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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | April 12, 2017

Cheryl-Anne SturkenCosta Rica has over the past decade become a serious contender in the incentive meetings market, with most U.S. programs heading to major meeting properties on this small Central American nation's Pacific coast, such as the 289-room JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort & Spa and the 181-room Four Seasons Resort Peninsula Papagayo.

A rendering of Costa Rica's new convention center in San JuanHowever, the Costa Rican government has big plans to attract conventions and conferences to the capital city of San Jose. Currently under construction and set to open in February 2018 is the new $30 million government-owned convention facility, the Centro Nacional de Congresos & Convenciones, with 150,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space and a convenient location near to Juan Santamaria International Airport. The goal of Costa Rica's tourism board, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT), is to attract 950 events to the new center that over the next five years will generate some US$1.3 billion in revenue.

"We know we will be competing with other destinations that have already established themselves as a convention destination, like Colombia," Alejandro Castro, chief marketing officer for ICT, told The Hotel Insider over dinner at the InterContinental Costa Rica at Multiplaza Mall in San Jose. "Our biggest marketing hurdle is explaining to potential organizers that this is not a country of seasons. There is no best time to go. There is no on or off season."

There's another hurdle, too. The new convention center does not come with a headquarters hotel, which means the city's roughly 4,578 rooms within a 6.4-mile radius will be providing housing. And while some aspects of the high-tech center's architectural commitment to environmental sustainability have been revealed -- a hefty investment in solar energy, reuse of rainwater, LED lighting and waste management, among others -- there remain some logistical details that San Jose hotel executives are hoping to learn more about.

"We are really excited for the new convention center, which took so long to get going," Priscilla Alfaro, sales manager of the 327-room InterContinental San Jose, told me. "There is so much that is still being worked out, like transportation to and from the center. We have not heard anything yet." Alfaro said that as they wait for more information on the center's operation, InterContinental is moving ahead with its own strategy for the expected new influx of delegates, including the possibility of running its own shuttle to and from the center.

Across town at the 290-room Costa Rica Marriott Hotel San Jose, which sits on a 30-acre former coffee plantation, senior group sales manager Bryan Rojas echoed Alfaro's comments. Rojas, who also sells the 191-room Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort in Herradura, said Marriott group clients typically divide their time between the two properties, starting in Costa Rica before heading over to the sister resort. With the center's 2018 opening approaching, he said a whole host of new marketing strategies are being developed for housing delegates, including appealing to pre- and post-group stays. "The convention center is really going to take meeting in Costa Rica to a different level," Rojas noted. "Of course we are eager and anxious for the possibilities, but we are still waiting to hear more details, because there is so much to plan for on our end."

For his part, ICT's Castro is confident groups will see the greater appeal of Costa Rica as a destination once the doors to the new center finally open. "We might be late to have our own convention center, but part of that was ensuring we got the design right," said Castro. "It will be the most environmentally sustainable center in Central America, and it will absolutely increase our marketability as a destination. Is it challenge? Of course. But Costa Rica has a lot to offer that our competitors don't."

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