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Puerto Rico Destination Report

published in January 2003
in Corporate & Incentive Travel Magazine

"Anybody who doesn't love Puerto Rico doesn't know Puerto Rico." This maxim is true for all types of travelers, particularly the corporate variety. And what's not to love - Puerto Rico has it all. Two sapphire-blue bodies - the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea - kiss its shores. Palm groves sway in the breezes of the mild eastern trade winds that keep the tropical climate a comfortable temperature all year round. In the background, lushly vegetated mountains climb from east to west - witness to all that happens on this beautiful little island stage. Historic events have lent the island a wonderful Spanish flavor - both culturally and architecturally. Evidence of this is everywhere.

One typical example: El Morro Castle, or El Castillo Del Morro, the ancient Spanish fort that lies on San Juan's northernmost point. Today, El Morro Castle is one of Puerto Rico's main tourist sites and museums, displaying some of the artifacts that Spaniards, Indians, and Africans of hundreds of years ago used, along with numerous other exhibits.

But while retaining its distinct Latin flair, Puerto Rico definitely has a U.S. influence - Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, use the U.S. dollar, and speak English (and Spanish), making it extremely easy for large groups to feel at home in Puerto Rico. Indeed, U.S. aid and business relationships have helped Puerto Rico build the most advanced infrastructure and economy of all its Caribbean neighbors. In addition, Puerto Rico is also a paradise for corporate meeting and incentive travel planners.

First-Class Resorts

Part of what draws planners is ease of travel; the first-class resorts with names like Hyatt, Wyndham, Westin, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Hilton, and Inter-Continental Resorts Puerto Rico; and superior service from the staffs at the hotels, the convention and visitors bureau, and destination management companies; and seductive shopping, golfing, and the island's pristine natural beauty.

Most major U.S. hubs offer non-stop flights to the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital metropolis. The airport - serviced by U.S. airport security inspectors - has an American Airlines hub and regular flights from some 20 airlines. Just 1,000 miles from Miami, it's a trip anyone can make. Also, Puerto Rico is three and one-half hours from Atlanta and New York; four hours from Boston; four and three-quarter hours from Chicago, Houston, and Dallas, and eight hours from Los Angeles.

A highly popular hotel with corporate groups is the Ritz-Carlton, San Juan Hotel Spa & Casino - a 414-room hotel with ocean, courtyard, and neighborhood views. The hotel's more than 24,000 square feet of conference and banquet facilities can easily accommodate corporate meetings and catered events for up to 1,300 attendees.

Terri Malek, exhibits and events coordinator for Latrobe, PA-based Kennametal, brought 61 sales people for a four-day incentive travel meeting to the Ritz-Carlton - flying them in from China, Germany, Israel, Scotland, Ireland, Korea, Belgium, and the United States. With the events of 9-11 fresh in her mind, Malek wanted to make sure people would be safe as well as have a memorable experience.

"After 9-11, we didn't want to take them to some of the target places for terrorism," Malek said.

At her opening reception, Malek planned a Puerto Rican buffet of fresh shellfish and pork - all with an added Puerto Rican touch such as guava vinaigrettes, spiced dark rum sauces, and mango chutney. "I wanted to give the people the flair of the food that the people in Puerto Rico eat. It was just delicious," she said. El Yunque Rain Forest.

The next day, following morning meetings, the group took a tour of the El Yunque rain forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System, about 45 minutes east of the hotel. Within its borders El Yunque has 28,000 acres of mountainous terrain, accounting for 75 percent of the virgin forests left in Puerto Rico.

"In the rain forest, you have the tropical vegetation, the wild orchids, the ferns, the tropical hardwood, and things we don't see," Malek said.

The lush rain forest stems from the 100 billion gallons of rain the forest receives each year, helping it sustain about 250 species of trees, 50 types of ferns, and as many as 20 varieties of wild orchids. "El Yunque is a real rain forest, not one that they put into the zoo. I think that was an experience in itself," said Malek.

Paul Ferguson, president of Travel Services, Inc., offers creative ways of experiencing the mountainous terrain, including a ride on gentle, but spirited Paso Fino horses through the tropical foothills of El Yunque. Riders stop at a river pool where "baby freshwater shrimp nibble at your feet to get the salt from your perspiration," Ferguson said.

"They're completely harmless but it's the most unusual and unique sensation." For the more physically fit, Ferguson's company can plan a high-impact nature hike down to Las Minas Falls. The 45-minute trip downhill on foot is rewarded with a waterfall and natural pool where the weary travelers strip off their hiking gear to their swim suits and cool off in a natural swimming hole beneath a canopy of tropical hardwoods and intriguing forest sounds.

Following the rain forest tour, Malek staged an awards dinner at the hotel including Latin dancing. To prepare people for the dancing, Malek mailed everyone a dance tape two months prior to the event, along with a memo reading:

"Enclosed is a copy of Cal Pozo's learning to dance video... For full enjoyment of the Macarena, Salsa, and the Merengue, your dance position, timing, and footwork skills will be enhanced as you are introduced to the tap, triple, and rocking steps. And don't forget to move your hips with real Latin flavor!" This proved just the thing she needed to break the ice. "When I told the president of the company about this, he looked at me like 'you've got to be kidding,'" Malek said. "But I said, 'Trust me, this will work.'"

The Ritz-Carlton handled the details, arranging for professional dancers and a high-energy band, Kameleon. The ability to select the right band is just part of what made the Ritz-Carlton a special resort for corporate groups. "At the Ritz, if you need it, they'll find it for you," Malek said. "Everyone, not just the management group, will go over and above to make sure that you're satisfied. Our guests were really pampered, too. The people there at the Ritz, if they didn't have it at the hotel, I'm sure they'd run down the street, get it, and bring it back to your room."

Tours Are Always Popular

When the group wasn't meeting, Malek planned a variety of tours for everyone. Besides the rain forest tour, this included a tour of Rio Camuy Cave Park - where open-air trolleys carry visitors deep into the ground to view grand vaulted caverns and the third largest underground river in the world. The group also visited the Bacardi rum distillery and went on a city tour, including a visit to Old San Juan, a 500-year-old colonial village with cobblestone streets and international shops.

Catamaran sailing on the open Atlantic proved to be the most popular activity, with over two-thirds of Malek's attendees booking. The trip included instructions and opportunities for snorkeling around some of Puerto Rico's "tropical fish and reefs, things that if you weren't in this turquoise clear water, you would never see," Malek said.

As an alternative to the activity day, Malek allowed people to simply take time off at the hotel, which has its own casino and a 12,000-square-foot spa featuring signature treatments like the Parcha (Passion Fruit) Massage, and others - some of which were sampled by Malek's group. "The one day we were at the beach," Malek, said, "I asked a fellow where his wife was. He said, 'She's in the spa treating herself.' I'm sure if she was at home, she wouldn't pamper herself like that."


As well as Puerto Rico's famed urban hotels, the island has its share of mega-resorts with beaches, golf, tennis, restaurants, spas, shopping, and ample meeting and convention facilities. Among them are the Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Golf Club, the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Golden Door Spa, and the soon-to-open and much anticipated Inter-Continental Cayo Largo. The new Cayo Largo Resort will open sometime this spring. The 900-acre luxury oceanfront resort community is located on Puerto Rico's northeast coast.

Once open, the secluded beach resort will feature 311 rooms and 70 villas, all exquisitely and comfortably furnished. On-property amenities at the Cayo Largo Resort include a deluxe 12,000-square-foot European Spa & Fitness Center, a Ron Garl-designed 18-hole private golf course with clubhouse and teaching academy, a modern 1,100 slip marina and a large conference facility. The $120-million facility features guest rooms that overlook the Caribbean. It offers natural isolation and acres of forest and wetlands. Also, it affords impressive views of a beautiful natural reef and sand bar that extend far off into the distance.

The Westin Rio Mar is very popular with corporate groups. June Griffin, former manager of events and incentive travel at Verizon, chose the 600-room resort for its quality and value. "The Westin is, was, and always has been a great property, and I've always been able to negotiate and get a good value," Griffin said. As a reward for top sales performance, Griffin flew two groups to the Westin Rio Mar - 350 attendees in the first group and 110 in the second. During their stays Griffin used some of the Westin's meeting facilities, including the 21,000-square-foot Rio Mar Ballroom, the largest in the Caribbean, which can be divided into 10 sections. "I like everything about the Westin," Griffin said. "There was a lot of thought that went into the design and decor.

The hotel setting particularly inspired Griffin. A massive glass-paneled hallway beside the meeting facilities parallels the beaches at the Westin Rio Mar. And the southern view from the hotel looks out to the El Yunque rain forest. "When you see the lush green of the rain forest and then turn around and see the sand and the ocean it is a very special feeling," said Griffin. Griffin invited people in her group to experience the magic of the space first hand. "I told my attendees to go down to the beach and walk up to the river. Those that did it were like, 'Wow, how neat is that'," Griffin said. "How many places is the average person going to be able to go and see the river meet the ocean?" asks Griffin. "And it's not just any river. It's coming right out of the rain forest."

During the day, Verizon's winning sales leaders could sample from a tour on catamaran, through the rain forest, or the Rio Camuy cave experience. Others could choose a guided tour over the mountains into Puerto Rico's second largest city, historic Ponce with its 19th-century Spanish-colonial inspired mansions built with fortunes made on sugar cane and coffee production from that era. Still others chose to remain at the Westin Rio Mar to play the hotel's two par-72, 18-hole golf courses - the Ocean Course and the more challenging Greg Norman-designed River Course, which straddles both sides of the beautiful Mameyes River.

Deep Sea Fishing

While the catamaran cruise was the most popular of her group's activities, it was the deep sea fishing that stood out among the most memorable.

"One of the winner's husband's went deep sea fishing and he caught a marlin," Griffin said. "He had it mounted - the deep sea fishing people took care of all of that. The man said he could now die happy. It had been a life-time dream of his."

Twenty minutes further up the coast from the Westin Rio Mar is the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Golden Door Spa, a 918-room collection of three distinctly different hotels fixed along a 300-foot cliff looking east to the islands of Vieques, Culebra, and on a clear day, St. Thomas.

Dennis Bassett, Bausch & Lomb's leader of collaborative sales and communications, brought 500 sales people to the El Conquistador for a highly intensive week-long training meeting that was held early last year.

"We had several spots in mind, but when you really began to look at what we needed and the number of people we had, we had very limited choices," Bassett said. "We really needed a lot of breakout space for our meeting. But we also needed a location where we as group could come together in a setting where everything necessary was somewhat self-contained. "Bassett's group met from 8 AM to 5 PM daily.

"The hotel had various balconies and patio areas that allowed us to conduct the meetings in the open air instead of a conference room. And we took full advantage it." The group enjoyed breakfast together each morning on the expansive El Yunque lawn with views of the rain forest. "It was a very upbeat kind of setting," Bassett said. "You were able to meet, get things done, and once the meeting was over it was almost like you were on vacation." The group had 125 golfers who were delighted with the El Conquistador's Arthur Hills 18-hole golf course.

With views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, the course is nestled in the side foothills adjacent to the hotel giving it a 200-foot drop in elevation during play.

"The pros did a great job of managing our tournament," said Bausch & Lomb's Bassett. During the time off, some group members toured Old San Juan, while others went to the hotel's private Palomino Island, a 20-minute ride on the El Conquistador's enjoyable and highly popular water shuttle. With 70,000 square feet of meeting facilities and the 19,954-square-foot Grand Caribbean Ballroom, the hotel had enough space to accommodate not only Bassett's group, but also a 230-person incentive group from Parkersburg, WV-based Simonton Windows.

That company was hosting a meeting at the same time. "The meeting space is a benefit with this hotel," said Rebecca Taylor, who plans the incentive trips for Simonton Windows. Taylor limited daily meetings to the mornings so they could relax at one of the hotel's swimming pools or Golden Door Spa. "Our customers love golf," Taylor said. "They've played the best and expect the best, so making sure the golf course is in good shape and the course has a good rating is important." They were not disappointed. "The golf course was also extremely accommodating and took care of our customers from the very first minute they stepped off the bus."

A Unique Evening Experience

One of the hotel's nearby attractions enticed some guests to go off the hotel grounds for a special night-time experience. "There's a bioluminescent bay nearby," Taylor said. "Kayaking through the mangrove-lined channel with only moonlight and the little blue light on the canoe in front of you to guide your way is an adventure you'll never forget. Once you've paddled your way into the bay, microscopic organisms glow in the water," she continued. At one point, the guide asks people to tie their kayaks together. "The guests can jump out and swim. Arms, legs, faces glow as they maneuver in the water. It's an incredible experience, and I would very definitely recommend it." Unforgettable activities, stunning vistas, wonderful resorts - this all helps to create a total experience that consistently makes Puerto Rico a favorite of corporate meeting and incentive travel planners - and their attendees.

"Puerto Rico is part of the United States, but it has an exotic flair - the island fever and the beautiful turquoise water," said Kennametal's Malek. "I would come back to Puerto Rico because of the memories, the weather, the tours, the hotel. I would be back in a heartbeat."

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david southgate
writing for living.