Cast Off to the Caribbean

Within the last two years, meeting attendees traveling to leisure-oriented destinations are more and more combining business-related travel with vacation time to streamline expenses. Some in the industry have dubbed this trend “bleisure travel,” such as Starwood Hotels in the UK, who in a May 2010 survey noted that 33% of corporate travelers have extended business trips to spend time with family or loved ones. And 27% on top of that are planning to do so in the future.

Few destinations are as well positioned globally to take advantage of that trend as the Caribbean, especially with companies like Marriott & Renaissance Caribbean & Mexico Resorts (MARCAM). The portfolio includes nine properties in Aruba, Curaçao, Grand Cayman, St. Thomas, St. Kitts, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. Each hotel feels like a true vacation resort, but at the same time, each was specifically designed with fully integrated, flexible meeting/event space indoors and outdoors. Especially outdoors. So how’s business lately?

“Right now we feel pretty optimistic what we see for 2011,” says Michelle Bozoki, director of marketing communications. “We’re receiving leads from accounts that haven’t booked or even really inquired outside the US since the start of the economic downturn. Our lead volume in June was our highest since September 2008.”

Lingering perception issues concerning corporate travel to leisure destinations also seem to be tapering a little.

“What groups are doing now is combining a corporate meeting with an actual incentive in the agenda,” says Bozoki, whereas in the past incentives were mostly about relaxation, teambuilding and excursions…. There was a point last year where they weren’t even looking at resorts, especially offshore resorts, but now we’re seeing the business coming back.”

Bozoki explains that MARCAM’s entire sales force is in the US where their clients are, and all of them can speak authoritatively about the entire portfolio and spectrum of services.

“When a meeting planner comes to us and says here are my business needs and objectives, we have three brands, we have many different price points, and we have different destinations and amenities,” she says. “So the salesperson can really target which property, which destination and which experience is going to be right for that planner based on his or her needs.”

Additionally, the properties offer all-inclusive pricing, which in the past had its limits due to the double occupancy requirement. Now it’s become a more significant selling point since the hotels are seeing a growth in bleisure-related extended stays for attendees bringing their families/significant others. Here’s the best part. The leisure nights can be booked at the same or similar contracted rates the group incurs, versus full FIT pricing.

“We offer really great rates for pre and post,” says Bozoki, “and we’re seeing more people asking for that—it’s a big trend.”

Starwood Hotels is making a lot of moves in Puerto Rico of late with the opening of three new hotels—all of which are singular to the destination. For large groups, the Sheraton Puerto Rico Casino & Hotel is attached to the waterfront Puerto Rico Convention Center. Showing it’s as smart as it is stylish, the 503-room hotel is expected to become the first LEED-certified newbuild in the Caribbean in October. Just some of the sustainability initiatives include a smoke-free casino and a closed loop system where food waste is converted into fertilizer to help grow the vegetables and produce that then resupply the F&B department at Sheraton.

“The pending LEED certification is definitely a selling point, I can tell you that,” says spokesperson Brenda Gonzalez. “It’s not that every group is asking about it, and it might not be the determinating factor, but it makes us stand out from every other hotel…. As the property becomes better and better well known, we’re finding there’s definite demand.”

For groups booking the convention center property, they will soon have access and sharing privileges at the new St. Regis Bahia Beach opening in November. About 45 minutes east, the resort is Puerto Rico’s first Gold Audubon International Signature Sanctuary. During construction, developers replanted 4,500 trees and planted 12,000 new trees around the former 483-acre coconut plantation. This not only provides thick verdant landscaping, it helps ensure the healthy reproduction of West Indian whistling ducks, sea turtles, parrots and frigates around that Espiritu Santo River that winds past the property.

Many of the public spaces in the group-friendly hotels lining Palm Beach are open to the tropical elements because this region of the Caribbean receives strong, steady tradewinds year-round. Nowhere is that more pronounced than at the 357-room Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort & Casino, which just wrapped up a $20 million renovation last year.

The resort has always been known for its thriving floral gardens, dense thickets of palm trees, lazy river and a stunning open-air lobby. But during the enhancements, the resort implemented a wealth of environmentally-friendly infrastructure upgrades that resulted in the first Green Globe-certification on Palm Beach. Now, for example, there’s a new roof garden sprawling across the top of three of the specialty restaurants— one of only a few such installations in the islands.

Inside, we also like the four new specialty suites, ranging from 1,150 to 2,500 sf. The new look is thoroughly contemporary with authentic Italian furnishings, leather woven rugs, Mitchell Gold sofas, McGuire lounge chairs and soaking tubs by fab French designer Phillipe Starck.

“Our goal was to make the natural transgression to Green Globe certification; we’ve seen other Hyatts do it and we wanted to make sure we are also at the cutting edge,” says Amy Ras, associate director of sales. “Sustainability is important to us. It’s important because meeting groups leave a footprint wherever they go, and tourism is our only industry.”

Bethany Johnson is an associate producer for One Smooth Stone, an Illinois-based event firm. In May, she helped put together a 700-pax incentive for a BMC Software group, with attendees coming in from all over the world.

“Everyone loves the beach—the BMC programs that win the highest marks always have tropical themes,” she says. “The main criteria was the resort needed to be absolutely first rate.”

BMC chose the The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, with 365 rooms/suites on 144 acres straddling the incomparable 7-Mile Beach. Base camp for the entire 4-night event was called “Ignite Island”—a raised carpeted platform beside the pool supporting large white tents with flowers, plasma TVs, a full bar, loungy couches “and pillows everywhere,” says Johnson. “It was cool and refreshing the whole time because we had fans and the cross breezes coming in from the sea…. Basically we took over the resort, but everyone’s favorite thing was the crystal clear water and coral sand just right there in front of us.”