We’re racing full tilt on high-powered ATVs through an 18th century sugar plantation high up in the lush mountains above Montego Bay in Jamaica. Man, these suckers can move. we stop beside a huge old iron waterwheel to learn about how sugar was processed. another time we yank big juicy oranges off of trees to eat in the shade. then we hop on rafts and float down a lazy river below leaning palm trees, and everyone breaks into Harry Belafonte.
Our DMC is Island Routes Caribbean Adventure Tours, which operates in Jamaica, The Bahamas, Antigua, St. Lucia and Turks & Caicos. This January, the company opened a new adventure basecamp at the newly restored Good Hope Great House built in 1755, about 40 minutes from Mo’ Bay. Groups upwards of 200 can come up here to ride ATVs and dune buggies, kayak and raft down the rivers, zipline over the rivers, and ride in horse drawn carriages.
Later, everyone gathered on the genteel estate grounds for a lunch of jerk chicken, lamb, rice and red beans. Then we wandered through the historic Georgian house filled with mule leather chaise lounges, mahogany “half moon” tables and lacy embroidered linens.
It’s these types of programs combining Caribbean culture, food and adventure that defines Island Routes.
“Island Routes seeks to represent the various nuances of Caribbean culture—it represents the passion of the Caribbean people,” says GM David Shields. “We take groups on an experience that one not often travels, an experience that leaves an indelible mark on each individual.”
The thing that really stood out during our afternoon in the Jamaica highlands was the pride of the guides, and their sense of purpose to make sure everyone had a great time and learned something in the process.
“The quality of the excursion speaks for itself but the real value is provided by the knowledge of the guides,” says Shields. “I cannot overstate how important our people are to the success of a tremendously motivating incentive event in the Caribbean.”
We were on-island for the annual Caribbean Marketplace tradeshow in January—the inaugural event for the brand new, $51 million Montego Bay Convention Center, encompassing 215,000 sf of meeting and exhibit space just 15 minutes from Sangster International. This facility is now among the largest in the Caribbean, and it certainly has one of the best views.
Within the immediate vicinity, there are four stellar golf courses undulating up and down the rolling mountain foothills down into the Caribbean Sea. And right across the street on the beach, The Palmyra, A Solis Resort & Spa stands in stark contrast to anything else in Jamaica. The 300-unit resort is comprised of 1-, 2- and 3-suite accommodations with full kitchens, 13,000 sf of conference space, dozens of intriguing group venues, and the island’s only ESPA.
The residential design and decor, along with the location, create a refined ambience for exclusive group programs for up to 50 rooms, at present. A third tower is presently under construction, due for completion next year.
The moment you walk in, you feel like you’re visiting a local friend with a really nice beachfront apartment.
“We are the only condo hotel in Jamaica that not only offers beautiful upscale accommodations, but because all of our suites have kitchens we can create truly amazing experiences for groups,” says Dominique Peterkin, Director of Sales.
She explains that golf groups for example, will use a 3-bed suite as headquarters to meet and dine with a resort chef preparing meals insuite. Or, the ESPA facility with four spa villas are also designed for in-suite dining and spa parties. There’s also a wide range of terraces and lawns where planners can customize private events in a secluded setting.
“Or we can host 500 for a concert on the beach,” says Peterkin. “Or 40 for dinner in a gazebo right on the water.”
The company that helped launch the romantic all-inclusive vacation 30 years ago is making inroads into the corporate incentive market for couples-only programs.
Over the years, Sandals Resorts has bought up properties previously owned by large corporate hotel groups. So the company has significant group space in places like the 180-room Sandals Emerald Bay Beach Resort & Spa (13,000 sf) in The Bahamas, and the 271-room Sandals Grande St. Lucian Spa & Beach Resort (9,000 sf) in St. Lucia. In Montego Bay and Nassau, the properties feature exclusive islands for large receptions, spa parties, volleyball tournaments and BBQs.
Furthermore, the aforementioned Island Routes Adventure Company is a sister operation to Sandals, so each property features a full-service onsite DMC experienced with servicing large groups. There’s also the all-inclusive pricing model, with added values like free scuba diving, golf and watersports.
“The corporate couples incentive market is something that is growing steadily for us,” says Gary Sadler, Senior VP of Sales. “Because if you’re going to reward somebody with a trip for two, why not go to a resort that caters to two people in love.”
Sadler says a major selling point for groups in the 50-150 room range is the variety of dining and activities. The more group-friendly of the destinations feature numerous hotels so you’ll have 11 restaurants to choose from in Montego Bay, for example, or 16 in Ocho Rios. Plus, attendees can resort hop via free shuttles to try out all the different beaches and amenities.
“We offer more inclusions than any other hotel company on the planet,” says Sadler. Also, upper category suites feature butlers trained by the Guild of Professional English Butlers, and there’s a whole host of unique specialty accommodations for smaller groups such as swim-up suites and pool villas.
Planners can organize private encounters with dolphins in several places around the Caribbean Islands but none like they can at UNEXSO, the Underwater Explorer Society in Grand Bahama.
Groups depart from the marina to a dock and observation deck about 20 minutes out to sea for an Open Ocean Swim program. The dolphins live in a much more natural habitat than is typical, and interacting with them in this environment lends the experience a definitely heightened appeal. There won’t be a closed mouth on the boat either when the dolphins start jumping alongside the boat on your way back to port.
UNEXSO is right across the street from the 740-room Radisson Our Lucaya Resort. We’re hard pressed to think of many resorts as large as this with as many activities, that still somehow manages to maintain such a laid-back island vibe.
Part of that’s due to its wide open spaces like the massive Great Lawn fronting the mile-long beach. It’s the perfect spot for a Junkanoo Rush Out party with Bahamian fire dancers, limbo contests, calypso singers and more dancers dressed in colorful glittery costumes. Try it with a Gullywash, a local drink made with rum, coconut, gin and sweet milk.
“It’s a true Bahamian experience where you’re seeing, tasting, smelling Bahamian culture, and the moonlight is bouncing off the ocean,” says Carmel Churchill, Groups Sales Manager. “I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it.”
Churchill says the Wednesday night fish fry 15 minutes away at Smith’s Point is another cool Bahamian event. Or you can replicate on-property. Chefs cook up fried snapper and steamed grouper with peppery spices, peas/rice, mac ’n cheese and coleslaw. There’s nothing like fresh conch salad too, when the meat is pulled right out of the shell and the chefs cut it up in front of you. Drizzle with a little fresh lime—that’s good eating.
It’s 45 minutes from the hotel either way to the communities of East End and West End, which both resemble the Bahamian Out Islands. Our Lucaya’s onsite DMC regularly books 1/2-day kayak adventures and nature tours to huge beaches with barely a soul. When we visited, it felt like you could walk halfway to Abaco with the water only up to your knees. Typically you need to visit a much more remote island for this type of chill.
“The West End is the oldest settlement in The Bahamas,” says Churchill. “Most of it is untouched. It’s just beautiful and perfect for those seeking a native Bahamian experience.”
FRENCH ST. MARTIN
If a group came to us and said they wanted an affordable, upscale Caribbean resort with staggering scenery and the most diversity possible for a mix of all ages, we’re pointing them to the Radisson Blu Resort Marina & Spa, St. Martin. The 252-room resort is fresh off a comprehensive refurb in January 2010, and now’s the time to go.
“We’re an exceptional deal right now,” says Denis Herron, Director of Sales. “Our group rates are attractive because we’re new and we’re interested in building our corporate clientele.”
From the airport, your group transfers via Radisson’s private launch around the Dutch side until you pull into the picturesque cove at Anse Marcel rimmed with mountains. Once there, you never really have to leave except to go to the nearby village of Grand Case, where the highest concentration of restaurants in the Caribbean line a pretty little crescent bay.
The younger crowd however will head over to Orient Beach for the Ibiza-like party scene, lots of watersports and beach bistros overflowing with beautiful people. Others will drive 15 minutes south to the capital of Marigot to catch the ferry to Anguilla for a lobster lunch at Scilly Key and any number of the best beaches in the Caribbean. The rest of the group will hop in a plane from the regional Grand Case Airport to ever-so stylish St. Barths. We recommend a walk around Gustavia and a bottle of champagne while sitting in the sea next to big blingy boats at Nikki Beach St. Barths. Tell them we sent you.