Bob Marley’s manager Lee “Scratch” Perry once said that reggae “sounds like you’re dancing in glue,” due to its unadorned off-beat rhythmic accents lagging a little behind the pace. At once earthy and ephemeral, that laid-back rootsy music typifies the Jamaican spirit, which has contributed as much to the island’s mythical allure as the palm-swathed hills and blue Caribbean waters.
Here’s a tip. Jamaica-bound planners should listen to some of Brother Bob’s tunes beforehand because it’s a great way to break the ice with locals and learn about the culture. You might also bone up on your Jamaican patois. Here’s a primer: Mi soon come says you’ll get together with someone soon. Mi shame tree is dead means you don’t get easily embarrassed. And the always popular Mi come here to drink milk, mi no come here to count cows is a reminder to conduct business in a straightforward manner.
A whole lot more business is about to be conducted next spring with the grand opening of the 85,000-sf Montego Bay Convention Center (MBCC), located in the Rose Hall district outside Montego Bay. “Mo’ Bay” is the obvious choice for the facility because it’s the main hub for Air Jamaica, and the last few years has witnessed a blossoming list of group-friendly resorts 15-30 minutes down the coast toward Ocho Rios, about one hour away. “Ochi” is home to the famous Dunn’s River Falls, the nation’s #1 attraction.
Due to that hotel growth, Montego Bay is now considered one of three major all-inclusive destinations in the Caribbean, alongside Punta Cana and the Riviera Maya, with the hotel and air infrastructure to support large-scale US groups.
“For the last five years what we’ve been doing is improving; there are more rooms, the highway’s been completed, and the airport expansion is finalized, and there’s even a new facility for private planes,” says Marcia Bullock, regional director for groups and conventions at the Jamaica Tourist Board.
The MBCC is the final piece of equation. The hillside facility consists of a 52,000-sf Exhibition Hall, a 21,000-sf Banquet Hall, and a third building with nine meeting rooms totaling 11,000 sf.
“We’ve truly expanded as a destination, but the one thing that was lacking was a convention center in order for us to truly mature as a destination and remain competitive,” explains Bullock. “It was the natural next step. It was the right time. We are already well-known in the incentive market, now we have the meeting space of a full-service destination.”
COMING UP ROSES
The Rose Hall district is named after the historic Rose Hall Great House, about 15 minutes east of the airport. The sprawling plantation estate is one of the grandest homes in the Caribbean still standing from the 18th century sugar trade, situated on a long sloping lawn rising up from the cobalt blue seas into the low-slung, mist-swept mountains.
The drama of the cultured locale infuses any event with a sense of timeless elegance, such as those for past groups with Microsoft, Mercedes and Sun Trust Bank.
“The Great House with its sweeping views of the Caribbean is a fantastic space for hosting a high-profile event or gala—many of our events have been televised,” says Krystina Stephens, director of sales/marketing for Rose Hall Developments. “But we also have daily tours. Many of our guides grew up in the area and are very enthusiastic about the history.”
We concur, after having visited years ago for a Shaggy concert. This is a world-class setting. Indoor capacity is 75, but Stephens says catered outdoor affairs on the lawn are popular for up to 400 pax.
Under the umbra of the historic Great House, a trio of large resorts with championship golf courses straddle the lush landscape between the beaches and the hills. The closest is the 489-room Rose Hall Resort & Country Club, A Hilton Resort, with a beautifully straightforward design especially well-suited for group interaction. Two 7-story towers are separated by the waterside pool with a wraparound deck for sunset receptions. For private events, there’s a heavily landscaped lagoon pool and a large seaside lawn. Indoor space tops out at 11,000 sf.
Also, definitely look into a large outdoor theme dinner by the historic sugar mill aqueduct ruins that extend down toward the Caribbean Sea.
“We’re very excited about the new Convention Center because it opens the door for different types and larger size groups, inviting more business partners and ultimately boosting revenues for local businesses and tourism as a whole,” says Simon L. Alperstein, director of sales/marketing.
Along with the MBCC and Rose Hall manse, groups can also congregate at the vacation home of the late singer Johnny Cash, who was a longtime resident and friend of Michele Rollins, the philanthropist chairman of Rose Hall’s holding company. Today, the Johnny Cash House is an ideal setting for an intimate board of directors dinner or cocktail reception out on the big lawn.
“It’s a very unique location and Cash spent a lot of tranquil time here cooling out,” says Dermot Connolly, Hilton’s general manager. “A lot of his later work would’ve been written here as well. It looks like he still lives there, all of his personal effects, chairs, tables are still there.”
Something else you might not think is inherently Jamaican actually does have roots in Jamaican culture.
Dermot, what’s the deal with Jamaican bobsledding?
Laughing, he says, “Throughout Jamaica, carts are used in villages and rural areas to move things around, like vegetables by vendors, for example. So just for fun people began to race them.” He explains the tradition eventually evolved into the whole Cool Runnings Olympic phenomenon, which the Hilton Rose Hall capitalized on with a go-kart teambuilding activity. Teams construct go-karts and paint team names on the sides to make them look as authentically Jamaican as possible before racing them on the wide-open beach.
RIU HOTEL + CHUKKA ADVENTURES
Nicole Morris, CTC, is the corporate director for Houston-based FROSCH travel management, She brought down 100 couples in December 2008 for an incentive program to the 681-room, all-inclusive Hotel Riu Montego Bay. The hotel was chosen for a variety of factors including the all-inclusive price point, the quick and convenient transfer time, and the fact that it was brand new.
All of the pre-planned activities took place onsite such as the big beach party with ice sculptures, a live Reggae band and a “great mashed potato bar,” she says.
Her favorite parts of the trip were the tropical surroundings, the logistical ease of Montego Bay, and watching her clients get into the Jamaican rhythm over the 4-day event.
“At the beginning, everyone was maybe a little stiff, you know?” says Morris. “So, I’m telling them, ‘You just have to let yourself go and try new things.’”
And how did that work out, Nicole?
“By the end of the trip, everyone’s saying ‘ya mon’ and looking really loose and everyone’s acting all chilled out. That made me really happy, that was my best memory.”
Morris worked with the local and well-established DMC Chukka Caribbean Adventures for a variety of offsite events. The big hit was a day outside Ocho Rios at Rainforest Bobsled Jamaica at Mystic Mountain. The adventure camp offers what it calls a “Tranopy” experience: a ski lift up the tropical mountainside to access the start of the ziplines and bobsled.
“The Jamaica bobsled is so cool,” enthuses Morris. “I mean, here you are taking a chair lift through the jungle canopy. How crazy is that?! Everyone loved the ziplining, it was awesome.”
Morris also liked the fact there was a restaurant at the top of the mountain, as well as a museum chronicling Jamaica’s high-profile bobsled participation in the Winter Olympics.
The other popular group event was the Jeep & Ocean Safari, combining trips into the forest and sailing out to snorkel the reefs.
“Yeah, we maxed them out on that one,” laughs Morris. “We used up every boat they had…. That’s what makes Jamaica so great. There’s a really good mix of things to do and amazing places to go. All of that makes life nice for a planner.”
ISLAND ROUTES KEEPS IT REAL
For bespoke group experiences, Island Routes is a relatively new DMC with a wide range of compelling activities that incorporate Jamaican culture. One of their most successful adventure activities is a 4×4 tour called Jah-Amazing Race. Using 8-10 jeeps, the scavenger hunt event inspired by the TV show Amazing Race centers around experiencing things iconic to Jamaica.
A few of the things teams need to find include: ackee and sorrel fruit, jerk seasoning from Scotchies roadside restaurant and a bottle of Jamaican rum.
“Montego Bay is the perfect location to use as a base for group activities; it’s in the center of it all and there’s so much to do, you never have to travel far,” says general manager Dominique Peterkin. “We always incorporate nature or local culture into it, from Bellefield Great House—a picture perfect Great House for group activities and events—to ziplining in an orange grove at Montpelier. And getting back to the resorts is a short drive away.”
The high-energy ATV race winds down through the towns and ends with a relaxing swim at Doctor’s Cave Beach.
WHITE GLOVE JAMAICA
Spread out across 400 acres in a low-rise expanse where no building rises more than two floors, the historic Half Moon has the air of another era. A time when Elizabeth Taylor and Winston Churchill visited to enjoy the Eden-like shores, buoyed with a sense of British decorum and polished manners.
Half Moon’s 398 rooms span from plush beachfront villas to tucked-away garden suites. One of Jamaica’s signature meeting experiences is gathering at one of the 6-bedroom villas with a private pool and grounds. We’re also especially enamored with the oceanfront grand terrace, suitable for gala affairs for up to 500, situated between the sweeping lobby and scalloped bay. Total meeting space encompasses more than 26,000 sf.
One of Half Moon’s most impressive group experiences is taking part in the local river rafting industry. Essentially the Jamaican version of a gondola, an oarsmen at the front of a bamboo raft built for two guides couples down a shallow river. As you glide on the surface, the oarsman points out indigenous fruit and vegetation, and every now and then he’ll stop to pick some so you can have a taste, or smell a pimento leaf, which is what allspice is called in Jamaica.
Typically, many rafts at once will drift down the river together so it’s well suited for groups up to about 40, or so. Half Moon has taken this iconic Jamaican transportation and crafted it into a rewarding teambuilding challenge.
“We do a lot of raft and boatbuilding which really creates togetherness,” says Myrtle Dwyer, director of sales/marketing. “For raft building, not only do competitors have to put it together, but they have to build it in a way that it can float when they’re done,” she chuckles, remembering one or two sinkers from the past.
Dwyer is also excited about the resort’s new Villa Cook Off Challenge at Half Moon experience. For this teambonding activity, each team is given a mystery basket consisting of about 10 items to make a meal, to be judged by the hotel’s executive chefs.
“The new cook-off challenge is very exciting and very near and dear to my heart,” says Dwyer, who recently ran the event for 25 planners at the resort’s meetings and incentives showcase. “We started the evening with a cocktail reception and then the cooking began around seven, so we were watching the sunset. It was just so fabulous looking out to the west that night.”
MORE JAMAICAN FRIENDS
For intimate executive retreats, it’s difficult not to fall in love at first sight with Round Hill Hotel & Villas. Secluded in its own private cove, the resort feels like an upscale residential estate. The past guest list reads like an Oscars party, ranging from Cole Porter to Paul Newman. And there are 29 villas available for rent that are owned by private interests such as Ralph Lauren, who designed the 36 Brit Colonial oceanfront suites in the Pineapple House.
For CSR-minded groups, The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall, Jamaica offers a great SOS Children’s Village program. Groups work side-by-side with Ritz-Carlton staff and Jamaican orphans planting flowers and clearing debris from a picturesque nearby river. It goes without saying that getting to know the locals on a personal level is getting to know a country.
Except, that’s nowhere more true than in Jamaica.
Here’s one more patois primer: A new broom sweeps clean, but an old broom knows all the corners. Look it up….