Panama City’s new convention center raises the bar

One of the grandest meeting venues in all of Latin America is under construction. Amador Convention Center, outside Panama City, is expected to soar into the international spotlight when it opens later this year, featuring stunning architecture and everything a meeting professional could need.

Panama City is already a global crossroads by virtue of its strategic location as the Pacific Ocean entry point to the Panama Canal, which stretches 51 miles across the country to the Atlantic Ocean. The canal, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2014, will double in size following a $5.25 billion expansion expected to be complete in April 2016.

Increased airlift, cruise ship ports on two oceans, new luxury hotels and marketing beyond the region, including the United States and Canada, have all contributed to Panama City’s ascension as a meeting and business center. The continual presence of visitors from all parts of the world creates a cultural mix that fosters a tolerant and harmonious vibe, which is a great match for international meetings.

Elsewhere in the region, San Jose, Costa Rica, and Belize City have both stepped up their games, from hosting international summits to capitalizing on rich natural resources. Meeting infrastructure and the fact that many delegates have not visited these cities and their landmarks are key reasons Central America is taking off as a MICE destination.

Panama City

central americaHilton Panama, Panama City

As a preview of bigger and better things to come, Amador Convention Center is scheduled to open by the end of the year. Designed by Orlando-based RM Plus, LLC Planning & Design, the $194 million convention center will include two halls that measure more than 200,000 sq. ft. each and a performing arts theater.

“The government has been a great advocate of this project,” says Lauren Stassi, project architect with RM Plus, LLC Planning & Design. “With Panama City’s central location, not only to the Americas but also to the world, this city can be a large hub for international conventions. The expansion of the Panama Canal will also bring great interest to the region, and the government is very interested in increasing its tourism and leisure travel.”

It’s hard not to mention the new convention center and canal expansion in the same breath. The convention center is located on the Amador causeway, providing unforgettable views of the ocean, canal and Panama City skyline. (Both projects have experienced delays, but appeared to be back on track when Smart Meetings went to press.)

Ensuring a sense of place with its design, the convention center resembles Panama’s national symbol, the harpy eagle, signifying strength, intellectualism and power. The architecture seemingly creates the flight of an eagle, with a sense of movement. The 240,000-square-foot banquet hall is located under canopies, modeling the rainforest where harpy eagles reside.

The 210,000-square-foot exhibition hall embodies technology and innovation with sleek, modern designs. The convention center also will feature native Mola artwork and walls adorned with a variety of tropical plants.

Major Hotels

central americaTrump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower

The 347-room Hilton Panama opened last year steps from the Financial District. Society Cafe and Ruth’s Chris Steak House are among the six dining options. The property’s 24,757 sq. ft. of meeting space includes a ballroom that can accommodate 900 guests and features panoramic views of Panama Bay.

Hilton Panama has all the amenities business travelers desire, including a full-service spa and fitness center. Guests can stroll or bike along the bayfront Cinta Costera, which is just outside the hotel.

Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower is a top meeting hotel with more than 46,000 sq. ft. of event space, including a stunning 8,611-square-foot ballroom and a terrace. Located in the exclusive Punta Pacific neighborhood, it offers 369 guest rooms, four restaurants and five pools.

Waldorf Astoria Panama has 153 guest rooms and meeting space for 170 in the heart of the city.

Top Attractions

central americaBiomuseo, Panama City

Colorful Biomuseo is the only building designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry in Central America. The cultural attraction opened in October.

Located near the site of the new convention center, its open-air space can hold more than 600; there’s a 350-seat auditorium, too. According to the museum’s website, Biomuseo “tells the story of how the isthmus of Panama rose from the sea, uniting two continents, separating a vast ocean in two, and changing the planet’s biodiversity forever.”

Old Panama City was founded in 1519 and ranks as the oldest Spanish settlement in the Pacific. By the mid-1600s, the area was a thriving merchant center thanks to Peruvian silver shipments that passed through en route to Europe.

No trip to Panama is complete without a tour of the Panama Canal. Boat tours through the canal and secret waterways lead to islands where capuchin and howler monkeys can be seen. Northwest of Panama City, Gatun Lake is part of the canal and can be explored by boat. Take an aerial tram tour to experience the rainforest firsthand.

Getting There

Tocumen International Airport (PYT) is 15 miles outside Panama City. American Airlines (Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami), Air Canada (Toronto-Pearson), Delta Air Lines (Atlanta) and United Airlines (Denver, Houston-Intercontinental and Newark) offer direct flights from select cities.

San Jose, Costa Rica

This spring, Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT) appointed Mauricio Ventura Aragon minister of tourism. Aragon is a hospitality veteran who has served as president of Costa Rica’s National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR) and as a member of San Jose Tourism Board.

“His extensive experience in the hospitality industry and passion for Costa Rica will foster growth and innovation, which will assist Costa Rica in achieving its goal of positioning itself as the top-of-mind destination for all travelers,” says Alberto Lopez, general manager of ICT.

Costa Rica Convention Bureau works closely with ICT to promote the country, particularly as a meetings destination. San Jose was named Mexico & Central America’s Leading Meetings & Conference Destination at the 2014 World Travel Awards.

“Our expanding infrastructure, easy air access, world-class lifestyle facilities, as well as warm hospitality and culture contributed largely to making San Jose a key and strategic location for meetings and events in the region,” says Pablo Solano, executive director of the Costa Rica Convention Bureau.

Another major meeting venue in Central America, National Congress and Convention Center, is planned for the San Jose metropolitan area. The $30 million, two-year project is slated to begin construction in the fall. To be located in Barreal de Heredia northwest of San Jose near the Juan Santamaria International Airport, it will offer more than 150,000 sq. ft. and space for 4,500.

Centro de Eventos Pedregal features the largest exhibition space in Central America. Just 10 minutes from the airport in Belen, it can accommodate up to 30,000 and has a concert venue. The largest meeting space measures 35,310 sq. ft.

Major Hotels

central americaThe Springs Resort & Spa at Arenal, Costa Rica

Wyndham San Jose–Herradura Hotel & Convention Center offers 81,000 sq. ft. of event space and can host up to 2,000 attendees. An International Congress and Convention Association-member property, it has 230 guest rooms and is only three miles from the airport.

Crowne Plaza Hotel Corobici is near downtown San Jose. Renovated in 2013, it has 213 guest rooms and 21,671 sq. ft. of meeting space. The largest room can accommodate up to 1,200. Barcelo San Jose Palacio is a five-star property eight miles from the airport. There are 254 guest rooms and a 8,282-square-foot hall.

Top Attractions 

Costa Rica is all about conservation and sustainability, and meeting attendees will want to sample its rainforests, beaches, Arenal Volcano and wildlife. This small country boasts a remarkable 33 national parks, eight biological reserves, 61 wildlife refuges, 11 conservation areas and 14 wetlands.

For incentive travel, consider booking The Springs Resort & Spa at Arenal, which offers a spectacular view of Arenal Volcano, natural hot and cold springs, five unique dining experiences and a 14,000-square-foot spa. It also has 9,800 sq. ft. of flexible indoor meeting space and 17,200 sq. ft. of outdoor poolside, terrace, and riverfront space for unforgettable events and team-building activities.

Getting There 

Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is in Alajuela, about 30 minutes northwest of San Jose. Daily service is offered by U.S. carriers such as American, United, Delta and US Airways.

Belize City

central america

Belize City makes a great incentive destination for many reasons, including the fact that it is the only English-speaking country in Central America. The former British colony does not require visas for citizens of the United States, Canada, the European Union, the Caribbean and other Central American countries.

It’s easy to shop, too, since most places accept U.S. dollars and the exchange rate is very easy to figure out; $2 Belize equals $1 U.S.

Although Belize does not boast a convention center, many resorts offer meeting space well-suited for small- and medium-size events.

Major Hotels

Radisson: Fort George Hotel & Marina has become an international gathering place for small groups thanks to 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and inspiring views of the Caribbean Sea. Outdoor space is a key draw, with gardens and a poolside area that can host 400. The 102-room property has a marina, a fitness center and two restaurants.

Princess Hotel & Casino is an entertainment center, with a casino, cinema, bowling alley and arcade. The 160-room property has lots of flexible meeting space, including ballrooms that offer 7,535 sq. ft. and 9,243 sq. ft., respectively.

Top Attractions 

central americaAltun Ha, Belize District, Belize

No matter where you travel in Belize, history is everywhere. Add in the country’s extreme biodiversity and distinctive ecosystems and it’s easy to understand why this Caribbean nation is gaining traction with incentive travelers.

While Belize City is home to historic Colonial structures (remember it used to be British Honduras), attendees will likely want to explore ancient Mayan ruins. The Altun Ha ruins are only 31 miles north of Belize City. Altun Ha’s largest temple-pyramid is 54 feet high; a replica of it has been adopted as the logo of Belize’s leading beer, Belikin.

Altun Ha also exemplifies the rich biodiversity in Belize. Among the wildlife are 200 species of birds and large crocodiles in a Mayan-made reservoir. Armadillos, agouti, paca, coati, tyra and tapir can also be spotted.

Getting There 

Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE) is located in Ladyville, eight miles north of Belize City. Nonstop service is available from Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Newark. Airlines that serve BZE include American, United, Delta, US Airways and Grupo Taca.

MICE Place to Visit

Central America has become a key player in the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions industry with solid infrastructure and warmth. New convention centers in Panama City and San Jose will add to the region’s international appeal as meetings continue to expand globally and planners seek exciting new horizons.


-Belize Tourism Board
-Costa Rica Convention Bureau
-Visit Panama

Top Meeting Cities

Based on the number of rotating international association meetings in 2014, here are Central America’s top six meeting cities, according to rankings compiled by International Congress and Convention Association:

-Panama City, Panama, ranks No. 54 in the world, with 47 association meetings. (Only New York City and Washington, D.C., rank higher among U.S. cities.)
-San Jose, Costa Rica, ranks No. 86 in the world, with 28 association meetings.
-Guatemala City, Guatemala, ranks No. 141 in the world, with 17 association meetings.
-Antigua, Guatemala, ranks. No. 208 in the world, with 11 association meetings.
-Managua, Nicaragua, ranks No. 222 in the world, with 10 association meetings.
-San Salvador, El Salvador, ranks No. 240 in the world, with nine association meetings.