While many think of the Caribbean islands as an idyllic escape from the winter cold, savvy planners know that the Caribbean means business year round—and they know how to integrate the setting into the agenda so that attendees don’t spend the entire meeting staring bitterly out the window at the tantalizing beach scene just outside.
We polled planners well versed in Caribbean meetings to find out how they keep their events running smoothly and their attendees focused. Here are some pointers from the pros:
1. Pick your site carefully: The region’s infrastructure is certainly meeting-friendly. Whether it’s a group of 1,200-10,000 meeting at one of the Caribbean’s big convention centers — Puerto Rico, Cancun, Barbados, Curacao and soon Jamaica with the 2010 opening of the Montego Bay Convention Centre — or a small executive board meeting set in an exclusive hotel on an island like Anguilla, which is currently pulling out all the stops with dedicated webinars, web pages and brochures to bolster its meeting revenues, the Caribbean can play host to all. Pick your site based on the size, interests and goals of your meeting, planners advised.
2. Tap into each island’s unique advantages: The Caribbean has some very obvious advantages, such as its geographic proximity and competitive pricing which make it very cost effective, said Anne Marie Moebes, executive vice president of Acclaim Meetings, a meetings and events company that supports independent planners and travel agents. “Of course, the Caribbean is well known for its natural beauty and beaches, but when it comes to a meeting, that’s a double-edged sword these days. The Caribbean is viewed primarily as a resort destination, which has, for many corporations, become a no-no due to the perception of indulgence, but this stigma disappears when the locale plays a role the meeting. For example, liquor distributors might tour rum distilleries such as Bacardi in Puerto Rico or Mount Gay in Barbados, or an educators’ conference might visit local schools or meet with teachers there.”
3. Plan realistically: The Caribbean is at its most popular when the weather at home may be at its worst, said Maureen Santoro CMP, the director of group operations at Atlas Meetings and Incentives in Milford, MA. Santoro said she always looks for islands where the airlift is good and connections will be at a minimum. “It’s a lot easier to get to an island like Nassau directly. Every time you add a connection, you add potential problems where bad weather can cause delays and missed flights,” she said. If attendees are flying a long distance or have multiple connections, Santoro recommended bringing them in the night before the program begins.
4. Maximize the trip: “One of the worst things a corporation or meeting planner can do is to fly people to absolutely gorgeous location and then stick them in a meeting room the entire time — there’s going to be backlash,” warned Anne Thornley-Brown, president of Executive Oasis International in Toronto, Canada. She suggested bringing attendees in as early as possible on Day One and booking the latest return flights possible on the last day of the program. “This lets you buy yourself some more time so you can balance between meetings and destination,” she said.
5. Know your group: Jessica Levin, CMP actually received feedback that there was too much free time on a November, 2009 trip to Cancun, even though her Moore Stephens North America attendees were in morning meetings and afternoon networking sessions. The reason? Levin offered pre- and post-meeting extensions, allowing them to take a mini-vacation with the company footing the airfare. “They wanted to get down to business, since they knew they’d have their guaranteed time out in the sun,” she said. Levin also made sure networking sessions were held outdoors to take advantage of the surroundings.
6. Get the timing right: Thornley-Brown said that the best time to hold meetings is when the sun is high in the sky and it’s too hot for outdoor activities. She normally starts meetings at 10:30am and ends them by 3:30pm. This gives attendees a chance to venture outside when it’s a bit cooler.
7. Keep meetings short and sweet: “The key to keeping everyone’s attention is keeping meetings short — no more than 4 hours and then boom, they’re out to the beach or an activity,” said Santoro. She normally books four- or five-day meetings that include two half-days of meetings, followed by a group lunch and then perhaps a planned activity in the afternoon.
8. Pair the hotel with the occasion: When Jessica Levin booked the Fiesta Americana Coral Beach in Cancun for her group, it wasn’t only because of the savings ($185 per night as compared to the previous year’s stay in Colorado Springs at almost $300 per night). It’s also because the hotel had a very corporate feeling that helped keep attendees in the moment. “When walking from their hotel rooms to the meeting space, they could actually forget they were in Cancun,” she said.
9. Bring the outside inside: Why deny the obvious? Thornley-Brown sometimes employs a technique to make even the dreariest portions of training meetings in Toronto more exciting — she brings the Caribbean inside. “We’d run the indoors session with a beach theme, with footage of Jamaica playing, decorations scattered about, attendees sitting in umbrella pool chairs, reggae music playing in the background. At lunch, we’d eat Baked Alaska for dessert and sip on mocktails with little umbrellas in them. It’s a technique to breathe life into the dullest portion of your event,” she said.
10. Bring the inside outside: When in the Caribbean, Thornley-Brown moves part of her meeting sessions outside — even right in the sand. “In selecting the meeting room, we choose one near an area where everyone can sit outside for the breakouts. We actually use the setting within the context of our meeting so if I’m doing a business simulation, we may do a beach scene and actually set the flip charts up on the beach. We enjoy the setting but integrate it in with the experience,” she said. Rather than fearing that people’s attention will be skewed by the beauty of the environment, Thornley-Brown said it works for her. “People’s brains require constant stimulation. It’s in a dull meeting room where the mind wanders off more. Being outside helps rather than detracts,” she noted.
11. Expose your group: “If you’re going to fly a group to another part of the world, feed them North American food, and let them spend their free time lying on a beach and boozing it up at night, it’s a waste of money — they might as well stay at home,” said Thornley-Brown. She’s adamant about building in at least a half-day to expose the group to the culture of their surroundings. “Whether it’s the Carib Territory in Dominica or the Outameni in Jamaica, learn the history of the local people, incorporate local foods into the menu. It’s so important and so lacking in a lot of the meeting planning I see going on,” she said.
12. Respect local customs: Thornley-Brown said she also orients meeting attendees to the etiquette and customs of the island they are visiting. “The Caribbean is not just a playground set up for your enjoyment, it’s a place people call home. You need to respect that so you don’t end up offending people.” When visiting the urban portions of many Caribbean islands, it’s considered inappropriate to wear shorts; it shows a lack of respect for the values of the local population, she noted.
13. Passports please: Levin was surprised by the number of attendees to her Cancun meeting without passports. “Let them know far in advance that they’ll need them,” she warned.
14. Know your resources: Finally, for one central portal for the information you need to start booking a Caribbean meeting, turn to the Caribbean Tourism Organization at www.onecaribbean.org.