share
by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | June 3, 2011

westin los cabosTwo weeks ago, I was part of a small group of trade journalists invited to spend a few days experiencing two of Starwood Hotels and Resorts' most prestigious Mexican properties -- the 270-room Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Golf & Spa Resort and its sister property, the 243-room Westin Resort & Spa. There was no dancing around the premise for this generous hosted trip: Mexico is hurting for group business.

The relentless media attention spotlighting the country's violent drug wars has caused serious harm to group destinations such as Acapulco, Cancùn and Los Cabos, already reeling from a significant drop-off in group business in 2009, as a result of the sour economy. Several weeks ago, in an attempt to change gears, the Mexican government launched a new advertising campaign aimed at countering its country's damaged image. And while the effort has helped lure value-conscious leisure travelers, meeting planners, it appears, are still very much on the sidelines in a wait-and-watch mode. "It is very frustrating," says Alan Duggan, Starwood's vice president, sales, for Latin America. "I would say our group business is down by as much as 70 percent." Duggan says Starwood properties are doing everything to help alleviate planner concerns, including bringing in security experts to consult with them.

Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Golf & Spa Resort, Los Cabos At the Westin Resort & Spa (now undergoing guest-room renovations and a major overhaul of its award-winning spa), destination management company Terramar conducted a presentation on the Starwood's special programs and services, and charted the metamorphosis of Los Cabos from sleepy backwater fishing village to ex-pat party town to luxury resort destination. Christel Brandwagt, director of sales and business development, said it was not unusual for planners to spend months creating and signing off on a fabulous program, only to have last-minute fears that sometimes lead to a cancellation.

"After one episode of violence in Acapulco -- which wasn't even anywhere near the hotel zone -- a planner we had been working with for months called and said she was thinking of canceling," says Brandwagt. "She said people were telling her they didn't want to go. I told her, 'You did all this work to create this program. Pulling out for this is like saying you are going to cancel your visit to Martha's Vineyard because of some violence you read about that happened in the suburbs of Detroit.'" The planner, from a pharmaceutical company (and a first-timer to Los Cabos), said she'd never heard it put quite that way. The program went ahead as scheduled and turned out to be an all-round rousing success.

Marisa Gomez, director of sales at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar (which offers 18,000 square feet of meeting space), takes the challenge in stride. "Now, when we conduct our site inspections, I make a point of including our security, so they can ask questions," she says. "It establishes a level of comfort from the very beginning. After all, I live here. I work here. I don't feel threatened. I want the client to have that same sense of security." The client also will enjoy a host of sublime options, such as seven pools; a 4,000-bottle, multiple-award-winning wine cellar, and two Five Diamond restaurants.

And for the record, during my stay, the only time I suspected my safety was compromised was on the beach, when a washed-up baby puffer fish gave me the evil eye.