There are many places in the world where you can get a tropical island experience, but incentive groups that choose the U.S. Virgin Islands can easily visit two, three or more distinctly different islands with ease, often on a charter boat that picks you up right at your hotel. Most groups at minimum make the 20-minute ferry ride from Red Hook harbor in St. Thomas to picturesque Cruz Bay in St. John.
The British Virgin Islands are also within hailing distance, perfect for half- or full-day sails to the legendary Baths on Tortola, or the famous beach bars of Jost Van Dyke, like Foxy’s and the Soggy Dollar. Sunset tours, mini-regattas, fishing charters, kayaking eco-tours are just some of the ways for small and large groups to get on the water, and no USVI program is complete without some aquatic activity.
The convenience of St. Thomas is hard to beat. It’s just 3.5 hours by air from New York; your attendees don’t need passports; and the island’s most incentive-friendly resort—the 478-room Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort—is only about six miles from Cyril E. King International Airport. It’s a quick ride if there’s no traffic in the capital city of Charlotte Amalie, one of the major shopping hubs of the Caribbean.
The Marriott is actually two resorts in one: the Frenchman’s Reef with its three hotel towers, and the low-rise Morning Star Beach Resort, which sits more directly on the shoreline. A $48 million renovation in late 2011 made some highly visible improvements at the Marriott, including a new infinity pool, spa and full renovation the guest rooms.
A multi-level property built into a cliffside, the Marriott has an abundance of lofty spaces that can be used for outdoor events. The best of these is also the most hidden. The Waterfall Terrace sits below the infinity edge of the hotel’s lower pool with a front-row view of the waves crashing on the cliffs below and St. Croix on the horizon. Built in part on an old U.S. Navy gun position, the terrace can hold up to 300 people for hors d’oeuvres or cocktails, often followed by a poolside dinner.
Add in the hotel’s six restaurants, spa, tennis center and other amenities, and the Marriott amply accommodates the needs of groups looking for a 1-stop shop, explains destination sales manager Sonia Boatwright. “If you just want to come and chill, everything is here,” she says.
You’ll miss a lot if you simply stay put, however. The Marriott runs a ferry to downtown Charlotte Amalie, so it’s easy to go into town without the traffic hassles, getting a free mini-tour of the harbor in the process. The hotel dock also is the jumping-off point for popular group sails.
St. Thomas has the USVI’s lion’s share of offsite venues and activities, including sea lion encounters at the Coral World marine park, and outings at the Mahogany Run Golf Course. For soft adventure, you can combine some teambuilding at the new Tree Limin’ Extreme zipline course with lunch and a tour at the adjacent St. Peter Mountain Great House & Botanical Gardens, which is one of St. Thomas’ premier venues for offsite events, hosting groups up to 350.
Another great St. Thomas teambuilding experience is a hands-on regatta. Groups up to 36 people get sailing instructions before boarding six 24-foot J-boats for a little competitive sailing. And it’s all organized right off the beach at your hotel, says Judi Nagelberg, owner of Island Meetings & Incentives, a St. Thomas DMC. The race can be followed by a party at Iggie’s, St. Thomas’ premier beach bar, for up to 300 people for an evening of Caribbean dining, live music and Carnival-style entertainment.
For something more upscale, the elegant Old Stone Farmhouse is adjacent to the Mahogany Run Golf Course. Various open-air dining rooms are woven through the candlelit ruins. Planners can also create an interactive dining experience where you visit the kitchen to choose the ingredients for your meal. Other group dining options include the Oceana restaurant in the old fishing port of Frenchtown, which can handle groups of 200. Or, the stylish Havana Blue at Morning Star is a South Beach-influenced waterfront restaurant recently voted one of the top five in the Caribbean.
St. John’s main calling card is its vast natural beauty. The island is home to the Virgin Islands National Park, which is laced with hiking trails and edged by some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Half-day trips to St. John’s leave right from the Marriott dock or from the port of Red Hook, where ferries run hourly to Cruz Bay.
“Most groups staying on St. Thomas don’t want a long tour; maybe a trip to the beach at Trunk Bay or some shopping in Cruz Bay,” says Nagelberg.
For a more immersive St. John experience, you can stay on-island at The Westin St. John Resort & Villas, which combines 175 hotel rooms and 146 villas aligned along a leafy hillside presiding over one of the most beautiful bays in any of the Caribbean islands.
“St. John leaves a more elite impression; it’s not as big and bustling as St. Thomas, but it has that panache,” says Nagelberg. “It doesn’t have as much in terms of venues and activities, but there’s still plenty to do.”
The Westin has the familiar name attractive to planners and a traditional conference center with a 10,000-sf ballroom. And the resort offers direct ferry service for those arriving at St. Thomas’ airport. For large group events, the Westin’s poolside Snorkels restaurant and 4,000-sf Palm Terrace can host up to 300 attendees. Groups can also leave right from the Westin dock for leisurely sailboat trips to the British Virgin Islands.
Shopping and dining in Cruz Bay is a quick cab ride from the main hotels, and the national park sits right on the outskirts of town. Jeep tours are a great way to see the island, making stops at the beaches, sights like the Annaberg Plantation sugar mill ruins, and some of the 20+ hiking trails that lead pass ancient petroglyphs, through dense forest and into isolated coves.
Like the park, the 166-room Caneel Bay was founded by Caribbean tourism and preservation pioneer Laurance Rockefeller. The 170-acre resort hosts buyouts for 130 people, and it also makes its event spaces available to outside groups.
For example, book dinners for up to 260 pax on the spectacular Turtle Point, which has ocean views on three sides. Or, the Caneel Beach Terrace is just steps from the resort’s boat dock. Some company CEOs have even sailed their private yachts into the bay to host events onboard.
Cocktails for 200 or dinner for up to 100 also can be served at the terrace and restaurant in the Estate House at Turtle Point.
“Caneel Bay is so expansive that each location feels very different,” says Kathleen Hansen, director of group sales. “It feels like a private island, yet it’s five minutes from Cruz Bay.”