What to consider when planning an event at an all-inclusive resort

Meeting Professionals International (MPI) CEO Paul VanDeventer likes to say that when planning the association’s World Education Congress (WEC), MPI takes chances so members don’t have to take on the risk. “Some things work better than others,” he said in a call, reflecting on lessons learned from last week’s gathering of 1,400 meeting professionals at Barcelo Maya Grand Resort in the Mexican Caribbean. Here are five lessons learned for anyone looking to shake up the annual meeting rotation.

1. Be Flexible and Transparent

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, was not the location originally slated for this year’s WEC. Construction delays at America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis required VanDeventer and the team to pivot. They started having frank conversations with partners working on the next three years of events and vendors who had submitted RFPs, but had not been selected. “An event at this scale requires a lot of contingencies,” said VanDeventer. Often the cause of the delay is weather or, in the case of the last three years, pandemic-related complications, so building in contingencies is more important than ever, he emphasized.

After some creative scheduling, Barcelo Maya Grand Resort stepped up to host in 2023, Louisville Tourism agreed to host what is expected to be a crowd of 2,500 at Kentucky International Convention Center a year early in 2024. And the group, which now numbers 12,000 members and estimates a community of about 85,000 people proactively engaging with their content in some way during the year, will head back to St. Louis in 2025 in the expanded convention center campus.

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The upside of holding WEC in Mexico for the first time was that it accommodated the association’s fastest-growing audience, Latin American meeting professionals, which has had 60% growth over the last four years.

“One of the reasons I was so excited to host in Mexico is I love the history and culture,” VanDeventer said. The team embraced the local culture right down to the shorts and linen guayabera shirts. “It created a ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling and added a fun atmosphere,” he recalled.

2. Consider Nuances of All-inclusive Resorts

WEC 2023 was also the first time the organization had hosted at an all-inclusive resort. That format brought its own set of challenges and benefits. Barcelo Maya Grand Resort is actually a campus of six hotels along a 1.5-mile strip of beach and each has its own associated price tag, so those staying at one resort, as denoted by their wristband, could not meet friends and customers and dine at higher level resorts. That made inviting clients for lunches, dinners and drinks less meaningful if they were both at the same level property and a bit more complicated if the restaurant was at a different property.

In the end, they were simply scheduling a time to connect and the details just had to be thought about in advance. VanDeventer suggested planners looking into all-inclusive campuses either negotiate a solution for access or communicate robustly about the rules in advance—or both. On the upside, expenses were probably much easier for suppliers, he pointed out.

Traditional catering also didn’t make as much sense on a campus with 25 restaurant choices included in the room price. The MPI team elected to schedule longer lunches and allow people to choose their own dining experience. “We were able to give people options,” VanDeventer said.

Another pivot that happened early was a change in imagery as the group encountered hesitancy from some companies to send employees to an all-inclusive resort because it would give the optics of a paid vacation, VanDeventer said.

Very quickly, the beach scenes and Caribbean music were gone from the marketing messages and the “Refresh Your World” pictures of people in lanyards coming together came to the forefront. “We kept hammering that this is not a spring break; this is a business event,” he shared. “There’s no difference in the purpose of WEC whether we’re in Las Vegas, Toronto, St. Louis or Playa Del Carmen. It’s about professional development, networking and doing business and the customers who will be there.”

3. International Logistics

VanDeventer acknowledged that any time a program crosses the border, whether that’s going to Canada or Mexico, there is a whole different level of complexity around customs. “Things you would normally just put on a truck, you have to be much more thoughtful around,” he said. The team was constantly asking, “Does that make sense? Is it worth paying duties on that? Or is it more efficient to source locally? Do we work with partners to provide something for the trade show that we wouldn’t normally bring ourselves?”

He noted that some creative partners packed things in multiple suitcases to bring in everything from giveaways to step-and-repeat backgrounds. “I carried a suitcase with 500 MPI pens and a bunch of bunch of brochures,” VanDeventer admitted. “Everyone chips in and then we all had funny stories about going through customs and being questioned and negotiating taxes—it’s another complexity.”

All things considered, VanDeventer didn’t see the logistical issues as a non-starter. “As long as you’re planning for it and making your partners aware, it is manageable,” he said.

4. Hybrid Additions

Another level of complexity was the decision to offer some sessions virtually through Cvent. A total of 150 people took MPI up on the streaming service option, down from 1,000 when the group met in Grapevine in 2020. “About 100-200 streaming attendees is probably about where we expect to be consistently going forward,” predicted VanDeventer. DJ AmRo (Amani Roberts) moderated the virtual experience with personalized interviews and color commentary. Virtual attendees were able to see the general sessions and the main education rooms. They’ll also have access to all of the digital content that was recorded.

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The added challenge of offering the technology feature in a remote location with unknown reliability made itself known from the beginning, as about 20 minutes before the opening general session, Amazon Web Services’ network went down. “It was a global outage, and we’re scrambling to try to figure out how to get access to our digital attendees,” VanDeventer recalled vividly with a shake of his head. “And then just as luckily, it all came back up online,” he said.

Also working in MPI’s favor was a modern ballroom at Barcelo Maya Grand Resort that sported a 120-foot LED video wall. Encore, MPI’s AV partners, did a site visit one year in advance and determined the on-site technology would eliminate the need to truck equipment down or source additional equipment locally. At Moscone Center in San Francisco in 2023, plans called for a four-day build-out to prepare the stage. “The nice thing is understanding what’s on the property and how you can utilize that,” VanDeventer said.

5. Communicate About Safety

VanDeventer acknowledged that he received some pushback around the media coverage of safety in Mexico. “We were very clear on how attendees would be in a controlled environment, from the moment they got off the airplane, onto the campus of the resort, from the resort to any of the off-resort activities,” he said. Just as in any city, if people are looking for an experience on the edge, they can find trouble, he reported, but while the fear may have kept some people from attending, in the end, there were no incidents, not even the trips and twisted ankles encountered at previous events.

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“We did our best to provide a safe experience,” he said. “We had contingencies planned around natural disasters and other issues and we’ve always been looking at the safety and wellness of attendees around things like active shooters, and during Covid around wellness. It turned out clear.”

An emphasis on creating a visible welcome starting at the airport was the first step in providing clear signage, and welcoming staff with tight transportation schedules helped everyone feel comfortable.