By Marvin A. Hokstam:
No destination in the Caribbean seems to realise better than Puerto Rico that inventiveness is key in today’s world economy. The Spanish speaking US state is pouring multi millions into constructing the largest convention centre in the region and has committed to competing aggressively for a fair share in the rapidly growing ‘convention tourism market’. At the end of a tour of the facilities, still under construction, at the entrance of Old San Juan, one could not but agree with a lenticular postcard sized flyer that interchanges from an artist’s rendition of the Convention Centre into a huge wave. “The design of the building depicts the waves of the sea that surround us,” explained Ana Viscasillas, Vice President, Marketing of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau. No doubt. The island is evidently ready to take the convention tourism market by storm. FINALE:
Manuel Sanchez Biscombe, the Executive Director of the Convention Centere District Authority was satisfied with the progress that has been made since the first load of steel arrived from Korea in March last year. Proudly he showed sequential pictures on a wide screen of what has been achieved since. The Convention Center - the first phase of a total redevelopment of the 113 acres of land in Isla Grande, San Juan- will be ready in late 2005 and construction workers were working feverishly and dedicated to achieve that goal.
A constant drilling and pounding accompanied us as we toured the facilities. From the second floor that looked down some 50 meters on what will become the enormous 14,186 exhibition hall, it looked like a well orchestrated theatre piece in which everyone played an integral part. About a hundred men in hardhats and steel toe boots were either drilling, hammering, welding or pouring concrete. Heavy equipment zigzagged through the organised chaos. Like conductors their foremen monitored, some were bowed over complicated plans. The big finale was in sight.BIGGER IS BETTER:
The three story facility that will eventually emerge will stand at 177 meters, the height of a typical 13 story building. “It will be grand enough to house 10 US football fields, 123 basketball courts and 11 Boeing 747 aircraft,” Sanchez Biscombe boasted. The largest conference facility in the region.
But will bigger be better? “Yes!” says Jose Suarez, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC). In the Convention Centre, the Exhibit Hall will not be the only largest single space in the Caribbean dedicated to the service it will provide. So will the 3,760 square meter ballroom on the third floor, for that matter.
In total the entire facility will be 58,882 square meters in halls, office space, conference rooms and other necessities. It will have the capacity to attract meetings of 2,500 to more than 10,000 attendees.
“We and with we, we also mean the entire Caribbean will be at the foreground of meetings destinations with this facility,” said Ana Viscasillas, Vice President Marketing for the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau. She said that at present “conference tourism” makes more than one-third of Puerto Rico’s tourism income. “And if we were not sure that this facility would benefit the industry, we (the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau) would not be involved in this project,” she stressed.
According to her the Convention Centre had already sold bookings for six conventions, one of them to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce with over 3,000 attendees in 2005. “Two bookings are from Caribbean organisations,” she said. In addition there are also 45 tentative bookings. “We are going after 83 percent of the market for exhibition space,” she said, placing the facility right on top there with a convention centre in Tampa that has about the same space. “This will be the largest in the Caribbean and the most advanced in Latin America,” she said.
But, while the Center’s size may be impressive, the entire story is not told yet. Manuel Sanchez Biscombe, the Executive Director of the Convention Centre District Authority said it was only part of a total rededication of the area around it, which should jumpstart a new future for Old San Juan. “This is a new beginning. We’re biting into a cake that has not been touched yet,” he said.
He explained that after the Convention Centre has been constructed, contractors will continue the execution of phase two of the plan that includes the construction of a residential area consisting of 225 houses and the construction of 24,5000 square feet of commercial space and 7,900 square feet of parking space. The plan also includes the building of two hotels with 1,770 rooms. By March this year, the announcement will be made of who will manage these properties. Prestigious hotel brands Marriot, Sheraton and Hilton are among the bidders.
The entire project should be a reality by 2007. US$ 900 million will then have been spent on the project; 450 million of it will have been poured into the Convention Center. Bonds will be issued this year to finalise part of the execution. The US$ 450 million will be paid back with the revenue from hotel room-tax collection. A special arrangement was made earlier this year, enabling the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) to collect the US$11 tax, a task prevously dedicated to the Treasury Department.
The island is obviously confident that its tourism industry will continue to do well and may even improve. The evidence? The addition of no less than 655 rooms in 2003; and the announcement of construction of no less than 25 other tourism related projects in coming years. And of course the investment in a Convention Center that’s second to none in the region. All State investments; the Federal Government is not involved!
Vice President Ana Viscasillas said the Convention Centre would benefit the entire Caribbean. “It will help the entire region to further define its position as a meetings destination,” she said. Puerto Rico, she continued, is looking forward to bringing bigger tradeshows to the region and that could boost business for all islands.
“Delegates that attend meetings in the Convention Center might end up deciding to do business on other islands,” she said “There will be a spin off.” She said her island was also looking forward to working with fellow Caribbean islands to further develop the industry. “The entire Caribbean can now go after conferences that it previously could not host because of the lack of sufficient and adequate space,” said Viscasillas.
Regional tourism organisation CHA has welcomed the inititaive. “It’s a great facility,” said Tim Grace, Managing Director and Publisher of Gold Book Publishing, speaking about the Convention Centre.
Conference tourism, he said, is one of the most important ingredients in a hotelier’s recipe. “A lot of business generated in the Caribbean is through this sort of incentive travel. It’s a huge market. (A trip to) the Caribbean is of course a sexy thing to wave in front of people you want to travel,” he said.
Grace spearheads an initiative of the Caribbean Hotel Association to help boost the meetings and conventions market. At the recently wrapped up Caribbean Marketplace in Puerto Rico, he introduced “Caribbean Meetings and Events” a glossy compilation of Caribbean destinations that cater to conference tourism. The 33 X 25 cm, 160 page, full color magazine also includes a listing of over 700 hotels in the region. None come close however to Puerto Rico’s decisive leap forward. St. Maarten included!This report comes from Marvin A. Hokstam a Freelance journalist from the shores of St. Maarten.