Puerto Rico is rapidly becoming one of the hottest destinations in the Caribbean for meetings and conventions. Now, with new hotel rooms, golf courses, and a convention center on the horizon, this tropical paradise is poised to get even hotter.

Nearly 60 meeting planners discovered all that Puerto Rico has to offer at the second annual Meet the Greens Invitational Golf Classic and Marketplace hosted by the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau and the Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort and Country Club. The event, which ran May 23 to 26, was co-sponsored by the Meetings Group/Primedia Business Magazines & Media, publishers of Association Meetings magazine.

Eighteen teams hit the links for the two-day tournament, which was played under a best-ball, low-net team score format. Elegant Waterford crystal was awarded to the top three teams and individual skill winners. On day one, players teed off at the Westin Rio Mar's River Course, designed by golf legend Greg Norman. The course, which winds along the Mameyes River and is framed by the mountains behind and the sea below, is one of two championship courses on the property. On day two, the tournament shifted to the nearby Wyndham El Conquistador Resort for a completely different but equally spectacular and challenging golf experience on the hilly terrain of the Arthur Hills — designed track.

Nongolfers were invited to tour Old San Juan, which was first settled in 1508, and El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Park Service.

Sol Meliá Paradisus, Puerto Rico, the island's first and only all-inclusive resort — hosted the opening night reception. Guests raved about the beautiful new 500-room, all-suite property, opened in March. The Wyndham El Conquistador, which boasts more than 70,000 square feet of function space, welcomed the group on night two following the Meet the Greens Marketplace trade show at the Westin Rio Mar. The Westin — the host hotel, which features a 21,000-square-foot ballroom — was also the site of the closing dinner and awards ceremony.

While the resorts are among the best on the islands, unique venues such as the Hacienda Siesta Alegre, a private home that is perfect for corporate outings, or Wizard Studios, which runs a “Survivor”-like teambuilding activity on an island, give the destination added appeal for groups.

A tour of the grounds found the new Puerto Rico Convention Center taking shape and on schedule for a late 2005 opening. The 580,000-square-foot building will be the largest convention center in the Caribbean, with 152,700 square feet of exhibit space and a 36,200-square-foot ballroom. SMG, Philadelphia, has been hired to manage the facility, which features a glass facade that will provide a view of the ocean from all three levels. The convention center already has four confirmed bookings, according to spokeswoman Teresa Martinez.

Overall, group bookings are on the rise throughout Puerto Rico, up 36 percent this year compared to the same period last year.

With 78 percent occupancy in 2003, it's no surprise that the island is crackling with development. New hotels, like the Condado Vanderbilt and Old San Juan Holiday Inn, are scheduled to open in 2004. Meanwhile, many existing properties are undergoing improvements, such as the Westin Rio Mar, which has put $8.2 million into enhancements. And four new golf courses are on tap to open in 2004. “What's going on in Puerto Rico is amazing,” says Dan Melesurgo, vice president, global sales at the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau. “With a new convention center, new hotels, and improvements under way, it's an exciting time for our destination.”

It's the diversity of the island that appeals to planner Joan Esbri-Cullen, meeting coordinator, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, who attended Meet the Greens. Esbri-Cullen has brought groups to Puerto Rico in the past and plans to return. “My attendance always surges when I come here.”

As the airline hub for the Caribbean, Puerto Rico has great access, and because it is a U.S. territory, U.S. travelers do not need a passport. With U.S. currency, English and Spanish as official languages, and “the most hospitable people,” Esbri-Cullen says it's very easy to get around the island. “There are so many layers beyond the beach and sun.”

The Sponsors

Puerto Rico Convention Bureau www.meetpuertorico.com

Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Golf Club www.westinriomar.com

Wyndham El Conquistador Resort www.wyndhamelconquistador.com

Paradisus Puerto Rico, Sol Meliá Hotels & Resorts www.paradisuspuertorico.solmelia.com

The Meetings Group meetingsnet.com

American Airlines www.aa.com

St. Andrews Products www.sapgolfshop.com

Travel Services Inc. www.destinationpuertorico.com

Golf Logistics LLC www.golflogistics.com

Antigua Sportswear www.antigua.com

HHG Brands Inc. www.hhgbrands.com

Waterford Wedgwood USA Inc. www.wwusa.com

Media Stage www.mediastage.com

Caribbean Exhibits www.caribbeanexhibits.com

Ramon Saldana Musical Services www.ramsalentertainment.com

Caribe Hilton www.caribehilton.com

Stage Crew Audiovisual Inc. www.stagecrewav.com

Group Services Inc. www.gsipuertorico.com