Flying down from North America, the last stop before South America is Panama, a destination served by nonstop flights from nine U.S. gateways. For meeting planners, there has never been a more perfect time to “plan” Panama. Within the last five years, cosmopolitan Panama City has been one of the fastest growing urban destinations in Latin America with a staggering array of new hotel development and infrastructure investments designed to attract corporate and association meetings.
For over a century, Panama has been a place for international commerce because of the Panama Canal. Now it’s the meeting place of the future due to the shimmering new downtown hotels, modern airport and highways, great shopping, fine dining, nonstop nightlife and the world famous ecological and cultural pursuits outside the city.
The Panama Canal itself, presently undergoing a $5.2 billion expansion, provides one of the most popular group experiences in the country where attendees can dine while watching supertankers pass by only feet away. The Miraflores Visitors Center and Mirador Restaurant overlook the 8th Wonder of the World, offering planners a multi-use venue with exhibition halls and a theater, located only a half-hour from the capital.
Partially due to the Canal expansion, Panama today is humming with energy as a boomtown for business and investment, conferences and conventions. Center stage for Panama’s meetings scene is the ATLAPA Convention Center, set on an eight-acre complex that borders the Pacific Ocean. With a maximum event capacity for 10,500 pax, the facilities include 24 meeting rooms, a beautiful 2,800-seat auditorium and 32,000-sf exhibit hall.
On the horizon, a new convention center is planned along the Amador Causeway, near the soon-to-open Museum of Biodiversity designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry.
PANAMA’S HOTEL BOOM
The extraordinary inventory of city hotels and beach resorts with superb conference and convention facilities keeps growing.
Among the latest additions, The Westin Playa Bonita opened 20 minutes outside the city with 66,000 sf of meeting space in 22 multipurpose venues. At the end of 2012, the Hilton Panama will open with 30,000 sf of meeting space. At the same time, The Panamera, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel opens, bringing a new level of luxurious accommodations, fine dining and meeting space for high-end groups visiting the country.
Last year, the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower, the first Trump property outside the U.S. opened on the waterfront. In 2012, the Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis opens steps away from the MultiCentro Mall & Majestic Casino.
Panama City offers a core of international chain hotels including Marriott, Radisson, InterContinental, Sheraton and Le Meridien. The Miramar InterContinental was recently renovated, and the grand dame Bristol Panama Hotel recently debuted its new tower and spa, roughly a year after opening the exclusive Bristol Buenaventura 80 minutes away from city center on Farallon Beach.
BEACH & RAINFOREST RETREATS
Less than 30 minutes from Panama City on Playa Bonita beach, the 300-room InterContinental Playa Bonita Resort & Spa and the aforementioned Westin Playa Bonita Panama are well positioned for incentive groups requiring significant meeting facilities. Further out along the coast 90 minutes from the capital, two new and stylish all-inclusive resorts opened on Playa Blanca: the Royalton Panama Resort and Sheraton Bijao Beach.
Panama rewards her guests with beautiful beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, an amazing diversity of flora and fauna protected in accessible national reserves, and a melting pot of cultures. The great outdoors welcomes active attendees with outstanding snorkeling, diving and sportfishing in both oceans. On land, there’s golfing, mountain biking, hiking and birding in any one of 15 national parks.
One of the most popular cultural experiences in Panama, the Embera Village Tour escorts groups to meet indigenous natives living in rustic villages. Groups transfer to Chagres National Park where they board handcarved canoes for a tranquil paddle across Lake Alajuela. The lake narrows into a small river rimmed by lush rainforest. Toucans fly overhead and suddenly you pull up into the village where you’re greeted with music and beautiful smiles.
Groups can also head into the Gamboa Rainforest to visit rustic lodges for spectacular sightseeing and long lunches beside crystal clear streams. Nothing brings a group together like a buffet of fresh fried fish, plantains served in banana leaf and fresh mango and papaya.
The list of other group activities in Panama is virtually endless. Head for the highlands of Chiriqui Province for river rafting, zipline canopy touring, volcano hiking, birding in the cloud forest, and touring coffee and flower farms. Fly to Bocas del Toro for snorkeling and diving among the Zapatilla Cays, watch turtles nesting in Bastimentos National Park, and enjoy the laid-back vibe in Bocas Town. Catch a plane to the San Blas Islands to visit the native Guna ethnic group, or charter a yacht to explore the pristine coral reefs and white beaches.
Panama provides myriad values for meeting planners. For example, in the event of a medical emergency, visitors are covered with free health insurance for up to 30 days.
To help lower costs, the ATLAPA Convention Center is free for conferences booking 500 rooms with a 3-night stay. There is something very convenient about meeting in a foreign country where the U.S. dollar is legal tender.
And, under the recent Free Trade Agreement, business expenses incurred are now deductible from U.S. taxes.