Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino
Our groups pulls up in a motorcade of tricked out SUVs into Hacienda Campo Rico, a historic Caribbean estate on the outskirts of San Juan. Instantly, an inexplicable calm washes over us. Beyond the hidden gates of this lush 2,200-acre ranch, green vistas of the peaceful El Yunque nature reserve is a jarring contrast to the bustling capital of Puerto Rico, only five minutes away. After introductions, groundskeeper Victor Diaz is adjusting my saddle on a rested looking Paso Fino, a naturally gaited horse well suited for trail riding in Campo Rico’s subtropical forest filled with mangrove waterways and lakeside paths. “I’m told you ride,” he says. “That’s good. There’s lots to see here.”
“There’s lots to see here” couldn’t ring truer in this Caribbean island so easily accessible yet utterly exotic. Puerto Rico is the airline hub of the Caribbean with more than 700 domestic and international flights per week. And yet, only 2½ hours from Miami, La Isla del Encanto (Island of Enchantment) packs a wallop of mesmerizing colonial intrigue and outdoor adventure.
Hacienda Campo Rico
“Puerto Rico is an ideal option for any planner,” offers Teresa Martinez, director of marketing for the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau. “We are a Caribbean island with a bilingual population and American currency. We offer unique tropical nature, yet there are no passports required, so it’s an easy sell.”
The nexus of large group events on the island is the 580,000-sf Puerto Rico Convention Center, located just outside the upscale oceanfront Condado District and glorious Old San Juan. The largest and most technologically advanced in the Caribbean, the convention center can accommodate groups up to 10,000. The 39,000-sf convention floor, also the largest in the Caribbean, features a production control balcony, integrated fiber-optic and internet connectivity, and integrated audio system with capability for remote recording of programs.
The center is currently pursuing LEED certification following green upgrades within the swooshy wave-shaped structure.
While the facility brought great international exposure to Puerto Rico when it opened a decade ago, Margaret Colón, director of sales/marketing, is thrilled about what it did for the local community. On the day of our visit, the large exhibit hall was broken up into several volleyball courts, with the local school teams competing for the national title.
“Before we built this convention center, small businesses and other organizations didn’t have the right venue to accommodate their needs,” explains Colón, bursting with energy as she shows off every corner of this gigantic meeting space. “Then they worried that we were going to be too big to fit them in. In the end we can host any event from an intimate meeting to an international convention. Everybody wins.”
BAHIA URBANA DISTRICT
The development of the convention center has set precedence for Bahia Urbana District, a multi-phase waterfront development project anticipated to take 15 to 20 years to complete. The first segment of this ambitious project will be completed by the end of 2012 with the opening of a waterfront park along San Juan Harbor. The 113 acres of The District’s prime land surrounding the convention center will include hotels, retail stores, residences and recreational areas, including a faux drive-through cinema with stationary cars in lieu of chairs and extended Metrorail, which will connect The District with the rest of the city.
Courtyard by Marriott is slated to break ground later this year, contributing to the projected 1,800 combined rooms in the District area. The vicinity already boasts the uber meeting-friendly, 503-room Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, with 35,000 sf of flexible meeting space. With several ballrooms and a beautiful 5,500-sf terrace adjacent to the sun deck on the 4th floor, the hotel offers fantastic panoramic views of the bay and the convention center.
“This property is the new face of Starwood,” offers Jeannette Avilés, director of group sales. “We are an urban resort with amazing options for groups. We constantly get compliments on our group amenities, dining and the infinity pool. The pool seems to be planners’ favorite part. The cocktails we organize there are very special.”
Visible from Sheraton’s sun deck, the omnipresent cranes and constructions crews signal that Puerto Rico is on a precipice of change in more ways than one. The island has made significant inroads into the upscale market during the last decade, with more luxury product in development. And Puerto Rico’s DMO is supporting that growth with dedicated sales professionals experienced in that sector.
“We definitely have an emerging luxury market,” says Neil J. Mullanaphy, acting president and CEO of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau. “The high-end properties that service the meetings and incentives industry until now didn’t have a designated person to assist them in their needs. Now we can offer a highly personalized experience for the luxury hotels going after that business and the planners interested in those properties.”
Members of this elite portfolio of distinguished hotels include the new Vanderbilt Hotel; Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve; Hotel El Convento; Gran Melia Golf Resort; Las Casitas Village; The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan; The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, and on the nearby island of Vieques just a few miles offshore, the lovely W Retreat & Spa-Vieques Island.
“We are very pleased and excited about this great initiative from the PRCB to target the luxury market,” says Angelica Lenox, director of sales/marketing at St. Regis Bahia Beach. “This market has proven to be the key of our success in the group segment in our resort and our destination will definitely benefit immensely from this new initiative.”
Arguably one of the most anticipated new hotels in the Caribbean, the new Dorado Beach will open its doors this December. A first of its kind in North America, this 100-room, 14-suite property is located on three miles of Caribbean beach in the tony Dorado community, formerly known as the 1,400-acre Laurance Rockefeller estate. The Ritz-Carlton Reserve has partnered with Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques, in an eco-centric Ambassadors of the Environment program that is tailor made for environmentally inclined groups. Specializing in education and eco-adventure, guests will have access to showcases of the island’s Taino Indian culture, forest preserves, as well as hiking and snorkeling in the coral reefs. Not to mention a 5-acre “botanical spa” and the culinary stylings of wonder chef José Andrés.
CARIBBEAN CULTURE & CUISINE
For trendy group dining, check out the Asian-inspired, 175-pax Budatai. The 2-story restaurant sits above high end shops like of Salvatore Ferragamo and Cartier in Condado.
Chef Roberto Treviño has successfully merged in his menu Asian-inspired delicacies with traditional elements of Puerto Rican gastronomy. A glass and brass staircase, collection of Buddha statues, communal high table, and a view framed by swinging palm trees and ocean waves make up the opulent and exotic décor. The Godzilla Roll with crunchy hamachi and futomaki, and the pulpo satay del oriente were our favorites.
Puerto Rican gastronomy is a delicious study in the history of the island. Leslie Padro, owner of Flavors of San Juan, offers group tours focusing on both the colonial and culinary aspects of the capital.
“This area has so much to offer historically, I decided to combine the gastronomy aspect with history and show it off,” Padro explains. This 2.5-hour walking tour stops at several of the eateries for pre-arranged, ready-to-eat meals. The in-between intervals are filled with history lessons about the early colonists, pirates and privateers who built this majestic city.
We joined up with a tour stopping at Aromas Coffeehouse where we sampled chicharrones de pollo served with sweet plantains, a dish originating in Spain.
At Rosa de Triana, located in an underground tunnel facing the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, we feasted on mofongo, a dish brought to the Caribbean by Africans, made of fried green plantains stuffed with shredded chicken.
We ended the tour at St. Germain Cafe for quite possibly the best rum cake ever made. Moist and flavorful, it had a fantastic crunch thanks to glazed nuts dressing the plate. Speaking of rum, Bacardi Distillery is located just outside of San Juan, offering 100-pax tours of the facilities accessible by ferry from Old San Juan’s Pier 2 to Cataño. A 45-minute tour not only spills Bacardi’s production secrets, it effortlessly mixes Caribbean history lessons with impromptu cocktail networking.
HOT RATES/HOT DATES
The Puerto Rico Convention Bureau is launching a new value-added incentive program called the Soar & Stay Giveaway for first time groups booking meetings on the island.
For every 100 room nights booked, the bureau will issue one free flight to be used at the planner’s discretion. The promotion is available to new groups with a minimum of 200 room nights booked through December 21, 2012.