Groups can tap into local culture through food, music or historic exploration. But for sheer freewheeling fun, one of the best act-like-a-local options is dance.
“Dance gives meeting planners and attendees a chance to immerse themselves in the local culture,” says Allegra Kean-Moorehead, director of communications at the United States Virgin Islands Department of Tourism (visitusvi.com). From merengue to salsa to quadrille, these destinations encourage attendees to sway, dip, clap and spin—all to a unique island beat.
“Culturally distinctive yet familiar, Puerto Rico offers a state-of-the-art meeting experience with the appeal of an offshore destination,” says Milton Segarra, president and CEO of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau (meetpuertorico.com). In addition to stellar meeting spaces and offsite options, the island energizes groups with its passion for dance.
Puerto Rico’s excellent meetings infrastructure epitomizes its U.S.-meets-Caribbean influences, melding state-of-the-art with tropical accents. Many of the island’s meeting venues are located in San Juan, both the oldest city in the U.S. and a hub for major conferences and conventions.
Here, the Puerto Rico Convention Center inspires attendees with a high-design aesthetic. A curved roof evokes a cresting wave, the carpet incorporates the image of a magnified water drop and an art installation in the ballroom emulates clouds via colorful glass panels. Ample natural light shines in through a lofty glass exterior that illuminates nautical- themed local art on the walls, and stained-glass and ironwork accents add a sophisticated touch. This inspiring design is complemented by modern technology and 580,000 sq. ft. of exhibit and meeting space, including a terrace fronting the ocean.
Several meeting hotels cater to groups in close proximity to the center. Adjacent to the venue, the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Convention Center is a AAA Four Diamond choice with 40,000 sq. ft. of function space. District Bar features an outside terrace a few steps from the convention center.
Just over a mile north of the convention center, Caribe Hilton San Juan has 65,000 sq. ft. of space and 910 guest rooms, many of which face Fortin de San Geronimo del Boqueron, a 17th-century fort that sits at the sea’s edge. Inspiring outdoor meeting space includes a secluded gazebo and an oceanfront terrace. The outdoor pool can also be turned into a fiberglass-covered dance floor, as it was during a recent association meeting hosted at the property. No matter where it’s held, an event here is best enjoyed with a pina colada, which was purportedly invented at the hotel in the 1950s. The Hilton just completed a renovation to its main-building guest rooms and debuted a new ballroom; a second ballroom is slated to debut by the end of the year.
While the Caribe is imbued with island panache, Conrad Condado Plaza boasts a modern aesthetic marked by red, orange and white accents. The Royal Ballroom, featuring a dark-red carpet, built-in stage and bar, showstopping three-tiered chandelier and Condado Lagoon views, is one of the finest venues on the island for special functions. It flows out onto a lagoon-front terrace fit for pre-reception cocktails and appetizers. For recreation, the hotel offers a lagoon-front tennis court; for entertainment, there’s a 12,000-square-foot casino.
All of these properties are located near Old San Juan, which dates back to the 1500s and is an absolute must-visit during any trip to the island. The only activity you need to plan here is a group stroll through town, where peach, red and yellow buildings are neatly aligned along narrow alleys constructed of light-blue cobblestone. Storefronts peddle rum smoothies, handmade bags, hand-rolled cigars and other staples of local culture. Unfurled Puerto Rican flags symbolize the impassioned native pride for which the island is known.
Outside San Juan in Fajardo on the island’s eastern shore, El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort is a longtime favorite. It offers more than 100,000 sq. ft. of event venues, with gardens and a white-sand beach providing inspiring outdoor space. Attendees can close deals over a round of golf on the 18-hole course, then relax at the hotel spa.
El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, Fajardo
High-end incentive groups favor the exclusivity and seclusion of the new Dorado Beach, a Ritz- Carlton Reserve along the island’s quiet northern shore. Two ocean-view pools, a scenic nature trail and three 18-hole golf courses up the amenities ante, and all are paired with the high-level service for which the Ritz brand is renowned.
Outside the hotel scene, superb offsite options include Hacienda Siesta Alegre, a former plantation home located in the foothills of El Yunque National Forest; and Antiguo Casino de Puerto Rico in Old San Juan, with an ornate white-marble ballroom that can be used for special events.
Dancing to bomba and plena, Puerto Rico
Every night, musicians play live music in the spacious circular lobby of El San Juan Resort & Casino. And every time there’s music, there’s dance. Locals usually start moving first, spinning and chacha- ing until their enthusiasm inspires out-of-town guests to join in. Soon, the space transforms into a dance party that lasts until the wee hours.
It’s a scene that vividly captures Puerto Rico’s penchant for dance, a feature of the destination that adds a new rhythm to the meeting experience. “Dancing plays an important role in how we express ourselves and is just one element of Puerto Rico’s culture that group delegates can enjoy on the island,” says Segarra.
Salsa and merengue are, by far, the most common dances in Puerto Rico (to learn more about these and other dance styles, see pg. 150). These are the styles frequently performed at El San Juan, as well as the Caribe Hilton, Courtyard Isla Verde and other properties with a strong dance presence. Many locals also dance to bomba and plena, percussion- driven musical styles from Africa, while the younger set favors reggaeton.
There are plenty of ways planners can integrate local dance into their meeting itinerary. Many plan a reception featuring a parranda, a strolling band that plays dance and folkloric, or jibaro, music. Jibaro bands encourage guests to get out of their seats and join a conga line as they are given tambourines, maracas and other instruments to play.
Several companies arrange dance performances at events, including Entertainment Concepts, which brings shows including Authentic Flamenco and Tango Passion to events and conventions. For a list of other companies that arrange performances, go to forms.meetpuertorico.com/directory and check out the categories for “music and entertainment promoters” and “musicians, bands and entertainment shows.”
Instead of bringing the dance to the group, planners can also bring the group to the dance. Regular dance events are popular in Old San Juan and make for a lively addition to a night on the town. Flamenco performers stomp and snap for the crowds every Friday and Saturday night at Barrachina restaurant in Old San Juan (the entertainment comes free with dinner). And sunset concerts held the last Sunday of every month next to La Casita on Old San Juan’s waterfront feature local music and dance.
One of the best places to experience salsa is at Nuyorican Cafe, an unassuming bohemian club down an alleyway in Old San Juan that attracts bigname artists to perform for guests who take over a checkerboard dance floor.
For the ultimate dance-infused experience, consider planning an event around the time of a festival. The Puerto Rico Tango Festival is an annual celebration of the dramatic dance style and is slated to take place Oct. 24–27 this year. Historic locations throughout Old San Juan also host Argentinian tango dance shows and social dance events (milongas) that invite improv participation.
U.S. Virgin Islands
“The U.S. Virgin Islands provide the perfect setting for meetings and events with a relaxed atmosphere and cool Caribbean charm,” says Kean-Moorehead. The region’s main islands—St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas—welcome guests with sunny temps and a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude that frequently manifests in the form of free-spirited dance.
Frechman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort, St. Thomas
St. Thomas, the island chain’s cosmopolitan core, is home to big-name and upscale properties. Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort is at once business-minded, with 60,000 sq. ft. of function space, and suited to unwinding, with poolside cabanas, an infinity-pool bar and a grill fronting Charlotte Amalie Harbor.
Executive groups and incentive VIPs forget their business blues at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, where views of white-sand beaches provide sublime inspiration and the spa offers such treatments as a sea-salt body scrub. Located within a tranquil 30-acre estate, the property offers 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
For a pre- or post-meeting reception, a must-book is the cliffside Villa Norbu. Attendees walk down a steep stone stairway to the Sunrise Terrace, which can accommodate up to 50 for a sit-down dinner with a fabulous view of the Atlantic. Design details including teak and bamboo chairs and an Indo-Chinese- style pavilion—complement the tranquility of the oceanfront setting.
St. Thomas is also home to decadent group-dining options. OldStone Farmhouse serves a daily changing menu of fresh cheeses, seafood and pastas in a dramatic setting: a 250-year-old stone building flanked by a courtyard and cascading fountain.
In historic Frenchtown, Oceana Restaurant is a coveted choice located inside a former Russian consulate great house. Guests can sip cocktails in the lounge, which is decorated with local art, then enjoy a surf-and-turf feast in the seaside dining room.
Groups staying on St. Thomas would be remiss not to board a catamaran or ferry for an offsite outing to St. John, which has beaches consistently ranked among the best in the world. Nearly 75 percent of the island is composed of Virgin Islands National Park, home to mangrove forests, swamps, seagrass beds and coral reefs ideal for snorkeling (for beginners, an underwater snorkel trail at Trunk Bay provides plaques with information about the reefs and marine life). Hiking groups will also find much to love, as the island offers 20 trails of varying difficulty.
Meeting groups may also choose to meet and stay on this naturally blessed island. A choice with cache is Caneel Bay, a Rosewood Resort, located on 170 acres within the national park and along the waterfront. The property is a haven for foodies; for the ultimate experience, up to 10 can enjoy a sevencourse dinner inside the Wine Room, located within an 18th-century plantation house and graced with more than 1,000 bottles of wine.
The largest of the islands, St. Croix, captures the Caribbean’s energy, with artsy festivals, dance and music adding cultural color to the scenic setting.
This island’s standout lodging property is The Buccaneer. The Caribbean’s oldest hotel is located in Estate Shoys, a community that opened its first building in 1653. Though the hotel offers a lengthy list of amenities—including an 18-hole golf course fronting the Caribbean and three peaceful beaches—it caters to groups seeking exclusivity, as it has just 138 guest rooms and 3,200 sq. ft. of event space.
St. George Village Botanical Garden provides an offsite experience that embraces St. Croix’s natural attributes. The 16.5-acre garden is located among the ruins of a 19th-century sugarcane plantation and includes more than 1,500 varieties of plants. The garden’s Great Hall can host special events.
Caribbean Ritual Dancers, U.S. Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands boast a melting pot of cultural influences, from African and West Indian to Dutch and Danish, and these influences distinguish dynamic dance styles and performances. “Dance is an integral part of USVI culture,” says Kean-Moorehead. “It allows visitors to take part in an experience that has been part of the islands’ culture for hundreds of years.”
A handful of local dance groups work to keep the islands’ traditional dance styles alive and perform year-round for visitors. St. Croix Heritage Dancers are known for their spirited renditions of quadrille, the island’s folkloric dance, while outfitted in colorful madras clothing.
The Caribbean Dance Company and Caribbean Ritual Dancers not only perform for the crowds, but lead dance lessons for groups. The former, established on St. Croix in 1977, primarily performs dances with African roots. The latter dances a variety of native styles in elaborate costumes and frequently performs at conventions and conferences.
Groups can also take advantage of dance festivals including Virgin Islands Carnival, which takes place every April on St. Thomas. While not focused exclusively on dance—local music, food and art also take center stage—the festival showcases both quadrille and maypole, a Western European folk dance.
Jump Up, a lively celebration that takes over the streets of Christiansted on St. Croix four times each year, is another favorite (in the Caribbean, “jump up” means “to dance”). As local vendors sell food and drinks and thumping music fills the air, Kiki and her troupe of Flaming Gypsies perform fire-dance rituals as stilted moko jumbies (see sidebar on pg. 151) mingle with the crowds. The final Jump Up of the year is set for Nov. 29.
For a dance-filled night on the town, groups can head to Fred’s Restaurant Bar in Cruz Bay on St. John. On Wednesday and Friday nights, this low-key establishment becomes a reggae hot spot with live music and inhibition-busting libations.
When business wraps, few things will inspire and enliven attendees more than the chance to loosen their ties, kick off their shoes and—as the locals love to do—just dance.
Main image: Caribbean Ritual Dancers perform at a group's welcome reception at Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort on St. Thomas
Traditional Dance Styles
While several dance styles are performed in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, merengue, quadrille and salsa are particularly popular and culturally resonant.
This style of dance is most popular in the Dominican Republic, but is also prolific in Puerto Rico. One theory posits that it actually originated in Puerto Rico and Cuba in the mid-19th century, evolving from a popular dance at the time called Urpa, and only headed to the Dominican Republic later.
The partner-based dance follows a two-step pattern and requires a contrary hip twist to the right that can be difficult for newcomers to master, but which the locals of Puerto Rico perform with ease.
Merengue has also been embraced by the U.S. Virgin Islands, where locals learned of the dance from their Caribbean neighbor.
Originally from France, where it began in the 1700s, quadrille has since become the traditional folk dance of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Forbidden from performing their native African dance by plantation owners, slaves on the islands embraced this European dance because many of its features—including hip swaying and rhythmic steps—are also common in Africa.
Performed by four couples in a square, the dance was a precursor to square dancing and involves colorful clothing made of madras, a lightweight cotton fabric. Per tradition, women wear madras head ties that symbolize different meanings based on the tie: A one-point tie means a woman is single, a two-point tie means she’s engaged, a three-point tie means she’s married and a four-point tie means she’s widowed or divorced.
This sultry Latin-based dance with Cuban and African influences is prevalent throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is partner-based and marked by an eight-count rhythm and fast hip and feet movements, with the upper body remaining level. Because it involves a leader and follower, it builds trust among partners, and there is enough flexibility in the style to allow for many additional elements, including spins, acrobatics and lifts.
Says Milton Segarra, president and CEO of the Puerto Convention Bureau: “Salsa is easy to learn, is fun to enjoy in a group setting and provides a great way to experience a mainstay of Puerto Rico’s culture and history.”
When slaves came to the U.S. Virgin Islands, they brought the tradition of moko jumbies with them. These masked dancers on stilts reach up to 14 feet high and represent sacred spirits guarding African villages from evil. The origin of the term likely comes from moko, referencing an African god, and jumbi, a West Indian term for a ghost or spirit. Today, they can be found performing throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands and are a fixture at cultural festivals and fairs.
In 2009, the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism adopted the moko jumbie as its symbol for the islands. The department’s logo incorporates the figure releasing three stars depicting St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas.
The Rum Diaries
Rum is hands-down the beverage of choice in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and for good reason— the quality on these islands is first-rate. Here are three local favorites to savor:
Casa Bacardi in Catano, just across the bay from Old San Juan, isn’t just the largest rum distillery in Puerto Rico: It’s the largest in the world, period, producing an astonishing 100,000 gallons of rum per day. Group tours, complete with tastings, are free. Features include a video presentation; distilling and sniffing exhibits; and a sit-down session with a bartender who explains modern variations on the classic liquor. Guests will also learn about rum’s pirate history, the meaning of the Bacardi bat (hint: It has to do with family, unity and good health) and the origins of famous mixed drinks made with rum.
While Bacardi is commonly associated with Puerto Rico, it actually originated in Santiago de Cuba. The island’s native rum is Don Q, which dates back more than 145 years and is favored among many of the locals. The rum’s producer is located in Old San Juan and serves free samples of varieties infused with passion fruit, lemon, coconut and more. Guests can also sample mojitos and pina coladas made from the rum.
The preferred rum of the U.S. Virgin Islands is produced at a distillery on St. Croix that was founded in 1760, and where a 20-minute guided tour costs just $5 a person. For a taste of inventive mixed drinks made with the rum, groups can slide up to the bar at The Buccaneer on St. Croix. Sweet concoctions include Cruzan Infusion—Cruzan light rum mixed with tequila, Benedectine, fresh lime juice and coconut cream. Or they may choose to sip a deceptively sweet Cruzan cocktail at the beach-bum-friendly Mountain Top on St. Thomas. The bar claims it invented the banana daiquiri and still makes a mean one today.