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by Alex Palmer | August 23, 2016
Dozens of meeting planners, incentive planners, and suppliers to the Caribbean hospitality market gathered on Sunday at The Ritz-Carlton Aruba to discuss opportunities for collaboration and to create new business. It was the kickoff to Destination Caribbean, an annual event put on by Northstar Travel Group, Incentive's parent company.

The gathering began with a welcome reception on The Ritz-Carlton's beach, where attendees kicked off their shoes (swapping them for flip-flops supplied by local DMC Eco Destination Management Services), popped on some new sunglasses (stopping by the Maui Jim sunglasses booth for a custom fitting), and mingled on the sand as the sun went down. The reception provided a chance to sample the range of culinary offerings available at the property, with individual action stations from each of The Ritz-Carlton's four restaurants. These ranged from tender steak and sides from BLT Steak to signature sushi rolls from Divi Bar & Lounge. As guests enjoyed their dinner, they were briefed on the latest Caribbean developments and what to look forward to during the next few days.

Monday was filled with memorable meals, one-on-one meetings, and lessons in managing change. The latter came from Dr. Gary Bradt of Goodman Speakers Bureau. The event's opening speaker, Bradt addressed attendees during the breakfast session, combining his background in clinical psychology with professional and personal examples of how to transform the challenges presented by change into opportunities.

"Get comfortable with being uncomfortable," Bradt advised, which is one of his eight tools for managing change. (Others included "combine a passionate vision with patience and persistence" and "use laughter to lighten the load.") "It's not the change in our life, but how we respond to it, that makes all the difference."

In addition to Bradt, Maria Abuabara, tourism director of breakfast sponsor PROCOLOMBIA, addressed the audience, describing how Colombia's group offerings extend far beyond hot spots like Cartegena and Bogota to lesser-known gems such as Santa Marta and Barranquilla.

With the ideas presented in the morning session still fresh in attendees' minds, the event moved to The Ritz-Carlton's 7,500-square-foot ballroom for the first of 20 one-on-one meetings between planners and suppliers. Guests were then transferred -- some by bus, some by open-air trailer, while being entertained by live steel-drum players courtesy of Eco Destination Management Services -- to Hilton Aruba. There attendees took part in a site inspection of the 355-room property's expansive event offerings and saw firsthand the $22 million transformation it is undergoing as it transitions from a former Radisson to the "beach chic" of Hilton. (Renovations are scheduled to wrap up just before Thanksgiving this year.) The property hosted a three-course lunch, where attendees heard from Matt Cooper, chief marketing officer for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), among others.

"What we're really about is connecting -- that is our mission," Cooper explained, praising the partnership between the CHTA and Northstar Meetings Group, as well as announcing that next year's Caribbean Travel Marketplace would be extending invitations to meeting and incentive planners in addition to the traditional buyers who attend the gathering.

Attendees headed back to The Ritz-Carlton for another series of one-on-one meetings, followed by free time or an optional shopping trip into the city. Guests were then divided into four groups, and transferred to one of four distinctive restaurants on the island for dinner: Caribbean-infused Papiamento Restaurant, South Beach-style Screaming Eagle, historic Quinta Del Carmen, or Italian La Trattoria El Faro Blanco (The Lighthouse).

Destination Caribbean continues through August 24.