Planners and suppliers from around the world flew into Panama in December to attend the 11th Annual Leadership Summit at The Westin Playa Bonita Panama—the new 611-room oceanfront resort owned by The Bern Group. The event was created by The Opus Group, based in Miami, for networking and product education. Panama is super hot right now with a bunch of new group hotels, making it a prime meetings capital in the easily accessible center of the Americas.
Nestled on a mile-long Pacific beach just 20 minutes away from downtown Panama City, the Westin and its staff did a phenomenal job playing host for the 4-day event, which exceeded many of the planners’ expectations. In fact, many had never been to Panama before and were impressed with not just the facilities, but the service, value and friendliness of the people.
As one of the first groups in-house, we were wowed when we stepped into the lobby with floor-to-ceiling windows offering up close and personal views of the beach. Lush tropical islands with mountains beckoned in the distance, and immediately your body starts to ratchet down amid the tranquility.
Much of the 65,000 sf of meeting space has similar vistas, like the beautiful Pacific Seascape Ballroom with a capacity for 800 pax. Basically, you have all the amenities of a modern meetings hotel with the backdrop of an exotic incentive resort.
The group dined quite well during our stay. There are so many different cuisines and menus that planners can use to create memorable dinners and events. The hotel features a Latin steakhouse, Pan Asian fusion restaurant and the Starfish Grill, serving ultra fresh sustainable seafood. Starfish is also great for a buyout either outdoors or inside with panoramic views of the ocean and fabulous pool. Capacity is 240.
The Westin’s rooms are very tastefully done as well with plenty of soothing neutral colors and accents of dark native woods. Of course, you’ll enjoy the Westin signature Heavenly Bed and Heavenly Bath, with a moveable divider when you want an ocean view from your bubble bath. We have to mention the comfortable oceanfront balconies with heartstopping views of the beach, islands and mesmerizing deep blue water.
Other hotel amenities include a Westin Workout Gym, a spa with seven treatment rooms, three freshwater infinity edge pools, and 42-inch LCD TVs and WiFi in the rooms.
Dinner with Friends
On opening night, planners were welcomed with dinner at the secluded Villa Bonita, the private residence of the Bern family set on a cliff over the Pacific Ocean. The 20 themed junior suites are decorated with items the family has collected over generations from around the globe. This property provides a fully multilingual staff, wine cellar and infinity pool, and it’s available for buyouts for corporate meetings and incentive groups.
Another evening, we all gathered for an outdoor feast at the 300-room InterContinental Playa Bonita Resort & Spa, also operated by Bern Hotels. Entertainment included performances like those you’ll see during Panama’s carnival, along with an awesome display of fireworks. The hotel recently hosted a Konica buyout for seven nights.
“We make it easy for our clients,” says Antonio Manfredonio, Bern’s corporate director of sales/marketing. “If they want all-inclusive, we’ll do it. We are one company with many choices: hotels, resorts, DMCs. Everything the planner needs, we have it.”
We asked Manfredonio what are some of the most popular group experiences in the region.
“Your group can check in at either the Intercontinental Playa Bonita or the Westin and enjoy programs to Panama’s old city, the new downtown and a Panama Canal tour,” he says. “Then they can transfer and check in at Gamboa Resort in the Gamboa Rainforest…. Or, your group can experience a myriad of programs to the beautiful rainforest. Most of the best experiences are no more than two hours away.”
Gamboa Tours handled logistics for the Leadership Summit group. Transportation was comfortable and convenient, and the programs they offered were well designed to inspire participants. My favorite was the Embera Village tour. Indigenous tribesmen transported us to their village via handcarved canoes over the lake and down a relaxing river. Our 25 group members were divided into three canoes, and as we pulled up to the village we were greeted with music and beautiful smiles.
We learned about their daily lives and the intricate crafts they make, such as weaved baskets colored with natural dyes. Then we all sat down for a fantastic lunch of fresh fried fish, plantains served in a banana leaf and then fresh fruit. Afterwards, some of our hosts performed traditional dancing and then a few of our group joined in. It was truly a great networking event with everyone so engaged in such a memorable experience.
Some of our group also participated in a CSR event at the Pena Blanca elementary school in the town of Veracruz about 15 minutes from the Westin. American meeting professionals worked alongside Panamanian children to plant 45 trees around the school grounds. The goal was to teach the youngsters the importance of the natural environment, and how they have a responsibility for its preservation. Our group also donated school supplies and funds for new soccer nets, and then everyone had ice cream.
Where the World Meets
Panama, known as “Where the World Meets,” is a very attractive choice for meeting and incentive groups from North America. The government has invested in new roadways and a new 161,000-sf convention center opening in 2014. The 100-year anniversary of the original Panama Canal and the new supertanker canal are also generating a lot of buzz and hotel development.
Also new, the Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseum Panama opens later this year. The ultra modern facility will house function space and exhibits celebrating Panama’s spectacular biodiversity and the many ways people are working to protect it.
Clearly, Panama is on the move.
“We will double our capacity of new hotel rooms in the next three years to 22,000 rooms,” says Panama’s Vice-Minister of Tourism, Ernesto Orillac. “We can wow groups with all kinds of activities from deep sea fishing off our 1,500 islands to the 2nd largest rainforest in the world. We offer the best connectivity from the USA. And add in our cultural and eco experiences with shopping, nightlife and casinos—we offer it all.”
Orillac mentions that Panama’s support services are as good as any in Latin America. For example, medical care is free for visitors up to 30 days should an attendee have a medical emergency. And, he says, planners will be provided with free meeting space at the new convention center when 500 rooms or more are booked. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org.