Spice up your next meeting in Puerto Rico
Everyone knows the Caribbean is a wonderland for the beach and golf crowd, with year-round temperatures reaching up to 80 degrees, but Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are also perfect places for a group to get more adventurous, as even a simple hike or boating trip can have team-building and bonding power.
Imagine sending a group out on a nighttime kayak tour on one of Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays, such as Mosquito Bay or Laguna Grande, where each paddle stroke ignites a haunting blue-green cloud of dinoflagellates (tiny glowing marine creatures). Puerto Rico is home to four of the world’s seven bio bays, and local outfitters including Kayaking Puerto Rico takes groups on floats through these moonlit mangrove lagoons.
“It’s one of those experiences you never forget,” says Joyce Martinez, vice president of business development and sales for Meet Puerto Rico. “It’s just magical. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” From underwater nature trails to treasure hunts and ziplines, there are ample ways to add spice to your Caribbean meeting.
Combining Latin America’s special salsa with the beauty of the Caribbean and the convenience of domestic travel, Puerto Rico is a no-brainer for meetings and incentives. It helps a great deal that the island is served by more than 2,000 weekly flights from 23 airlines.
“U.S. citizens don’t need passports when they come and go here, and we use U.S. dollars,” Martinez says. “We are a bilingual society, so planners can easily communicate, and all our hotels are equipped with Wi-Fi. Puerto Rico really means business.”
Don’t let your group get away without spending at least a half-day exploring the island beyond the hotel walls, even if it’s just a trip to the beach along part of the 272 miles of coastline.
“Groups like to do things here that they cannot do in other places,” Martinez says. “The feeling you get in Puerto Rico is very different from other islands in the Caribbean. Our culture feels different and people love it.”
Treasure Hunt in Old San Juan
An organized treasure hunt is a fun and adventurous way to help your group get to know Old San Juan, the historic core of Puerto Rico’s capital, which was founded in 1521 and is one of the oldest settlements in the Western Hemisphere.
Dr. Clue, a San Francisco-based business founded by Dave Blum, brings groups of up to 300 through La Ciudad Amurallada (the walled city), using clues to share information about sites such as El Morro Fort and statues of Juan Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus. Hunts can be customized for a group’s goals, such as integrating new team members and promoting communication.
“By going through this adventure, you tap into these qualities that human beings need but don’t get much of—mystery, the unexpected, surprise, risk,” Blum says. “You’re on an adrenalized adventure that serves to connect people and build trust. It’s a very engaging way to explore an area.”
“You’re not only seeing a historical spot but also learning about it,” adds Julie Jacobs, chief development officer for Watson Adventures, which offers its own Old San Juan hunt. “Everyone can do it, and everyone brings something different. You don’t have to be athletic. That’s nice, from a meeting planner’s point of view.”
Into the Jungle
Groups can find all sorts of adventures in the wetlands, forests and jungles that span Puerto Rico. Planners can organize a guided tour of El Yunque, the only rainforest in the U.S. National Park System. For even more adventure, consider the Campo Rico Cave Rappelling & Ziplining Safari, which includes a ride in an amphibious vehicle, a hike through a subtropical forest, a 20-foot rappel into a massive cave, a walk across 30-foot hanging bridges and passage on three ziplines, one of which ends directly inside the Mojito Bar (where participants can order rum drinks and a Puerto Rican meal). There is even a nighttime zipline tour where groups can enjoy the glow of fireflies and hear a concert by the local frogs.
Not all Caribbean adventures have to happen in nature. A trip into Puerto Rico’s nightlife scene, including clubs and casinos, can be part of a memorable event. Some of the island’s hotels, such as Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa, have their own casinos. Keep in mind that in Puerto Rico, dressing up at night is the norm.
“It’s kind of like Miami; we like to dress up,” Martinez says. “You can wear flip-flops at the beach, but for the casinos and nightlife, you need to wear a nice outfit.”
U.S. Virgin Islands
A U.S. territory since 1916, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) consists of the major islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John and several minor islands; they span only 134 sq. mi., but are home to many potential adventures. The secret is to find the right experience for the right crowd.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” says Judi Nagelberg, president of Island Meetings & Incentives, a destination management company based in St. Thomas. “It’s important to gather enough information so you can make it a memorable experience.”
Come Sail Away
The crystal waters of the Caribbean have boundless potential for sailing adventures. A boat trip can be turned into a Caribbean pub crawl as groups visit a variety of beach bars, such as Soggy Dollar Bar (which is commonly accessed by jumping off a boat and swimming) on St. Thomas.
Another enjoyable, exciting boat option is to organize a poker run, where groups on different boats pick up playing cards at a variety of spots, and whoever has the best poker hand at the end wins. For wannabe sailors, you could also organize a regatta (a series of sailing races) on small, easy-to-maneuver boats.
Other opportunities to get wet and wild can be found at St. Thomas Flyboarding, where participants can shoot themselves into the air on water-propelled jet packs, and Walk on Water, which offers guided tours on pedal-powered kayaks. And there is always the possibility of catching a fish or two along the way, particularly if you venture out to a spot such as the North Drop (about 20 miles north of St. Thomas), a huge underwater ledge that tends to attract massive fish. “What Pebble Beach is for golfers, the North Drop is for deep-sea fishermen,” Ward says.
No matter which option you choose, make sure your group is well informed and takes safety precautions. The Virgin Islands may offer up easy livin’, but if you’re going for adventure, it requires a good planner to know how to properly prepare attendees.
The natural areas of the Virgin Islands are pristine and not to be missed. Accessible sites include Buck Island, 1.5 miles from St. Croix, where you can snorkel along an underwater nature trail, and St. John, home to Virgin Islands National Park as well as hiking trails, plantation ruins and petroglyphs.
Outfitters such as VI Ecotours can take up to 140 people out on kayaks for trips to spots including Hassel Island (home to ruins of an old British railway station and a sugar mill) or, for more advanced paddlers, Henley Cay, home to a mind-blowing snorkeling reef. “There’s a correlation between the human population and how much fish and coral you see,” says Trevor Jacobs, reservations manager for VI Ecotours.
Limin’ and Ziplinin’
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, limin’ means relaxing, so the idea of limin’ while racing along on a 200-foot zipline would seem to be an oxymoron. Yet groups can do both at once at Tree Limin’ Extreme Zipline Tour on St. Thomas. The 2.5-hour tour includes six ziplines and two skywalks, and you can rent Go Pro cameras to capture the flight.
“A lot of people do this because it’s on their bucket list,” says Christy Walker, manager of the mountaintop site. “The views they’re going to see are unreal. People think we Photoshop our pictures, but we don’t have to.”
For a different kind of team-building adventure, the towns of the Virgin Islands offer plenty of opportunities for community service. “We have had groups that have worked in schools—painting, cleaning up and building picnic tables,” Nagelberg says. “We did a project with over 500 people across 16 venues, including homeless shelters and a foster care facility.”
British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) are known as “Nature’s Little Secrets,” and this chain of islands is indeed dotted with hidden gems.
“What makes BVI so special is that it’s 60 different islands, so regardless of where you go, you’re going to experience something different,” says Scott Ward, director of marketing and sales for Scrub Island Resort.
With locations on Jost Van Dyke and Tortola, BVI Eco-Tours offers excursions that combine boat rides, snorkeling, bird watching, hiking and other fun. Take a sail trip to the island of Virgin Gorda and you’ll snorkel 15 different sites, explore historic ruins and hike through natural ecosystems. Other go-to spots include a botanical trail on Sandy Cay (a 14-acre island nature reserve) and “Bubbly Pool” on Jost Van Dyke, a natural Jacuzzi and tidal pool.
Riding all-terrain vehicles may not be the most eco-friendly activity in the islands, but the vehicles certainly pack a big punch in the fun department and are ideal for exploring hard-to-access locations. BVI Land and Sea organizes tours of the island of Jost Van Dyke (pop. 300), including the small towns of Great Harbour and Little Harbour, as well as the old sugar plantation that was the childhood home of William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol building.
Pirates may be all the rage in places such as Disneyland and Las Vegas, but pirates actually hung out in the Virgin Islands and nearby places. The golden age of piracy in the BVI began in the 17th century, and many say the inspiration for the book Treasure Island was Norman Island (named after a pirate, Capt. Norman), where a Spanish galleon’s treasure was discovered around the same time Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the tale.
Groups can snorkel the reefs here and at other sites (including Great Thatch, supposedly named after Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard) during a snorkeling safari organized by outfitters such as Jost Van Dyke Scuba. After gazing upon every type of underwater marvel imaginable, groups can wind down with drinks and a meal aboard The Willy-T, a floating schooner turned bar and restaurant.
“There are no McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chickens or Walmarts in the British Virgin Islands,” says Capt. Colin Aldridge, who leads tours for Jost Van Dyke Scuba and BVI Eco-tours “It’s illegal to have those kinds of chains. It’s all about the culture here.”
The key to setting up just the right adventure is to listen closely to your group’s interests and needs. One group’s adventure might be sampling different varieties of mofongo, a Puerto Rican delicacy made of stuffed plantains. Another’s might be charting a sailboat to check out the flamingos at Anegada Island (a true desert island), and yet another group might want to scuba dive the shipwreck of the RMS Rhone, an English ship that sank near Salt Island in 1867. Just be sure that your attendees are aware of all the possibilities, keep reminding them to drink plenty of water—and always wear sunscreen.
Renting a Private Island
It may be a far cry from your most rugged Robinson Crusoe fantasies, but the Virgin Islands are home to small private islands that can be entirely rented out. These include Guana Island (pictured), an 850-acre island in BVI with accommodations for around 30 people, and Necker Island (owned by Virgin’s Richard Branson), which can also sleep around 30.
“It elevates the experience of an incentive,” says Scott Ward, director of marketing and sales for Scrub Island Resort, a private island located a mile from Tortola that can be rented for a buyout. He says attendees love the feeling that they have a tropical island all to themselves.
One benefit of going private is that groups can add their own touches to the property. “We had a group light the pool and waterfall with their logos at night, and they put a sticker with the company logo on the pool bottom,” Ward says. “We also had a drink branded after the company’s name. Their CEO loved it.”
Meet Puerto Rico has developed a new app called Meeting Matchmaker through which planners can swipe images reflecting meeting styles and activities in Puerto Rico (e.g. large group, beach, casino and adventure) to be “hooked up” with appropriate partners.
Meet Puerto Rico also has an ongoing social media program called Eleventes that provides services to groups by boosting attendance, engaging attendees, maximizing membership and enhancing sponsorships.
“We realize that many clients—including associations with limited budgets—would love to do more social media at their meetings, but they don’t have the resources,” says Joyce Martinez, vice president of business development and sales for Meet Puerto Rico. “At the end of the day, we realize if a convention is successful in Puerto Rico and people are able to engage with attendees and talk about the destination, it will be for the benefit of Puerto Rico.”
Major Meeting Venues
Between Old San Juan and the modern Condado; 916 guest rooms; 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, divided into 24 areas; eight restaurants and bars; set on a secluded peninsula with 17 acres of foliage.
Historic five-star property in San Juan featuring Spanish Revival architecture and dramatic ocean views; 319 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Luxurious property in Fajardo; four fine-dining options; spa; beach; 750 guest rooms; more than 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Marking its 10th anniversary this year; located on the San Juan Peninsula of Isla Grande; largest conference venue in the Caribbean; 600,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a 152,700-square-foot exhibit hall.
At the heart of the Puerto Rico Convention Center District, facing the Bay of San Juan; AAA Four Diamond property; 503 guest rooms; more than 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Located on a 2-mile stretch of beach; 416 guest rooms; five restaurants; casino; 30,000 sq. ft. of conference and banquet facilities, including an 11,840 square-foot ballroom.
Sprawled along a mile of beach near El Yunque National Forest; 400 guest rooms; 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; casino; two golf courses; 10 restaurants and lounges; 500 acres for other adventures.
British Virgin Islands
On the island of Tortola; 40 guest rooms; beachfront 1748 restaurant is renowned for its continental cuisine; meeting space for up to 160 guests.
Elegant Virgin Gorda hotel opened by Laurance Rockefeller in 1964; 100 guest rooms; five function rooms for up to 200 people; 2,000-square-foot Children’s Center; two beach houses; five villas.
Small private island accessible from Tortola; 52 ocean-view guest rooms and seven hillside villas boasting traditional Caribbean British Colonial style; 2,100 sq. ft. of meeting space; buyouts for up to 130.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Located on St. John within Virgin Islands National Park; 166 guest rooms on 170 acres of landscaped grounds; windsurfing, kayaking and snorkeling gear available.
Large property in St. Thomas; 478 guest rooms, including 17 Royal Suites; views of Charlotte Amalie Harbor; three pools, swim-up bar and waterfalls; tropical landscaping; 15 meeting rooms totaling 60,000 sq. ft.
Elegant campus-style resort; 151 luxury suites (with kitchenettes); five meeting/event rooms totaling 12,670 sq. ft.; scuba diving and snorkeling.
Situated on the eastern end of St. Croix, near Christiansted; 138 luxury rooms and suites; 3,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; three restaurants; nightly entertainment; spa, golf, tennis, multiple beaches.
On St. John’s Great Cruz Bay, minutes from Virgin Islands National Park; 174 guest rooms, including garden-view to three-bedroom villas; more than 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; outdoor and waterfront meeting venues.
-BVI Destination Management – bvidestinationmanagement.com
-BVI Eco-Tours – bvi-ecotours.com
-Caribbean Tour Services – caribbeantourservices.com
-Caribbean Travel & Tropic Tours – tropictoursusvi.com
-Island Meetings & Incentives – imivi.com
-Meet Puerto Rico – meetpuertorico.com
-Premier Destination Services, LLC – premierdestinationservices.net
-Resort Adventure Centers – adventurecenters.net
-See Puerto Rico – seepuertorico.com
-St. Croix Safari Tours – gotostcroix.com
-Sun Celebrations – suncelebrations.com
The 2nd annual Smart Meetings Catalyst Awards celebrates the agents of change who propel the meetings industry forward. Take a look at this year’s winners!