Puerto Rico for business and pleasure

 

DEBUNKING THE MYTHS
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 culture.

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.

SUPRISINGLY SUPERB
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 influence options.

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.

OVERCOMING PERCEPTIONS
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."

EXQUISITE EXCURSIONS
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.

 

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