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by Deanna Ting | March 26, 2015
Baha Mar (pictured), the Caribbean's newest mega resort complex, opens on March 27 in the Bahamas.
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The Caribbean remains the most popular region outside of North America for incentive travel programs. In last year's Incentive "Travel IQ" survey, the Caribbean was the No. 1 international incentive destination.

It's not hard to explain why. With the region's variety of destinations and experiences, combined with ease of access, beautiful beach resorts, warm weather, and rich cultures, it's easy to see why so many incentive travel programs head to the Caribbean.

"The Caribbean itself is like a one-stop destination for incentives," says Heather Licata, director of special events for New York-based Fourth Wall Events, a global meeting and event design, production, and management company. Licata and her associates have organized a number of incentive programs for various clients throughout the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and Grand Cayman. "In the Caribbean, you can do everything there, and it can be as peaceful or exciting as you want it to be. There's shopping, dine-arounds, local flair, and amazing cuisine. You never feel like there are only three things to do -- there's just so much variety. The Caribbean has made it very easy for meeting and incentive groups to go there."

Licata's colleague, Justin Griffing, who handles business development for Fourth Wall Events, adds, "Depending on where the group is from, there are so many short flights and easy transfers through Florida. The pricing in the Caribbean is also competitive, and language usually isn't an issue. So many things make it a much easier reach for incentive groups."

Mitch Klein, vice president of retail services for White Plains, N.Y.-based Alpha Marketing Corp., has organized various incentive programs throughout the Caribbean for the past 23 years for the food industry. He says that the region's tremendous number of direct flights from New York, coupled with the "comfort level," makes it an ideal destination for his incentive programs. "For our incentive program, we want them to go somewhere where they have a solid comfort level."

This year, in particular, a number of Caribbean destinations are undergoing major additions and renovations, as well as focusing heavily on the group market.

On March 27, Baha Mar, the Caribbean's biggest new development to emerge, will open its doors on Nassau. Representing a $3.5-billion investment, it encompasses a total of 2,200 guest rooms spread out over four hotel properties -- the 1,000-room Baha Mar Casino & Hotel; the 200-room Rosewood at Baha Mar; the 300-room SLS LUX at Baha Mar; and the 700-room Grand Hyatt Baha Mar -- as well as the largest casino in the Caribbean, which measures 100,000 square feet, and a 200,000-square-foot convention center space. Baha Mar will also feature its own Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, an ESPA spa, various pools and beach experiences, restaurants, and shops. All of the hotels, with the exception of the Grand Hyatt, will open in March; the Grand Hyatt is expected to open soon.

Yvette Edwards, director of sales and marketing for the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, says she is working with various meeting and incentive groups that have already booked Baha Mar for this year, some of whom have groups with 1,500 rooms on peak nights. "They work with just one convention services manager and they can book all of their rooms and events with all four properties,"' she explains.

Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas -- a perennial favorite among incentive groups -- celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2015, and is not content to rest on its laurels, either. In the year ahead, the massive property, which has more than 3,400 guest rooms, will embark on key renovations of its accommodations, public areas, and restaurants. Last month, Atlantis also debuted its first-ever all-inclusive experience for groups. The program applies to group programs of 10 or more, staying three or more nights beginning Aug. 24 and lasting through 2017. The package includes accommodations in the property's Coral and Royal Towers, meals and beverages, Wi-Fi, various activities, and more.

The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Department of Tourism is also focusing on the incentive group market this year. In March, it debuted the "Procrastination Pays Off" rewards program for meeting and incentive travel planners, encouraging them to book 2015 programs in the territory.

"It's a creative way to allow planners to book last-minute meetings and incentives in the territory, which will go a long way to realizing our vision of the USVI as a go-to destination for group travel," says Beverly Nicholson-Doty, the USVI commissioner of tourism.  

The program gives planners different rewards for confirmed business among three different tiers corresponding to the number of room-nights booked on peak. Various benefits may include complimentary airport transfers for participants; guided group snorkeling excursions; day trips to St. John; or even an exclusive St. Croix excursion for up to 10 top attendees. Incentive programs must be booked from March 15 to Nov. 30 for travel that takes place between March 30 and Dec. 31.

Last year, Klein took his incentive program to Dreams Sugar Bay St. Thomas. There, approximately 100 incentive participants spent time enjoying the resort, which was recently acquired by AMResorts, the same company behind Dreams Resort & Spas, Secrets Resorts & Spas, and Zoetry Wellness & Spa Resorts.

"It worked out really well," says Klein. "The beach, in our opinion, was the best on the USVI. The outdoor areas were very conducive for our client group and we did a tremendous amount of activities and events outside." Klein says activities included an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) rally, ziplining, scuba diving, golf, and horseback riding. "We wanted them to be able to pick and choose what they wanted to do."

He also adds that he received support not only from Dreams Sugar Bay St. Thomas but also from the USVI Department of Tourism. "They stayed in touch with us and checked that everything was OK. There was follow-up from the island as well, and not just the hotel," Klein says.

Licata is also eyeing the USVI for future incentive group programs. As a child, she spent her summers on the islands. One thing in particular that she believes some planners may not realize is how easy it is to travel between St. Thomas and St. John. "It's like having two different islands -- and two different experiences -- for the price of one," she explains.

Another Caribbean destination making a big push for groups is Puerto Rico. Earlier this year, Meet Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization formed to promote MICE business to the destination, unveiled a new business model to attract more groups. It involves the deployment of national sales managers as well as a focus on branding and strategic partnerships.

"Meet Puerto Rico prides itself on being a risk-taking, forward-thinking organization," says Milton Segarra, Meet Puerto Rico's president and CEO. This year, Meet Puerto Rico is launching a social media solution for planners -- called Eleventes -- to help planners promote their events via social media channels.

Currently, a number of new developments are taking place in the Puerto Rico Convention Center District, including a multi-use urban waterfront development project. There are plans to link the district to Old San Juan via the $29-million Paseo Puerta de Tierra project, which is expected to be completed in late 2015.

Last December, the iconic, 319-room Condado Vanderbilt Hotel reopened. In February, El San Juan Resort & Casino, A Hilton Hotel, debuted a new suite option, the one-bedroom, two-level Casa del Mar suite with 1,590 square feet of space; it can be used by smaller groups as event space. Its sister property, El Conquistador Resort & Las Casitas Village, Waldorf Astoria Resorts, were also recently awarded a prestigious Blue Flag eco-label from the Foundation for Environmental Education for sustainable development of its 100-acre Palomino Island. The private island plays host to many incentive group events and activities. The 500-acre Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa also underwent a massive renovation of its guest rooms last year.