Barely one month old, the 503-room Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino hosted a good share of attendees at the annual Caribbean Marketplace tradeshow in January. We’d spent all day in meetings at the soaring Puerto Rico Convention Center next door, followed by dinner in the 16th century port town of Old San Juan, just 10 minutes away.
Forget whatever image you have of a Sheraton lobby. By 11 pm, the curvy club-size space was humming with 300 people while the live DJ cranked up Gloria Gaynor and Ricky Martin. The Barbadians and Trinis were salsa dancing with the locals, but then the Jamaicans showed up and things really started cooking.
This wasn’t any type of themed Latin Disco Night. It wasn’t a planned event. It’s how people do business in Puerto Rico. It’s how people live in Puerto Rico—they love to celebrate. To repeat: We’d spent eight solid hours in meetings and conferences at the Puerto Rico Convention Center. Ditto the next day. Millions of dollars in contracts were signed. No one could say we hadn’t earned a little meeting la vida loca!
“To say you’re going to go to a conference for four or five days and not have a good time at some point is ridiculous,” says Ramon Sanchez, EVP/COO of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau (PRCB). “I mean, why are we all working so hard if we can’t enjoy ourselves, make new friends and build important relationships?”
Make no mistake, Sanchez asserts, Puerto Rico means business. Over $2.1 billion dollars is paving the way for new hotels, with another $300 million transforming existing properties. The PRCB is attacking the meeting industry’s perception challenges head-on with its Not a Boondoggle campaign at notaboondoggle.com. The site is divided into two sections: “what to tell your boss” and “what to tell your attendees” about meetings in Puerto Rico. The tightly focused message promotes six huge selling points for the American island: hotel/venue variety, convenient access, modern technology, price variety, no passports required and partnership with the PRCB.
“We have the best infrastructure in the Caribbean and the best hotel inventory in the Caribbean,” says Sanchez. “We’re the most creative culinary region in the Americas, and the best thing is you’re home. You don’t have to leave the country to meet in another world. I mean, if your cell phone doesn’t work here, you probably forgot to turn it on.”
But Ramon, what is it with Puerto Ricans? Why all the dancing and singing at the mere hint of a song?
“We’re a happy people, it’s in our culture. We get that right from our childhood at every birthday party, wedding or any event, you name it…. We love to show our emotions and share our energy and passion for life, for family, for friends. For anyone!”
To back up Sanchez’ earlier point about infrastructure: During the entire conference, the in-room WiFi at Sheraton Puerto Rico was super speedy with zero hassle the entire conference. And this was the first large conference at the hotel, although you never would’ve known it.
“We’re basically a full-service urban resort next to a world-class convention center,” explains Randall Ha, Sheraton’s general manager. We walk out to the 57,000-sf pool deck where an infinity pool drops off into the cruise ship harbor. Old San Juan and El Morro Fortress, one of the largest Spanish fortifications outside Spain, lie just beyond in the distance. It’s a killer view for groups over 1,000 when the flaming Caribbean sun sets over the harbor.
“Attendees have the ability to enjoy all the fun activities in Puerto Rico and around the property, but it’s never forced upon them,” says Ha. “You can be as productive as you want here.”
All 35,000 sf of meeting space is on the glass-enclosed second floor. There are 77 rooms with balconies, which brings an entirely different experience to a stay here. And the dark, minimalist Zen Spa features 10 treatment rooms, but with three sister spas nearby, spa days for groups up to 50 are manageable. When you visit, order the SLT at lunch: a swordfish, lettuce and tomato sandwich on toasted brioche with culantro aioli.
The Convention Center and Sheraton, along with the upcoming Marriott and Aloft properties are the hub of the newly minted Convention District. This is the realization of Puerto Rico’s decades-long “golden triangle” development initiative linking three adjacent communities: Old San Juan, the Convention District and the Condado District, each within minutes of each other.
Keep an eye on Condado. The only beachfront district of the three is presently undergoing a major rejuvenation with hip new hotels, shops and restaurants.
THE CONDADO COMEBACK
Can’t say enough about La Concha, A Renaissance Resort, which was another popular gathering place for conference attendees. The mid-century “tropical modernist” hotel was originally built in 1958 and reopened two years ago with 248 rooms, 90% of which face the ocean. The best thing the new owners did was take out the 100-ft wall separating the large lobby with the tiered pool deck. Tall swiveling glass doors open to completely connect the lobby and pool, resulting in a fantastic reception space that creates movement between the inside and out for upwards of 500 people. At the far end of the deck, the space opens up to the crashing surf and private beach suitable for waterfront events, also good for up to 500 revelers.
“It’s great for big parties because you’re in a city resort but you still feel connected to the tropics,” says José Joaquin Cruz, director of sales/marketing. Inside the rooms and 18 suites, the décor is spare, residential and modern with clean blonde leather chairs and pumpkin-colored suede sofas. And they’re completely comfy with big windows and balconies filled up with the ocean view. All rooms feature iHome ports, DVD, free WiFi and rainshowers. Cruz says, “People always tell me if they were going to redecorate their home, they’d want it to look like this.”
Next month, La Concha opens The Suites at La Concha, a new tower with 235 suites and a new sushi restaurant called Komakai. Total meeting space is 16,000 sf, including the 8,000-sf glass-enclosed, loft-style ballroom just feet from the surf. “It looks like the ocean is coming into the room,” says Cruz.
Right across the street, Cartier, Vuitton and Ferragamo have set up shop below one of the previously mentioned Zen Spas. Tucked within this luxurious block of fabulousness, the relatively new Budatai restaurant is winning raves as the future of Nuevo Latino/Asian cuisine—a must for groups up to about 80 people. And right next door to La Concha, separated by a large oceanfront lawn, the grande dame Condado Vanderbilt Hotel is being brought back to her former 1919 glamour for unveiling late next year. The 315-room property, where many a Puerto Rican bride has said her vows, is aiming for 5-diamond status.
La Concha and the Vandy are under the same ownership as the 4-diamond El Convento Hotel in the heart of Old San Juan, so planners can book offsite lunches, dinners and events on one master account. This is the most admired boutique property in Puerto Rico because of its location and history. The Spanish Colonial building situated at the original walled gate into the city was originally a Carmelite convent 356 years ago. And the open-air El Picateo restaurant in the courtyard has always been our favorite chill-out spot between many forays up and down the 500 year-old cobblestone streets.
The spark that helped light the Condado comeback was the $70 million renovation of the Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza. We were curious heading down. What would be the result from blending Conrad’s typical austerity with free-wheelin’ Puerto Rican tropical spirit? The result is what we’d hoped: Sophisticated South Beach for adults who want both form and function, meaning the chairs in the lobby might be popsicle colored and you can actually sit in them comfortably. The rooms vary with vibrant mustards in some and deep coral oranges in others, while the bathrooms are darkwood and white. The city’s largest casino is on the second floor; meeting space is 41,000 sf; and chef Wilo Benet is a local favorite whose Pikayo restaurant has a strong following among seafood lovers visiting for the halibut and sauteed Japanese squid.
Our favorite part of the property is the lawn and wraparound balcony close to the incoming surf. It has a scale that’s personal and creates a homey island refuge, which is great for groups up to about 250 for afternoon or evening garden parties.
SPICY ISLA VERDE
Last year, InterContinental Hotels published The InterContinental Kitchen cookbook, featuring over 300 recipes from 142 InterCons in 60 countries. Prevue—the only meeting pub at Marketplace—attended a dinner at InterContinental San Juan Resort & Casino where the local chefs and others from InterContinental Miami prepared 32 dishes from the cookbook.
Some of us went straight for the Café de la Prix salad from Paris and the rack of lamb from Rome. More experimental types grabbed the spicy zighni berai stewed beef from Eritrea in Africa and the seafood kway tiao from Singapore. And other diners missed home apparently, although we have to admit the braised short ribs from InterContinental Chicago were pretty delish.
The funny thing was, the local chefs weren’t about to be shown up. Muchas gracias for the shiitake mushroom and lobster-stuffed veal chops with a red wine reduction.
This is a great group event for networking because everyone is eager to share and compare all the exotic cuisine and talk about the destinations in the cookbook. Also, the 402-room resort has the nicest landscaped pool deck and the most fun beachfront restaurant on Isla Verde Beach, located near the airport 20 minutes from Old San Juan. So it’s well suited for pre-dinner cocktails outdoors and around the pool.
“This event is so amazing because not only are we showcasing our culinary talents at the InterContinental San Juan, we’re taking our corporate clients on a global journey to share our in-the-know experience of regional flavors,” says Michael Herrmann, general manager.
The next night, we’re back in Isla Verde at the budget-friendly, 222-room Verdanza Hotel San Juan sitting one block back from the beach hotels. Completely unexpected, we’re greeted with personal cooking aprons to prepare our own dinner with the hotel chefs on outdoor grills. Some of us cooked up churrasco skirt steaks and dorado fish, while others simmered mushrooms and sauteed prosciutto. The Grilling With Chefs teambuilding event ended with 60 of us eating under the moonlight at one long table. For authentic local Puerto Rican hospitality, you won’t find a more gracious and welcoming staff. Owner Rick Newman, who we met a decade ago when he was an exec at InterContinental, has brought together a team deeply devoted to this property.
A 5-minute walk away, San Juan Water & Beach Club Hotel took the island by storm when it opened 10 years ago as “one of the coolest hotels in world,” as it was lauded in travel mags around the globe. The 78-room beachfront tower brought South Beach style to the island, but many imitators have since picked up the vibe. The water running inside the elevators is still pretty flashy, but the Morgans Hotel Group (Mondrian, Royalton, Delano et al) acquired the property last October and a redesign is in the works. Up on the roof, the most stylish event space for 200 people in San Juan is Wet. The open-air lounge with daybeds offers some of the best views in the city.
“We’re the only boutique on the beach, with an emphasis on personalized service that creates a family-like ambience,” says sales manager Patricia González.
BEAUTIES ON THE BEACH
Starwood Hotels is jumping into the design hotel concept in Puerto Rico and turning up the heat, twice.
This month, W Retreat & Spa-Vieques Island opens on the small island of Vieques, a short 20-minute hop from San Juan’s airport. The island is famous for two things: some of the best beaches in Puerto Rico and group kayak trips at night on the bioluminescent bay, where tiny organisms turn neon-like when disturbed. Best to go when the moon is the darkest.
Huge rooms and W’s signature grooviness are the big selling points after the location and beach. We visited years ago when there was a large event with Tony Robbins, and it was immediately evident why this location works. The group stays together because there’s not a lot of distractions and the setting is so gorgeous, no one wants to leave. Especially with cool eateries like miX On The Beach by mega-star chef Alain Ducasse.