Finding a new ‘Caribbean’ convention capital

If you want to organise a major event involving a very large number of regional and international participants, it is not always easy to know where best to go.

I know this from recent personal experience and in the past and over successive years in the 1990s, having led nine large Europe-Caribbean conferences involving Government and private sector participants from the Caribbean and Europe, that variously took place in Kingston, Curacao, Brussels, Santo Domingo, London and Havana.

Then, but less so now, the challenge was finding a venue with enough space, sufficient breakout rooms, nearby hotel accommodation, and good inter-regional and international access by air.

Since 2005 the Caribbean has upgraded existing convention centres or constructed new ones, so that today there are six or more large facilities in the region including the Convention Centre in San Juan, Puerto Rico; the World Trade Centre, in Willemstad, Curacao; the Atlantis Conference Centre, on Paradise Island, Nassau, in the Bahamas; the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre, just outside Bridgetown, Barbados; the Palacio de Convenciones just beyond the centre of Havana, Cuba; and of course the Montego Bay Convention Centre, on Jamaica’s North Coast.

However, what Governments and convention centre owners have not been able to overcome is the challenge that all regional private sector associations and external organisations associated with the Caribbean now face: how to bring their regionally based participants easily and at reasonable cost to their chosen venue.

By way of example, and despite the overall success of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s (CHTA) recent Market Place event in Montego Bay, a significant number of the association’s governing body cited as a reason for not being able to attend the organisation’s internal meetings the high cost of air travel and the problems of inter-regional airline connectivity.

So significant is this becoming that some regional organisations are again turning their attention back to Miami as their preferred location for events, especially if they involve significant numbers attending from across the region. This is because almost every Caribbean nation is served by one or more carriers which provide, often on a low cost basis, point to point services into Miami.

What this seems to suggest is that just as large Caribbean conference facilities have emerged, the ability or willingness of those from the region to travel to such locations for a convention, particularly if it is their own money they are spending, will continue to decline.

The consequence is a paradox: large non-government Caribbean gatherings are more and more likely to take place in the United States.

This is to say the least unfortunate.

Conventions and meetings are big business. So much so that almost all cities compete vigorously to attract them. Although there seems to be no clearly comparable statistics on the revenues that such events bring, there is some evidence that for some types of conference, visitor spend is significantly higher, especially if the event is corporate, association related or of a mixed public/private sector kind.

For example, recent figures suggest that in Boston in the US, the overall spend per conference delegate was US$1225 per 3.1 day stay or US$395 per day. This compares with recent figures for stay over tourists visiting Jamaica of around US$115 daily, and cruise passengers, who on average spend US$90 per day.

All of which leaves one wondering whether the country now with the most to gain is Panama ,which has established direct air links to almost all major cities in the region, has ease of entry and transit, and a large and beautiful convention centre, ATLAPA , just fifteen minutes from Tocumen airport .