In a climate full of timid travelers, Latin America and the Latin Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico, Curaçao, Dominican Republic, and Aruba, have never seemed closer.
Chile is promoting itself as a safe, uncorrupt country in South America. With its strong dollar value and diverse attractions and activities, not to mention lack of jet lag (there's no time change from Miami to Santiago), there has never been a better time to meet in Chile.
Fear hasn't dampened travel to Mexico City, either. The number of visiting tourists has increased substantially in the past two years. With event and incentive business as the cornerstone of the growth, Mexico City is enjoying the boom and meeting the demand by renovating and building hotels. The rest of Mexico — particularly its famed beaches — isn't faring too badly either, especially in the face of an ailing economy. Cancun was a barren strip of land in the 1960s; four decades later, the gateway to the ancient Mayan world has blossomed into a world-class meeting destination.
Whether they want their incentive qualifiers lounging on the sand in the Mayan Riviera, scaling the mountains of Guatemala, or savoring high adventure in Costa Rica (fly fishing, whitewater rafting, ocean kayaking, or rock climbing), meeting planners love Latin America because attendees love it once they've been there.
Some clamor for an insider's view of the Panama Canal. Others are lured by the neon yellow fish and flame-colored coral reefs that dot the bright blue waters around Aruba. Argentina beckons with breathtaking skiing on the slopes of the Andes and the giant waterfalls that dot the border of Brazil, a country that is enjoying a tourism boom that has spurred major new construction. Spain-based Sol Meliá Hotels & Resorts is growing at tremendous speed in Latin America and will add 29 hotels in Brazil by the end of 2003. Most will be in and around São Paulo.
I WAS THERE
“At one point, I had a 12-foot anaconda wrapped around my neck,” says Rosemary Bakken, Conference Coordinator for MTL Insurance Co. of Oakbrook, Ill. Playing with snakes and piranha fishing in Tijuca, the world's largest urban rain forest, are the most colorful memories of Bakken's incentive trip to Rio de Janeiro. In 2000, she took 140 qualifiers for five days; the Sheraton Rio Hotel & Towers was able to accommodate the entire group.
“We had lots of city tours. Of course, everyone wanted to see the Christ the Redeemer statue,” Bakken says of the 2,330-foot monument that guards Rio with outstretched arms from the peak of Corcovado mountain.
Other excursions included a Sunday visit to the Hippie Fair (an open-air market where vendors sell Brazilian handcrafts), a reception on Sugarloaf Mountain, and a dine-around.
The group spent an entire sun-soaked day sailing on five chartered Mastiff schooners from Sepetiba Bay on Rio's southern coast to a tropical island with a private beach, where a lunch buffet was served and beach olympics were held.
The formal awards banquet, at Villa Riso, a restored plantation house that dates to the 1700s, capped off the trip on an elegant note. Located in a lush tropical garden and decorated with fine antiques, the villa is an exquisite site for a dinner, according to Bakken. “We hired a harpist and a children's choir to entertain with classical music.”
“It was absolutely perfect. Planning this trip wasn't easy due to the time difference and the language barrier, but it was well worth the effort,” Bakken says.
MY FAVORITE EVENT
When a dozen board members of Virtuoso, a travel specialist company, traveled to Panama City, Steve Hart, vice president of sales for Panama Travel Experts, wanted to wow them. They flew by helicopter to a remote area inhabited by the primitive Embara tribe, who still live off the land. “We were greeted by tribal drum music and natives in paint, beads, and loin cloths,” Hart says. The visitors saw regional dances that are traditionally performed to celebrate the birth of a child, the passage into adulthood, or the culmination of a hunt.
The group got to see some of the Embara's handcrafted wares, as well. A shaman explained the medicinal uses of herbs and plants to the Virtuoso group. Of the Embara tribe, Hart says, “They were very gracious, beautiful people, and it was a really educational trip.”
On another evening, the group set sail on Lake Gatum, the water source for the Panama Canal. A Chilean guitarist provided entertainment, and while the group dined, spotlights illuminated species of exotic animals living in and near the water.
A private Panama Canal tour was also on the agenda. “We saw the control center and all the workings of the canal,” Hart says. Some attendees rose early to see parrots flying into the jungle.
Hart also organizes dinner excursions on the Panama Canal Railway. “Panama is an exciting and diverse place to meet,” he says, adding that the convention district is 25 minutes from virgin jungle.
WHERE TO GO
“At one point, I had a 12-foot anaconda wrapped around my neck.”
— Rosemary Bakken, MTL Insurance Co.
Few resort areas are as replete with five-star properties as Cancun, Mexico. Many, like the Ritz-Carlton, face the azure sea in the beach area known as the Hotel Zone. Full-service spas and lavishly appointed, oversized guest rooms with balconies are the norm.
CHILE — New
Hotel Inter-Continental Santiago opened in 2001, increasing Santiago's convention capacity by 295 guest rooms and 12 meeting rooms with combined capacity for 900.
MEXICO — New
The Sheraton Centro Historico Hotel & Convention Center in Mexico City is an $80 million, five-star property opening in March with 457 guest rooms. The convention center accommodates 6,000. The hotel has 55,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space. Two indoor pools, a rooftop garden, spa and fitness center, three restaurants, and a bar will round out amenities.
Two new all-inclusive Palace Resorts opened on the Mayan Riviera coast south of Cancun in 2001: the 792-room Spa Palace, and the Xpu-Há Palace with 480 luxury bungalows in an eco-park setting. The Aventura Palace, an adults-only resort, has meeting space for up to 500, and will open a new convention center this year.
The 500-room Paradisus Riviera Cancun opened in December on the Yucatán Peninsula, along Mexico's world-famous Palancar Reef and national marine park system. The resort, which replicates a Mayan village, has a 9,000-square-foot ballroom with capacity for 950.
The 488-room Meliá Mexico Reforma Hotel and Convention Center in Mexico City has completed an $8 million renovation, upgrading meeting facilities and amenities, redecorating guest rooms, and building a new restaurant and spa. The hotel augmented its facilities with five new meeting rooms, bringing space to 38,346 square feet.
The 450-room JW Marriott Cancun will open early this year. The property, adjacent to the Ritz-Carlton Cancun, will feature 18,000 square feet of meeting space and a 20,000-square-foot European spa.
In early 2001, the Elcozumeleno Beach Resort in Cozumel opened a convention center with two ballrooms and accommodations for 600. The resort combines beach relaxation with upscale casual events.
The Meliá Cabo Real in Los Cabos completed construction of a $3.5 million convention center with 20,785 square feet of space, including nine meeting rooms and a business center. All 302 guest rooms were renovated in 2000 and now have “GuestNet,” an interactive service that allows guests to surf the Web, check and send e-mail, and view a menu of hotel services.
The 1,800-room all-inclusive Moon Palace Golf Resort in Cancun added a convention center in late 2000. The Exhibition Center has a 55,580-square-foot exhibit hall and six breakout rooms. It can accommodate 1,800 banquet-style. Also under construction is an 18-hole, Jack Nicklaus signature golf course scheduled to open this summer.
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — New
The Barcelo Bavaro Convention Center opened in October within the Barcelo Bavaro Beach Resort, Convention Center, Golf & Casino in the Bavaro-Punta Cana area of the Dominican Republic. The center boasts 30,000 square feet of exhibition space and 24 meeting rooms. There are 1,956 rooms in five hotels, one of which is five-star; the other is four-star.
CENTERS OF THE ACTION
CANCUN Convention Center is in the heart of the hotel district, within walking distance of 3,500 hotel rooms. It has 53,820 square feet of column-free event space with 22 breakout rooms, accommodating up to 6,000 people. Phone: 52 (9) 881.04.00, ext.159 and 212; Fax: 52 (9) 881.04.02; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.cancunconventioncenter.com
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
RIO CENTRO Convention Center, one of Latin America's largest event facilities, has five halls connected by catwalks — a total of 1,078,630 square feet of function space. Phone: 55 (21) 442-1300; email@example.com
The ESPACIO Riesco Convention Center opened in 2001 in Santiago. It is the country's largest, most modern convention center. With three levels of adaptable facility space comprising more than 107,640 square feet, Espacio Riesco holds 6,500 guests and has eight meeting rooms. Tel/Fax: 56 2 4449284
CONTACT THE CVB
Tourism Secretariat of the Nation
Buenos Aires Hotel Tax: 21%
Chile Convention & Incentive Bureau
(562) 263-4711 • Fax: (562) 263-4728
Hotel Tax: 18%
(Foreign visitors who pay in dollars or travelers checks do not pay this 18%)
Costa Rica Tourism Information
Hotel Tax: 16.39%
The Guatemalan CVB
(502) 362-4635 • Fax: (502) 331-3056
Guatemala City Hotel Tax: 22%
Mexico Government Tourism Office
(312) 606-9306 • Fax: (312) 606-9012
Mexico City Tourism Office
• Fax: (011) 52-98 87-66-48
Hotel Tax: 2%
Panama City CVB
(507) 263-2498, (507) 263-2499
• Fax: (507) 211-3607