Take your meeting south of the border
With such a breadth and depth of offerings, both cultural and geographic, it’s nearly impossible for any visitor to experience all of Mexico, top to bottom.
From modern urban centers like Mexico City and Monterrey to rustic villages and relics from ancient civilizations, dense jungles to vast deserts, cool mountain forests to languid beaches, Mexico has what seems an inexhaustible range of attractions. But it’s the more than 6,000 miles of coastline that most groups from the U.S. come for, particularly the many resort areas that stretch along the Pacific Ocean.
Starting with Los Cabos at the tip of the Baja peninsula, then east across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo and Acapulco, these seaside resort centers are especially geared toward accommodating foreign visitors, with an abundance of high-end hotels and attentive service. Other resort areas on the rise are Riviera Nayarit, Manzanillo, Oaxaca and a region south of Mazatlan currently in the planning stages that promises to be twice the size of Cancun.
This is Mexico, a foreign country with a distinctly unique culture and pace, and it calls for added considerations and planning when traveling here. Dollars need to be changed to pesos, Spanish is the official language, a passport is now required for U.S. citizens, and visitors—especially those from big fast-paced cities—may need to pack a little extra patience. (See "Bienvenidos, Bienvenue and Welcome" in our May issue for travel considerations in Mexico.) Of course, the rewards can far outweigh the extra effort in traveling to Mexico, something most visitors realize soon after arrival, watching the sun dip into the ocean from their beach cabana under swaying palm trees (margarita optional).
“It’s just breathtakingly beautiful there,” says David Lee, director of U.S. relations for the Assemblies of God church in Springfield, Mo., who brings a group of 100 ministers to Puerto Vallarta every February. “There are plenty of good restaurants, and the airport is efficient. You still know you’re in Mexico, so you have the cultural feeling. But if you travel a lot it’s not as heavy as some other areas. It’s almost like a halfway-house between other countries that would be more third world. I think people can easily find a nice hotel and get a feeling of being in another country, with warm walks on the beach.”
Golf course at Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort.
There are plenty of other reasons to take your meeting or event to Mexico, starting with the 0 percent VAT for international congresses, conventions, fairs and exhibitions. The Mexican government recognizes the value of meetings and events—6 percent of visitors from the U.S. and Canada who arrive by air in Mexico come for meetings and conventions, but they bring 30 percent of the revenue—and has invested heavily in new convention centers in Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. And in June, the government launched its North American Recovery Campaign to lure U.S. and Canadian travelers back to Mexico by highlighting the many bargains available at resort hotels.
News from MPM
With increased violence from the government’s crackdown on drug cartels, the swine flu outbreak and a tourism industry hit hard by the global recession, Mexico has suffered more than its share of problems this year. That is why success at events such as MPM (Meetings Place Mexico) in Puerto Vallarta in early June is proof of the country’s commitment to meetings and events, and a hopeful sign of the industry’s recovery there. In attendance were Bruce MacMillan, president and CEO of MPI, Brenda Anderson, CEO of SITE, John Graham, president and CEO of ASAE, and Martin Sirk, CEO of ICCA. Smart Meetings also attended the event.
“It’s an important and historic event because it brought together 170 meeting planners from around the world,” said Eduardo Chaillo, director of the Strategic Business Unit, U.S. and Canada, for the Mexico Tourism Board, during MPM. “It’s a response to the belief in Mexico, and all the association leaders have been very helpful in supporting Mexico. We’re changing from incentive and leisure to a meetings and convention destination.” An event spokesman said more planners attended this year than in 2008, with no cancellations, while
the organization works to keep a ratio of less than two-to-one between suppliers and buyers.
“I’m impressed with how Mexico has developed its conference infrastructure, and it’s the biggest surprise since I first started coming here,” said Sirk of ICCA, during MPM, who praised Chaillo’s efforts to raise Mexico’s exposure in Europe and the U.S. “It’s because of great infrastructure and strong marketing that Mexico will remain strong in the meetings market,” he said.
And while incentive travel has been down this past year, with budget cuts at U.S. companies combined with the negative perception of such trips, it’s certainly not out. “Incentive is not so damaged. I’ve seen some recovery,” Chaillo says. “The market is just waiting to completely recover from the economy and [negative] perception.
“With Mexico, we’re very diverse, so it’s possible to focus on different types of meetings, and our geography allows us to offer everything to everyone. We have famous places [like Puerto Vallarta], but have very beautiful colonial cities that are less known. That gives us some mobility. Also we’re very professional, and working very hard with suppliers to give them the tools to understand exactly what the market wants. We are coming back very strong,” he says.
At the southern tip of the 775-mile long Baja peninsula is Los Cabos, one of the most well-known of Mexico’s resort areas, especially to Americans—a reason for the direct flights from more than 20 U.S. cities. The destination is made up of the neighboring towns of San Jose del Cabo, a quiet colonial village with a traditional square, and Cabo San Lucas, the more modern and visitor-ready locale with new hotel and condo developments rising from the white sandy beaches. When people speak of “Cabo,” they’re most often referring to the latter, with its active nightlife and numerous shops and restaurants. The area is also filled with luxury resorts and golf courses that have been a staple of the incentive travel market for years.
Las Brisas Ixtapa suite.
“Los Cabos is a pocket of serenity at the end of the world, where you can find top-of-the-line hotels, golf courses, fishing…it’s really a meeting planner’s dream destination,” says Ella Messerli, vice president of marketing for the Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The U.S. has always been Los Cabos’ number one destination—90 percent of our business comes from the U.S. Everyone here is very well trained to attend to the demands of American groups and incentives.”
Of course, there’s a thriving nightlife scene in Cabos San Lucas for those interested, where you can dance to salsa, join winding conga lines and discover the wide array of Mexico’s tequila brands. There’s also a sizable marina here, where groups can charter boats for fishing big game marlin or swordfish, snorkeling near the famed El Arco stone arch or simply taking a company cruise. Other activities in the area include racing through the surrounding desert on specially designed cars from Wide Open Adventures, with options available for groups.
For more relaxed and cultural adventures, San Jose Del Cabo just to the northeast is home to the Iglesia San Jose (a replica of the mission church from 1730) and Plaza Mijares, where locals can be found strolling of an evening, and surrounded by shops, galleries and restaurants. Nearby is the Estero San Jose, a protected wildlife sanctuary and home to numerous bird species, including herons and red-tailed hawks.
While December through May is the traditional high season in Los Cabos, when people flock south from cold-weather climes, Messerli says all bets are off this year, with plenty of space, and deals, for groups of most any size. “I think now planners would be surprised there is space, and that every hotel in Los Cabos has a promotion with added value and courtesies they would not be able to get any other time,” she says. “With everything that’s happened this year, it’s a perfect opportunity to come to Los Cabos. 2009 is an incredible value for meeting planners. 2010 is looking to move back to normal, but there are still deals to be had.”
Grand Bay Hotel, Isla Navidad Resort.
For meetings hotels, the stunningly designed Westin Resort & Spa, Los Cabos is currently offering its Forever Group Package, and offers 243 guest rooms and 11,900 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space, as well as a seaside golf course and a spa. Las Ventanas al Paraíso is a luxury resort with a classic Mexican design, complete with thatch-roofed restaurants overlooking the sea, 71 guest rooms and suites and meeting space for groups up to 60.
For those visitors intrepid enough to drive, Mazatlan is the closest of all Mexico’s resort towns to the U.S., at 745 miles. And while it may be a consideration given the decrease in international flights to the city this past year (as with the rest of the country’s resorts), airlift is set to increase by the end of 2009 with direct service from several U.S. cities. “Yes, we lost some flights,” says Javier Paez, director of promotions and public relations for the Mazatlan Hotel Association. “For example, Alaska Airlines decreased its schedule to four flights from seven. But they will resume their full schedule in the beginning of November,” as will other airlines such as US Airways.
Due east of Los Cabos across the Sea of Cortez, the city (population 352,471) will soon be home to a new a convention center due to open November 2009. The state-of-the-art Mazatlan International Center will offer more than 79,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space, including the 38,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom. It also gives the city more options with the ability to now handle groups up to 4,500.
But the “Pearl of the Pacific” is about more than just meetings. With the ongoing renewal program of the town’s historic center, Mazatlan has an alluring colonial core to go along with the bustling six-mile-long hotel district of the Zona Dorado. And it only makes sense—the town has plenty of cultural history to share, from its founding in 1531, to the German immigrants who settled the area in the mid-1800s (and started the Pacifico Brewery) while developing the seaport in support of the nearby gold and silver mines.
Still an active port (and not just cruise ships), the city is set along the Mexican Gold Coast and backed by the Sierra Madre Mountains, offering a number of outdoor activities, from fishing and snorkeling to hiking and horseback riding, including a trek up to Cerro de Vigia for amazing views. Golfers can also take in a few rounds at the Estrella del Mar, an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones-designed course on Stone Island, with shuttle service available from many of Mazatlan’s resorts.
For meetings, by far the largest resort in the area is the all-inclusive El Cid, offering more than 1,000 guest rooms and the El Cid Conference Center, with 13 meeting rooms and 10,000 sq. ft. of total meeting space. The property also features a 27-hole golf course and private marina, with numerous restaurants, bars and activities all on-site. Another large property that just opened its doors in May is the luxury Riu Emerald Bay, with 716 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 120.
It may not be Disneyland, but it was no fairytale when Puerto Vallarta was named the friendliest city in the world by Condé Nast Traveler magazine. And the locals have a lot to be friendly about, with the Sierras Cuale mountains behind and the wide, shimmering Bay of Banderas out their front doors, offering plenty of cool sea breezes on warm days—a reason why so many of the town’s hotel lobbies are open air.
Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center plaza.
Besides numerous bayside hotels with ample meetings facilities, the area offers plenty of diversions, including the modern shops and cafes along the cobblestoned streets of old town. Stop by the iconic Templo de Guadalupe, with its crown-topped steeple, or journey just south to Mismaloya where Richard Burton starred in Night of the Iguana and carried on a very public affair with Elizabeth Taylor (which helped put the area on the tourist map). The Marina Vallarta, a relatively new neighborhood filled with exclusive hotels and golf courses, is the starting point for fishing or snorkeling trips, or charter cruises to rustic villages such as Yelapa (only accessible by boat).
While the city is certainly not void of nightlife, there’s also plenty of peace and quiet to be found along its shores. “One of the reasons we like Puerto Vallarta is because it’s more conservative than other places along the coast with more nightlife that cater to a younger crowd,” says Lee of the Assemblies of God, whose group consists of church ministers. “Puerto Vallarta is fairly quiet.”
The biggest news in the city these days is the opening in March of the Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center, with more than 105,000 sq. ft. of total meeting and event space, including a 54,000-square-foot ballroom, and recent host of MPM. The property also features a 247,000-square-foot plaza for outdoor functions. Meetings hotels include The Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta with 280 rooms and 16,895 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space, as well as the Sheraton Buganvilias Resort & Convention Center, featuring 477 rooms and 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Another popular choice is the Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort with 267 guest rooms and more than 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Riviera Nayarit and Manzanillo
Just 10 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta is the relatively new designated resort area of Riviera Nayarit, a 50-mile stretch of coast that encompasses a number of small towns and high-end resorts spread throughout the area, such as the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita with 173 guest rooms and 3,718 sq. ft. of function space. The region still feels mostly remote and unspoiled, despite the more than 13,000 hotel rooms, with plans for continued development.
Forum Theater at Mundo Imperial.
Farther down the coast from Puerto Vallarta is the bustling port town of Manzanillo. Not yet a resort center on a par with other areas in Mexico, the government has invested a lot into the region to that end. Numerous high-end meeting properties can be found here, such as the Grand Bay Hotel, Isla Navidad Resort, with 199 guest rooms and 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
The allure of Acapulco and the loveliness of its bay have been attracting visitors since the Spanish set up camp here in the early 1500s. And for more than 200 years, the city’s geography provided an ideal haven for Spanish galleons laden with precious cargo from the Philippine Islands, which prompted an annual merchant fair. It’s a tradition that has continued of sorts, with the city playing host to a number of larger conferences at numerous meetings hotels, as well as the Acapulco Convention Center, featuring more than 180,000 sq. ft. of total event space.
The Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta garden lounge.
But for many, Acapulco is the original Mexican resort, forever linked to the Hollywood jet set of the 1950s and ’60s that flocked here during the city’s heyday. And while the glitterati may be gone, Acapulco still features a vibrant nightlife, with well-heeled nationals from Mexico City making weekend jaunts for the many clubs, restaurants and shops along the main avenue. You can also retreat to the tony hills of the Las Brisas section of town overlooking the bay, with many homes available for private events.
Coming next year to Acapulco is the latest and greatest of meeting facilities found anywhere along the Mexican coast—Mundo Imperial, a state-of-the-art convention center with 240,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space and a 4,000-seat theater (already operational) that has hosted performances by the likes of Carlos Santana. Originally planned for a 2009 opening before financing troubles stalled the project, the complex is 70 percent complete with a new opening date scheduled for late 2010, and will have an attached 800-room, high-end resort. The center is part of the exclusive Acapulco Diamante district, a new development that city planners hope to make a hub for meetings business, especially from the U.S.
The sister cities of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo form a kind of Mexican yin and yang, with the latter a quiet village, and Ixtapa a modern planned development of hotels and restaurants that rose from the site of a former coconut plantation starting in the late 1970s. A Cancun-like project set in motion by Fonatur, the government’s tourism development agency, Ixtapa has all the hotel and meeting facilities a meeting planner would want, along with accessible shopping and beaches. Represented by the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo Office of Conventions and Visitors, the OCV can work with meeting planners to facilitate the many deals currently offered by area hotels.
Suite at Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita.
For a more authentic Mexican experience, most people travel the 10 minutes down the coast to Zihuatanejo, a former fishing village with a relaxed pace ideal for strolling casually through the open markets or idling at an outdoor cantina near the beach. There’s still plenty of great fishing just off the coast for group charters, and the many coral reefs just offshore make for excellent snorkeling.
The headlines have not been kind to Mexico of late. It started earlier this year with regular reports of violence involving drug cartels along the border with the U.S. Then in late April, an outbreak in Mexico of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, caused a near panic with fears of a world-wide pandemic. All of this came on top of a crushing global recession that had already slowed travel to Mexico, including meetings and incentive trips, to a trickle.
The silver lining around these dark clouds has been that resort areas were mostly spared from both violence and flu, except for Acapulco. In early June, the seaside city was the scene of a two-hour shootout between the police and members of a drug gang. You could almost imagine the hotel doors slamming shut as visitors scrambled for the exits. But even then, the headlines were more alarmist than the details of the event might have warranted.
“Acapulco is a safe destination,” says Eduardo Chaillo, CMP, director of the Strategic Business Unit, U.S. and Canada, for the Mexico Tourism Board. “What happened was a very isolated incident and very far from the tourist area. It’s a violent a reaction [by the government] against drug trafficking, and has nothing to do with tourists, or even citizens.”
So as unnerving as the June event seemed, visitors—whether in meetings or on the beach—were unaware of the incident. At the same time, the government has put special security measures in place to keep any violence away from tourist areas. “Since March, the three government levels—federal, state and local—started a strategic security program, very discreet, to look after the security of the visitors,” says Piquis Rochin, director of international promotion for the Acapulco Destination Marketing Office. “It’s so that people can feel safe, that we’re implementing good security points.”
For groups that may still be concerned, the city will provide them with a security team. “We’re expecting to increase the number of international groups in the next two years and are working hard to send the message concerning safety issues,” says Daniel Martinez, meetings and incentives director, Acapulco DMO. “We have 20,000 rooms, and all the suppliers for a perfect event are found here. We can also provide extra security for groups. None of the visitors ask for the safety measures, but we can provide it.”