Luxury, diversity and attention to detail help position Barbados as a leading Caribbean retreat. By David Pye, Sept/Oct 2007
With its diversity of cultural attributes, its supporting infrastructures, its turquoise waters and white, sandy beaches, the Caribbean region is a treasure trove for planners seeking an all-encompassing destination for their clients. Upscale hotel properties, state-of-the-art meetings facilities and leading-edge technology combine with sun, surf and sand to deliver the best of both worlds to groups seeking the ultimate combination of business and leisure.
While the Caribbean meetings and conventions market is dominated by destinations such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Jamaica, the region also offers several more intimate tier-two choices whose finely tuned products are ideal for high-end incentive programmes. Barbados is a leading candidate in that niche market and offers planners a wide variety of options suited to just about any programme. From the rugged beauty of its Atlantic coastline, to the upscale resorts along the Caribbean Sea’s Platinum Coast, Barbados packs a lot of punch into its 166-sq.-mi. frame.
Barbados possesses one of the most technically sound environments in the region and features an advanced telecommunications infrastructure comprised of fibre-optic networks, satellite links and high-speed Internet access across the island. The state-of-the-art Sherbourne Conference Centre is one of the Eastern Caribbean’s most technologically advanced facilities and features 164,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space, 11 meeting rooms and a range of services that includes infrared simultaneous translation, WiFi access and high-tech IT training rooms.
“We’re probably the leading English-speaking Caribbean country in terms of our technology and our political stability,” says Jon Martineau, general manager of the Accra Beach Hotel & Resort. “Things generally work in Barbados, which is an important consideration for meeting and incentive programme planners.”
Martineau is also chairman of the Barbados Meetings and Incentives Product Club, a joint-venture undertaking between private-sector interests and the Barbados Tourism Authority. The group is comprised of representatives from 15 hotels, destination management companies and attractions across the island who are committed to improving their collective products and services and to promoting the island’s reputation globally.
“We expect to achieve three per cent growth in the number of tourist arrivals to the island in 2007,” notes Martineau. “We’re still far from being a mass market – which we don’t want to be – but we need to continue to increase the quality of our products and services in order to address our growing niche.”
Martineau is a man who leads by example. A recently completed expansion at Accra Beach Hotel & Resort added a new west wing featuring 80 deluxe rooms and suites, as well as the Chakra Spa, which opened in August to rave reviews. The 222-room property now offers 49 luxurious suites with ultra-modern amenities, as well as six penthouse suites and a lavish state room. Voted Hotel of the Year in both 2002 and 2005 by the Barbados Hotel & Tourism Association, Accra Beach also features 6,500 sq. ft. of meetings space, a state-of-the-art boardroom and some exceptional garden and beachfront venues.
“We’re trying to raise the bar in terms of product, and adding a facility like Chakra Spa will greatly enhance the overall experience for our clientele,” says Martineau. “There are several spas on the island, but we think we are up there with Sandy Lane in terms of product quality.”
Luxurious Sandy Lane is the island’s most exclusive property and a frequent destination for the rich and famous, including golfer Tiger Woods, whose 2004 wedding was held at the resort. The 110-room property features a 47,000-sq.-ft. spa with 14 treatment rooms, as well as 45 holes of championship golf, 1,770 sq. ft. of meeting space and a variety of intimate settings for private functions. While the property’s exclusivity and repeat VIP business once made it an elusive destination for the groups market, planners can now book up to 20 rooms at Sandy Lane for high-end incentive programmes.
While Sandy Lane is in a category of its own, Fairmont Royal Pavilion is certainly one of Barbados’ A-list properties. The resort features 72 oceanfront rooms, each with private balcony or terrace, and is highlighted by the fine cuisine of the Palm Terrace restaurant. Fairmont Royal Pavilion is no stranger to corporate gatherings, and features two meeting rooms with a combined 1,167 sq. ft. of space, as well as beachfront, poolside and garden venues that capture the true spirit of a tropical Bajan meeting.
Barbados’ luxury product will include a new Four Seasons property in 2010. Four Seasons Barbados will feature approximately 115 rooms and suites, as well as 45 residential villas spread across 32 acres of prime beachfront property along the Caribbean Sea. Plans for the property – owned by Paradise Beach LLP – also include upscale restaurants, a spa and fitness centre and meetings space.
Barbados boasts a portfolio of more than 7,000 hotel rooms covering every budget, from exclusive five-star accommodations to all-inclusive options. The Elegant Hotels Group is one of the island’s biggest players and offers a portfolio of five mid-range properties that includes Crystal Cove Hotel, Colony Club Hotel, Tamarind Cove Hotel and Turtle Beach Resort. The fifth hotel owned by the group is The House, a secluded 33-room retreat that is available for full buyouts by incentive groups.
In the all-inclusive category, Almond Resorts takes centre stage, with three all-inclusive properties, including Almond Beach Village, Almond Beach Club & Spa and Almond Casuarina Beach Resort, the latter of which is scheduled to open in autumn. Almond Beach Village offers 395 rooms and an array of group services that includes access to its 4,000-sq.-ft. ballroom for meetings, complimentary coffee breaks and use of on-site audio-visual equipment. The all-inclusive concept also applies to the resort’s tennis courts and executive golf course, and guests can enjoy privileges at all three properties.
The island’s leading address for business, however, is Hilton Barbados, a magnificent oceanfront property on Needham Point featuring a unique blend of meetings, incentives and leisure business. Rebuilt from scratch on the site of its namesake, the 21st century edition of Hilton Barbados opened its doors in 2005, and is the island’s largest resort. The property offers 350 rooms with wireless Internet access, including 77 executive-floor rooms and 33 suites, as well as 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space on a dedicated conference level. Meetings facilities also include a 4,000-sq.-ft. complex comprised of three additional meeting rooms, a full-service business centre and exhibition hall. Meetings include a variety of themed coffee breaks, ensuring that every event, no matter how formal, delivers an authentic Caribbean experience.
“Our incentives business is increasing every year, and that 125-150 room block is just perfect for us,” says Marilyn Soper, general manager of Hilton Barbados. “Doing all meetings business can really change the dynamics of a resort environment, so we find the best mix is almost half and half.”
Aside from being the largest and most diverse hotel on the island, Hilton Barbados also offers planners the stunning attributes and flexibility of adjacent Fort Charles. The 18th century heritage site forms part of the resort, an
is used for private functions that can include cocktail receptions, live entertainment and sit-down dinners. Hilton Barbados has developed a George Washington theme for events in honour of the first U.S. president’s visit to Fort Charles in 1751.
“We can accommodate almost anything at Fort Charles, from cocktail receptions for up to 1,000 guests to smaller, more intimate gatherings that take advantage of the site’s flexible spaces,” says Soper. “It provides us with a truly unique venue that doesn’t feel anything like a hotel, but which eliminates the logistics of an off-site event, including transportation.”
For Joan McInnes, Hilton Barbados had all of the attributes she was seeking for an incentive programme rewarding her company’s top sales achievers in April, 2006. After sending RFPs to a variety of destinations in North America, including Mexico and the Caribbean, McInnes chose Hilton Barbados – and Barbados in general – because both the resort and the destination were a perfect fit for her group of 180.
“Barbados came back in a very positive manner as a destination well-suited to an incentive programme, including their variety of off-site venues, their supporting infrastructure, their safety record and easy airlift,” says McInnes, CMP, CMM, meeting services specialist for Toronto-based Janssen-Ortho/Ortho Biotech, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. “We then chose Hilton Barbados because it’s a large hotel that does a lot of corporate business, yet it is equally suited to accommodate an incentive programme like ours.”
McInnes’ group made good use of adjacent Fort Charles as both a venue for a cocktail reception preceding their gala awards banquet and for a daytime crafts exhibition showcasing a variety of local artisans. Off-site, McInnes arranged a golf/spa day and luncheon at exclusive Sandy Lane, as well as a team-building catamaran cruise featuring snorkeling with sea turtles along the Platinum Coast. The group also took advantage of the island’s culinary diversity, with dine-arounds at popular Barbados restaurants including Sassafras, Calabaza, Daphne’s and Pisces. Other fine-dining favourites include Carambola, The Tides and The Cliff.
“We were really happy with the diversity of dining options that Barbados has to offer,” notes McInnes. “They have a really neat variety of upscale, mid-range and casual options that were really appreciated by our attendees.”
Other activities on the island can range from a night out in the thriving nightlife district of St. Lawrence Gap, to a duty-free shopping excursion in the nearby capital city of Bridgetown. Group activities include helicopter tours of the island, the Atlantis Submarine adventure; a rum cruise aboard the original Jolly Roger; jeep safari treasure hunts and tours of the Mount Gay rum distillery. Barbados also offers one of the Caribbean’s most diverse collections of unique off-site venues ranging from old plantation houses to secluded beaches for themed barbecues.
“One of the best things about Barbados is that the government understands and appreciates the meetings market, and they work very hard to ensure that their clients are well taken care of,” says Soper. “That extends to every part of the logistics, including the support and promotion of some unique and fairly diverse venues.”
One such venue is the Barbados Concorde Experience, featuring the world’s only Concorde aircraft on exhibition. The supersonic British Airways jet made its last flight from Barbados to London’s Heathrow Airport on August 30, 2003, and now sits on display in a specially designed hangar at Grantley Adams International Airport. The exhibit also features a video presentation and flight simulator. In addition, the hangar can be booked for group receptions and special events.
Another ideal group venue is George Washington House & Museum, a newly launched exhibit celebrating Barbados’ place in history as the only destination outside America that George Washington ever visited. The beautifully restored 18th century plantation house is where Washington slept during his 1751 visit, and the compound’s buildings and beautifully landscaped grounds provide ideal settings for cocktail receptions, intimate sit-down dinners and small meetings.
“I would recommend Barbados for an incentive programme without any hesitation,” summarizes McInnes. “It was an excellent experience all around and the feedback we received from our attendees was terrific.”
Grantley Adams International Airport is in the final phase of a $100-millionUSD renovation project that includes upgraded runways and taxiways, a brand-new arrivals terminal, new departure lounges, additional air bridges and an expanded duty free shopping area. Air Canada offers frequent flights to Barbados from several gateway cities.
– David Pye is a Montreal-based freelance writer.