If you've thought about Mexico or the Caribbean for an association meeting but worry a tropical paradise may be too vacation-like, expensive or limited for groups-think again. The soothing calm of sun, sea and sand, combined with excellent facilities, add up to well-attended, creative and memorable meetings.
Resorts and destinations in these countries offer notable convention facilities and activities tailor-made for gatherings of all sizes and budgets.
The Baja Peninsula: Beach Beauty
At the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, Los Cabos welcomes more than two million visitors a year to bustling Cabo San Lucas and the artsy town of San José del Cabo. Between these two communities, in what's known as the Corridor, the two-year-old Los Cabos Convention Center offers 72,000 square feet of eco-friendly function space with views of the dazzling Sea of Cortez.
"There has never been a better time to visit Los Cabos," said Renato Mendonca, president of the Los Cabos Tourism Board. "Meeting planners are benefiting from incredible values as resorts offer packages and incentives, new resorts open and favorite properties improve their facilities."
In 2013, three resorts with event space opened in Los Cabos including the Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos (formerly the Barceló Los Cabos Palace), Hyatt's first all-inclusive brand. An adults-only option is the new Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf & Spa, which has access to the nearby Puerto Los Cabos Golf Club. The Fiesta Americana Grand Los Cabos Golf & Spa became an all-inclusive property in December. It also offers access to two championship golf courses: the Cabo del Sol Golf Club and the Cabo del Sol Desert Course.
A growing meetings destination on the Sea of Cortez is La Paz, located about 120 miles north. For meetings, options include the CostaBaja Resort & Spa and, next door, the 151-room Hyatt Place at CostaBaja is expected to open this year.
Mexico's Pacific Coast: Sunset Sensations
Mazatlán received raves from the Professional Convention Management Association for its 154,000-square-foot Mazatlán International Center, which hosted its 2012 summit. Also favored by groups is the El Cid resort chain, which has four city properties that share more than 44,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space as well as 27 holes of championship golf. Notable among these is the El Cid/Marina Beach, once again awarded the country's highest health-standard certification this spring.
Farther down the coast, Puerto Vallarta charms with acclaimed cuisine and a flourishing arts scene. The array of meeting resorts and 161,500-square-foot Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center make the city as well-liked for meetings as it is for vacations. Two popular choices continue to be the Casa Magna Marriott Resort & Spa, located in the marina, and the Barceló/Puerto Vallarta, which is set on Playa Mismaloya.
Along the 192-mile Riviera Nayarit, north of Puerto Vallarta, is the Grand Velas/Riviera Nayarit in Nuevo Vallarta. In Punta de Mita, the Iberostar/Playa Mita opened in December. Also nearby is the Four Seasons Resort/Punta Mita, the area's original resort.
South of Puerto Vallarta, along the Costalegre, is the Isla Navidad Resort (formerly a Wyndham property) in Manzanillo. The Barceló Karmina Palace Deluxe has facilities that include a 900-seat amphitheater. A few miles inland, in Colima, the Wyndham Garden/Colima has event space for up to 1,000 people.
Enjoying scenic bays and fresh fish at a cafe on Las Gatas Beach are among the delights of Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa. The Azul Ixtapa All-Inclusive Beach Resort & Convention Center is the area's largest choice. A smaller but no less impressive choice for gatherings is the Viceroy/Zihuatanejo, with six meeting areas.
The Mexican Caribbean: Best Bets in the Yucatán
With 900,000 delegates attending nearly 2,000 meetings and conventions in 2013, Cancún is the top meeting destination of Mexico and the Caribbean. "Great weather, large meeting spaces, more than 32,000 rooms, a wide variety of group amenities and activities and convenient air connectivity make Cancún an impressive force in the meeting industry," said Jesus Almaguer, CEO of the Cancún Convention & Visitors Bureau.
In addition to simply meeting in the area and enjoying the sites, many groups also participate in voluntourism. While several resorts can accommodate requests, one volunteer travel-activity provider, Travelfuture, has partnered with the CVB to offer groups of up to 100 half- and full-day voluntourism projects, which can include anything from working within local Mayan villages to replanting local flora or assisting with the release of baby sea turtles.
The heart of Cancún's success is the 152,000-square-foot Cancún Convention Center. Organizations that have events scheduled at the center this year include the International Menopause Society, the Mexican Society of Ophthalmology and the International Radiation Protection Association. Across the street is the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach Cancún Resort & Spa, which recently completed a two-year renovation.
Other notable properties include the Westin Resort & Spa, with newly renovated guest rooms and meeting space. Situated on the waterfront is the year-old Nizuc Resort & Spa. And groups can travel west of Cancún to the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá. In addition to tours and a sound-and-light show, it can host special events of up to 100 people.
The Riviera Maya, which extends south some 80 miles along the Caribbean coast, also attracts groups with its white sand beaches and impressive resorts. Sprinkled with restaurants, seaside cafes and shops, Playa del Carmen is the area's largest city. Its largest meeting resort is the Grand Velas/Riviera Maya. Farther up the coast, on Maroma Beach, is the Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa by Orient-Express.
Near Puerto Aventuras, the Barceló Maya Resort complex is undergoing a $45 million renovation. The property comprises five all-inclusive resorts offering a total of 2,751 guest rooms, 24 restaurants, a 700-seat theater and 13 meeting rooms for up to 1,680 people.
There's no lack of action outside the resorts. Must-see attractions include Xcaret, the region's largest eco-archaeological theme park, which welcomes events of up to 1,200 people in its Hacienda Henequenera event center.
The Bahamas & Turks & Caicos: Slices of Paradise
Calypso music and crystalline waters await associations in the Bahamas. On Paradise Island, the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort lives up to its reputation as the ultimate beach meetings destination. It recently opened its 22nd outdoor event venue, the new Ocean's Edge at The Cove. Next door, the Comfort Suites Paradise Islands is focusing on meetings with a dedicated meetings team, refurbished guest rooms and meeting space, and access to the Atlantis Resort.
If things go as planned, associations will find five new luxury hotels and 200,000 square feet of new convention space in Nassau by December. The $3.6 billion Baha Mar development currently underway plans to feature a 700-room Grand Hyatt Hotel, the 694-room Meliá at Baha Mar (currently the Meliá/Nassau Beach), a 300-room Mondrian Hotel and a 200-room Rosewood Hotels & Resorts property.
For an outer-island experience, the Grand Lucayan Resort on Grand Bahama Island offers groups a colonial-style venue for up to 2,500. In Turks & Caicos, just southeast of the Bahamas, the Regent Palms Turks & Caicos on the island of Providenciales is an excellent choice for association groups with up to 150 guests.
The Dominican Republic: Star Treatment
At the Meliá Caribe Tropical in Punta Cana, the addition of The Level, a new luxury-service category, makes for excellent high-end gatherings.
Within the Barceló Bávaro Beach Resort complex is the new adults-only Barceló/Bávaro Beach, which is home to the 123,785-square-foot Barceló Bavaro Convention Center. And including the family-friendly Bávaro Palace Deluxe, the resort gives attendees a choice of 1,991 total guest rooms and many activities.
Jamaica & the Cayman Islands: Topping the Charts
Jamaica is one of the most sought-after destinations in the Caribbean. Each year, numerous association groups are attracted to the tropical beauty of Montego Bay and its 142,000-square-foot Montego Bay Convention Centre. Organizations that recently held meetings in the area include the National Medical Association and the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association.
Many of the area's resorts are being renamed and refreshed with an eye toward international meetings and conferences. This includes the 226-room Meliá/Jamaica (formerly the Braco Village Hotel & Spa), located about 30 miles east of Montego Bay near the village of Rio Bueno. The colonial-style resort is undergoing a renovation before a grand opening this fall. Farther east, in Ocho Rios, is the Sunset Jamaica Grande Resort & Spa. Also nearby is Mystic Mountain Rainforest Adventures, where attendees can enjoy bobsled rides or canopy ziplines. Planners can also book events in its 78-person restaurant.
On the southwest coast, near Whitehouse, is the Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa, located within a 500-acre nature preserve.
To the west are the Cayman Islands, a British Overseas Territory. On Grand Cayman, the pristine sands of Seven Mile Beach make an unbeatable backdrop for meetings. Two notable hotels are located on this blissful stretch of sand: the Ritz-Carlton/Grand Cayman and the renovated Westin Grand Cayman Resort & Spa.
Puerto Rico: Dream Destination
Because it is a U.S. territory, Americans don't need a passport to visit Puerto Rico. That, combined with clean beaches, modern and historic event sites and an infusion of new investment encourage attendees to pack their bags. San Juan, the capital, dates back to the 15th century, charming thousands of annual delegates. In Old San Juan, many Spanish colonial buildings are available for special events, and the new Bahia Urbana promenade connects its harborfront to the convention center district, home to the 580,000-square-foot Puerto Rico Convention Center, the largest in the Caribbean. A new $36 million Puerto Rico World Trade Center in the district has also been approved, and plans include a Hyatt Hotel and shops.
"Puerto Rico continues to upgrade its tourism product to benefit meeting and convention groups with new and more frequent airlift, added luxury and budget properties and continued upgrades throughout the island," said Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico.
Desiree Bryant, meetings director for the Renal Physicians Association, said her attendees enjoy meeting in San Juan. "Our two-day board meetings are very intense, so it's good to be in such a relaxed destination," she said. Her group usually stays in the city's Condado District, either at the beachfront Ritz-Carlton/San Juan or the Renaissance La Concha Resort. The National Association of Community Health Centers, the American Thyroid Association and the American Studies Association also met in Puerto Rico in 2013.
One of the city's more historic properties is the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. A major restoration project is in the works and though no opening date has been announced, plans include 319 guest rooms and 30,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor event space. Down the street is the Condado Plaza Hilton.
The island's northeastern coast offers the Wyndham Grande Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa in Rio Grande, which is in the midst of a renovation scheduled to wrap up in July, and El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in nearby Fajardo. On the south shore, in Ponce, is the renovated Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort. Across the Bucaná River is the Costa Caribe Golf & Country Club.
The Lesser Antilles: Big Potential
Associations achieve big results on the smaller islands that curve south from Puerto Rico. Large, sophisticated convention facilities include the Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort on St. Thomas and, on St. John, the iconic Caneel Bay Resort. The Westin St. John is undergoing a significant renovation and expansion. In the British Virgin Island, the Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina is located on a private island, while on St. Kitts, the St. Kitts Marriott Resort recently completed an extensive renovation project.
On St. Maarten/St. Martin, the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort & Casino was used by last year's Women With Purpose Global Summit, which attracted some 300 attendees. "The resort was an ideal choice, both for the excellent meeting spaces and variety of activities," said Lynn Norment, press coordinator for the event. The eco-sustainable Radisson Blu Resort, Marina & Spa also welcomes groups, as does the Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa, which recently added a landmark solar installation.
Another French territory is St. Barts, with 22 white sand beaches. Hotel Guanahani & Spa can be booked for executive retreats of up to 30. On St. Lucia, Capella Hotels & Resorts recently acquired the famed Discovery at Marigot Bay, now the Capella Marigot Bay Resort & Marina. Its renovation is expected to finish in June.
Planners will find a familiar brand in Grenada with the December 2013 opening of the Radisson Grenada Beach Resort (formerly the Grenada Grand Beach Resort) on Grand Anse Beach.
In Barbados, guests can visit the Hilton Barbados Resort in Bridgetown. For large conventions, groups can turn to Bridgetown's 100,000-square-foot Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre, which was updated last year.
The Netherlands Antilles: Dutch Treats
The Dutch spirit infuses Aruba and Curaçao with a work-hard, play-hard ethic. Planners of U.S. groups should note that meetings throughout the Netherland Antilles are tax-exempt. In Aruba, choices include the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in Palm Beach with newly renovated meeting space, which was the final step of a $50 million, multi-year redesign. For a cosmopolitan bustle and larger spaces, the Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino in Oranjestad is within walking distance of the downtown shops and nightlife.
Curaçao frequently hosts conventions at the 538,195-square-foot World Trade Center Curaçao in Willemstad. The facility offers two exhibit halls and 18 meeting rooms. Resorts include the Hilton/Curaçao and the Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort in Nieuwpoort.
Trinidad & Tobago: A Celebratory Spirit
Groups will enjoy a festive atmosphere in the southernmost Caribbean isles. In 2013, Humane Society International and the Commonwealth Medical Association were among dozens of groups that met in Trinidad. The Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre in Port-of-Spain is the largest convention facility. Also in town is the Hyatt Regency/Trinidad. On Tobago, the Magdalena Grand Beach & Golf Resort welcomes groups.
The beautiful scenery of Mexico and the Caribbean can't help but relax attendees. Add in sophisticated meeting venues, and it's an atmosphere that makes for great association gatherings.