"It was a real eye opener " said Brian Glynn, vice president of operations for the Meetings Management Group in Indian-apolis. "This is a destination that seems to have something for everyone." Added Sheryl Allison, meeting coordinator for the American Board of Pediatrics in Chapel Hill, N.C., "I came to Puerto Vallarta not knowing anyone and feeling a bit apprehensive, but I left with a lot of new friends. I'll be back."

A Solid Infrastructure Located on Mexico's Pacific coast, Puerto Vallarta sits at the edge of huge Banderas Bay, framed to the east by the Sierra Madre mountains. It has a diverse appeal: year-round warmth and sunshine, championship golf, beaches, ecotourism, a picturesque colonial town, and an active nightlife. Perhaps most significant for meeting managers, there are many top-drawer resorts and destination management companies. "The hotels are wonderful, with good choices for any size group," noted David Benenson, executive vice president of Travel Service Coordinators in Plymouth, Minn.

The group flew to Puerto Vallarta on Mexicana Airlines from the carrier's various U.S. hubs. After checking into the host hotel, the spectacular 280-room Westin Regina, attendees enjoyed a delicious dinner at the 400-room Marriott CasaMagna. The next morning, they participated in a working breakfast at the 291-room Fiesta Americana: a roundtable discussion that brought together representatives from the Mexican government's tourism offices, destination management companies, and 10 area hotels. After an impressive video presentation that highlighted Puerto Vallarta as a meeting and incentive destination, there was a question and answer period.

"The business session was extremely helpful," said Anne Oved, director of continuing medical education at Integrated Health Systems in Phoenix, Ariz., "with good interaction among all of the participants."

The biggest concern expressed by meeting planners: not enough direct airlift. The biggest attraction: a professional network of suppliers who work together. "You can't come to an overseas destination like this and go it alone," said Doris Mayer, president of Meetings Plus in Belvidere, Ill. "I now feel comfortable that the suppliers would work together to help me."

A city tour followed the roundtable, after which the group enjoyed lunch at the Set of the Night of the Iguana restaurant, located in the La Jolla de Mismaloya all-suite resort. Dinner that evening was another gourmet experience at the Cafe des Artistes restaurant, one of the town's finest. Showcase participants found the dining experiences to be consistently upscale, with no concerns about food or water safety (a multi-million-dollar water purification system was installed a few years ago). Joan Esbri Cullen, meeting planner for the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, also raved about the shopping bargains and the reasonable hotel rates. "If there is one word that stands out in my mind about Puerto Vallarta," she added, "it's value."

Resorts Go All-Out During the remainder of the program, Showcase participants saw many of Puerto Vallarta's outstanding resorts and learned firsthand about traditional Mexican hospitality. "Everybody bent over backwards to give us a great experience," commented David Benenson. Participants enjoyed a lavish al fresco breakfast buffet under Moroccan-style tents at the 361-suite Velas Vallarta; a traditional Mexican Fiesta at the 405-room Krystal Vallarta; a spectacular Sunday brunch at the 650-room Sheraton Buganvilias; and an unforgettable final evening at the 337-room Camino Real, complete with a beachfront fireworks display. Here too, participants enjoyed releasing just-hatched sea turtles for their journey out to sea. The Camino Real is one of several hotels that is helping to protect the local sea turtle population by providing protected nurseries for incubating eggs.

A Variety of Activities "One of the nicest things about Puerto Vallarta is the variety," said Pamela Pate Varnon, corporate travel manager for Kinetic Concepts Inc. in San Antonio, Texas. Among the memorable Showcase activities was a boat tour of tranquil Banderas Bay with a stop at Las Caletas, a secluded seaside venue that caters to groups. Hotels can arrange a round of golf at the Joe Finger-designed Marina Vallarta Golf Club course, and two new courses are coming on line: The first, designed by Jack Nicklaus, is scheduled to open in December, and the second, designed by Tom Weisskopf, will open in early 2001. Those who enjoy spa treatments will find excellent services at the major resorts, and there's an unusual day spa called Terra Noble that looks as if it is sculpted out of the mountaintop.

Showcase participants left Puerto Vallarta with lasting memories. Andrea Miller, president of Meeting In-Site Corp. in Hoboken, N.J., summed it up: "There's a community spirit and a warmth to the people that make it the most inviting Mexican beach destination I've been to." i

Getting Help Puerto Vallarta has many outstanding destination management and transportation companies. Special thanks go to those who arranged Showcase activities: Intermar Vallarta, Miller Travel Service, American Express, T. Tours, Tropical Incentive, Tukari, Vallarta Adventures, Lomas Travel, Expo Viajes, and Big Al.