July 21, 2014

Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands Offer Plenty of Attractions for Meeting Groups

800px-El_Morro_-_Old_San_Juan,_Puerto_RicoEl Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Groups that have met in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are well aware of their gorgeous beaches and abundance of water sports options. They also typically visit some of the attractions on the islands, which provide a fascinating glimpse into their history and culture.

Here are a few of the main attractions for planners to consider:

Puerto Rico

Old San Juan: Partly enclosed by massive walls that were built beginning in the 1630s to protect the city from attacks, this area in the historic Colonial section of the city boasts four fortresses from the Spanish Colonial Empire and many other historic structures. Groups can tour Old San Juan on their own or enjoy guided tours by companies such as Legends of Puerto Rico Tours, which offers morning and evening walking tours that include visits to 14 historic buildings and sites. Tours are offered most days (except major holidays) and can be scheduled online. Private tours can be arranged.

–Greater San Juan area: Groups looking to sample a variety of San Juan cuisine will want to arrange a tour through Flavors of San Juan. Three guided walking tours are offered, with at least one tour scheduled daily. Private group tours also are available.

–El Yunque National Rainforest (Bosque Nacional  El Yunque): Located 34 miles east of San Juan, this is a cool, mountainous, subtropical rainforest on the eastern side of the Luquillo Mountains. The U.S. Forest Service provides one-hour tours of the rainforest seven days a week on a first-come, first-served basis for groups of up to 25 people.

–Camuy River State Park (Parque Las Cavernas Rio Camuy): This park, a 1 1/2-hour drive west from San Juan, contains a dramatic cave system that is part of a large network of natural limestone caves and underground waterways carved out by the third-largest underground river in the world, Rio Camuy. The caves were not discovered until 1958 and haven’t yet been fully surveyed. Group tours are available through several companies, including

–Bioluminescent bays (bio bays): The stunning water luminescence in these bays is triggered by dinoflagellates, oceanic plankton that are able to generate an emerald green and ultramarine illumination when water is physically disturbed. Bio bays are found in three locations—Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Laguna Grande in Fajardo and La Parguera in Lajas. The bays in Vieques and Fajardo are the best-kept bio bays in the Western Hemisphere, and are reachable from San Juan by car, ferry or a short plane flight, with plenty of tours offered by kayak and electric-boat operators.

U.S. Virgin Islands

St. George Village Botanical Garden: Situated on a 16-acre site just off Queen Mary Highway in Frederiksted on the island of St. Croix, this garden boasts botanical collections that include more than 1,500 native and exotic species and varieties. The collections are established in and around restored buildings and stabilized ruins of a 19th-century Danish sugar cane plantation and partially overlap an Amerindian settlement that dates back almost 2,000 years.

Estate Whim Plantation: Also on St. Croix, this is the only sugar plantation museum in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and contains a former slave quarters, “great house,” mill and factory complex. Each year, thousands of people visit the 12-acre site, where the restored 18th-century buildings stand as a testament to the skills and labor of enslaved Africans and the hopes and dreams of Europeans seeking wealth in the “sugar islands” of the Caribbean. Group tours are available.

Tree Limin’ Extreme Zipline Park: When not meeting, many groups on St. Thomas head here to participate in a 2 1/2-hour, eight-platform zipline canopy tour through a rainforest on St. Peter Mountain. It’s a great team-building activity.

St. Thomas Mangrove Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary & Marine Preserve: Virgin Island Ecotours offers half- and full-day guided kayak and snorkeling tours of this property. Groups can explore the mangroves on two-person, easy-to-paddle kayaks. No experience is necessary.

Virgin Island National Park: Located on St. John, it encompasses miles of lush forest, historic plantation ruins, pristine beaches and underwater reefs. Trails weave through magnificent unspoiled forest, fabulous lookout points, mysterious rock carvings (petroglyphs) and sugar plantation ruins. Many of the trails end at the shoreline of a beach. The Cruz Bay Visitors Center has exhibits about the park’s history, hiking trails, historical sites, and local flora and fauna. Park rangers can help to answer questions about trails and hikes.

Elaine Ione Sprauve Library and Museum: Situated just outside of Cruz Bay on St. John, this is a small museum that features rare antique photographs, newspaper clippings and paintings related to the history and culture of St. John. The museum is located in a restored 1757 plantation “great house.”

 —Dan Johnson

Read more about the appeal of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as a meeting destination—including their vibrant shopping areas—in the upcoming August issue of Smart Meetings magazine.

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July 18, 2014

New Home for 49ers Football: Levi’s Stadium Opens


Levis Stadium     Levis Stadium     Levis Stadium

Levis Stadium

It’s official:  The NFL’s San Francisco 49ers opened their $1.3 billion new stadium, in the heart of Silicon Valley, on Thursday. Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, will host other sports teams as well as entertainment and special events, but the Niners and pro football, of course, are the big dogs.

The team won’t actually play in the new venue until Aug. 17, their first pre-season game; their first regular season game at the stadium is Sept. 17. The San Jose Earthquakes soccer team will christen the field on Aug. 2.

Levi’s Stadium is a technologically and environmentally (LEED gold certified) advanced structure.

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July 15, 2014

Why Go to a Nontraditional Retreat Venue?

Cabins at B’nai B’rith Camp on Devil's Lake in Oregon

Cabins at B’nai B’rith Camp on Devil’s Lake in Oregon


By Jaynie Schutlz, co-founder, Retreat Central

The challenge of thinking beyond traditional venues such as hotels or conference centers is simply a matter of being able to imagine a new experience.  It’s no surprise, then, that forward-thinking meeting planners are turning to nontraditional retreat venues, like summer camps. Whether the initial purpose is to save money, provide a unique attendee experience, build stronger teams or simply try something new, trying out a new or unique facility can result in unusually productive, memorable meetings.  Here are six reasons why planners should consider non-traditional retreat venues:

They’re designed with groups in mind

Whether it’s a camp or a formal retreat center, these facilities are not made for leisure travelers.  They are designed for learning, collaboration and growth—the same things reflected in many planners’ goals for a retreat.

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July 15, 2014

St. Martin Resort Named Best in Caribbean


Belmond La Samanna Resort. Photo by Joe Vaughn.


Belmond La Samanna Resort and Spa on St. Martin has named been the top Caribbean resort for July by

The rankings are made monthly by, an independent research firm dedicated to reviewing and evaluating products and services in many industries—including travel, fashion, electronics, and wine and liquors. The website provides Top 10 rankings in several categories for each industry. The Top 10 Caribbean Hotels and Resorts (as well as general destinations), in descending order of ranking, are listed below.

1. Consistently ranked among the Caribbean’s top 10 hotel retreats, Belmond La Samanna Resort & Spa is a garden paradise where attendees can enjoy an al fresco massage, lie in a hammock, take a sunset cruise around the island or head into town to enjoy the vibrant local scene.

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July 14, 2014

The Seven Levels of Speakers: What You Should Know


There’s been a lot of talk lately about certain individuals being paid truly absurd amounts of money to give speeches. I’ve left that first sentence intentionally vague because there are always “certain individuals” being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to stand on a stage and say some stuff you may or may not remember, so by not naming names I’ve ensured that the relevance of this article will be eternal. Huzzah for calculated ambiguity!

But enough of my deviousness. If you’re in a position to hire speakers for an event, then you’re almost certainly wondering how much to spend and whether or not it will pay off. In the speaking world, there are seven basic levels of speaking, each with its own pros and cons. I promise this information will help you determine who to hire for your next speaking event as well as give you confidence that you’ve made the right choice.  Ready?

Level 1–Unpaid speakers

These people have either been told by their colleagues that they’re good speakers, or one of their friends coaxed them into attending Toastmasters. At this point, they like the idea of speaking but don’t really know what their focus is. They’re hungry for exposure, which makes them great candidates for breakout sessions at a local conference or breakfast talks for your chamber of commerce. But you definitely get what you paid for—and you paid nothing, remember? They might be great, but they’re far more likely to be mediocre at best. Which isn’t their fault; they’re just getting started.

Level 2–$1,000-$2,500

These people got tired of doing free speeches for all their friends, so one day they said, “I really can’t do that, I’m too busy.” Then their friend said, “Well, we could pay you,” so they said, “Seriously, you’ll pay me to do this?” They don’t really know much about the speaking industry, but they’ve already proven that they’re good enough to trick someone into paying them, which means they are often a great deal because you’ll be getting a quality speaker for cheap. At this point, there is still a definite ‘you get what you pay for’ arc going on. It’s not a perfect rule, but a speaker who commands $2,000 is probably about twice as good as one who commands $1,000.

Level 3–$2,500-$3,500

This is the transition period between being a part-time speaker and full-time professional.  They’ve got years of experience at this point, and they’re starting to become aware of the possibilities of the profession.  They also probably have a website dedicated to their speaking career. Fun hint: if they’re asking for more than $2,500 for a presentation and don’t have a speaking website, you’re probably paying too much. They’re also probably considering writing a book at this point, but it won’t be good because first books rarely are. Don’t buy a speaker’s first published book, unless you need it to level out a wobbly table.

Level 4–$5,000-$7,500

At this point, you are hiring a true professional. I’m about to seriously irritate every professional speaker who makes more money than this, but here’s a truth you should know:  Past $5,000, pretty much every speaker is just as good as every other. There are reasons to pay more than $5,000 for a speaker, but from here on out you should be confident that the person you’re hiring knows how to deliver an excellent speech. When you hire a Level 1-3 speaker who does a bad job, you really shouldn’t get too mad because, well, you didn’t pay them very much. Now, though, you should get mad at the speaker if they do poorly. But they probably won’t.

Level 5–$10,000-$12,500

So if all speakers past $5,000 are equally talented, why would you ever pay more? Because now you should be looking to hire speakers who can start to actually earn you money. Everyone at this level is established, and all of them have a good book. If they don’t have a well-written book at this point, you are paying too much. These people also have the ability to help you increase attendance at your next conference (see4 things you should expect out of your next keynote speaker), which will earn you back some if not all of the money you paid them to speak. They could also do additional breakout sessions, and they probably have some training products or other educational materials that your audience might use after the presentation itself. If you have the budget for it, Level 5 speakers are probably the best deal with respect to the amount of content you can expect to receive for the price you’re paying.

Level 6–$15,000-$25,000

You’re now starting to pay a speaker more for their name than for their actual content.  The content is still there, and it’s excellent. But probably half of your reasoning for hiring Level 6 speakers is because you know people in your industry will recognize the name and be excited to attend the event. Level  5 speakers will excite an audience who previously had no idea who they were, but Level 6 speakers will have your audience excited before they even arrive. I like to call these people the “affordably famous,” which annoys them but amuses me so I’m leaving it in here.

Level 7–$30,000+

You are paying too much but you don’t care. You’ve always wanted to meet whoever you’re about to hire, and you have the money to persuade them to like you for a day. It’s a coin toss as to whether you’re hiring a true rock star in your industry or (more likely) just some really famous person that it’ll be fun to get your picture with. Most of these people live in L.A., New York or D.C., and they’ve tricked the rest of us into thinking that they’re worth the money, which isn’t true since it turns out that airline travel is pretty much the same price no matter where you’re coming from. Speakers occasionally complain that meeting planners with the smallest budget always expect the most, and here that dynamic is reversed: The more you’re willing to pay, the less your speaker is likely to do for you. They’ll arrive by helicopter or private yacht or submarine or whatever, do their talk (which may or may not have anything to do with your organization) and then leave as quickly as they’ve come. But everyone will get a smartphone picture of the famous person, so if that’s worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, knock yourself out!

So there you have it! Now if only we could have speakers walk about with price tags on their foreheads, that would make this whole meeting planning thing much easier.

Jeff Havens is a keynote speaker and corporate trainer who addresses leadership, generational issues and other areas of professional development through a unique blend of content and entertainment. He has been a regular guest on Fox Business News and featured on CNBC, Businessweek and Bloomberg News. To read more from Jeff Havens, visit

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July 10, 2014

Hard Work Helped Cleveland Land GOP Convention

Cleveland 2016 RNC Host Committee Executive Chair Terry Egger speaks at the press conference announcing Cleveland as the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention

Host Committee Executive Chairman Terry Egger speaks at the press conference announcing
Cleveland as the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention.


Earlier this week when the Republicans announced they will meet in Cleveland for their 2016 national convention, I wasn’t surprised. While my feelings have nothing to do with politics, I am definitely partial to Ohio’s emerging meetings destination on Lake Erie.

I was really lucky to get to visit Cleveland last summer, just as the city was debuting the state-of-the-art Cleveland Convention Center, which is conveniently located downtown adjacent to the new  Global Center for Health Innovation. The Republican National Convention will be held in Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, which is next to the Progressive Field, where the Indians play pro baseball.

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July 08, 2014

A Bracelet with a Message


It’s a piece of jewelry that was created simply as a good luck charm at a small shop in the U.S. Virgin Islands and has gone on to gain worldwide popularity for its crucial role in stimulating—and discouraging—romantic  relationships.

Sonya Hough, who had no training in jewelry making, designed the Crucian Hook Bracelet in 1964 while living on Christiansted in St. Croix. Hough and her husband, David Hough, had moved their family from San Diego to St. Croix that year and opened a store, the Corner Shop. Sonya and the children made most of the items in the store, which sold pictures, postcards, belts, bowls and plant hangers, among other things.

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July 03, 2014

Phone-Charging Fanny Packs for Geeks on the Go

GoKin Fanny Pack phone charging device

GoKin Fanny Pack


No pockets, no outlet, no problem.

We all know that one of the biggest challenges for planners, meeting attendees and 21st century travelers in general is keeping all our mobile devices charged. Backpack designer Bill Ostrom and a team from Queen’s University in Ontario have come up with a novel solution to the problem. They recently unveiled the prototype for the GoKin Pack, a portable phone charger-cum-fanny pack that uses the kinetic energy produced by walking to charge your mobile device.

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July 02, 2014

Blessed to Tour Bogota, Colombia

Pilgrims and tourists atop Monserrate Mountain in Bogota, Columbia

Pilgrims and tourists atop Monserrate Mountain in Bogota, Colombia


I’m blessed, and not just because I have a cool job as managing editor here at Smart Meetings magazine. I was literally blessed during a visit to the church atop 10,341-foot Monserrate Mountain, which serves as a Bogota, Colombia, landmark and has been a pilgrimage destination since the 1600s.

Touring with a group of journalists hosted on a fam trip by Proexport Colombia, we made our way through the mountaintop church to check out various sacred relics just as midday mass was concluding. The priest began to sprinkle holy water over the hundreds of people holding up crosses, statues, medals and sacred pictures with outstretched arms.

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June 30, 2014

Groups Love a Ghost Town


One of the preserved buildings in the ghost town of Ashcroft, Colorado. Photo via


For a small city in an obscure location, Aspen has done quite a job of attracting meeting groups, largely due to several world-class features—particularly its stunning setting, lavish hotels and resorts, cutting-edge restaurants, amazing winter sports and stellar summer festivals. All of these features keep the western Colorado city of 6,680 residents buzzing year-round.

In stark contrast, just eight miles south sits a silent, lifeless town that nevertheless is one of the most intriguing spots in the Aspen area. Ashcroft is a ghost town that consistently lures groups that want a glimpse of what life was like during the silver-mining boom in the 1880s.

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