It’s about a 10-minute drive from Puerto Rico’s Luis Munoz International Airport to the beachfront El San Juan Resort & Casino. You’re welcomed with passionfruit pina coladas in one of the Caribbean’s most elegant lobbies, draped in carved mahogany panels that would be impossible to replicate today. Then it’s a quick change of clothes in the suite before walking out your patio and into the beachfront pool.
That all took place under three hours after takeoff in Miami. Four, if you’re flying from New York.
Puerto Rico has always been one of the easiest and most convenient Caribbean destinations for large groups due to many factors. The volume of lift, affordable hotels, its U.S. status and amazing scenery/activities cover all the bases.
Three waterfront resorts double up on the ROI, catering to three different styles of groups within a 5- to 15-minute drive of the Puerto Rico Convention Center.
The 386-room El San Juan has always been the most popular, lifestyle-oriented large hotel in Puerto Rico, with a youthful swagger and large local following. Nat King Cole played at the tiered Club Tropicoro theater just off the beautiful Art Moderne lobby. Tonight during our visit, there’s a Flamenco show for 280 pax in rounds.
“The hotel was designed to copy the elegance of Havana as it fell,” explains GM Olivier Maumaire, pointing out the original marble floors imported from Italy. A few steps away, a new outlet of Miami’s hippest steakhouse, Meat Market, opens in July. Next to that, the new El Chico Bar was designed for private events for 200. And just across the hall, Brava is undeniably the busiest nightclub on the island. So basically, if your attendees don’t have scheduled events in the evening, you won’t have to worry about them being bored.
“And with nine restaurants, you can do a whole program without leaving the hotel,” adds Maumaire. Total meeting space is 35,000 sf, including an 11,000-sf ballroom.
We dined at KOCO operated by the stellar OOF! Restaurants group. The luxury Latin vibe was enhanced with a 5-piece Latin jazz band while our group of 10 shared appetizers like smoked corn chowder with smoked paprika. The beef tenderloin in a forestiere sauce with coconut curry shrimp epitomizes today’s progressive Puerto Rican cuisine.
On the roof, the funky Route 66-themed Brother Jimmy’s BBQ restaurant is a load of fun with down-home comfort food and fixin’s, a mechanical bull, and the best open-air view in Puerto Rico. Planners can book the space for 250 seated.
We’re also fond of the Yamato teppanyaki restaurant with three 10-pax tables that can be privatized with full A/V capabilities. A second private room hosts 24 people.
We attended two other unique F&B events. Everyone gathered under the massive banyan tree on-property for a lovely al fresco lunch. Then we rented out one of the three pool cabanas for a private margarita mixology class. That was a great day and it’s an easy way to pamper your group.
The large Garden Lanai beach suites were redesigned this year with a classic contemporary vibe. The 300 rooms in the main tower will all be revamped by the end of summer.
Maumaire says, “Although, no one spends much time in their room here because there’s so much to do day and night; there’s so much energy everywhere.”
CONRAD SAN JUAN CONDADO PLAZA
Our private bartender Argenys is making a “Summer Love” cocktail with pinot grigio, coconut rum and pineapple juice at the chic Eternal lobby lounge at the 570-room Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza. Then we all try “Passion Breezes” with Grey Goose pear and fresh strawberries. This is among our favorite gathering spots for receptions in Puerto Rico because it opens out to a beautiful lawn and terrace right on the ocean.
You can easily host 300 outdoors (semi-covered) for a dressy cocktail party, while a constant breeze helps keep everyone cool.
The Conrad consists of two wings with ocean or lagoon views. The 41,000 sf of meeting space is spread between the two, and the convention center is five minutes away. Lobby and guest room design is modern and fresh with dramatic lines softened with punches of colorful contemporary artwork, vivid linens and the brilliant blue sea and sky.
The ballrooms and meeting space on the lagoon side have loads of natural light, especially the Royal Ballroom with a permanent stage and split level floor. Love the subtle retro vibe in there. The hotel’s most popular indoor space is the oceanfront Brisas del Mar room with a gorgeous original terazzo floor for 200 people, banquet-style.
“With 18 breakouts we can customize the layout for any group,” says spokesperson Michelle Burn. “Planners always say how much they like all of the sunlight, how the spaces feel so connected to the outdoors.”
We dined in one of the lagoon rooms one night with the lights of San Juan twinkling in the floor-to-ceiling windows. The decor was subtle and reserved while the food was among the most creative we’ve ever enjoyed in Puerto Rico. The 7-course dinner included a lively lobster/pineapple salad, followed by shrimp stuffed with an Andalucian-style salmorejo puree, wrapped with bacon in gorgonzola sauce.
CARIBE HILTON SAN JUAN
On the first night at the 917-room Caribe Hilton San Juan, our group gathered for dinner on the floating 50-pax sundeck parked near the beach. The crescent cove is rimmed with tall palm trees, and you can hear the waves lap against the platform. As we entered, the hotel chefs were grilling monster-size lobsters and scallops, and everyone toasted the evening with flutes of French champagne in anticipation of a fabulous dinner and convivial conversation.
The iconic Hilton always puts on great events, having hosted the largest galas in the city since opening in 1949.
“Our most popular feedback from planners is the view, proximity to water, the spa and concentration of amenities,” says Nelson Torres, hotel manager. “Most of the run-of-the-house rooms are oceanview, and we have over 65,000 square feet of meeting space. No one, I mean no one, does a better job welcoming large groups to Puerto Rico than Caribe Hilton.”
This was one of the best site inspections ever. As we moved through the hotel, we were welcomed by numerous staff at each point. We met housekeeping and reservations in one of the rooms. We spoke with Wanda Torres, CMP, associate director of catering/event services in another. Various chefs met us in the restaurants and ballrooms. Torres met us in the penthouse. You will never feel so well hosted as here.
Torres says over $59 million has been invested in upgrades since 2009, with both of the main ballrooms completed this year. All new WiFi was installed in February.
The location in unbeatable. You can almost walk to the Conrad and convention center. And an 8-minute shuttle ride dropped us off in the heart of Old San Juan, laced with ballast stone streets rimmed with shops and restaurants inside 200-year-old Spanish colonial homes.