If countries in Latin America aren't at the top of your short list for meetings, maybe they should be. “There are some great advantages to meeting in Latin America,” says Eli Gorin, CMP, owner of gMeetings, Aventura, Fla., a meeting management firm specializing in meetings in Latin America. “Some good reasons to meet there include the cost, which can be a fraction of a meeting in the U.S.; the distance, which is comparable to traveling to a European city, and the quality of the hotel product.” Not to mention historic and charming cities, unique cultural attributes, and unspoiled beaches.

When it comes to pricing, planners can save in two ways. “The cost of hotels is variable,” says Gorin, “with some less expensive and others, such as in Buenos Aires, comparable to U.S. pricing; but the big savings comes in food and beverage. I'm doing all-day coffee service for a meeting in Colonia, Uruguay, for $10 per person, and I've arranged coffee service through the day in Panama for only $3 per person. Obviously, those savings can add up.”

The other cost advantage can come in the form of VAT (value-added tax) savings, which Gorin notes is referred to as IVA (Impuesto al Valor Agregado) in most of Latin America. In some countries, such as Mexico, Uruguay, Colombia, and Chile, foreign meetings are completely or partially exempt from VAT, while in others, such as Costa Rica, it doesn't exist at all. However, some countries, including Argentina and Brazil, do add VAT from which meeting groups are not exempt and which they cannot reclaim.

When doing business in Latin America, Gorin notes, “It's all about relationships. It won't work well if you just call and state what you need. Instead, tell the person you're speaking with why you're calling, but also ask what they can tell you about their property, their location, and why you should work with them. Latin Americans tend to be very proud of their location and culture — and that little bit of rapport can go a long way.”

For planning purposes, also keep in mind that “in Latin America, it's always a holiday or fiesta,” adds Gorin, explaining that the response time from your vendors will be different and that you have to be aware of scheduling meetings that could fall over a holiday. Another tip: While English is widely spoken at hotels, the Spanish language is different in each Latin American country, meaning there could be multiple words in Spanish for one English word. So it's always a good idea to hire a local destination management company.

What follows are updates from some major Latin American meeting destinations.

Mexico

Since January, Mexico has been one of the countries affected by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which means that all U.S. citizens returning from Mexico to the United States via air must now present a valid U.S. passport. The activation date for land and sea border crossings is currently set for June 1, 2009. Visas are not required. Be sure to alert attendees to these new rules well before a meeting since passport offices are currently overwhelmed with new applications.

While the new regulations are likely to hinder business and leisure travel to Mexico at least temporarily, the country's tourism market is strong, with historically high tourism revenues at the end of last year. And it's no wonder. Mexico has long been a favorite for U.S. groups, based largely on its proximity to the U.S., frequent air service at 57 international and 28 national airports, and a sophisticated business infrastructure. Numerous destinations are well equipped to handle meetings, including Mexico City, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, Acapulco, Monterrey, and more, while beaches, colonial cities, and architectural treasures beckon both meetings and incentives.

Cancun and the Mayan Riviera on the Yucatán Peninsula have become wildly popular, particularly for incentive programs, and offer many five-star hotels and all-inclusive resorts.

Mexico City features the World Trade Center, as well as the Centro Banamex and one of the largest meeting facilities in Latin America, the Centro Bancomer in the northwest part of the city, with 500,000 square feet. Cancun, too, has its own convention center, as does Acapulco, Guadalajara, and Monterrey. The hotel infrastructure is excellent, with numerous options, most with their own meeting facilities. Los Cabos at the tip of Baja California is a fast-growing destination for groups. All told, there are 38 convention centers throughout Mexico in 25 cities, 26 destinations for incentive travel, and 3,100 hotels with 245,000 hotel rooms.

Money matters: As of January 2004, conventions, trade shows, and meetings in Mexico are exempt from the VAT, which is 10 percent on the border and 15 percent elsewhere for such services as venue rental, lodging, and equipment. Food and beverage is not currently exempt. The Mexican Congress is also reviewing the possibility of including incentive travel. In addition, expenses for meetings and conventions in Mexico are tax-deductible to U.S. companies.

For More Information: The Mexico Tourist Board has five offices in the United States: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. (800) 44-MEXICO; www.visitmexico.com. Most of the major tourist areas also have their own convention and visitors bureaus; see www.visitmexicopress.com/links.asp for a full list.

Tips from a Pro for Meeting in Mexico

Trish Adams, director, industry relations at Maritz Travel Co., St. Louis, offers a few hints for planners.

  • Shop locally for unusual room gifts, ranging from lotions to silver.
  • Begin working with a customs broker well in advance of your meeting or incentive. Shipping to Mexico can be challenging.
  • Work with quality suppliers and DMCs who understand your needs and who also know the local rules and regulations.

Brazil

In a concerted effort to attract more international tourism of all kinds, Embratur, the Brazilian government tourism body, is both encouraging new development and has opened offices in several foreign cities, including two in the United States — in New York and Los Angeles — in addition to the already existing Brazilian Tourism Office in Washington, D.C. The Ministry of Tourism has also committed to spending US $83.8 million for the Pan American and Parapan American Games, slated to take place in Rio de Janeiro this summer, for infrastructure, security, and attracting tourism, as well as investments in the city's Santos Dumont Airport.

A sophisticated tropical resort city, Rio de Janeiro features the largest convention center in Latin America, Riocentro, with 1,078,630 square feet of space, and 23,000 hotel rooms. As the fastest-growing city in Brazil, São Paolo features numerous sites for conventions and meetings. Other spots that are popular for incentive groups include Salvador de Bahia, a treasure trove of colonial architecture; and Iguazu Falls, spectacular water falls bordering Argentina and Paraguay. Rio, like many large cities, has its share of petty crime, and attendees should take the usual commonsense precautions. Safety measures have recently been implemented in Rio, including zero tolerance and surveillance cameras.

Americans are required to have a passport good for at least six months after entry and a business visa ($60). Attendees can get a visa in person from a Brazilian consulate (see www.brazilsf.org/other_consulates_eng.htm for consulates in the U.S.) or through a visa agency; there is no mail-in option.

Money Matters: After a couple of years of sharp changes, the Brazilian currency, called the real (pronounced “hay-ahl”), has settled at approximately two real to the U.S. dollar. Credit cards are widely accepted in the larger cities but are more problematic in smaller cities. ATMs are widely available; however, not all accept all foreign cards. A 10 percent gratuity is usually included in restaurant bills, sometimes as a “suggestion”; porters and bellhops are usually tipped, and while tipping is not expected for taxis, rounding up is common.

Doing Business: Portuguese, not Spanish, is the official language of Brazil. Brazilians of Rio (called Cariocas) tend to be informal, both in their way of conducting business and in their attire, although in São Paulo, business is more formal. Brazilians tend to do business somewhat more slowly than is customary in the U.S. Work with locals to help expedite matters.

For More Information: The Brazilian Tourism Office is located in Washington D.C.; (800) 7BRAZIL; www.braziltourism.org. Rio de Janeiro has its own CVB with an English Web site: www.rioconventionbureau.com.br.

Argentina

The good news is that Argentina's economy seems to have completely rebounded from its economic crisis of 2001. The flip side is that the incredible bargains that had been available are no longer a sure thing. “You can still find a good deal,” says Gorin, “but in Buenos Aires, for example, the hotel rates are going to range from about $100 to $300 a night now.” Still, the healthy economy is also leading to new hotel and convention center developments, such as the luxury 165-room Palacio Duhau-Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, which opened last summer, and the Sofitel Escobar, slated to open outside of Buenos Aires this summer with 180 guest rooms and a convention center.

Outside of the cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, there are convention hotels and centers in such diverse destinations as the colonial city of Salta and Mendoza, a destination in its own right and a starting point for trips into the Andes. Popular combinations with Buenos Aires include the mountains and lakes of San Carlos de Bariloche in the foothills of the Andes in Patagonia, a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires, and the roaring Iguazu Falls, also a two-hour flight.

Most international visitors enter through the Ministro Pistarini Internacional Airport (located in Ezeiza), 22 miles outside of Buenos Aires; local airports are scattered about the country for travel within Argentina. Citizens of the U.S. need a valid passport for entry, but not a visa.

Money Matters: The official currency is the peso. U.S. dollars and major credit cards are commonly accepted, but outside of Buenos Aires, individuals might encounter problems changing traveler's checks. Most ATMs distribute both pesos and dollars. Tipping is customary for doormen, porters, etc., and 10 percent is the norm in restaurants.

Taxes: Value-added tax is not refundable for group business. Individuals may obtain a VAT refund of 21 percent at the airport for items over $70 purchased at shops operating with the “Global Refund” system.

Doing Business: In Argentina, business tends to be friendly, sophisticated, and punctual, although the “mañana syndrome” does sometimes come into play. Business dress is formal. Hotels tend to give better rates to locals than to foreigners, so working with a local representative is a good idea.

For More Information: Reach the Argentina Tourist Office in New York (212/603-0443) or Miami (305/442-1366), www.turismo.gov.ar.

Costa Rica

A small, politically stable Central American country of just under 20,000 square miles (slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia), Costa Rica tends to attract incentives and meetings with soft adventure and eco-tourism options. Groups also like its proximity to the U.S. — flying time is only two and a half hours from Miami, for example. There are no stand-alone convention centers, although larger hotels have convention facilities.

The three main areas in Costa Rica that have suitable properties for American groups are the Central Valley, location of the capital city San José as well as the rain forest, which is extremely popular with soft-adventure groups; the Central Pacific region for beaches and rain forest; and the beaches and resorts of Guanacaste in the North Pacific region.

Most international flights arrive at the Santa Maria International Airport in Alajuela, which is just outside of San José. Increasingly, groups can also fly directly into the Daniel Odouber International Airport in Libera, in the Guanacaste region. A valid passport is required, but not a visa for U.S. citizens.

In this small country, distances are not that great between major areas, but the road infrastructure and the numerous hills and valleys can make it difficult to go from one place to another. For example, Guanacaste is a five-hour drive from San José. Small planes that seat about 20 are one option for groups.

Money Matters: The official currency of Costa Rica is the colón; however, U.S. dollars are widely accepted as are major credit cards. At press time, the rate is just over 537 colones to US $1 and is variable. Prices in Costa Rica are similar to those in the United States.

U.S. companies can deduct meetings in Costa Rica as they would for a meeting held in the United States. Incentives are not tax-deductible.

Doing Business: Costa Ricans are commonly called “Ticos,” and doing business in Costa Rica can be referred to as the “tico system” — in other words, it can take longer to do business in Costa Rica than in the United States.

For More Information: Costa Rica does not have a tourism office that is based in the United States, although planners can call toll-free to the Costa Rica-based office: (866) 267-8274. Or visit the Web site at www.visitcostarica.com.

Labeling and Packing: 7 Ways to Avoid Trouble

  1. Remove all old shipping labels

    Electronic scanners will read the bar codes on old labels. You want to ensure that people read the right destination for your shipment.

  2. Label each piece with two shipping labels

    Labels can be mistakenly turned inward or out of sight or can fall off. When shipments are stacked, your labels can often face inside the pallet, making them unreadable. This can be especially problematic when you are missing a piece and are asking the warehouse to look for it. Using two labels increases the chances that people will read them.

  3. Write a contact phone number on each shipping label

    You never know who is going to be looking at your box wondering to whom it belongs. Providing a phone number to call (not toll-free unless it can be used from anywhere in the world) increases your chances of your piece turning up.

  4. Write a piece count on each label

    This could be the single most important aspect of labeling, yet it is the most overlooked. When ensuring your shipment is complete, warehouses and drivers will often rely on the information on your shipping label.

  5. Use small boxes

    Large boxes will be stacked on the bottom and heavy boxes get dropped. Never ship anything that is too big or too heavy for you to lift easily.

  6. Always use new strong-cornered boxes, rather than old flimsy ones

    This will increase the chances of your boxes staying in form throughout transit. Use plenty of packing tape on all the edges and corners to strengthen the box. Remember that corners of boxes will crease. This can be particularly troublesome if you are shipping presentation brochures.

  7. Try Rubbermaid containers instead of boxes

    Corners will not dent and they will stack well. Often, they have handles making it easier to move around.