The 29th Caribbean Marketplace was a high stakes occasion for the newly opened Montego Bay Convention Center in Jamaica.
PIRATE SHIPS RULED THE WATERS OF THE CARIBBEAN SEA IN THE EARLY 18TH CENTURY. Nowadays, the vessels you’re likely to encounter are cruise boats carrying guests keen to discover this earthly paradise, a place where the natural beauty of sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters can be explored through the luxurious resorts competing with each other in the range of facilities and quality services they can offer customers.
Nestled in the Caribbean, the island of Jamaica is known as its Queen and Montego Bay, at its northwest corner, is its second-largest city and most famous tourist destination, making it the true jewel of the Queen’s Crown.
The island, beyond the five-star services offered to leisure tourists, can also boast of the new Montego Bay Convention Center, located in Rose Hall, St. James. Officially opened in 2011, its world-class, high-tech and high-spec versatile facilities, with a clear goal of attracting international meetings, conferences and events, enable Jamaica to play a leading role not only in tourism, but also in the Caribbean’s meeting and event industry.
“Historically, the local hotel community has done very well in these sectors, but there were numerous events that outgrew hotel ballrooms and were forced to look outside Jamaica,” said Gregg Caren, senior vice president of SMG, the management company for the new center.
With the largest meeting space in the English-speaking Caribbean coupled with being able to exploit one of the most recognized destination brands globally, SMG is confident of Jamaica’s potential to expand beyond its renowned leisure and vacation image and break into the meetings business.
“Combine the wide variety of four- and five-star hotel product offerings with the natural woods, stones and luxury furnishings not often found in a full-service convention center, and you find yourself managing a very marketable product,” Caren said.
The Montego Bay Convention Center was built as a complement to the luxurious hotels along the island’s “Elegant Corridor.” Distinguished by its breathtaking views, the mix of Jamaican and Asian architecture styles adds to its inherent international appeal. Furthermore, the facility is purposely built in a campus-like setting in order to allow attendees to experience the inner sanctum as much as the outdoor serenity of the venue and its surrounds.
“New construction venues are always exciting challenges, often full of surprises,” Caren said. “Adding to the other unique aspects of the Montego Bay Convention Center was the collaboration between the Jamaican and Chinese governments in building this new landmark. The challenge of blending two cultures and languages on the construction site was interesting. Given that we had 250 Chinese workers side by side Jamaicans, and living in a dormitory setting, the construction itself was an exercise in international diplomacy.”
With this international collaboration to complete the convention center expedited during the last few project plan months—putting the finishing touches to the 132,000 square feet of meeting, exhibition, ballroom and plenary space, all just a 15-minute drive from Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport—the 29th Caribbean Marketplace was a high stakes occasion for the center and event organizer. A good premiere could guarantee returns, a bad one might damage a center’s reputation from the off.
Dual Benefits of Crossover
With the curtain of the new center raised in January 2011 (the opening of Caribbean Marketplace), SMG witnessed the empty shell transformed into a successful show floor buzzing with exhibitors and participants. The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), the event’s main organizer, also witnessed their third-largest event participation of the last decade, up 10 percent on 2010 figures, despite the global financial crisis.
“The Caribbean has had only moderate growth in the past few years because of the global economic downturn,” said Vanessa Ledesma-Berrios, CHTA conferences and events director. “However, the region has been one of the few bright spots, despite the continuing economic crisis across the world.
“The recession has actually spurred attendance, because both the hoteliers and buyers saw this event as a way to circumvent the economic difficulties and an opportunity to drive business as a result of meetings at Marketplace.”
From the facility management perspective, Caren noted that Jamaica is still able to enjoy an extremely high visitation and occupancy rate in leisure sectors that provides a strong—albeit seasonal—base of business.
“This provides both the crossover effect, of those who have enjoyed Jamaica for a vacation or an incentive trip that see the upsides of returning for business reasons,” Caren said. “Combine this with tremendous air lift for an island, and the value proposition is strong.”
The strength and advantage of this crossover effect is doubly reflected in the effectiveness of Jamaican organizations, long experienced in leisure tourism, in assisting the island’s first major event as it sets out on its long meetings voyage.
“As for the inaugural event, credit really goes to the teams from the Jamaica Hotel and Tourism Association and Jamaica Tourism Board, who truly rallied local support and teams of volunteers and corporate sponsors to make sure that the not-quite-completed venue still worked,” Caren said.
The CHTA’s Ledesma-Berrios adds that the island benefited from an excellent group of hospitality professionals who assisted in the logistics and sub-committees, further reinforcing the important role of local organization involvement.
The Broad Horizons of the Caribbean
Caribbean Marketplace’s specific goal for 2011 was to continue to open new avenues of cooperation for growth by providing the opportunities for a wide variety of companies to get together in one place and discuss marketing plans for their destinations and hotels. From event feedback, the organizers initiatives allied with the allure of the destination, and the new center’s tech-spec, along with visitor curiosity, ensured this goal was achieved.
“Many of these new initiatives revolve around utilizing new social media outlets, such as Groupon,” Ledesma-Berrios said. “Other initiatives include more outreach to new potential destinations by courting buyers that have not previously attended Marketplace.”
Through these channels of outreach, the show could attract worldwide attention, resulting in new tour operators and wholesale buyers attending the event, from countries such as Canada, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., fulfilling CHTA’s aim to expand their new buyer outreach in order to increase the participants at Caribbean Marketplace in the coming years.
“This may include non-traditional tour operators and wholesalers, especially now that the lines of distinction are becoming increasingly blurred as to what form a wholesaler takes,” Ledesma-Berrios said.
Apart from initiatives taken by the organizers concerning the development of the region, an important aspect of Caribbean Marketplace’s operations, which had an instant impact, was the programming of targeted appointments, totaling 11,880 and facilitated in the center over the two-day event.
“Caribbean Marketplace has been successful because of the smoothly executed, targeted computer appointment scheduling program that is similar to the protocol used by the U.S. Travel Association’s International PowWow that brings together buyers and sellers, enabling requests to be matched for the mutual benefit of both parties,” Ledesma-Berrios said. “It’s a system that has worked well over the past few years, creating thousands of successful appointments.”
To guarantee it also worked well this year, a team of veteran staff worked in conjunction to assist participants with all necessary arrangements as they prepared to attend Marketplace, facilitating their successful presence at the show.
“Some of the help available included assistance with booth selection and setup, understanding the appointment scheduling process and maximizing attendance with business meetings and press conferences,” Ledesma-Berrios said.
Montego Bay’s Concentric Circles
Caribbean Marketplace 2011’s curtain fell to the murmur of satisfied exhibitors and buyers acknowledging the success of the venue as a place to conduct business and enjoy local hospitality.
One year after its launch, the full-service, first-class facility can already seeing bookings and added interest.
“As with all new convention centers we have inaugurated, there is a common pattern to bookings,” Caren said. “In today’s environment, the larger, international clients really take a ‘call me when it’s open’ approach, not wanting to risk any delays in construction or changes in market conditions.
“So we find our business growing in concentric circles,” he continued. “It begins with strong national interest, spreading quickly to the rest of the Caribbean, and now more inquiries from the U.S. and Europe.”
Recognizing tourism as a key pillar of economic development in the Caribbean, the Montego Bay Convention Center is a milestone in the region’s meeting industry. Pirates no longer patrol these seas, something that makes it easier for everyone to not only “Come to Jamaica and feel all right,” as the promotional Jamaican jingle likes to sing, but now also to “Come to Jamaica and meet all right.” One+
business of meetings,
Montego Bay Convention Center,
One+ July 2012