Hotel occupancy in Mexico was up 10 percent through August 2010, according to Smith Travel Research, while the number of international tourist arrivals to Mexico was up 27.5 percent in July 2010 as compared to July 2009. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that continued violence related to the drug trade in parts of Mexico near the U.S. border is affecting the whole of the country when it comes to meeting and incentive programs.

Take the case of an incentive program booked for a Mexican resort in the spring of 2011. Qualifiers for the trip recently received a letter from the head of the company congratulating them. He goes on to say that the company has been listening to the concerns of some qualifiers about the safety of traveling in Mexico. Therefore, he says, the program has been “redirected” to a U.S. destination.

It’s been an all-too familiar story for Mexican meeting and incentive suppliers, who have had to work hard to give meeting planners a way to make their case with executives and attendees. The message is that while the U.S. State Department has travel warnings in place for Mexico, the violence and the warnings are far from resort areas such as Cancun, Riviera Maya, Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos, popular incentive destinations.

Marian Gardiner, director of insurance/financial sales, for the Posadas Group, with more than 97 properties in Mexico, including the Live Aqua Cancun resort and the Fiesta Americana Hotels and Resorts, sends clients a map so they can see for themselves the distance between, for example, Cancun and Juarez (about 1,400 miles, or farther than the distance between Boston and Atlanta).

“The meeting planners get it,” Gardiner says. The challenge is to educate management and attendees. “Programs are operating successfully and safely at all the resort destinations in Mexico,” Gardiner says. “Mexico knows how to deliver a return on objectives to the meeting and incentive customer.”

Los Cabos, a master-planned resort destination located at the tip of the 1,000-mile long Baja Peninsula, experienced a 70 percent drop in incentive business in 2009 during the worst of the aftermath of the AIG effect. “2011 is the year of recovery,” says Adrian Schjetnan, director of sales and marketing for the Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Bureau, who notes that airlines are adding new direct service through the end of this year. “For 2012, the demand is quite strong.”

National Life Group’s Lynn Averill held several meetings this year and last year in Los Cabos, most recently in April. “We had the best meetings there. We never had one incident,” says Averill, second vice president, recognition and conferences, at the Montpelier, Vt.–based company. “But we did not take the issue of safety lightly. We paid attention to all the U.S. travel information and advisories. We met with our hotel and our destination management company to ensure that everyone had security in mind. You just have to travel smart.”

Where the Trouble Is

The State Department warning advises U.S. citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to Michoacán and Tamaulipas, and to parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, and Coahuila. The warning also states, “Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year. This includes tens of thousands who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico … Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major drug trafficking routes.”

As it does for other international destinations, the State Department continues in suggesting, “It is imperative that U.S. citizens understand the risks involved in travel to Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and who to contact if one becomes a victim of crime or violence. Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where criminal activity might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable.”

“We try to address concerns about security in a direct way,” says Eduardo Chaillo, executive director, meeting industry, at the Mexico Tourism Board. “Are there some areas of Mexico experiencing challenges when it comes to security? Yes. But even the U.S. Department of State calls Mexico’s main tourism destinations safe. The main tourist destinations are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from areas of the country facing security challenges. Saying you couldn’t host a meeting in one of these main tourist destinations because of something that happened in another part of Mexico would be like canceling a meeting in Miami Beach because of problems in New York City.”

The Fairmont Mayakoba, inside a gated community in the Riviera Maya, has a prepared document outlining its security measures to share with meeting clients. The document states, in part, “We enforce comprehensive safety measures [that include] trained security personnel within the property and controlled visitor access through one main entrance point, including thorough cross-referencing with guest lists for each one our community of hotels.”

The document also includes a Q&A with the Mexico Tourism Board. This is an excerpt:

Is Mexico an unsafe place to travel?
Mexico ranks as one of the top international travel destination in the world and is the No. 1 international tourism destination for North Americans traveling abroad. Many tourists to the country are repeat visitors, which demonstrate that the vast majority of tourists are satisfied and leave with overwhelmingly positive impressions. Visitors to any destination in the world should exercise caution and common sense, and the same holds true when traveling to Mexico.

Shouldn’t everyone just avoid going to Mexico, with everything that is going on with the crime and drug dealers?
Mexico is a very large country with many safe destinations to visit and enjoy. As the country’s promotion agency, the Mexico Tourism Board recommends visitors to contact our many offices for more information on the destination they are planning to visit.

MTB's Eduardo Chaillo also emphasizes the improvements in meeting infrastructure in Mexico and the vote of confidence many recent meetings have shown in the destination. “Mexico has experienced a dramatic expansion of meeting space," he says. "In November 2010, the Cancun Messe Convention Center will be inaugurated, with a new Queretaro convention center also opening in November 2010 and another facility planned for Puebla in 2011. So far this year we’ve already hosted such high-profile meetings as Meeting Professionals International’s MeetDifferent conference and the General Assembly of the Inter-American Development Bank. In November, we will host the 16th World Summit United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun. Understanding that these leading global organizations view Mexico’s main tourist and meeting destinations as safe is important.

“In the end,” Chaillo adds, “our approach is to work with meeting planners to help them communicate with their clients in an informative and accurate way about the great value that Mexico offers.”