The Panama Canal expansion opening in 2014 is spurring strong growth in the tourism sector. And Costa Rica’s decision in the 1950s to protect the environment seems to be paying off well. (Hmm, could be a lesson there). In both countries, planners can create a stellar array of meeting/incentive combo experiences.
Panama and Costa Rica attract a wide range of groups due to the scope of infrastructure, hotel venues and gorgeous scenery. The Panama Canal, for example, facilitates trillions of dollars in trade between the U.S. and China. In Costa Rica, the stunning geography and early sustainability practices created the archetype for modern day adventure travel. So, you could make the argument that Central America is the birthplace of ecotourism and globalization. There’s your business case for creating high-impact meetings and incentives here.
THE NEW PANAMAX
The term “Panamax” is used to define the maximum width, draft and height of a cargo ship that can fit through the locks of the Panama Canal. But with the advent of “supertankers” in the 80s, these megaships too large for the Canal had to return to pre-colonial shipping lanes around Cape Horn. This has been a thorny issue since most transit revolves around Chinese freighters enroute to America’s East Coast.
But in 2014 there will be a “New Panamax.” Decades in development, a new set of larger locks will open, bringing a flood of new money and infrastructure into Panama.
For example, the 369-room seaside Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower Panama opened in Panama City in July with a stunning design inspired by the famous “billowing sail” profile of Dubai’s Burj Al Arab. In fact, it’s already become such an icon that local tour operators include it on their tours. Located in the city’s most exclusive residential area, Trump Panama is 20 minutes from the airport and five minutes to ATLAPA Convention Center.
“The first thing that our clients mention is that they’re impressed with the architecture of the hotel—the Trump Panama really became a landmark in the city,” says Jose Manuel Barreda, international sales manager. “The moment we opened we had already booked large events: launchings for new products, companies wanted to have their sales meetings here, and some others were incentives, so in terms of meetings and incentives this is becoming the place to be.”
Barreda says about 90% of the clientele is from the U.S., and major selling points include: the level of luxury, U.S. dollar as official currency, the oceanfront setting and airlift. Presently, there are direct flights from Orlando, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Newark. New routes open this year from Chicago and Toronto.
“Planners have called this a 6-star hotel,” says Barreda. “It has to do with the quality of the items in the rooms, the design and the service you will find. We have one service person for every 10 guests at an event so that makes us the highest standard here in Panama.”
Another major plus for the hotel is its resort feel in an urban environment. There are two large elevated pool decks for glamorous cocktail receptions by the sea, as well as the private island of Viveros, exclusively for hotel use. It takes about one hour to boat out to Viveros, so most groups make a day of it to take advantage of the upscale island, which includes a beach club, swimming pool and restaurant. Total function space at the Trump hotel is 46,000 sf.
“Panama has always been a business center, where traditionally you came for just two days of meetings,” says Barreda. “But we offer so much more, and I think with the Canal project, people are discovering the true Panama.”
BUSINESS ON THE BEACH
In October, The Westin Playa Bonita Panama opens on Playa Bonita, a golden beach 20 minutes from Panama City. The 611-room newbuild offers the largest group space in the country at 65,000 sf, where Bern Hotels and Resorts and their affiliated entities will be hosting the 11th annual Leadership Summit in December.
“Playa Bonita is a spectacular private beach,” says GM Francisco Silva. “In the back of the hotel, we are surrounded by beautiful rainforests and the view of spectacular mountains. The front of the hotel has a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, and of the islands, Taboga and Taboguilla.”
The design focus of the hotel celebrates that natural splendor with Westin’s typically soothing color palette and spaces designed to mesh the interior and exterior vibes.
Both the Café Pacifica restaurant and lobby bar feature terraces and there’s the beautiful Oceanica palapa outside designed for 600-pax events.
“It is surrounded by swimming pools and two bars,” says Silva. “Groups can enjoy the views of the beach from the pools, and behind the palapa we have another small restaurant with A/C for 200 people. That way, everyone can have a farewell dinner, lunch or breakfast while enjoying Panama’s wonderful weather.”
Silva adds that most groups make time to explore Panama City for dining and entertainment.
“We are 20 minutes away from downtown Panama. There, you can go shopping, you have casinos, you have a lot of nightlife in Panama. There’s also Casco Viejo, a beautiful new area with restaurants and bars.”
BRISTOL SPLIT PROGRAMS
Bristol Hotels offers two luxury properties for an easy split program combining a boutique business hotel in Panama City and an upscale beach resort 80 minutes away. The 56-room Bristol Panama features a contemporary colonial design vision, located in the heart of the capital city’s financial district within easy access to fine-dining restaurants, modern shopping and multiple marinas. This winter, a new tower debuts with 84 new rooms. Meeting capacity is 8,000 sf.
For pre/post-meeting programs, the luxurious 114-room Bristol Buenaventura is ensconced in a private, beachfront gated community fronting the Pacific. Inspired by Old World Spanish haciendas, the resort also features eight villas on 1,000 acres of terrain filled with rivers, lakes and lush vegetation. Total meeting space is 5,000 sf.
“We have great outdoor venues for events, like creative dinners,” says Victor Pitti, director of sales/marketing. “Our cuisine is really, really good. We’ve had experienced planners come from New York, for instance, and they usually rave so much about our food, and that’s one of our strong points.”
Pitti explains that it’s common for groups to do two nights in town and three on the beach.
“With the new tower in the city coming online, that increases our capacity to handle groups of 120-150 participants in both properties,” he says. “The location of the Bristol Panama is wonderful. It’s very close to the financial district and the entertainment section called Calle Uruguay. It’s only four to five blocks from the hotel and it’s very famous in Panama for dining, bars and going out.”
COSTA RICA: AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Remember the 80s? All of the sudden everyone was going to Costa Rica. It was affordable, it was exotic and unique, and trekking through rainforests seemed cooler to a new generation of experiential travelers than lounging by the pool with a pina colada and pulp fiction paperback. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The country’s early commitment to sustainability resonate even more today for foreign groups. To date, over 25% of the land mass has been protected as natural reserves.
“Many things have been impacted by this philosophy of sustainability created by the tourism sector,” says Pablo Solano, director of the Costa Rica Convention Bureau.
“It’s a big tradition we have. In the 1950s, we started writing laws for protecting the environment and creating national parks. In the 80s we started working with tour companies and DMCs, preparing people to become better nature guides, who could teach others about the importance of sustainability.”
Costa Rica was the earliest adopter of an official ranking system to gauge hotels and their green commitment. The “Certification for Sustainable Tourism” awarded by the Tourism Board is presently being expanded to include vendors ranging from car rental companies to coffee plantations.
Rainforest Adventures is one of the country’s most proactive suppliers in the area of sustainability. It was the first company in the world to offer aerial tram tours (through 1,200 acres of dense jungle) without cutting down a single tree. The company offers tram rides on both coasts for idyllic and educational rides through the tree canopies.
Planners can combine the tram experience with ziplining, nature hikes, whitewater rafting and lunch at one of the Rainforest Restaurants, each seating up to around 100 pax in the beating heart of the jungle.
“What we do is offer experiences to groups in the middle of the rainforest, not just tours,” says GM Eugenia Solano. “We provide experiences because part of our mission is to show why it is important to preserve the rainforest.”
Lunch might consist of sweet plantains with vanilla and sugar, followed by grilled chicken beast with passionfruit sauce, or grilled turkey in a pineapple sauce washed down with fresh fruit juices like sour sop, called guanabana. Groups also learn about how the tour operator recycles, and sources locally for workforce and 100% organic foods.
“We try to show people that it’s not as hard as they think to be sustainable these days,” says Solano.
Special theme activities and parties are popular for U.S. groups, such as the Rainforest Encounter. Actors dress up and paint their entire bodies to look like animals living in the forest. They’ll appear throughout the day in the middle of activities, cocktail receptions or elegant dinners.
Solano says, “We complement that with live music. We have a local group that plays music that is electronic but with an indigenous combination. It’s very unique.”
Recently rebranded by Starwood Hotels, The Westin Resort & Spa Playa Conchal on the Pacific Coast in Guanacaste is undergoing a total refurbishment to all aspects of the property. The work is scheduled to be complete by January, which will make the property feel like an almost brand new resort. The coastal property is 55 minutes from Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport in Liberia, also under renovation with work scheduled to be completed in early 2012.
Scattered among low-lying room blocks, the 406 rooms are undergoing structural changes to enlarge bathrooms, and all hard/soft furnishing will be new. All five restaurants are being gutted and there will be four new breakouts to bring total meeting space to 8,500 sf.
“It’s a horizontal resort that resembles a little town with walkways and bungalows, surrounded by mountains, gardens and lakes,” says Francina Gutierrez, director of sales. “We’re surrounded by so much beautiful greenery because we’re part of a protected nature preserve…. There’s also a little bit of rustic flavor with all the natural materials used in the construction, and it’s very peaceful.”
About 40% of annual occupancy is group related, and many of the attendees tend to stay around the resort, sandy beach and the gorgeous landscaped golf course. Gutierrez says popular offsite experiences include ATVs, ziplines and boat trips up the river to see everything from macaws to monkeys. FYI: Don’t feed the crocodiles.
For full day trips, groups make the 90-minute drive to the natural hotsprings. Slather yourself in mineral-rich mud and then dip into the warm waters fed straight from the volcanos.
POST MEETIN’ PANAMA
Popular offsite experiences in Panama revolve around water, culture and the Canal.
For the Canal, groups up to 400 pax can book the visitor’s center for private dinners while the massive freighters slide by. Smaller groups can go behind the scenes to see operators raise and lower the locks.
For cultural tours, Jose Manuel Barreda at Trump Panama says, “We can make a combination of tours and spend a day with indigenous tribes like the Embera community, where you can take a group and learn how they live and how to interact with them. It’s one of the most interesting activities for groups.”
To visit, it’s a 1-hour bus ride and 10-minute boat ride across a river. The Embera teach groups about henna painting, cooking, basic language, bow and arrow hunting, etc.
Francisco Silva at The Westin Playa Bonita says fishing tournaments for up to 120 pax are popular around the two offshore islands: Taboga and Taboguilla. There’s also a daily ferry to Taboga, “The Island of Flowers,” for lunch, shopping and sightseeing around the pretty colonial town established in 1524.
Silva works with Gamboa Tours for treks into interior villages and the San Blas Islands. At both, groups engage with local cultures and shop for handmade arts and crafts.