Marriott Goes Minimalist

Asubtly lit entrance hall of dark sapele wood with soft sounds of running water signals our entrance into a Zen-like realm. A few steps later, the sleek lobby offers another respite from the southern Caribbean light. Its expanse is vast, with low-slung furnishings that encourage relaxing conversation. A mellow bar in the center beckons, and massive windows just ahead frame a ga-ga view of Aruba’s world renown Palm Beach.

“The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is a jewel in the Marriott crown,” asserts Karin Speirs, a marketing maven whose pride in the 411-room resort was echoed by many here. Thanks to a $50 million rehab, the Marriott boasts the island’s largest casino, spa and guestrooms on the island, all in a clean and colorful minimalist setting.

The 388 rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows and 100-sf balconies, unless you’re in one of the 23 suites where the balconies triple in size. Oversize bathrooms have aloe-infused amenities, a reminder that Aruba was once the world’s top aloe exporter. And the luxe is bumped up another notch when booking the boutique Tradewinds Club rooms on the top floor.

Also onsite, there’s the free-form pool with waterfalls, a hot tub and swim-up bar, and seven restaurants including the seaside Simply Fish, where waves practically lap at your feet (order the bass), and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse (order the NY strip). Whatever you do, organize outdoor events on Aruba’s beautiful beach.

“We have breathtaking beachfront settings,” says senior sales manager Chela De Lannoy, a Holland native who’s been in Aruba 25 years. “And we have professional meeting planners, experts in catering, and friendly banquet staff to assist with all events…. Our functions are outdoors as much as possible. Guests like to feel the Aruban ambience.”

De Lannoy offers three separate outdoor party and meeting areas, each accommodating over 350 people. Total indoor space tops 24,000 sf, including an 8,000-sf ballroom.

For offsite activities, Aruba Active Events is a local DMC founded by Jochem Ros, a Holland native who came to Aruba on a 1-way ticket eight years ago. He specializes in highly creative teambuilding activities, with a gauntlet of varied experiences ranging from snorkeling scavenger hunts and beach sports to elegant outdoor fiestas. His car rallies feature sand-skiing and Aruba trivia quizzes, and there is no legal group request he isn’t willing to tackle.

“When people get scared, they call me,” says Ros.

One of his favorite special event settings is the private Palm Island just a 5-minute ferry ride from the mainland. “We once brought 2,000 people over to Palm Island, along with clowns, body painters, volleyball courts and teambuilding experts,” he says. “Everyone loved the private island ambience.”

Aruba is so easily navigable that planners can offer individual treasure hunts in the capital of Oranjestad. It’s a 15-minute drive from the hotel, offering brightly painted Dutch colonial architecture, street sellers of local trinkets, and boutiques by Gucci and friends.

Even closer, the Noord district is chockablock with restaurants and bars. At 080 Café, the locals drink Aruban-brewed Balashi and snack on Dutch treats like huzarensalade (potato salad) and bitterbal (meatballs). The island’s famous family-run Papiamento restaurant, which the owners call the world’s most romantic restaurant, can accommodate groups of 350 with exclusive parties for 12 in the Cas de Binja wine cellar.

Currently, Marriott is courting planners in honor of their 15th anniversary. Grab a 15% discount when you book 15 rooms or more for 3-night programs, function space included. The discount, available May-December 2010 and 2011, includes additional bonuses such as discounts at the gift shops, spa treatments and lavish group dinners.