Puerto Vallarta as Incentive Groups Option
By John Buchanan
When asked what has surprised them most about Mexico as a destination, planners unanimously cited the extraordinary hospitality and service. To the still uninitiated, that in itself comes as a surprise, because Mexico still suffers to some extent from the long-held stereotypes of siesta and mañana, the very cultural charms that lured the rich and famous to its lazy beach enclaves such as Puerto Vallarta a half-century ago, yet were an anathema to planners seeking flawless efficiency.
Today, however, thanks to an enormous effort by the Mexican government and private sector developers that dates back to the creation of the Caribbean playground of Cancun in the 1970s, the country is known as a modern showcase for a culture and cuisine that rivals any in the world for attendee satisfaction.
“The feedback we got was that Mexico was one of the most memorable trips we’ve ever taken,” said first-time user Diane Evenson, manager of worldwide events at radiology equipment manufacturer Carestream Health Inc. in Oakdale, MN. In May, Evenson hosted 25 attendees from the U.S. and Canada for a six-day, top-tier incentive program, Carestream’s President’s Club, at the 401-room Fairmont Mayakoba, with 40,000 square feet of meeting space, on the Riviera Maya south of Cancun. “And this was a very elite group.”
Deborah Hitchcock, vice president of travel at Minneapolis, MN-based Builders Club, a private consortium of homebuilders who earn trips by purchasing from member suppliers, is a longtime, loyal user of Mexico. She is not surprised by Evenson’s enthusiasm. Over the past 18 years, she has taken many incentive groups of 300 to 400 attendees to Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Los Cabos, Cancun and Riviera Maya. Earlier this year, she hosted a group at the intimate, luxurious 175-room Grand Bay Hotel Isla Navidad, A Wyndham Luxury Resort in Manzanillo, with 25,000 square feet of meeting space.
“There is not a better place to go than Mexico,” Hitchcock said. “The good weather is constant. But what I have seen transpire over the last 18 years is the excellence of the resorts, in their hospitality and service, and in their food. All of that has just grown by leaps and bounds. Mexican people are very hard-working, and they are eager to serve. And they have a great product to work with now.”
Michael Kennedy, manager of retail development at Isuzu Commercial Truck of America in Cerritos, CA, is another committed user of Mexico. In February, he hosted the company’s top incentive program, a six-day pampering of 300 attendees at Grand Bay Hotel Isla Navidad. “Mexico probably offers the best value you can find,” Kennedy said. “The level of service we have gotten in every Mexico destination we have been in has been consistent and absolutely incredible. And the quality of the food and the service has gone up every year. I can honestly say we have had no negative issues in 10 years of going to Mexico. I love Mexico.”
A Well-Equipped Destination
Eduardo Chaillo, CMP, CMM, director of the strategic business unit for the U.S. and Canada at the Mexico Tourism Board in Washington, DC, is gratified to hear such comments from planners. In addition to other responsibilities, Chaillo helps oversee Mexico’s marketing efforts for meeting and convention business, along with the Mexico Convention Bureau.
“I think planners who visit Mexico for the first time are surprised to find out what a well-equipped destination we are,” he said. “They are also surprised by the professionalism of our suppliers. We have pushed our suppliers very hard in order to accomplish that. We understand what meeting planners need, but we also understand that it is important to maintain our own culture and identity.”
As a result, Chaillo said, Mexico is unique among major meeting destinations, offering a fascinating history and vivid local culture that includes diverse regional cuisines and artistic expression, such as music and dance. “But the two things that have really made us so successful are our diversity and our proximity,” he said. “There are many choices in Mexico, but all of them are close.”
In addition, he said, Mexico offers unique and important benefits to planners in an era of growing cost-consciousness and widespread budget cuts. One is zero tax, an initiative by the government officially dubbed the No Tax Bill, which exempts international meetings from the Value Added Tax (VAT) that is 10 percent in Mexico’s border states and 16 percent elsewhere. Another valuable innovation is tax-free shopping.
Mexico also offers Meetings Online, a Web-based tool that allows planners to take virtual tours of convention facilities; search for venues by location, number of rooms and cost; and submit electronic requests for proposals (RFPs) and compare responses within 48 hours of the initial inquiry.
Chaillo added that many planners are surprised to learn that Mexico delivers ever-expanding meeting infrastructure that features 38 state-of-the-art convention centers spread across the country and 16 bona fide incentive travel destinations.
The “Your Best Reward Is Mexico” program, tailored exclusively to incentive planners, made its debut at the Incentive Travel & Meeting Executives (IT&ME) Motivation Show in Chicago last year. The unprecedented collaboration between the Mexico Ministry of Tourism, Mexico Tourism Board and Convention Bureau, and the Mexico chapter of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (SITE), will identify and develop new and unique incentive destinations throughout the country. The program’s first year highlighted the historic port of Veracruz, located on the Gulf Coast, and the famous mariachi community of Guadalajara. “They are both doing very well in the incentive market now,” Chaillo noted.
Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific Coast, is one of the destinations that first lured international visitors with its beautiful beaches and charming architecture, which includes cobblestone streets in the heart of the old city, which has evolved into a mini-metropolis of tourism.
Mary MacGregor, vice president of travel and event services at performance marketing and incentive travel firm MotivAction in Minneapolis, MN, is a longtime Puerto Vallarta loyalist who also has extensive group experience throughout Mexico. Patricia Tovee, her purchasing manager, shares MacGregor’s enthusiasm.
In February, MotivAction hosted two back-to-back incentive groups of 180 attendees each for the construction and forestry division of equipment manufacturer John Deere. Last year, MacGregor and Tovee managed three back-to-back events for 180 attendees each for the parts and service marketing division of the company. Both programs were housed at the 133-room CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, with more than 29,000 square feet of meeting and function space.
“We have a long relationship with the destination and the hotel,” Tovee said. “Participants for these programs are dealers who come from all over the U.S. and Canada, so we were looking for accessibility. Another reason is that it is not too ‘foreign.’ Many of our participants are first-time international travelers, so we like a place that is accessible, friendly and non-threatening. Puerto Vallarta just covered all of those bases.”
MacGregor added, “This is a group that looks for a destination that offers a diversity of activities, and Puerto Vallarta certainly offers that, with activities for the very active and also those who are looking for more cultural touring or shopping. It also provides good value, and it’s a good sun-and-beach destination.”
Highlights of the John Deere programs included an all-day Sierra Madre Jeep expedition and a “Rhythm of the Night” party on Las Caletas beach, a pristine stretch of sand, surrounded by jungle and accessible only by boat across Banderas Bay.
MacGregor and Tovee agreed that Puerto Vallarta offers one of the best value propositions in Mexico. “It’s kind of an emerging incentive destination at the moment, like Cancun was 10 or 15 years ago,” MacGregor said.
Other major meeting properties in Puerto Vallarta include the 140-room Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, located 26 miles from the center of Puerto Vallarta, with 6,840 square feet of meeting and event space; 500-room Sheraton Buganvilias Resort & Convention Center, with 13,000 square feet, and the 279-room Westin Resort & Spa Puerto Vallarta, with more than 16,000 square feet.
Value and Service
Regardless of what individual destination a planner chooses, those who have repeatedly used Mexico say unanimously that it represents exceptional value and service that measure up favorably against any other comparable destination in the world.
“We find Mexico to be a good destination for our clients who are looking for value, because there is a great depth of choice in properties,” MacGregor said. “And there are all-inclusives that give clients who are working on a smaller budget that opportunity, but there are also very luxurious five-star resorts. Mexico delivers across the board. The accessibility of Mexico destinations is very significant. In all of the major destinations, they have also made quite a bit of investment in infrastructure. There is no language barrier, there is no currency barrier. The food is excellent. It’s international cuisine. You see world-class shopping. From a cultural and diversity of activities standpoint, Mexico really holds its own against any other destination.”
Pasquale, after 10 years of frequent trips to Mexico, said the most important thing planners considering it need to understand is that the service and hospitality, particularly at the five-star level of a JW Marriott, equal or exceed any other destination. Hitchcock and Evenson agreed. “That is true, without a doubt,” Hitchcock said.
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