and most easterly of the Greater Antilles, Puerto
Rico lies 1,600 kilometres southeast of Miami. Almost rectangular
in shape, it runs 153 kilometres from east to west and 58 kilometres
north to south. Simply put, it's an intriguing Caribbean island
that is officially a U.S. overseas commonwealth territory. And while
its 3.8-million people are U.S. citizens, Spanish is the first language
and English is widely spoken. The Puerto Rican culture, music and
dance are Latin-African inspired yet business and commercial life
is conducted with American efficiency. Besides tourism, the island
thrives on its pharmaceutical industry; almost every international
pharmaceutical corporation operates a manufacturing plant here.
Indeed, Puerto Rico now consistently surpasses expectations as a
meeting and incentive retreat. But from a planner's viewpoint, the
island still requires a firm selling job to outpace past perceptions
that resort properties and amenities aren't up to snuff.
For example, when Gabrielle Oulster first pitched the island to
one of her major Canadian telecommunications clients, they hesitated.
They had reservations that it was a worthy spot for the president
and vice-presidents to host the top 600 sales performers and their
spouses from across North and South America.
"There's a perception Puerto Rico is the poor man's vacation spot,"
says Oulster, a global account director with Mississauga, Ont.-based
incentive firm Maritz Canada Inc. "But in reality, that's specific
to Old San Juan [of the past], not Puerto Rico as a whole. In the
end, our 2001 program [at the 918-room Wyndham El Conquistador Resort]
was so fabulous, the incentive winners hated to leave. The destination
was perfect. Puerto Rico truly became the once-in-a-lifetime trip
it was supposed to be."
Audrey Esar can attest. She has run several successful incentive
programs in Puerto Rico and had no qualms about suggesting the island
when her pharmaceutical client wanted a memorable experience for
its 200 incentive winners in a place more exotic than Miami, yet
with the security of a U.S. destination. The director of meetings
and incentives with Montreal-based planning firm, Vision 2000 Travel
Group, married a four-day cruise aboard the Radisson Diamond with
a four-day immersion in the culture and nature at the beautiful
694-room Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort in Rio Grande.
"The resort hit the perfect balance," she says. "It's a fairly
new hotel built in 1996 with beautiful venues indoors and out, a
championship golf course for the essential tournament, proximity
to the El Yunque rainforest for the exotic nature experience, and
a lovely beach for leisure."
Esar says the destination also fit the bill for another of the
group's requirements: quality personal time. "From our surveys,
we've learned this reward is often the only great vacation they
[incentive winners] have each year, and they want quality time for
their partner and themselves."
A SEA CHANGE
Incorporating a cruise element into a Puerto Rican land/resort program
is a common tactic with incentive planners, says Esar, one made
easy given the fact several ships depart from the island. For example,
when Ron Warner, manager of purchasing and creative solutions at
Markham, Ont.-based American Express Meetings & Incentives, planned
an award and recognition trip for the "Canadian Pacesetters" - the
nation's top American Express travel counsellors in the business
and leisure divisions - he combined a four-night Radisson Diamond
cruise with two nights at the 414-room Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel,
Spa & Casino in Isla Verde. The trip included a surprise night visit
to the El Yunque rainforest where the president of the company appeared
to swing in from the high treetops onto a stage decorated like Indiana
Jones and the Temple of Doom.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Despite its awakening as a meetings and incentive destination, Puerto
Rico begs close inspection, not just for its venues and resorts,
but to understand the layout of the island and how each area may
In the northeast corner of the island, Old San Juan, founded in
1510, is a historic port city with no beaches. However, it is a
must-see for meeting and incentive groups. Its cobbled streets lead
to a hive of charming restaurants which are ideal for dine-arounds.
Its many historic venues can also be used for imaginative events.
For example, the 58-room Hotel El Convento (formerly a nunnery),
the Cuartel de Ballaja, and the Institute of Culture, each offer
dramatic courtyards for morning or evening gatherings (for more
event ideas, see "Exquisite Excursions" sidebar at left).
Isla Verde, located about 10 minutes from Luis Munoz Marin International
Airport in the capital city of San Juan, is Puerto Rico's original
strip of grand beach hotels. Here, the venerable 389-room Wyndham
El San Juan Hotel & Casino (which is steeped in old-world style
and architecturally themed restaurants) holds court with the 414-room
Inter-Continental San Juan hotels. Each property has recently invested
millions of dollars in renovations to guest rooms and meeting spaces.
Condado is a beach strip of high-rise resorts including the San
Juan Marriott Resort, Condado Plaza Hotel & Casino and Radisson
Ambassador Plaza Hotel & Casino. Here, the site of the former convention
centre is now a leisure beachfront park.
Puerto Rico's new convention centre opens in June 2004 in a former
military base on Isla Grand. Adjacent to Old San Juan, it is just
steps away from the 644-room Caribe Hilton, which has just reopened
after reconstruction and renovation. The convention centre will
offer 150,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Heading northeast from San Juan, you arrive at Luquillo. Here,
the rambling 694-room Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort sits directly
across from the El Yunque rainforest. Further east is Fajardo, home
to the Wyndham El Conquistador hotel, villas and golf course. Though
without a beach, it offers guests beach, dining and event facilities
on its private Palominos Island, a 15-minute boat ride away. Nearby,
construction is nearing completion for two new resorts: the 350-room
Inter-Continental Cay Largo Resort and the 400-room Sol Melia Paradisus
Coco Beach Resort (Puerto Rico's first all-inclusive resort).
Forty-five minutes west of San Juan, you arrive at Dorado, home
of two Hyatt resorts sharing four championship golf courses: Hyatt
Regency Cerromar Beach Resort (506 rooms) and Hyatt Dorado Beach
Resort (originally the Rockefeller Resort with 298 rooms). Farther
west is the Horned Dorset Primavera, a small, secluded Relais &
Chateaux property suitable for executive retreats.
Each of the aforementioned hotel properties has versatile ballroom
and convention spaces, posh outdoor venues and some boast lavish,
full-service spas. Four properties also offer superb signature restaurants:
the Wyndham El San Juan, the Inter-Continental, the Ritz-Carlton
and the Westin Rio Mar.
If there's still some doubt as to the worthiness of the island as
a meeting and incentive destination, a client list from some of
the properties speaks volumes about planner confidence. For example,
Hyatt Resorts has recently hosted groups from General Electric,
Pepsi, Frito-Lay and the American Ophthalmology Association. The
Wyndham El Conquistador and Inter-Continental have hosted groups
from pharmaceutical, financial institutions, and car manufacturers.
The Ritz-Carlton has played host to groups from the pharmaceutical,
financial, medical and travel industries, including American Express
Canada. And, the Wyndham El San Juan recently hosted Coors Canada,
Scotiabank and pharmaceutical, telecommunications and financial
institutions. In the final analysis, Puerto Rico has proven its
mettle as a worthy meeting and incentive destination in recent years.
The island is much more than Ricky Martin and pina coladas on the
beach. Maybe it's the way the world is embracing Latin music and
culture, says Esar. "People are gravitating to Puerto Rico. It's
a real hot spot now."
Five awesome program possibilities that showcase Puerto Rico's best
A Taste of Puerto Rican Culture. By far Puerto Rico's most
elegant off-site venue, the modern, new Museo de Arte de Puerto
Rico in Santurce near Condado is dazzling indoors and out. Events
can meander from the interior atrium to the outdoor sculpture garden
before culminating at a sit-down dinner. Here, the talent extends
from the artistic installations to culinary finesse. Even critical
Conde Nast Traveler magazine rated the art gallery's Pikayo Restaurant
as one of the top 100 new restaurants in the world.
Hot Latin Culture Night. Recreate the streets of Old San
Juan in the inner, colonnaded courtyard of the ancient Ballaja (which
seats up to 1,000). Bring on La Bomba and Plena dancers, stilt dancers,
snake charmers and costumed vejigantes. Salsa and merengue bands
are the perfect accent to crank up the beat.
Rainforest Survivors. The El Yunque rainforest, 45 minutes
east of San Juan, can be used for a variety of unusual events. The
only tropical rainforest in the U.S., it is lush with towering trees,
bamboo groves, giant ferns, colourful flowers and alive with the
sounds of birds and coqui, the tiny Puerto Rican frogs. Richard
Ford, operator of Revealing Rainforest Events, recounts a host of
programs held recently for Coors Canada, Budweiser, Pepsi and Pharmacia
Corp. Coors ended a "survivor" scavenger-hike teambuilding exercise
with guests zipping Tarzan-like across a river to the finish.
Romance in Hacienda Siesta Alegre. Arguably one of Puerto
Rico's most beautiful off-site venues, Hacienda Siesta Alegre in
Rio Grande is an open-air Spanish-inspired home perched on a hill
overlooking the training grounds for the thoroughbred racehorses
below and the El Yunque rainforest beyond. Open to refreshing mountain
breezes, the venue seats 200 for dinner. Entertainment runs the
gamut, from decorated dancing horse processions to Spanish guitarists
and folkloric shows.
The Many Faces of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico offers a wide
range of fantastic experiences and many can be found in Old San
Juan. Planners can flare competitive spirits during a tour of the
city (a must) by distributing disposable cameras for a photo treasure-hunt
of important sites that ends with lunch in the outdoor courtyard
of the historic Hotel El Convento. Offer guests a menu of island
activities from deep-sea fishing for blue marlin, scuba diving,
snorkeling, tennis and shopping, to dine-arounds in quintessentially
charming Old San Juan eateries. Horseback-riding in the foothills
of the rainforest on spirited paso fino horses is another option.
Or how about a midnight kayak expedition to Bioluminescent Bay,
where fluorescent micro-organisms glitter in the dark water? Impactful
teambuilding events such as a sailing regatta, or golf tournament
at courses like Hyatt Dorado or Westin Rio Mar, are other options.