Guess what? Cancun is clean and safe and offers efficient, friendly service starting with airport personnel and continuing right through cab drivers to the front desk staff at your hotel.
You're probably skeptical. So were a group of corporate and association meeting planners recently hosted by Cancun suppliers and Adams/Laux Publishing for a Showcase site inspection trip. But, to a person, the guests reported their negative preconceptions had vanished by the end of the four-day tour.
"I had notions that [in transit from the airport] you would go through underdeveloped areas and then you'd get to an oasis with hotels," says Lori Anderson, conference planner with the American Society of Neuroimaging and executive director with the American Society of Neurorehabilitation in Minneapolis. "I was pleasantly surprised that on the drive from the airport everything was very modern, very clean, and well-kept. It made me feel good about bringing a group there.
"That first impression is critical."
And the positive impressions just kept coming. "The service also was better than I expected," says Anderson, whose attendees are physicians with exacting standards. "You hear stories about the 'ma+/-ana' attitude in Mexican destinations--in Caribbean destinations in general. But anytime I called for something [in the host hotel, the Fiesta Americana Coral Beach], it was there within minutes. The service was even better than in some U.S. destinations."
And, far from finding spring break types at the Fiesta Americana Coral Beach, these planners shared elevators with business meeting attendees. The Fiesta Americana Coral Beach was but one of five hotels that demonstrated tremendous hospitality and flair at meal functions and facility tours scheduled during the three-day trip. "The hotels we saw were five-star quality in terms of service, the beautiful accommodations, and excellent food," says Maryjane Mautino, secretary/treasurer for meeting planning firm Marquis Events in Marina del Rey, CA. Mautino's firm plans events for high-end corporate clients. "I look at what my clients expect and I think they would be thrilled with Cancun."
Meeting Savvy One question on the minds of the planners--almost all of whom were making their first visit to Cancun--was whether Cancun could serve as a meeting destination rather than simply a tourist destination, the haven of honeymooners.
The suppliers hosting the group had no trouble dispelling those notions. "Cancun is really ready for groups," said Manuel Carrera, managing director of EPIC, one of Cancun's leading destination management companies. "Support services are very professional." And the destination has become more group-friendly as well, planners were told. For example, previous restrictions on airport pickups recently were lifted completely. Take the hint from EPIC's motto: Everything is Possible in Cancun.
One thing EPIC demonstrated was possible: One tour guide can make or break a group's impression of a destination. With EPIC, the guide who really made it for the Showcase participants was Paco Rosas. In addition to sharing his knowledge, humor, and friendliness, Paco looked after his visitors' comfort at all times. "That's old-fashioned service," noted one attendee in appreciation.
Patricia Fisch, president, International Destinations, Inc., pointed out that Cancun is actually well practiced in the art of meetings. "They say Cancun has been doing conferences for 5,000 years," she noted. "The Mayan people used to gather here." Fisch, along with her husband, Walter Holtsmaster, are the U.S. representatives for the newly created Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Something for Everyone The group's site inspection of the Fiesta Americana Coral Beach, the host hotel, was developed over the three nights of their stay. From the moment group members met International Sales Executive Freddy Solis, they knew they were in good hands. Solis waxed enthusiastic about the property as the guests toured it on arrival night. Elegant in all respects, the hotel offers group check-in and is an all-suite property, including more than 400 Junior Suites plus 66 Master Suites, two conference suites, two ambassador suites, and two presidential suites. The Grand Coral Ballroom seats 1,100 guests for a banquet, while La Joya restaurant is known all over the island for its gourmet Mexican cuisine.
The Fiesta Americana Coral Beach hosted the group's arrival dinner, a lavish buffet outside under torchlight, with sounds of the ocean and a gentle Mexican guitar.
The next morning's early wake-up call was worth it for the useful discussion the planner group had with Cancun hospitality representatives at the Cancun Convention Center (see sidebar, right).
After the morning's business, the group headed out for some fun and education at Xcaret Eco-Archaeological Park, about an hour's drive from downtown Cancun. Built on a historically significant "little inlet" (the English translation of the Mayan word xcaret), Xcaret offers a fascinating glimpse of Mayan culture along with hard-to-beat activities such as snorkeling as you float along the gentle current of an underground river and swimming with the resident dolphins. Xcaret Director of Sales Alma Lopez hosted lunch for the group--succulent fish in a variety of preparations. The guitar duo Cielita Linda played and sang traditional tunes for the planners--along with a revved-up version of the Macarena that enticed some brave line dancers up out of their seats.
That evening found the group touring the Caesar Park Cancun, a Westin hotel. Only two years old, the Caesar Park is already adding another ballroom to accommodate the increasing meeting business coming to Cancun. The property features 426 rooms and 81 villas (their version of the concierge-level room) now, but within five years the total will be 750 rooms. The property also features the newest 18-hole golf course in Cancun and will be adding residential properties, shops, and a marina to its complex in coming years.
"We are gearing ourselves toward the meeting market," says Peter Leder, Caesar Park general manager. "Year-round, group business is about 40 percent. We want to build that to 60 percent within two years." Leder, who has been in Cancun since the 1980s, has seen its transformation firsthand. "Cancun has gone from 20 fisherman to 400,000 residents," he quips.
Shop 'til You Drop . . . or 'til the bus leaves! Cancun Showcase participants got a whirlwind introduction to Cancun's newest shopping mall--Kukulcan Plaza. Silver, ceramics, and Mexican crafts and clothing of amazing variety are there for the buying--or just browsing. Showcase participants agreed their attendees would never be bored in Cancun, with shopping, water sports, and nightlife so near to the island's best hotels. At the same time, attendees could choose to ignore all the action and simply linger by a pool.
The Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun was the group's host for breakfast on the second day of the trip, offering a huge Mexican/American buffet. This hotel opened eight years ago as host to the 1989 Miss Universe pageant. Last year, all 502 guest rooms (including 26 suites) were renovated, and Mexican touches such as tile floors were added. The spa is now being expanded and renovated, targeted for completion in August; also opening in August will be a full-service business center.
From its open-air lobby to its guest rooms, with doors that open onto garden courtyards, the Fiesta Americana Condesa offers an elegantly tropical ambience. The Showcase group was impressed with a sample theme-party setup in the ballroom, complete with Mayan "ruins." The Grand Condesa Ballroom seats 1,200 guests for a banquet; the Miss Universe Ballroom seats 1,700. The property also features three indoor tennis courts.
Hosting the group for a poolside lunch, the Melia Cancun Beach & Spa Resort also wowed Showcase participants with the performance of Mariachi Plata, the mariachi band of director Miguel Plata. Taking requests from the tables, band members added energy and emotion to the gourmet lunch.
The Melia Cancun is the flagship property of the 225-hotel Melia chain. With spectacular hanging gardens, the hotel features "the biggest atrium in the Mexican Caribbean," according to Violeta Sales, sales manager. The resort's 450 rooms, including 36 suites and one presidential suite, are now being remodeled with "lively" colors, a project targeted for completion by November. There is a par-3, 18-hole, executive course on property; and Cancun's Pok-ta-Pok professional par-72 course is 15 minutes away. The Melia Cancun's Salon Lanzarote seats 500 for a banquet. Spa services extend to professional massages outdoors, either under the sun or by torchlight at night.
Another of Cancun's new properties is the Ritz-Carlton, which opened in 1993. Introducing the Ritz-Carlton to Cancun was a risk, says General Manager Luis Marco. "Everyone said the paintings of Englishman chasing foxes on horses would not work here," he says. "But here we are." Indeed, calling itself an oasis amid the bustle, the Ritz-Carlton, Cancun has created a unique, sheltered atmosphere and already does 50 percent of its business with groups.
And although some walls do indeed feature Englishmen on horseback, there is also a distinctly Mexican spirit overall.
The hotel's 369 rooms include some 50 suites as well as 48 Club Level rooms that feature access to a private lounge serving complimentary continental breakfast, after- noon hors d'oeuvres, and cocktails daily.
The Ritz-Carlton Ballroom has 11,440 square feet of space, and the property features several outdoor function areas, including the Fountain Courtyard and the Pool Patio.
New at Ritz: cellular phone rental. If the phone rings in your guest room while you're on the beach, the call is automatically forwarded to the cell phone. Renting the phone costs $30 a day.
The Adams/Laux Showcase site inspection trip wrapped up with dinner at Blue Bayou, a delightful Cancun restaurant whimsically decorated and filled with the sounds of a live jazz band. The evening was sponsored by TropicalHoliday, a Cancun that had showered the Showcase participants with gifts since their arrival.
Planners and Suppliers: Meeting Each Other's Needs
In a well-appointed boardroom at the three-year-old Cancun Convention Center, the Adams/Laux Showcase participants shared their thoughts and concerns with Cancun suppliers--hoteliers, DMC and local venue executives, a customs broker, and Charlotte Carral, the center's director of sales.
During informal talks, planners asked about safety, customs, and the nature of Cancun's meeting facilities. Many preconceptions about the destination were dispelled during this critical discussion.
"Cancun was designed by a computer," said Charlotte Carral to open the discussion. "The computer chose this site because of its proximity to South America and the U.S."
With ancient history in the form of Mayan ruins just a short drive away, Cancun itself is a mere 25 years old. In that time, the resort has grown into a modern meeting site with more than 20,000 hotel rooms.
Addressing the customs question, Alberto del Valle, regional manager for Agencia Aduanal del Valle S.C., a Cancun customs broker, said meeting planners may import duty-free gifts of less than $50 each. He was happy to add that the former law against temporarily importing "used" computers and monitors has been rescinded.
Rick Gerstenberg, vice president, Sub Station II in Columbia, SC, asked about the procedures for suppliers invited to his meetings who bring food products. He was told to simply work ahead at least two months.
In many cases, planners can work within customs laws if they're creative. For example, to avoid the law against importing alcohol, a meeting organizer might find a local distributor who could import the goods.
Getting There--from Everywhere American Airlines served as sponsor for the Adams/Laux Showcase group of participants, with convenient connections in either Dallas or Miami before continuing into Cancun.
Airlift, in fact, is one of Cancun's many success stories. As the Cancun International Airport makes plans to add another runway, the number of carriers flying into the destination has increased to an impressive 152 airlines. And, from a clientele that was almost exclusively North American back in the early 1980s, Cancun now welcomes carriers from 14 European gateways flying nonstop into the destination.
Renovations to the Cancun International Airport will improve customs and immigration. Already groups can avoid long lines upon departure by setting up "attendee-only" counters.
Did You Know? Propina incluida means that the tip is included in restaurants. When it is not included, the custom is ten to 15 percent, as in the United States.
In Cancun and the surrounding area, the U.S. dollar and all major credit cards are readilyaccepted. With street vendors and taxi drivers, bargaining is the way to go. You should ask your meeting hotel about surcharges on overseas telephone calls and faxes. And be sure your attendees are well aware of these charges. Cancun is no more than four hours from major U.S. gateways.