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.”