Earlier this year, Meet Puerto Rico (MPR) launched a new branding and image campaign designed to distinguish Puerto Rico from other warm-weather meeting locales by emphasizing its unique natural beauty and Caribbean location. The campaign is direct in its pitch, right down to the tagline: “On a Tropical Island. In the Caribbean.” As MPR President and CEO Milton Segarra told me: “The deciding factor shouldn’t be that Puerto Rico has a convention center.”
When Meet Puerto Rico hosted Convene as part of a three-day, “Escape the Conventional”–themed press trip recently, we got a glimpse of the meeting sites, culture, beaches, rainforest adventure, and water-sports fun that this tropical island has to offer.
I arrived at San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport on a direct, 4.5-hour flight from Chicago — one of 2,096 flights on 26 airlines that arrive weekly. “Welcome to the East Coast Hawaii,” said the driver who greeted me. That doesn’t just apply to geography. U.S. travelers to Puerto Rico don’t need a passport, and the official currency is the U.S. dollar.
After checking in to The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan, our group boarded a small tour bus for Old San Juan. A 15-minute drive took us to Castillo San Cristobal, a historical Spanish fort and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World, San Cristobal is part of the U.S. National Park Service. A park ranger provided a tour, and then we were treated to a private, candlelit dinner in the courtyard of the closed fort — a spectacular setting that can be reserved for private events.
The next day, we began with a tour of the 416-room Ritz-Carlton, which provides five-star accommodations and service, along with easy access to the airport and a beachfront location. It also offers more than 33,000 square feet of conference facilities, including an 11,840-square-foot ballroom that can accommodate up to 1,300 guests, and nine meeting rooms, several of which have balconies overlooking the property’s garden.
From there, a five-mile drive brought us to the Convention Center District and the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino. The 503-room property, which opened in 2009, was the prototype for Sheraton’s recent redesign and rebranding, and is the first New Construction LEED-certified facility in the Caribbean. It provides 35,000 square feet of meeting and expo space, including a dedicated conference level and a pool deck that can host events for up to 1,000 people.
Next, we toured the showcase 600,000-square-foot Puerto Rico Convention Center, with more than 150,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 39,500-square-foot ballroom (the largest in the Caribbean), and 54,949 square feet of additional meeting space. Capitalizing on the island’s sunny weather, a $30-million private investment in 2013 allowed for the installation of 17,764 solar panels over parking structures and more than 2,100 panels on the facility’s roof. The panels will generate about 60 percent of the center’s total electricity.
Then it was off to La Concha Resort in Condado, San Juan’s fashionable shopping and entertainment district. Original 1950s architecture was preserved during the hotel’s recent renovation, giving La Concha a hip, retro, “Mad Men” feel. In addition to the 248 standard rooms in the original building, a new, more sedate suite tower provides 235 suites, each with a sitting area and space for small-group meetings.
Our last stop was the nearby Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, a sister property of La Concha with an entirely different vibe. Opened in 1919 as Puerto Rico’s first luxury hotel, Condado Vanderbilt is in the process of a $270-million restoration, and al-though guest rooms won’t open until December, the event space is already available, including 30,000 square feet of meeting space.
For dinner, our hosts promised a truly local experience, so we headed to La Placita, a bar and restaurant district that’s a popular end-of-week destination for San Juan residents. As on every Friday night, the streets surrounding the Plaza del Mercado were blocked off and the area had a block-party feel. Led by local restaurant guides from Spoon Food Tours, we started off with a drink at an open-air restaurant, then strolled around the plaza.
WHITE SANDS AND MOFONGO
Our third day was our escape from the conventional, as we left San Juan and headed to the rainforest. Located about 45 minutes from San Juan, El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. There are trails and hikes of varying difficulty, and the welcome center can be rented for private events.
For lunch, we went to nearby La Cava Terra, a special-event site that can accommodate up to 200 people. The restaurant features sweeping views to the ocean on one side and clear views of El Yunque on the other, as well as an extensive wine cellar. It’s often used for small-group retreats.
We then headed to the massive El Conquistador Resort, a property so big it has its own water-treatment plant. With 984 guest rooms and its own 100,000-square-foot, $42-million Grand Atlantic Conference Center, “El Con” is the largest non-convention-center meeting facility in Puerto Rico.
El Con doesn’t have a beach, but ferries guests to its own private Palomino Island. There, we enjoyed a white-sand beach and the clear-blue waters of the Caribbean. A variety of water sports, including jet skiing, snorkeling, and clear-bottomed kayaking, is available to guests, but we had more to see and so could hardly do more than enjoy just-off-the-tree-with-a-straw coconut water.
Our next beyond-the-ordinary destination was the bioluminescent lagoon in Fajardo. The bioluminescence wasn’t as vivid as on other nights, but the sunset and quiet beauty of the no-motor-boats-allowed lagoon was spectacular.
Our last dinner was at Chops, El Con’s formal steakhouse. Most of our group ordered fresh grouper, and we all enjoyed mofongo, a local fried-plantain dish that we had heard much about. We finished with the restaurant’s signature 24-layer (yes, 24) chocolate cake.
That evening, the night was filled with the singing of coquí, a tiny, vocal frog and Puerto Rico’s unofficial mascot. It was just what you would expect on a tropical island. In the Caribbean.