Admit it: Once you’ve started thinking “island” for your next meeting, you’re hooked on the idea. These appealing pieces of real estate are self-contained, far from everyday distractions and often offer stunning views and remarkable natural beauty. And fortunately, many provide excellent meeting venues.
But which island? Each island has its own particular vibe depending on its geography and history. Some are relatively undeveloped; others bustle with urban amenities. Some offer sun-drenched beaches and crystal blue waters; others, wilderness trails and exotic wildlife. Still others possess multicultural history or the chic milieu of a foreign film. A few—especially the larger ones—offer all of the above.
One element that all meeting islands have in common is an array of new and renovated properties aimed at wowing seasoned attendees. To help you narrow down the options, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorites in the United States and other parts of the world.
Westin Maui Resort and Spa, Maui
Together, the islands of Hawaii lure planners and attendees with their world-class beaches, warm, inviting waters and breathtaking beauty. But, in fact, they’re distinctly different from one another in geography, size, landscape and vibe. Oahu is the main hub, with renowned beaches and nightlife; Maui is more relaxed, as is the larger but less densely populated Big Island. Kauai, the smallest of the main islands, is less developed and more intimate.
Where to stay & meet
Moana Surfrider, Oahu, Hawaii
Each island features its own scorecard of new and updated properties. On Oahu, Waikiki has seen numerous updates: The Moana Surfrider recently completed a $15 million transformation to 36 suites and 522 guest rooms in the Diamond and Tower wings. Nearby, the Royal Hawaiian (528 guest rooms, 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space) and the Sheraton Waikiki (1,634 guest rooms, 45,000 sq. ft.) are still fresh from their recent renovations. The renovated pool deck at the Hawaii Prince Hotel Waikiki (538 guest rooms, 20,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor space) dazzles with sweeping harbor and ocean views.
On Maui, the Hyatt Regency Resort & Spa finished a $5 million redesign of 28 suites (806 rooms, 100,000 sq. ft.), while the Westin Maui Resort and Spa unveiled 553 redesigned guest rooms and suites in the Ocean Tower (759 rooms, 46,000 sq. ft.).
On the sunny Kohala Coast of the Big Island, the Hilton Waikoloa Village underwent a $15 million renovation to the 245 guest rooms in the Lagoon Tower and main lobby. The Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay rebranded after a total revamp. Late last year, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s luxury Beachfront Wing finished its facelift to 85 guest rooms and suites that were refreshed in contemporary Hawaiian motif; soaking tubs in guest rooms boast picture windows with ocean views. The hotel features 608 guest rooms and 100,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space. Its sister property, Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel (350 guest rooms, 85,000 sq. ft), also received new interior room designs inspired by Hawaii’s landscape.
On the opposite side of the island, adjacent to Volcanoes National Park, Volcano Village Lodge offers five luxury cabins, perfect for small group retreats.
Only 563 sq. mi., Kauai has seen guest room renovations to the Grand Hyatt (602 guest rooms, 25,000 sq. ft.), a $16 million rejuvenation at the Sheraton Kauai (394 rooms, 65,000 sq. ft.), and only a few years ago, the reopening and rebranding of the St. Regis Princeville (251 guest rooms, 12,000 sq. ft.).
- Checking out the waves on the Oahu North Shore’s famous surfing beaches: Waimea Bay, Haleiwa Beach and Ehukai Beach (Pipeline)
- Taking Maui’s Road to Hana, a notoriously twisty but scenic 52-mile, 56-bridge road from Kahului to the ocean. (Keep your eyes on the road or let a tour company, such as Discover Hawaii Tours, do the driving for you.)
- Walking through the dark, prehistoric-like Thurston Lava Tube at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island
- Seeing Waimea Canyon on Kauai, “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”
Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
Vancouver Island, located west of mainland British Columbia, offers a heady mix of sophisticated capital city Victoria, quirky little towns, rich agricultural valleys, forested mountains and rocky, wave-breaking coasts. The island is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, with diverse ecosystems to explore and myriad methods (hiking, biking, climbing, sailing, etc.) to do it.
Where to stay & meet
In Victoria, the iconic Fairmont Empress (477 rooms; 23,000 sq. ft. of meeting space) is the oldest and most famous of the island’s hotels. It recently renovated one of its four restaurants to become the Ivy Ballroom, its second ballroom at 4,500 sq. ft. Also on the Inner Harbour is the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort & Spa, with 240 fully renovated guest rooms and 12,000 sq. ft. Tucked into 600 acres of old-growth forest on the island’s west coast, Wya Point Resort, close to Pacific Rim National Park, has now completed nine luxurious eco-lodge accommodations with direct access to private beaches.
- Sailing, boating or kayaking among the profusion of small, tree-speckled islands, in secluded, tranquil bays or along the island’s rugged coastlines
- Cycling in the Comox Valley, an agricultural and culinary hot spot on eastern Vancouver Island
- Hiking the famously challenging West Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park
Amelia Island, Florida
Omni Amelia Island, Florida
One of the southernmost barrier islands on the East Coast, Amelia Island is a narrow, 13-mile stretch of pristine beaches, wildlife habitats and myriad recreation opportunities. Only 45 minutes from Jacksonville, it has an old-time Florida ambience, with elaborate Victorian homes and rocking-chair verandas on Fernandina Beach. Vestiges of the island’s colorful history remain: France, Spain, England and, finally, the United States laid claim to it at various times.
Where to stay & meet
The island’s two brand-name resorts are magnets for meetings and both have undergone renovations to better serve the market. The 404-room Omni Amelia Island Plantation has reopened after an $85 million makeover that included a new lobby, new poolscape and state-of-the-art conference center boasting 80,000 sq. ft. of versatile meeting space. The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, has emerged from a $65-million enhancement that included its 444 guest rooms, spa and a new 11,000-square-foot ballroom (for a total of 48,000 sq. ft.).
- Golfing at The Ritz-Carlton’s private 18-hole course or one of the Omni Plantation’s three Audubon International Certified Sanctuary courses
- Paddling a kayak in the island’s inland waters, where you’re likely to come face-to-face with local wildlife—perhaps a dolphin, manatee or sea turtle
- Bicycling along trails that can accommodate leisurely and advanced riders
Lush and tropical, the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has more than 270 miles of idyllic beaches next to turquoise waters, conjuring up thoughts of frosty umbrella drinks (particularly rum-based, given Puerto Rico’s thriving spirits industry). The island is exotic, yet familiar: The U.S. dollar is its official currency, you don’t need a passport and English, as well as Spanish, are official languages. Incentive groups, in particular, can take advantage of unique offsite venues for spectacular theme events and team-building activities.
Where to stay & meet
Capable of hosting large groups at a state-of-the-art convention center as well as small retreats, Puerto Rico has a profusion of new and renovated resorts. New properties include the Hyatt Place Manati, with 104 guest rooms and 1,965 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the 156-room Hyatt Bayamon & El Tropical Casino, which has a full casino and 2,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Recent renovations at the 651-room Caribe Hilton in San Juan updated the main building guest rooms, and the 55,000 sq. ft. of event space.
On the horizon, following a $35-million overhaul on its public, meeting and dining spaces, the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is nearing completion of another $8 million investment in its 525 guest rooms. Coming in fall 2014 is the guest-room component of the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, which opened earlier for cocktails, dining and events (305 guest rooms, 30,000 sq. ft.).
- Hiking in El Yunque National Forest, the only subtropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest Service
- Exploring the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, the historic colonial section of the city, by foot
- Flying through the air like a bird (or Superman) in a body harness on La Bestia, a new zipline at Toro Verde Nature Adventure Park
The Jewel Runaway Bay Beach & Golf Resort, Runaway Bay, Jamaica
Boasting the motto “get all right,” you know this island has a colorful, diverse culture and history, with its own traditions of art, language, food and, especially, music. (Thank you Bob Marley and friends.) Located in the middle of the Caribbean archipelago, Jamaica offers all the island prerequisites: beaches, rainforests, mountains and vibrant nightlife, but with a backbeat of reggae, rock-steady and “riddems” (the local pronunciation of “rhythms”). Add in some jerk chicken and Red Stripe beer and “Every little thing’s gonna be all right,” as Marley would sing.
Jamaica also has facilities in place for top-notch meetings, conventions and events, from fully equipped conference centers to first-class lodging.
Where to stay & meet
It’s said that Jamaica “invented” all-inclusive resorts, and it’s become a popular meeting destination because of that package-deal appeal. Two Jewel Resorts have claimed kudos from planners (Jewel Dunn’s River Beach Resort & Spa and Jewel Runaway Bay Beach & Golf Resort); a third, Jewel Paradise Cove Beach Resort & Spa, recently opened after a complete redesign, including its 225 guest rooms and 3,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Among properties that are not all-inclusive, top-tier Round Hill Hotel and Villas, located in Montego Bay, has 36 oceanfront guest rooms and 74 luxurious villa suites, plus 6,000 sq. ft. of new, Ralph Lauren-inspired meeting space. And in Kingston, the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel has 300 guest rooms and 14,000 sq. ft.
- Racing down Mystic Mountain, at Mystic Mountain Ocho Rios, in a bobsled (sorry, no snow)
- Splashing in a lagoon at Dunn’s River Falls, where waterfalls cascade 600 feet to the sea
- Touring Glistening Waters, aka the Luminous Lagoon, one of only three naturally illuminated bodies of water in the world, after sunset
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Finch Bay Eco Hotel, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Blue-footed boobies engaged in courtship dances, nonchalant giant turtles lumbering nearby and iguanas in psychedelic colors returning your stare. Where else in the world can you go eyeball to eyeball with these and other ancient, magnificent creatures but the Galapagos, a remote archipelago of 18 islands and dozens of islets about 600 miles off the Ecuadorian mainland? Charles Darwin researched Galapagos wildlife in 1835, and these islands have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
Where to stay & meet
This is an incentive destination on many attendees’ bucket lists. Combine a cruise of the islands with a conference, as happened in December when the Galapagos Islands Medical Conference was held aboard National Geographic’s 96-passenger Endeavor. National Geographic Expeditions, in fact, offers participants onshore “glamping” in safari tents. You can also choose other outfitters, such as Silver Sea and its 100-passenger Silver Galapagos. Or you can charter your own boat.
Surprisingly, there are options for landlubbers as well, including the award-winning Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz Island, which has six ocean-view suites and 21 garden-view rooms. The property will organize day tours with naturalist guides aboard its 20-passenger yacht (all-inclusive packages are available). Looking to the future, it’s reported that Guy Harvey Outpost Resorts will open a 30-unit eco-lodge on San Cristobal Island in 2016.
- Visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station, on Santa Cruz Island, where more than 200 scientists are involved in research and conservancy of the islands’ ecosystems
- Filming the throngs of huge marine iguanas that sun themselves on the black lava outcroppings at Punta Espinoza, on Fernandina Island
- Whatever else your naturalist guide suggests!
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Hamilton Island Beach, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The Great Barrier Reef is a 1,240-mile swath of coral along the Queensland seaboard of northeastern Australia. One of the seven wonders of the natural world, it’s so large that it is the only living thing on earth that’s visible from space. Composed of hundreds of types of coral, with more than 2,900 individual reefs, this World Heritage Site is populated by a teeming marine ecosystem of fish, mollusks and aquatic plants.
Where to stay & meet
When top producers have a banner year, this gorgeous destination rewards their efforts. In July, Beach Club on Hamilton Island, with 57 rooms, wraps up a multimillion-dollar refurbishment that encompasses the Beach Club restaurant, lounge, bar and infinity-edge pool. Small groups can take advantage of a suite to meet or hold a poolside reception. Hamilton Island also has a dedicated conference center, with space for up to 1,000 guests.
Opening next month is the One&Only Hayman Island, after a multimillion-dollar refurbishment and reflagging. Accommodations include rooms, suites, villas and penthouses for up to 450 guests. Venues include the entertainment center, ideal for large seminar-style meetings, and the boardroom, suitable for executive meetings.
- Diving or snorkeling the Reef. Whether you’re a learner or PADI-certified, this is one of the most spectacular diving landscapes on the planet
- Diving or snorkeling the Reef. That’s why you’re going, right?
Isle of Capri, Italy
Capri Palace Hotel & Spa, Capri, Italy
La dolce vita…Capri was once a playground for the Romans, but is now a popular destination for business execs and Hollywood glitterati. The island enchants, first, with its true-blue waters, bougainvillea-draped villas and towering limestone peaks. Then there’s the lifestyle: piazzas with cafes to see and be seen in, superb restaurants, designer boutiques and a vibrant nightlife.
Where to Stay & Meet
The island has two main areas: Capri Town flanks the harbor, and Anacapri is up the hill. Just steps from La Piazzetta Square (the island’s hub), the 70-room Hotel La Palma features 302 sq. ft. in two meeting rooms. Dating back to 1822, the hotel’s last complete renovation included technology upgrades throughout.
You might glimpse a movie star or two at the luxe Capri Palace Hotel & Spa (72 guest rooms, 447 sq. ft. of meeting space in three rooms) in Anacapri. The Paltrow suite (named after you-know-who) hosts small gatherings, with a private heated pool and garden.
- Lounging at Piazza Umberto I, the hub of the island’s glamorous social life
- Taking a boat ride through Grotta Azzura, a sea cave illuminated by an ethereal blue light
- Scaling Seggoiovia del Monte Solaro, Capri’s highest peak (take the 12-minute chairlift)
Carolyn Koenig is the former editorial director of Smart Meetings and a frequent contributor.
Main image: Condado area and beach, one of the most popular tourist places in San Juan, Puerto Rico, courtesy of Meet Puerto Rico
- Amelia Island Tourist Development Council: ameliaisland.com
- Tourism Australia: australia.com
- Azienda Autonoma Di Cura Soggiorno E Turismo Isola Di Capri: capritourism.com
- Ecuador Travel: ecuador.travel/en
- Hawaii Tourism Authority: gohawaii.com
- Jamaica Tourist Board: visitjamaica.com
- Tourism Vancouver Island: vancouverisland.travel
Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Islands in the Caribbean are famed for their beauteous beaches, crystal-clear waters, relaxed vibe and easy access from the East Coast. But meeting planners should know that business can get done in paradise—and several venues are set up to make it happen.
Consider, for example, the Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe in Punta Cana in the eastern Dominican Republic. Within the resort is Barcelo Bavaro Convention Center, with more than 124,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space that accommodates up to 5,000 people. Though the resort has 1,600 guest rooms, its spacious layout and hospitable staff mean guests don’t feel crowded or neglected.
On the smaller side, the Westin Grand Cayman 7 Mile Beach Resort (pictured), named to Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold List, has 343 guest rooms and 8,800 sq. ft. of meeting space. Seven breakout areas accommodate meetings of up to 400 and include two boardrooms, two ballrooms and spectacular outdoor settings.
The Barcelo Bavaro and Westin Grand Cayman front beaches that are said to be among the world’s best.
- Amelia Island, Florida: Jacksonville International (JAX)
- Isle of Capri, Italy: Hydrofoils and ferries depart from Naples and Sorrento; Naples Capodichino Airport (NAP)
- Galapagos Islands, Ecuador: From the United States, book an international flight to capital city Quito (UIO) or Guayaquil (GYE). From coastal Guayaquil, carriers Tame, Aerogal and Lan fly into the Galapagos. If you are flying in from Quito, you will most likely have a short stop in Guayaquil.
- Great Barrier Reef, Australia: Great Barrier Reef Airport (HTI), Hayman Island
- Hawaii: Honolulu International Airport (HNL) is Hawaii’s major airport, though a few carriers offer direct flights to other islands. From Honolulu you can easily connect to Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.
- Jamaica: Normal Manley International Airport (KIN), Kingston; Sangster International Airport (MBJ), Montego Bay; Ian Fleming International Airport (FIA), Ocho Rios
- Puerto Rico: Luis Munoz Marin International Airport (SJU)
- Vancouver Island, British Columbia: Victoria International Airport (YYJ); Vancouver International Airport (YVR); ferries and floatplanes from the city of Vancouver