The future of Mexico's Pacific Coast is as bright as its glittering blue ocean
Anyone who listens to the news knows that last year was a rough one for Mexico.
Headlines were flooded with reports of the swine flu, drug violence and the recession severely impacting their important tourism industry. Planners in the U.S. hesitated to travel to Mexico, and meetings and incentives were cancelled due to health and security concerns.
Today, the swine flu pandemic seems as last year as the iPhone 3G, and concerns over catching the sickness have decreased. And while violence remains a problem in some areas (particularly around the U.S.-Mexican border), the popular destinations for meetings and incentives along the Mexico Pacific Coast are far from the reaches of the unrest. “In a way, it’s a constant mission to inform people of the situation we have in Los Cabos—we are 1,000 miles away from the border,” says Renato Mendonca, vice president of marketing, Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Bureau. Destinations like Los Cabos have been working hard and traveling the U.S. to get the word out about the safety of their destinations. Niambi Ivery, conventions and meetings planner for American Express Business Travel, says that security concerns were not an issue when she planned a 150-person incentive trip for client Subaru of America in Los Cabos.
Prior to this rough patch, simply saying the word “Mexico” would bring to mind images of glittering shorelines, exotic scenery, lush wildlife and adrenaline-pumping adventures—all of which have put Mexico on the meetings, as well as leisure, destination map. And while in close proximity to the U.S., Mexico has a wonderfully rich culture of its own, shaped with its unique history and geography. Enhancing the visitor experience, it’s complemented with diverse architecture, colorful local traditions and mouth-watering cuisine. Then there’s Mexico’s famous sunny skies and warm weather year-round, which have made it a popular refuge in the winter.
Well—news flash—none of that has changed. Mexico is as attractive a destination as ever, with all of its allure still intact. And people are catching on. According to the Mexico Tourism Board, 21.5 million people visited Mexico in 2009, and during the first four months of 2010, visitation to Mexico from the United States was up 5.9%.
Mexico also continues to be a great destination for meetings and incentives, offering a variety of benefits for planners. “We have strategic partnerships with the main industry organizations, such as PCMA, ASAE, MPI and SITE, and we have an online lead-generator platform,” says Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, COO of the Mexico Tourism Board. Plus, he says, each area’s CVB also works with planners to find attractive room rates, unique venues and activities. This past year, in fact, Mexico hosted many high-profile meetings, among them the Grupo del Rio Summit of Latin American Heads of State, MPI’s MeetDifferent, the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual meeting and the Virtuoso Summit. Later this year, it will host the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“For 2011, corporate meetings and incentive travel look to be on a very stable recovery path,” Negrete says. “We are conscious that the booking window for the decision-making process in corporate meetings is getting shorter, and in that fast response strategy, Mexico plays a very important role, due to its proximity, connectivity and cultural added values.”
Why Mexico? Why Now?
Anyone who has traveled to Mexico can tell you that Mexican hospitality is reason enough to meet here. Beyond the genuine service and a bona fide effort to make visitors feel welcome, however, Mexico also gives planners other reasons to take their meetings south. Ivery says “the authentic Mexican flavor coupled with great American options” is one big plus of meeting in Mexico rather than domestically.
“Something a bit more tangible is the zero-tax law that has made Mexico even more competitive as a business travel destination. The law suspends the 16% sales tax on international meetings and conventions held in Mexico,” Negrete says. “The tax-free initiative covers venue rental, lodging, food and drinks inside the venues, airport/seaport/border transfers and trips between hotels and meeting places. Also covered are related event services, such as set-up, registration, masters of ceremonies, translators, hosts, audiovisual equipment, decoration, security and cleaning.”
In addition to the tax incentives, the peso-to-dollar exchange rate gives planners more bang for their buck, he points out. “Most of the hotels are adding value to their services, and there are a lot of promotions out there,” says Los Cabos CVB’s Mendonca.
Plus, Mexico has invested, and is investing, in its meetings and tourism infrastructure, with new hotels and convention centers opening all over the Pacific Coast, giving planners muchas más opciones when it comes to their events. “This is actually a very exciting time in Mexico for adding meeting space. The cities of Mazatlan, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Tampico and Zacatecas all recently completed construction of new meeting facilities. And, in November, Queretaro will finish building a new convention center as well,” Negrete says. “Besides the convention centers, important and recognized hotel brand properties are investing in our country, including great state-of-the-art facilities for meeting attendees.”
As we emerge from the recession, Mexico is a perfect locale to mix business with pleasure pre- and post-meeting, he adds. And the country makes it even easier to discover its diverse culture with the recently launched 10 Routes of Mexico. Announced at Tianguis Turistico in April, these travel circuits weave a common theme through various Mexican regions such as The Mystery and Origin of the Maya Culture or the Thousand Flavors of Mole. “[The routes] are designed to combine some of our more well-known travel experiences, like Mexico’s famous beach and sun destinations, with our less well-known, but no less legendary cultural, archeological or luxury experiences,” Negrete says. “These could serve as powerful incentive travel opportunities. They also make for an exciting pre- or post-convention trip. In the end, they’re unique products that only Mexico can offer to meeting planners.”
The meetings compass tells us that south is finally going north. Let’s take a trip from south to north along Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and you will see first hand that meetings are up.
Along the southern edge of the Pacific Coast, Acapulco is a beautiful bayside city brimming with resorts and a distinctly Mexican vibe. It has a tropical climate with 360 days of sunshine and a 92-degree average temperature, making it a popular vacation destination for inland residents of Mexico City. “From its golden beaches, spectacular Santa Lucia and Puerto Marques bays, innovative cuisine, rich culture and near-perfect weather, Acapulco was, and still is, a celebrated getaway for travelers from around the world,” says Jesus Radilla, general director of the Acapulco Destination Marketing Office.
It is also a great incentive and meetings destination, with three convention centers, many meeting hotels, distinctive venues and cultural activities. The DMO acts as a liaison for planners and recently released the digital Acapulco Meetings & Incentive Directory, which is an up-to-date resource highlighting all things planning in the area.
Acapulco plays host annually to Tianguis Turistico, Mexico’s most important tourism-trade summit that is hosted at the Acapulco International Convention Center. Located in the heart of the city’s hotel zone, the center features two 54,000-square-foot halls, an indoor theater accommodating up to 1,200 people and the 68,000-square-foot, column-free Salon Teotihuacan.
And while the city has been plagued by news of violence recently, Acapulco’s brass has been working hard to ensure the safety of visitors. In addition to increased security, Radilla adds that the Acapulco DMO “maintains constant communication with the Mexico Tourism Board, the U.S. and Canadian consulates, and local authorities to ensure the safety and well being of its visitors, and to offer a flawless travel experience.”
On top of added security, the area has many new projects coming online, particularly in the Diamante region of the city. “Today, a ‘new’ Acapulco is being unveiled, led by an array of new hotels and resorts but still maintaining the timeless glamour that makes it Mexico’s most renowned beach destination,” he says. “New” Acapulco is exemplified in the high-profile development Mundo Imperial, located in the Diamante region. The complex is slated to open in 2011 and will offer the state-of-the-art Il Duomo Convention, Exposition and Entertainment Center, with 730,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the Mundo Imperial Resort, with 705 guest rooms and 100 luxury suites.
Also in Acapulco Diamante, and now open to the public, is the new, 20,000-square-foot Diamante Exhibition Center, which was part of a recent, $30-million renovation at the oceanfront, 1,011-room Fairmont Acapulco Princess. The Princess and its sister property, the 229-room Fairmont Pierre Marques are popular local meeting venues, as are the 587-room Grand Hotel Acapulco & Convention Center and the 494-room Crowne Plaza Acapulco.
Moving north along the Pacific Coast, you will encounter the sister towns of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, pronounced eeks-TAH-pa and see-wah-tah-NEH-ho, respectively. Resting on 17 miles of coastline, the two cities are known for their vibrant gastronomical scene, biodiversity, prime surf, and great fishing and diving. Visitors can trek through wild locales such as the Aztlan Ecological Park, where you catch a glimpse of indigenous wildlife. They also offer Unlimited Fun!, a year-long entertainment program, which is complimentary to visitors and features 78 days of shows, 2,900 dance routines and 6,000 art exhibitions.
Zihuatanejo was a fishing port for centuries, centered around Zihuatanejo Bay, and is now known for its old-Mexico charm. Ixtapa is more of a resort destination, where the majority of the hotels are located in the Hotel Zone along the glittering Palmar Beach.
The area as a whole offers 6,004 guest rooms and is suited for retreats, small meetings and incentives. Some of the major meeting properties include the all-inclusive Barcelo Ixtap, with three meeting rooms; Casa Sun & Moon in Zihuatanejo; Dorado Pacifico, which can accommodate 10–600 people; and the recently renovated Las Brisas Ixtapa, with 21,345 sq. ft. of function space.
The next stop on our trip north is Puerto Vallarta. In the backdrop of the Sierra Madre mountains and encircling 40 miles of coastline, the city was built around the Bay of Banderas, Mexico’s largest natural bay, and starred in the 1964 film Night of the Iguana. P.V., as it is often referred to, has all the allure of a coastal destination coupled with small-town charm. It is nearby tropical forests—great for post-meeting explorations. Its downtown art galleries continue to attract the attention of visitors, and the city offers many festivals, including the upcoming 16th Annual Festival Gourmet International, which takes place from November 11–21 and showcases top resident chefs.
The city welcomed the new Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center last March, which has since hosted such large events as Meeting Place Mexico in early June. The center was a $43-million investment and offers more than 105,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting and exhibition space; it can accommodate up to 7,000 people. The center’s main meeting room, the Gran Salon Vallarta, has nearly 54,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and can be divided into eight breakout rooms.
P.V. has more than 15,000 guest rooms, and meetings-friendly properties including the 345-suite Velas Vallarta Suite Resort & Convention Center, featuring a convention center and its 6,928-square-foot Alejandra ballroom; the 477-room Sheraton Buganvilias Resort & Convention Center Puerto Vallarta, with 16,000 sq. ft. of function space and excellent ocean views; and the 280-room Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta, which is across from the marina district and has 16,895 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space.
Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay, Mazatlan.
Just 10 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, the Riviera Nayarit is an unspoiled enclave of small towns and posh resorts along a 50-mile stretch of coast. The region offers more than 12,800 guest rooms, seven top-notch golf courses and many outdoor recreation options ranging from whale watching to snorkeling. Among the meeting hotels are the 267-room Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort, with many event spaces such as the 6,617-square-foot Grand Marissa; the 135-suite Tahéima Wellness Resort & Spa, which offers wellness-themed events in eight meeting rooms; and the 173-room Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, with more than 6,800 sq. ft. of indoor/outdoor function space. There’s also the Five-Diamond, 120-room St. Regis Punta Mita Resort, situated on 22 acres, with the 2,600-square-foot Astor Ballroom.
Continuing on our journey north, you will arrive at Mazatlan, the coast’s second-largest city. The area is split into two major sectors: Old Mazatlan and the Zona Dorada or Golden Zone, home to the majority of the area’s resorts. Mazatlan is also known for its recreation, due to its coastal locale and its proximity to the Sierra Madre Mountains; it is particularly renowned for fly-fishing. “Some of our surrounding areas are also beneficial to delegates,” says Carlos Berdegue, vice president of the Mazatlan Hotel Association. “There are half-day and full-day group excursions to wonderful historic sites, including El Quelite, Copala and Cosala, a remarkable, 16th-century town filled with history, culture and ecological wonders.”
Open since late 2009, the $61-million, 25-acre Mazatlan International Center complex borders a new marina and a championship golf course, and is close to the beachfront resorts and hotels of the city’s Zona Dorada. The SMG-managed center has nearly 154,000 sq. ft. of indoor/outdoor meeting and exhibition space and 17 meeting rooms. It can accommodate groups of up to 5,000 attendees and incorporates sustainable practices such as recycled water and a double-glazed glass façade. The facility features the 17,222-square-foot, Sea of Cortes ceramic-tile mural—the largest work of its kind (it’s even in the Guinness Book of World Records!). “During the past decade, Mazatlan has emerged as a top Mexico destination with world-class accommodations and a dynamic business sector,” Berdegue says. “This beautiful, state-of-the-art facility further expands our offerings, enabling us to host citywide conventions.” The center was built on the burgeoning Marina Mazatlan, a 15-square-mile development with plans for new luxury hotels, residences, restaurants, shops and more.
To accompany the new convention center, the city has many meeting hotels. El Cid Resorts encompasses four area properties with a total of 1,000 guest rooms in a variety of locations. The 247-room Pueblo Bonito Mazatlan has several meeting rooms and is located in the Zona Dorada. New to the area, the all-inclusive Riu Emerald Bay opened last May and offers 716 guest rooms, multiple event spaces and a 5,164-square-foot ballroom.
A Mazatlan must-see and the city’s cultural epicenter, Old Mazatlan is made up of 180 blocks teeming with historic buildings, landmarks, restaurants, cafes, entertainment venues, art galleries, museums and shops. “[Old Mazatlan] has many wonderful features that are ideal for off-site events, including historical settings, cultural venues and gardens for cocktail receptions, formal dinners and parties,” Berdegue says.
You have now arrived at your final destination, the twin cities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, at the tip of the 1,000-mile-long Baja Peninsula. Easily accessible from many American destinations, these towns are only 20 minutes apart and provide two unique experiences in one distinct region. “The interesting thing about Los Cabos, we are the desert that meets the ocean. It’s a place gifted by nature with the scenery of the desert meeting the ocean and the diversity of the biology that we have,” says Renato Mendonca of the Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Lobby bar at the Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort.
Cabo is a modern town with clubs and restaurants. “We usually refer to it as the party town,” Mendonca says. San Jose is typically thought of as the historical city, as it reflects more of Old Mexico with historical churches, and is more low key, he says. American Express’ Ivery adds, “My client was really impressed with the ‘Old World’ traditional charm of Los Cabos.”
Los Cabos is a very safe destination located on a peninsula. “People don’t realize that we are almost an island,” Mendonca says. It has a fairly dry, sunny climate, well-suited for outdoor events, he points out. And with warm weather comes outdoor fun, which appears in many forms such as ziplining through tree canopies and America’s Cup yacht racing. Cabo Adventures, a local DMC, caters to meeting groups and incentive travelers, and offers team buildings and private adventures such as swimming with dolphins or tours deep in the Baja desert.
While the area does not have a convention center, Los Cabos has 12,000 guest rooms and is suited for incentives, retreats and small- to mid-sized meetings for up to about 700 people. “The hotels are top of the line. We have new hotels and hotels being remodeled all the time—you have a huge variety of hotels to choose from. The level of service in Los Cabos is very high. No matter what hotel you go to, you are going to find the same level of service,” he says.
The region offers many group-friendly meeting options, including the 270-room Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Resort & Spa, with more than 19,130 sq. ft. of meeting space. Subaru’s eight-day incentive group was headquartered here and Ivery says, “During the site visit [my client] saw a number of properties, and the Sheraton offered the highest level of service, coupled with an authentic Mexican feeling. The sunset was magnificent and the whale watching was a great unexpected treat.”
Among the new hotels is the Barcelo Los Cabos Palace. The brand-new, 547-suite property resides beachside in San José del Cabo and has a convention center with more than 35,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Also new, the luxurious, 44-room Capella Pedregal was built into a cliff near Land’s End and has a private beach. It is perfect for retreats and incentives, with a boardroom (accommodating up to 80 classroom-style) and an on-site spa. Tesoro Los Cabos is in the midst of building a new meeting facility, which will greatly increase its event capacity.