Meeting adventures in neighboring countries
When a meeting venue rotation seems as predictable as a dinner rotation, it’s probably time to rethink the destination roster. One solution is venturing across our immediate borders, to points north and south. There’s the allure of another country, of course: Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean offer a taste of the exotic, whether it’s foreign language, cuisine, landscape or climate.
They also offer the kind of business infrastructure that plays well in today’s bottom-line culture: They’re in close proximity to the mainland U.S., requiring in most cases only one day of travel (no jet lag downtime); easily accessible by air; technologically connected; and budget- and eco-friendly.
Groups considering these options aren’t alone. International meetings are on the uptick, bolstered by economic growth, pent-up demand, efforts by these foreign neighbors to woo U.S. groups, and the recognition that travel beyond U.S. borders isn’t an extravagance, but is essential.
“Companies have continued to meet [during the recession],” says Brian Acheson, CSEP, owner of VIP Events in Dallas and treasurer for the International Special Events Society (ISES). “But now we’re at a point where we can say, let’s do something different. We don’t have to meet at the XYZ hotel in downtown wherever…”
Passports and customs are two issues that needn’t be oppressive hurdles (read on for more). Nor should a lack of experience in planning events outside the U.S. First, begin with the usual planner tactic: maximizing resources. According to Steven Hacker, CAE, FASAE and president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE): “All major associations these days have excellent forums where a member goes in and posts a question and gets excellent feedback. Use them—post a question, like ‘I’m going to be taking a group to [Montreal]; I’d be curious to talk to someone who’s taken an event there.’” Try the ASAE, IAEE, PCMA or MPI sites for links.
Convention and visitors bureaus are a reliable resource at home, and a true partner when planning internationally—regardless of the country. In Mexico, for instance, there are more than 50 CVBs or DMOs that provide local support and help find and connect planners with the best suppliers for specific needs. According to Stewart Hall, founder of Rock the Stars, a San Francisco-based team-building and entertainment company, “Canada is eager to attract international meetings, and there is good support for U.S. meeting planners. Start with the local CVB. Toronto CVA, for example, has all sorts of assistance available.”
Destination management companies (DMCs) are useful because they have roots in the culture and their feet on the ground. “Most of my clients have an area in mind when they contact me,” says Andy Ortiz, president/owner of Global Incentive Management – DMC, based in Cancun. “They’re considering at least two destinations within Mexico, and we take it from there. Each client has different needs; we find your perfect fit.”
Here is some information to help ease your group crossing into Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Points North – Canada
Canada shares a whopping 5,525-mile border with the United States, from British Columbia in the west to New Brunswick in the east, a peaceful, invisible line that nevertheless has its crossing requirements—some of them stepped up in light of world events and trade agreements. Given the familiarity of a similar language and currency and good foreign relations, however, “Canada is a good first step into the international arena,” says Claire Smith, vice president sales and marketing for the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver often make the short list for Canadian destinations. And why not? They’re cosmopolitan cities enticing to planners and potential attendees for their stellar attractions and meeting spaces. But planners should remember that Canada isn’t just “MTV,” says Brent Beatty, CASE, senior manager, meetings and conventions for Edmonton Tourism. There’s also Edmonton, the provincial capital of Alberta, he says—and we’d add Calgary, Alberta’s bustling oil city, and Richmond, B.C., outside of Vancouver, to name a few.
Passports and shipping are the two often-noted challenges when considering a meeting in Canada. It’s estimated that only about 30% of U.S. citizens hold passports—but in this age of increasingly global business, it’s smart for people to have one at the ready. If you’re entering by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda, however, the old-style passport card is sufficient.
In the past, many planners who needed to ship their trade-show booths, goods and collaterals to Canada found the process burdensome. But it no longer has to be. Because of a free event recognition system instituted by the Canada Border Services Agency, the process has been streamlined (see sidebar on pg. 62).
Working with a customs broker also simplifies the process. According to Paul Griggs, founder of Vancouver-based Events on the Move, utilizing a customs broker and freight forwarder that specializes in meetings and conventions can save you time and money (your convention center is a good resource for a broker recommendation). There’s no cost to contact or contract with a broker; you don’t pay until you actually ship the goods. “A prudent meeting planner can negotiate fees with the brokers, who aren’t government entities,” Griggs says. Brokers also know what kinds of goods are exempt from fees and duties and can work with the border agency on your behalf to register your event.
“There’s a tendency to make it more complicated than it is,” says John Houghton, executive vice president at Metro Toronto Convention Centre. “Once your event is registered, it is a matter of reporting what will move across the border and what will return, so governments can track trade and make sure you are not sending [illegal] materials.”
The Toronto center partners with Mendelssohn Event Logistics, and together they have produced a 90-second video to describe how easy the process is. Find it under “Planners” at mtcc.com.
But regardless of the ease, “be sure to get a head start, so you have plenty of time to itemize and value your shipment,” says planner Elizabeth Carden, with the American Bankruptcy Institute in the Metro Washington, DC area.
Know Before You Go
English is spoken throughout the country, even in Quebec, where French is the official language. “People still have the misperception that we don’t speak English,” says Lucy Mungiovi, CMP, director of convention services and experiences for Tourisme Montreal. But the benefit of this French cultural influence is “European flair at your doorstep—Europe without the jet lag,” she says.
Personal safety issues are no different in Canada than they are at home. Attendees should store their valuables and money in their hotel or room safe, be aware of their surroundings and keep an eye on their belongings in public. Being too engrossed in cell-phone conversations outdoors can be dangerous and also tempting to thieves.
As for health care, attendees should check with their insurance provider to find out what is covered outside of the U.S. Generally, “American health insurance policies are worthless in another country,” IAEE’s Hacker says. “If an attendee has to be hospitalized, nine times out of 10 the hospital wants to have payment on the spot.” If health insurance remains a concern, consider contracting the services of FrontierMEDEX, he says, which provides low-cost health insurance while traveling, including air evacuation.
The Canadian dollar is the standard currency, although U.S. dollars are sometimes accepted. (Tip: Use ATMs to retrieve cash—they offer up-to-date, competitive exchange rates—but ask about withdrawal fees.) The exchange rate for the Canadian dollar, at press time, was $.99 U.S., on par with the U.S., as it has been for some time.
Often, cities or venues will offer financial incentives to host meetings in Canada, including such perks as reduced rate or complimentary meeting space, a hosted reception upon arrival or local entertainment. Meetings in the Ontario province with 75% or more nonresident attendees may be able to claim a rebate on the 13% Harmonized Sales Tax that’s paid in Ontario on convention facilities and related convention supplies, plus F&B and catering, according to Toronto CVA. And then there’s Alberta’s lack of provincial sales tax, always appealing to visitors to both Calgary and Edmonton.
Metro Toronto Convention Centre
Canada has the same broad spectrum of accommodations found elsewhere—whether historic, luxurious or boutique properties. Convention centers and event facilities are equally comparable. In Vancouver, for instance, the recently expanded Vancouver Convention Centre encompasses 500,000 sq. ft. of function space, allowing the city to host larger conventions than ever before. More than 13,000 hotel rooms are located in the city’s compact downtown core. Tourism Richmond touts 27 convention hotels in the region.
In Alberta, the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre makes its mark with 122,000 sq. ft. of convention space and more than 47,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, while the city’s other huge event center, the Calgary Stampede complex, with 450,000 sq. ft., can host thousands in an array of venues. To the north, Edmonton has two showplace facilities, the Shaw Conference Centre, which can accommodate up to 6,000 attendees, and the expanded Edmonton Exposition & Conference Centre, with a contiguous space of more than 522,000 sq. ft. (the largest outside of Toronto). Downtown Edmonton has more than 2,000 hotel rooms to complement these facilities. Tourism Edmonton’s website lists many alternatives.
Speaking of Toronto, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre weighs in at 641,000 sq. ft. in a variety of flexible venues for events. It’s within walking distance of 12,000 hotel rooms.
Montreal’s convention center, for that matter, is in the heart of four city districts, including Old Town. It features 300,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, and is linked to 4,000 hotel rooms by the city’s underground pedestrian network. The center is currently undergoing an upgrade to its IT systems in an effort to keep pace with attendees who are now arriving at their meeting with a smart phone, iPad and a computer, Mungiovi says.
The Banff Centre, located on 43 acres within Banff National Park, has a 4-Leaf eco-rating from Audubon Green Leaf program based on its property and programs, and can host up to 1,000 attendees in a variety of spaces. Travel Alberta can help with additional venue options.
Canada has a plethora of sophisticated cities, with cultural attractions, festivals, entertainment, sports events, nightlife and fine dining. But these cities also have another plus for planners and attendees: proximity to the outdoors. These settings include urban oases, such as Stanley Park, whose untamed and natural beauty encompasses 1,000 acres right next to downtown Vancouver, and Edmonton’s sprawling urban park along the North Saskatchewan River valley. Others are within a reasonable distance: Vancouver Island, an outdoor recreationist’s playground that’s only a ferry ride from the city; Whistler, a popular ski resort and host to the recent Olympics; Banff National Park and Lake Louise in the Rockies, about an hour pedal-to-the-metal from Calgary; Rouge Park, 10,000 acres on the eastern borders of Toronto, slated to become an urban national park; and mountainous Mount Royal Park in Montreal, with four-season recreational opportunities.
Points South – Mexico
Step off the plane in Mexico and you’re immediately in another world. This vast, tropical, south-of-the-border nation is a land of rich culture, storied history and glorious beaches. Visitor stats are up: 1.07 million international travelers were reported in December 2011, an increase of 13% over December 2010, with a healthy increase in U.S. travelers.
Mexico is currently seeing great momentum in the meetings industry, says Eduardo Chaillo, CMP, CMM, executive director, meetings industry for the Mexico Tourism Board. “A lot of new venues are being built and we are hosting a lot of great citywide congresses, conventions and summits. And we are more connected than ever.”
Now, he says, “traditional leisure beach resorts have constructed modern convention centers that complement their infrastructure so they can host corporate and association events, especially in the low tourism seasons (which happen to be active months in the meetings market).” Among these are such desired locations as Cancun, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Riviera Maya, Acapulco and Los Cabos.
If the reports about drug violence in Mexico have made you unsure about hosting an event there, take a look beyond the headlines, Ortiz advises. While the drug cartel wars are serious, even pervasive, these crimes take place primarily along the border towns with the U.S.—or about 1,500 to 2,000 miles from the major meetings destinations. To put that “map” in perspective, “That’s like saying I want to go to Orlando, but won’t because there’s drug violence in Detroit,” Ortiz says. (See sidebar on left.)
Know Before You Go
Attendees whose only Spanish language skills involve a menu and cervezas can still do okay in Mexico. While it’s nice to observe the daily courtesies (hello, good morning, good day, please, thank you) in the language of the country, most people in resorts and hotel areas are at least conversant, if not fluent, in English.
Bringing a trade-show booth, meeting collaterals and other goods into Mexico isn’t a problem either—particularly if you contact a Mexican DMC or Mexico full-service shipping specialist. “We have excellent custom brokers to arrange that,” Chaillo says. Also, he says, “Most of our convention centers are fiscal venues where all your goods, equipment, materials and giveaways can be sent directly and cleared in-house with a most favorable temporal import law.”
Healthwise, you’ll find hospitals and clinics near every resort and meeting area in Mexico, among them AmeriMed, a hospital network with facilities in Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and San Jose del Cabo—and a bilingual staff.
Because of the strength of the U.S. dollar compared to the peso (1 dollar = 12.8 pesos at press time), Mexico is a budget-friendly destination, even for higher-end properties. The U.S. dollar is almost universally accepted in hotels and resort areas, but it’s a good idea to exchange your currency for pesos—conveniently at ATMs or exchange counters at the airport. As is true for all international travel, don’t forget to notify your bank and credit card providers that you will be traveling out of the country. Otherwise, they may suspect fraud and put your card on hold when they see international charges appearing on your account. The VAT (value added tax) is similar to the sales tax levied at hotels and resorts at home, but international meetings are eligible for a refund—a savings of 16% in most of the country and 11% in border states. “The zero-VAT incentive is working very well, and it remains a very competitive argument to attract international meetings and conventions,” Chaillo says. “We also offer tax-free shopping for attendees, as well as IRS deductibility due to financial government agreements with the U.S., Canada and the European Union, to name some.
The VAT (value added tax) is similar to the sales tax levied at hotels and resorts at home, but international meetings are eligible for a refund—a savings of 16% in most of the country and 11% in border states. “The zero-VAT incentive is working very well, and it remains a very competitive argument to attract international meetings and conventions,” Chaillo says. “We also offer tax-free shopping for attendees, as well as IRS deductibility due to financial government agreements with the U.S., Canada and the European Union, to name some.”
In a country with more than 5,000 miles of coastline, it’s no surprise that the most popular meeting destinations for U.S. groups lie along the azure seas: think Cancun, Riviera Maya, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. And there’s no lack of top-notch hotels and resorts to choose from. Many, such as ME by Melia in Cancun, Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun All Inclusive, Grand Velas All Suites & Spa on the Riviera Maya and RIU Palace Cabo San Lucas, are all-inclusive (several hotels in Cancun have recently switched to an all-inclusive concept, Ortiz says). This means savings to planners, as meals, accommodations, some beverages and many activities are factored into a one-price package. Groupo Posadas hotels include the meeting-friendly Four-Diamond Fiesta Americana Grand Los Cabos Golf & Spa, with 249 rooms and 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the 371-room Live Aqua Cancun, with 14,500 sq. ft.
Surrounded by brand-name properties in Cancun’s hotel zone, the totally remodeled Cancun Center has 152,852 sq. ft. of convention and exhibition areas and is within walking distance to 4,700 hotel rooms. Set to open this summer, just in time for the G20 Summit, is the brand-new Los Cabos Convention Center (653,400 sq. ft.), which will bring 7,000 attendees (including President Barack Obama) to the resort city. A new four-lane highway stretching from the airport in San Jose del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas is scheduled for completion before the G20 Summit in June.
Opened in 2009, the Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center is located on 42 acres adjacent to a Natural Protected Ecological Area (resources from the rental of the venue support it). It can host up to 5,000 attendees. In Acapulco, the Expo at Mundo Imperial, part of a megacomplex that also houses entertainment and a hotel, opened last fall with more than 355,000 sq. ft. of meeting and exhibition space.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate Mexico’s more leisurely pace and to get into the rhythm. Together with a warm and friendly people, its welcoming ambience forges a change of attitude—it’s a stress-reliever from the get-go. And when you’ve got some free time to spare, you can take advantage of all the possibilities at hand: enjoying the music and food, the nightlife, water sports, shopping and sightseeing. Numerous cultural attractions are within easy reach of resort areas, including the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum in the Yucatan Peninsula (a very popular pre- or post-trip this year); eco-theme parks such as Xcaret and Xel-Ha, the largest natural aquarium in the world, in Riviera Maya and near Cancun; and, not far from Acapulco, the ruins of Tehuacalco, an ancient ceremonial city.
Island Options – The Caribbean
When it’s 46 degrees in Boston, it’s 82 degrees in the Caribbean—that’s almost enough said about the appeal of these island nations off the coast of Florida, at least for meeting groups or delegates from colder climes.
Although they’re lumped together under the moniker “the Caribbean,” these islands span a large region and are far from one homogeneous group. They’re all distinct entities, with ties to, and shared history with, many European countries (primarily France, Spain, Holland and Britain—and even the U.S.) As they come in various sizes, cultures and languages, there’s one to fit the personality and objectives of any group.
Among the major meetings-oriented islands are Aruba, Barbados, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, St. Maarten/St. Martin, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Turns out, because they are U.S. territories, the commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are Caribbean anomalies when compared to their sister islands—no U.S. borders to cross, no passports or visas for U.S. citizens—yet they have all the island attractions you’d expect.
It’s a misperception to think of the Caribbean as ideal solely for leisure travel or incentives. It is a tropical paradise—and what a carrot to dangle for goal-oriented salespeople! But, as the saying goes, there’s so much more than first meets the eye.
Know Before You Go
Airlift to the Caribbean is healthy during peak season, mid-December through mid-April (so are the prices); low season offers less frequent flights and, for some islands, potential bad weather. Airlift to Puerto Rico is an exception, however. It offers multiple nonstop flights every day.
Each country has its own passport and visa requirements (see the U.S. State Department’s website Americans Traveling Abroad for details); but you’ll need a passport book or card to reenter the U.S. For Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, of course, it’s easy come, easy go.
As they say, money talks in any language. Currencies vary throughout the Caribbean depending on the country. In Puerto Rico and USVI, the U.S. dollar is standard.
When budgeting costs for a Caribbean meeting, know that most of the Caribbean islands participate in the Information Exchange Agreement of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which allows planners the same type of tax credits that would apply for a meeting in any U.S. city.
Montego Bay Convention Center, Jamaica
Meetings-worthy resorts and event venues dot the islands: On Grand Cayman, for instance, there’s The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman; Jamaica offers the brand new Montego Bay Convention Centre (56,788 sq. ft.)—one of the Caribbean’s only dedicated, nonresort affiliated venues—along with properties such as the adjacent Half Moon, A RockResort and the Hotel Riu Ocho Rios.
However, Puerto Rico is unquestionably the meetings hub—San Juan, its capital, has a business culture that dates back to 1521, when it was the gateway to the Americas, says Neil J. Mullanaphy, senior vice president, sales, for the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau. “And it still is.”
Today, the island features more than 1.2 million sq. ft. of meeting and function space (including the 580,000-square-foot Puerto Rico Convention Center, the largest in the Caribbean) and nearly 15,000 hotel rooms. Built in 2005, the SMG-managed center is part of a new urban waterfront development project located in San Juan and just minutes from the airport.
San Juan can accommodate meetings of all types and sizes, given the variety of its hotel and resort properties and the breadth of its meeting venues. According to Mullanaphy, associations—particularly those looking to attract attendees from Brazil, Mexico and Europe—are a major market for the island (although the convention center can host up to 10,000, its sweet spot is 1,500–3,000 delegates, he says).
Incentives are also a huge chunk of their meetings market. For example, Richard Gaeta, president of Premier Incentives in Salem, Mass., recently brought an incentive group of 30 beverage distributors to Gran Melia Puerto Rico, on the northeastern coast for a short, three night/four day program. “I just love Puerto Rico; it’s reborn. Go there and see the difference from what you remembered or heard about 10 years ago,” he says.
Also, he says, “The air access is phenomenal and it’s a reasonable distance from various points in the U.S., so [attendees] don’t have to waste a lot of time in the air.”
The group’s agenda ranged from golf and spa activities to ATVing and an innovative Bioluminescent Bay cruise. For this event, participants went in small boats in a bay that is naturally lighted from the bottom up by microscopic one-celled organisms. “It was unique, something we hadn’t seen before,” Gaeta says. “In our industry, that’s the ultimate, when you introduce people to something they haven’t done before.”
In Puerto Rico, groups can decide to stay downtown, in Old San Juan, or near the rainforest by the beach, where resorts such as Gran Melia, Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa and El Conquistador Resort are located, Gaeta says. “If your demographics tell you your attendees want to do a lot of watersports, golf, etc., then lean more toward the rainforest. If they’re not into golf, they can stay in Old Town, and do just one excursion. That allows less traveling and transferring.”
All of the islands promise the trio of the tropics: sea, sand and sun. If your group’s idea of free time is major sunbathing time, with a little sailing or snorkeling—or a lot of golf—there are plenty of opportunities to do so, in whatever island flavor you desire.
Main image: Calgary TELUS Convention Centre
Expediting in Canada
As with all countries, there are government regulations for bringing goods in, particularly those of a commercial nature, and requirements for handling them once they arrive.
The Canadian government offers meeting planners a useful program that helps coordinate compliance with all requirements. Attendees and planners register the specific meeting with the Canada Border Services Agency’s International Events and Convention Services Program.
The process is simple, says Doug Nowak, international events and convention services regional coordinator for the Canada Border Services Agency in Vancouver. Contact the Canada Border Services Agency in the province where you plan to meet, which will send an application and a one-page request letter. You then submit the requested information such as dates, venue, number of people coming and a breakdown of the participants’ country of origin.
The agency provides planners with an official Canadian government registration document for the meeting. You subsequently can provide that document to the show organizers, delegates, exhibitors and shippers or brokers, via e-mail or by posting it on a website. The Border Services Agency then becomes the central point of contact going forward.
This document facilitates entry through all ports (which are notified of your arrival) and grants specific tariff privileges to bring in goods without paying unnecessary duties or taxes. It also grants a special privilege to move goods directly to the event site, rather than through a border clearance warehouse to then be held up in customs. “It’s a border-to-show customs clearance,” says Claire Smith, vice president of sales and marketing for the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Although there’s a minimum requirement of 15–30 business days to get your event registered, it’s always best to register as soon as you know you’re choosing Canada as a destination and have firmed up your bookings, Nowak says.
One example he recounts: An incentive meeting in Whistler was being planned by a U.S. company, which requested the Border Services Agency to recognize the event planned for about 100 delegates, all nonresidents. The agency granted special tariff privileges, and the recognition document was forwarded to all attendees to include with their passports when they entered Canada. Along with all the convention materials, the planner was shipping in laptops and gifts for all the delegates, and the planner preloaded all conference materials on iPads, which would be leaving the country at the end of the convention. The iPads were shipped to the hotel direct in Whistler with no charges to the delegates.
The process worked.
10th Annual Mexico Showcase & Travel Expo 2011 in Cancun
Meeting professionals are experienced travelers and advisors who do understand geography, distances and context, according to Eduardo Chaillo, CMP, CMM, executive director meetings industry for the Mexico Tourism Board. But to help dispel uncertainty about meeting in Mexico, the MTB offers an online tool kit to support these partners so they can be equipped when talking with their clients. The kit includes maps, statistics culled from satisfied attendees and many testimonials from planners, as well as destination security assessments.
“We do have some challenges in some areas of our border cities,” Chaillo says; however, “in the meeting cities, venues and resorts, no incidents have been reported during the 225 world congresses held in Mexico in 2011.”
Another way planners can overcome hesitation is to visit Mexico personally, says Andy Ortiz, president of Global Incentive Management - DMC. Numerous hosted buyer opportunities are available for this process, including the Mexico Showcase & Travel Expo held each April, he says. Chaillo adds several more, including a national congress of the meeting industry in Leon, an MPI Mexico convention in Guadalajara and an AMPROFE meeting in Chihuahua. “We also conduct several edufams and organize a North American advisory summit with PCMA, which will take place in Mazatlan in November 2012,” he says.