Looking ahead, Panama is heavily focusing on the group market as the country develops a large variety of modern meeting facilities, cultural experiences and infrastructure. New venues include the $193 million Panama Conference Centre opening in 2014, and the Biodiversity Museum designed by Frank Gehry, set to open in 2014. While at AIBTM 2013, we spoke with Ernesto Orillac, deputy administrator of the Panama Tourism Authority.
PREVUE: Why is Panama investing in the group market?
ERNESTO ORILLAC: The MICE market is very important for us in Panama. One of the reasons that we are trying to become a better destination for the MICE market is because Panama is known to be a place where people gather and get together, especially because we are in the middle of the Americas.
Why should planners book Panama for meetings/events?
We have three things that make us important:
We have the best connectivity, we are the hub of the Americas. We are the most connective gateway in the area right now in terms of population and accessibility.
We have grown considerably as far as infrastructure, especially when it comes to hotel rooms. In 2008 we had about 9,000 rooms in the city. By 2014 we will have 18,000 hotel rooms. That’s doubling our amount in just six years.
Also, we have grown in terms of facilities. The country is very modern and has grown about 10.5% as far as GDP. Unemployment is low, about 3.5%. We have a dollar-based economy, we are a banking sector and we are becoming more and more of a capital when it comes to technology. It’s a place of ideas for the MICE industry. We are also investing a lot of money in road, highway, subway and public transportation infrastructure. By 2014 we will be on a whole other level. We will be well organized with a U.S. based infrastructure, safe and also very easy to access from many parts of the world.
Can you tell us about the cultural experience that groups will take away when visiting Panama?
The country is very small and very diverse. It’s a place with a wide variety of cultural experiences to explore. There are five indigenous groups still living within the country. We are very small, but very connected. It’s very easy to move around for a large U.S. group. For example, there are three national parks within city limits. You can be at the beach on the Pacific or the Caribbean within an hour and a half. It’s quite good. You can stay in Panama City and do over 25 day tours.
What’s coming up in the near future for groups?
The new convention center will open in 2014. It is near the new Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museum will be, about 10 minutes from downtown. We are very excited about this project, which will wrap at the end of this year. It’s about 25-30 minutes from the airport. You take the coastal highway to the financial district.
Currently, we are expanding that highway and will start a new project on the subway system in 2014. There’s a lot of new investments/projects everywhere. New hotels include Waldorf Astoria, Ritz-Carlton, etc. We have a large variety of international brands from three to five stars.
Are groups already booking the new venues?
U.S. planners are already starting to book and ask questions for events up to 2019. It’s a diverse city in terms of hotels, venues, resorts and activity. Lodging options range from massive resorts, small island hotels and everything in between. We have a lot of variety in Panama.