by Barbara Beckley | April 01, 2016

Why choose Mexico and the Caribbean? The answer is simple: "Your people are always happy," said Cathy Garver, principal of the Indianapolis-based Bottom Line Travel Solutions, a specialist in corporate and association group travel.

Garver reports that 80 percent of her association and incentive programs are held in Mexico and the Caribbean. In this region, destinations are naturally beautiful and feature gorgeous resorts. But perhaps the best part of the package is that attendees will need little to no convincing.

Los Cabos: Return to Paradise

At the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, in Los Cabos, new resorts are opening at record pace and dozens of favorites have poured millions into sumptuous upgrades and redesigns, a result of Hurricane Odile in 2014 and proof that every cloud has a silver lining. One of the newest properties is the JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa, which opened its doors in November. Within the property, the 45-room Griffin Club is ideal for executive retreats. All guests have access to the private marina in Puerto Los Cabos and golf courses designed by Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus. The Marquis Los Cabos Resort & Spa (formerly the Secrets Marquis Los Cabos) has undergone an extensive renovation and can accommodate group events of up to 720 people indoors or up to 1,000 outdoors and organize team-building activities such as beach sports, camel riding with Cabo Adventures or community programs.

The Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort has reinvented itself with the addition of 65 new club-level suites and a holistic health-focused spa and Zen garden. Last fall saw the reopening of two boutique hotels: the Casa del Mar Golf Resort & Spa on the Corridor beachfront and Hotel El Ganzo at the Puerto Los Cabos Marina. And the Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Golf & Spa Resort is undergoing an expansion that is expected to finish this fall.

Puerto Vallarta: Taking the Long View

Puerto Vallarta attracts hundreds of events a year including, more recently, the annual convention of the North American Travel Journalists Association, the congress of the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry and the mid-year meeting of the Maryland State Bar Association. With beautiful resorts, a picturesque Malecón lined with shops, galleries and restaurants, and new flight service, the coastal city is an increasingly popular option for groups.

Many functions are held at the Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center, which can host up to 6,600 people indoors and up to 21,000 outdoors. Closer to the waterfront, the CasaMagna Marriott has meeting space for up to 700 people and is just a block from the Marina Vallarta Golf Club (the only one in the urban area). Other favorites include the all-inclusive Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort, with a ballroom for up to 800 and a rooftop terrace with views of Banderas Bay, and the Sheraton Buganvilias Resort & Convention Center, with 17 event spaces (including a dedicated exhibit hall) and numerous recreation options and a new spa expected to open later this year. South of downtown, Hotel Mousai opened to rave reviews last year. Amenities of the all-inclusive property include a rooftop beach club, guest suites whose terraces feature hammocks, and event space for up to 200.

Just north of Puerto Vallarta in Riviera Nayarit the Hard Rock/Vallartahad added new 12,900-square-foot Sanctuary Convention Center, bringing the total meeting space to 20,000 square feet.

The Mexican Caribbean: Endless Opportunities

As the top Mexican destination for U.S. gatherings, Cancún has something for every association. For conventions and trade shows, the Cancún International Convention Center offers 152,852 square feet of newly renovated space in the heart of the hotel zone, and more than 4,200 guest rooms are within walking distance. Other large venues include the 45-acre Lakám Center Cancún-Riviera Maya, with 270,000 square feet of expo space; the Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, which can host up to 10,000 attendees; and the Iberostar/Cancún, with a 47,000-square-foot convention center, an additional 106,000 square feet of outdoor space and an on-site championship golf course. For smaller events, the year-old, adults-only Secrets Playa Mujeres Golf & Spa Resort has been touted as one of the better new offerings.

Stretching south from Cancún are the powdery sands and luxury resorts of the Riviera Maya and its central community of Playa del Carmen. Just north of town, in a setting that incorporates the jungle and the beach, is the all-inclusive Grand Velas/Riviera Maya, considered one of Mexico's top meeting and leisure resorts. It can accommodate events of up to 2,700. Going up nearby is Cuidad Mayakoba, a residential and commercial development, and the 213-room Andaz/Mayakoba Resort Riviera Maya, expected to open late this year with a 6,458-square-foot ballroom and five smaller meeting spaces.

The Grand Hyatt/Playa del Carmen opened downtown earlier this year just steps from the shops and restaurants of Fifth Avenue. Also new and nearby is the Thompson/Playa del Carmen on Fifth Avenue, which boasts a huge rooftop pool area. From here, it's just a quick stroll three blocks over to Thompson's new Beach House, a 27-room retreat. Between the two locations, Thompson offers 28,000 square feet of event space spread across seven venues.

Farther south, near Puerto Aventuras, is the renovated Barceló Maya Beach Resort, a complex of four adjacent hotels. An $80 million investment has revamped its spa, added 14 new meeting spaces-increasing the property's total convention space to 70,000 square feet-and introduced new restaurants, a bowling alley, miniature golf and swim-up suites.

The Bahamas: Close Encounters

A hop, skip and a jump from Florida and attendees are basking in the Bahamas. Paradise Island boasts one of the Caribbean's largest convention resorts: the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort, which is currently undergoing a two-year renovation and expansion. New and updated options include the Warwick/Paradise Island, scheduled to open this summer with 243 guest rooms; the Breezes Resort & Spa, which recently completed a million-dollar makeover of its meeting space and added the new, 490-square-foot Panorama Gallery; and the British Colonial Hilton, which has a new restaurant and is upgrading guest rooms and meeting spaces this year.

To enrich meetings beyond the beach, planners can take advantage of experiential tours; examples include Tru Bahamian Food Tours, an excursion to the historic John Watling's Distillery for rum tastings, and the Ardastra Gardens, Zoo & Conservation Centre, home to the famous marching flamingos.

The Dominican Republic: Well-rounded Sites

The Dominican Republic's reputation for luxury, especially along the Punta Cana coast, makes it a favorite destination for professional gatherings. The largest option for events in the area is the all-inclusive Barceló Bávaro Beach Resort, which recently upgraded Wi-Fi capabilities at its convention center, a facility that can accommodate up to 3,000 people. And the Eden Roc at Cap Cana is rolling out several new improvements: In December, it finished renovations of its beach club, and this spring the resort is expected to debut 52 new beachfront guest suites and an expanded spa.

Organizations that have held events in the Dominican Republic of late include the Islamic Medical Association of North America, the National Association of Black Social Workers and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association.

Jamaica: Business at its Best

New resorts and the 142,000-square-foot oceanfront Montego Bay Convention Centre attest to the popularity of Jamaica for association gatherings. According to Dittie Guise, the convention center's general manager, about 25 percent of events held at the facility are U.S.-based organizations.

"The U.S. association market is very important to us," Guise said. "We built the center to attract larger international events that the hotels couldn't accommodate, and the association market provides the size of groups we desire." She said that planners appreciate the flexibility of the center's meeting and exhibit spaces and, in general, like the island for its tax breaks, high value for the dollar, assistance from the Jamaica Tourist Board and the streamlined process of working with customs.

Groups that prefer to stay on-site for lodging and meetings can look to the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall and Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall, which offer a combined 50,000 square feet of meeting space. New hotel and resort properties in and around Montego Bay include the family-friendly Sunscape Cove Montego Bay and adjacent Sunscape Splash Montego Bay (formerly the Oasis at Sunset and the Sunset Beach Resort, Spa & Waterpark, respectively). The Sandals Royal Caribbean Spa Resort & Private Island is building five over-the-water guest suites, expected to be complete late this summer. And farther east, near Rio Bueno, the new Meliá Braco Village offers 226 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 200.

Elsewhere on the island, choices are expanding as well. In Ocho Rios, the year-old, all-inclusive Moon Palace Jamaica Grande (formerly the Sunset Jamaica Grande by Palace Resorts) offers 25,000 square feet of meeting space. In Negril, the Hideaway at Royalton Negril Resort is scheduled to open this fall with 166 guest suites. And in the capital city of Kingston, the new 129-room Courtyard/Kingston has space for up to 200.

For enjoyable outdoor group activities, Guise recommended Island Routes Catamaran Cruises (with departures from Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios), rafting down the Martha Brae River near Montego Bay, and a swim or hike at YS Falls in Negril or at Dunn's River Falls near Ocho Rios.

Puerto Rico: Lasting Impressions

As members of the Georgia Chapter of MPI were leaving a recent program in Puerto Rico, attendees kept remarking on "this slice of heaven," said the group's Meredith Martini. "The service was exceptional, the views and landscapes are breathtaking, the food was delicious, and the people were lovely, friendly and welcoming," she said. The Association for the History of Chiropractic also recently convened in Puerto Rico. "It was a rousing success!" said Alana Callender, its executive director.

Many events in the capital city of San Juan are held at the 580,000-square-foot Puerto Rico Convention Center. Steps away is the new Hyatt Place/San Juan City Center, which opened in February with 149 guest rooms and more than 3,100 square feet of meeting space.

Groups that prefer historic settings will be delighted with the restored Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, as grand now as when it first opened in 1919. The Puerto Rico Urological Association was among the first to meet within its redone oceanview function space. Aixa Vélez, the group's executive secretary, liked how its Art Deco ambiance made it different from other San Juan hotels. "The attendees were impressed with its beauty, the service and the quality of the food. I was pleased that the staff was very professional and willing to present alternatives to accommodate our needs," she said.

The Ritz-Carlton/San Juan is another meetings magnet. Ken Beaulieu of Beaulieu Consulting recently staged a program at the Ritz-Carlton and was pleased with the experience. "The Ritz was perfect, with excellent meeting and function space, combined with all the amenities of a beach resort," he said. In addition to the hotel, Beaulieu organized a reception and dinner at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico; the reception was held at its Sculpture Botanical Garden and the dinner within the Grand Atrium.

To the west, the Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Dorado welcomes special group events. Another nearby option is the Embassy Suites by Hilton Dorado del Mar Beach Resort, with 22,000 square feet of newly expanded function space.

Trinidad & Tobago: A Sense of Place

"The ability to mix business with pleasure is what attracts association delegates to Trinidad," said Heather Doughlin, events director at the Hyatt Regency/Trinidad, the island's leading business hotel in downtown Port of Spain. "After a full day of meetings, they love to slip away to enjoy a wide variety of off-site activities including shopping, cultural venues and nightlife."

Doughlin also noted meeting planners' increased desire to infuse Trinidadian culture into the overall experience. In response, Hyatt Regency staff now help planners organize itineraries that include steel-band music performances and a taste of street food specialties such as bake-and-shark.

The University of the West Indies at St. Augustine also hosts group events. Last year it welcomed the annual conference of the Association of Caribbean Higher Education Administrators.

On Tobago, the year-old Shaw Park Complex hosts events with a convention hall that seats up to 3,700 and six function rooms for up to 286 delegates. And Chic, the Boutique Hotel & Conference Centre has meeting space for up to 250.

Cuba: The Newest Hot Spot

With travel to Cuba finally a reality, it's time to consider this hidden gem, be it by land or by sea. Cultural Explorations Cuba (formerly known as Cuba Explorations) can organize meeting trips for up to 1,000 attendees to Havana. Partner properties include the waterfront Meliá Cohiba Havana, with meeting space for up to 1,000; the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba (site of pre-revolution Hollywood nightlife), with a variety of spaces for up to 500 people; and the boutique Hotel Saratoga, with a rooftop pool overlooking the city and two meeting rooms for up to 25 people.

Keeping Them Happy

Excellent facilities, picturesque surroundings and a relaxed vibe are the top reasons planners keep turning to Mexico and the Caribbean for meetings. It's hard to go wrong when attendees are so happy with the prospect of traveling to an association event.