It’s Time to Go Back to the Beach

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JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa
JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa

Upscale beach resorts in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean have been feeling a little left out in the cold the last two years, with regard to budgets and perception issues surrounding the incentive market. But the clouds are parting as economic indicators climb north and the term “resort” is going back on the letterhead.

Memories of the recent RevPAR doldrums, however, have been permanently imprinted on the supplier-side psyche. Moving ahead into 2012, hoteliers and DMCs catering to high-end groups are acutely aware they need to provide meeting professionals with real value and a powerful experience to justify the expense.

“Without a doubt, there’s definitely been a change in the luxury definition,” says Mary Jobb, VP of Sales for LXR Resorts. The hotel group operates over 30 elegant properties, the bulk of which hole up in Florida and the Caribbean. “Luxury now is much more personalized. Groups are really looking for that customization to their individual needs. It’s all about their attendees and their ROI…, because the new luxury is not about excess any longer.”

So how has LXR Resorts adjusted to the “New Luxury”?

“From the beginning, we’ve embraced the individuality of each of our properties, so we do the same thing as it relates to our groups. The power of our portfolio is that we really have that diverse collection of properties,” says Jobb. “So what we’re able to offer planners is all-encompassing, it’s a real wide variety…. The amount of activities and programming that goes on at those levels just before you hit the customization part is incredible, so you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck—a lot of value.”

Having experienced quite a few LXR Resorts here at Prevue, we looked at the hotel lineup for a great example that combines a truly luxurious experience with boatloads of value and variety, including both meeting space and activities.

Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort on the southernmost shores of Key West, for example.

Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler built Casa Marina in 1920, what was then considered the most elegant hotel of its day, at the terminus of his railroad that opened Florida to tourism. Today, the sweeping historic architecture stands as a testament to the American can-do spirit, fronting one of the top beaches in the Keys. And there’s no shortage of cultural tours in town and boating options offshore, all within minutes of the 311 rooms and 11,000 sf of meeting/event space.

By the way, the Sunday brunch out on the large terrace overlooking the grand lawn, pretty pool, beach bar and turquoise seas is legendary in these parts. Honeymoon/Valentine’s Day kinda stuff, which you can provide for your group without the expense associated with an offshore tropical locale.

Jobb explains that CSR continues to be a powerful trend at many of the properties. “You have the groups that want the private excursions and sunset cruises, and you have groups that want that same luxury experience but also want to give back,” she says. Key West has a strong sense of community and a passion for environmental protection, so it’s both a breeze and much appreciated here to organize volunteer events.

“Groups are very conscious about sustainability, and several of the groups we’ve had organized teambuilding events with Habitat for Humanity,” she says. “If they don’t have a lot of time, it comes down to ways of brightening someone’s day, like making box lunches and taking them to hospices. We’ve also had groups donate things after their departure like floral arrangements, which we’ve taken to hospitals and nursing homes to tie in that sense of connection…. We’re really working together with groups to make sure those ROIs are there.”

Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort
Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort

HYATT COCONUT POINT, BONITA SPRINGS
Located in Bonita Springs on the west coast of Florida near Naples, the 454-room Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa sits on the 26-acre Estero Aquatic Preserve. The 4-diamond beach resort maintains a Three Palm certification from Florida Green Lodging due to a militant eco-preservation program. That devout appreciation for nature dovetails nicely with the Old Florida architecture and thickly landscaped, beautifully manicured gardens.

You definitely want to create outdoor events here among the many leafy venues that make up the 70,000 sf of group space. The best part is you can dress it up or down without a lot of extra theming. The groundskeepers have already done most of the heavy lifting for you.

“In the case of our property, what you’ll find is more of a casual elegance where the attendees are more relaxed, but you still have the luxury, 5-star feel,” says Darin Henry, Director of Group Sales. “Once you get to the hotel, it’s a 1-stop destination in itself—we have fantastic function space, indoors and out. Groups can do poolside, lawn parties or on the terrace, and that’s great for networking opportunities because of all the public areas where people can sit down and catch up in a nice atmosphere.”

Hyatt Coconut Point has two DMCs in-house, one to handle land activities and one for the water. The latter is operated by Jay Stemen, President of All Water Excursions.

Jay, what’s the most popular program you offer groups?

“That would be the beach parties that go over to Big Hickory Island where there’s a private pavilion overlooking the Gulf of Mexico,” he says. “Groups have had pirate themes with pirates there to greet the guests and harass them, and parrots at the entryway. We can pretty much do any kind of theme you want, but the pavilion out there kind of sells itself.”

Big Hickory is suitable for groups up to 350, who arrive via the hotel’s private boats. Stemen also arranges day trips to Key West aboard the 100-passenger Naples Princess yacht. The trip runs 3-4 hours each way with five hours on-island to explore in the footsteps of Jimmy Buffett. Captain Tony’s Saloon can easily handle 100 pax, and the jukebox there is the best in town.

For more outdoor events near the Hyatt, call Michelle Castady, Director of Corporate Sales at Naples Transportation, Tours & Events Planning.

“The Naples Botanical Garden is another neat venue, they’ve just gone through a massive renovation,” she says. “They have Asian, Brazilian, Florida and Caribbean gardens, and a cool thing we do for large groups is a progressive garden party…. We start maybe in the Asian garden with sushi and a signature cocktail and Chinese acrobats for entertainment. Then we move to the Florida garden with food, drinks and entertainment themed around those gardens. That’s been a really popular experience for many different types of groups.”

THE WESTIN ST. JOHN, USVI

You have to experience for yourself the arrival via sea into the gorgeous cove fronting The Westin St. John Resort & Villas to understand the drama here. Upon entering Coral Bay, you come upon a 47-acre slope of lush mountainside encircling a crescent beach and calm blue water, framing the 175 rooms and 146 villas dotting the hillside. To get there, groups board the private resort ferry in a marina in St. Thomas near the airport. From there, they depart for an invigorating 30-minute transfer across the breezy Caribbean straits.

The dock where everyone disembarks is also the jumping off point to untold romance and adventure among dozens of hidden inlets and rustic beachside restaurants. Places like Jost Van Dyke in the BVI and Coral Bay on the far side of St. John. Places where no one wears collared shirts, thinks about the time or cares about WiFi signals.

“What makes it great for groups is that we’ve partnered with Magic Moments, which has a fleet of powerboats for rental,” says Jim Curtis, Area Director of Sales/Marketing for Starwood Resorts. “What groups have started to do is meet in the morning and then have the afternoon free, where they’ll plan a scavenger hunt throughout the islands.”

Groups are split into teams and then they all head to various islands: Tortola, Jost and Virgin Gorda. Then everyone meets up at the world famous Foxy’s beach bar to share their stories over lunch. And take it from us, it doesn’t get much better than Foxy’s anywhere in the Western hemisphere for tropical tranquility.

Sticking with the marine theme, The Westin St. John came up with the idea of offering groups their very own “Boating Butler.” These coral concierges can customize any group occasion revolving around water.

“The Boating Butler gives you someone to call and coordinate what type of boat you want,” says Curtis. “You also have that personal one-on-one experience with someone that’s at the resort and knows everything about the islands and the surrounding areas.”

Back on dry land, many groups have planned upscale fetes under oversize tents set up on a concrete pad off to one end of the beach. Last year, an insurance company did everything in white: white linens, chair covers, candles, etc.

“When on the island, you want to experience nature, and you’re so connected to nature in St. John,” he says. “It’s really up to the planner how luxurious he or she wants to make it, without conflicting with the natural feel and look of the island.”

MARRIOTT CARIBBEAN + MEXICO
Three luxurious Marriott Hotels & Resorts properties in the tropics provide exceptional incentive experiences with a long history of catering to corporate groups, as well as great values ranging from optional all-inclusive programs to tax rebates.

In St. Thomas, Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort sits stoically on a promontory at the entrance to Charlotte Amalie Harbor. The location provides quick access to town and a wonderful sense of drama and seclusion.

This month, the 290-room Frenchman’s Reef half of the property embarked on a $48 million renovation, which will impact all soft goods, fixtures and materials in the guestrooms and hallways. Plus, new concrete balconies will be added to the guestrooms to celebrate the breathtaking views.

Plans also include expanding the dock facility where guests typically depart for yacht excursions and shopping/dining in Charlotte Amalie. The bigger dock is needed to meet the demand for larger group functions, according to Joyce Dore-Griffin, Director of Sales.

“We have great sunset sails and any other type of sea excursion where we can tailor the event,” she says. “Docking at Charlotte Amalie Harbor for the day and then catering a sunset cruise back to the hotel is a beautiful experience that I know many destinations cannot offer.”

For a truly ultimate island fantasy, boats sail to Buck Island off St. Croix or Water Island, which is just across the harbor from us. Groups can take up the entire beach and create a Beach Olympics all day, and then come back to the resort and have a great dining experience on- or off-property.

For those who would rather stay put, the beach at Morning Star, tucked in adjacent below Frenchman’s Reef, is among the best on the island. Travel magazines rave about the public Magen’s Bay on the north shore, but we’ll take Morning Star any day due to the quieter ambiance, better F&B (all-inclusive optional) and prettier beach.

“We do a Carnival party and parade down there for attendees with the help of a local Carnival group,” explains Dore-Griffin. “We have a big beach blowout on Morning Star Beach with dancers, music, tiki torches—and groups just dance the night away.”

ST. KITTS MARRIOTT RESORT
A little farther off the beaten path, St. Kitts Marriott Resort & Royal Beach Casino is the only large group hotel on the island, with 320 rooms/70 suites on a wide swath of beachfront close to the airport and capital of Basseterre. Onsite, there are seven restaurants and the all-inclusive option is offered to groups without any restrictions.

“We sell the destination rather than the hotel itself,” says Sarines Oliva, Director of Sales/Marketing. “It’s beautiful, it’s pristine, lush, green. Like other islands, it has beautiful beaches but it also has rainforest and historical components with fabulous venue sites. So we can provide added value by offering certain items like a farewell dinner at Brimstone Hill, which is a 17th century fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

Oliva also recommends brunch at the 17th century sugar plantation, Romney Manor, which houses the Caribelle Batik garment factory that sells colorful, handmade linen fashions. And she suggests a day sail to nearby Nevis for another unique and upscale adventure for groups. The hotel can set up a fancy barbecue on the beach after a stop midway for snorkeling.

Onsite, the St. Kitt’s Marriott offers 17,000 sf of meeting space inside and a 16,000-sf permanent pavilion outside by the oceanfront Royal St. Kitts Golf Club.

“It’s basically a blank canvas,” says Oliva. “Our most popular theme party there is a rainforest theme. We turn the whole tent into a rainforest with the vines coming down and bamboo bars, and we light up the palm trees nearby. A lot of groups use it for their awards dinner and we can finish it with fireworks.”
JW MARRIOTT CANCUN
With the values available in Mexico these days, true luxury is accessible for more groups than ever. The 448-room JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa is one of only two 5-diamond Marriott properties, and it’s connected to the CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa for a total of over 900 rooms and 45,000 sf of meeting space.

“Groups will probably save anywhere from 20-30% off of what they’ll pay in the U.S. right now, and they’ll have a great experience,” says Chris Calabrese, VP/GM. “So the sort of deliverable here is just unbelievable. You won’t find that in most properties in the world.”

For luxe groups, Calabrese says he does a lot of private yacht trips to Isla Mujeres and Tulum, as well as golf tournaments at three Jack Nicklaus and two Greg Norman signature design golf courses.

Equally alluring, the famous ecoparks in the area continue to be a big draw for special events.

“I think the show at Xcaret at night is really amazing—the dancing, the music—every time I go there it’s breathtaking, and they’ll take thousands of people,” says Calabrese. “There’s VIP everything for high-end budgets, and they do private tours…. They just opened a new ecopark called Xplor where they have ziplines, jeep rides and underground rivers—it’s more of an athletic experience.”

Any opportunities to meet with the local communities?

“The Cancun CVB is leading groups to these Mayan villages,” says Calabrese. “We take them to Mayan villages and they learn from the natives how to prepare tortillas, how they live in those communities. They organize cooking classes with Mayan women, and they teach groups about herbs and how to heal your body with them. It’s pretty customized….

“Those kinds of activities are what VIPs are looking to do in this area. It’s not only a tour, it’s a life experience.”

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