Barbados delivers what you expect from a Caribbean island paradise – pristine white beaches, an exquisite turquoise sea, coral reefs, lush tropical vegetation and year-round warm temperatures.
But Kyle Gittens, the London-based representative of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. (BTMI), is keen to point out that the destination is more than just sun, sand, sea and boutique hotels with idyllic beachfront locations.
Barbados has other natural attractions and a wealth of history and cultural heritage that offer meetings and incentive organisers an array of special experiences.
The calm and crystal-clear Caribbean sea is ideal for watersports, so it is hardly surprising that sailing cruises are almost compulsory activities for groups. However, as the name of the major film franchise ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ suggests, the local area has a history of ship battles and there are plenty of shipwrecks to explore when snorkelling from the boat. Another special experience is to swim with the turtles that are abundant in Barbadian waters.
As well as the standard catamarans for around 18-30 persons, there are luxury catamarans, with a chef onboard, the largest of which holds 80 people. Alternatively, you can cruise on the Jolly Roger pirate ship which takes up to 300 people. Another option is to venture underwater on a submarine for around 42 guests, either during the day or on a night dive.
Rum & tobacco
Barbados is traditionally known as the birthplace of rum and one cannot visit the island without sampling this local speciality. In colonial times, sugar dominated the economy and rum was developed from molasses, the by-product of turning cane into sugar.
Mount Gay Rum claims to be the world's oldest rum company still in existence, dating from 1703, and offers rum tastings, rum cake and a presentation on the history of rum, which was originally called ‘kill devil’. There are 1,200 rum shops on the island. Many of these are close to a church, leading to local jokes about different ways to honour your spirit!
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As well as sugar, Barbados also had tobacco plantations and still makes good cigars. Having someone hand-roll cigars on the spot can add a nice touch to an event.
Harrison’s Cave and George Washington House
Perhaps the most stunning natural attraction on the island is Harrison’s Cave. This massive system of limestone caverns, 2.3km long, with underground rivers, waterfalls, lakes, stalagmites, stalactites and columns can be conveniently seen from a ride on an electric tram. When Helen Schur Parris of St James Travel & Tours was asked by a client to propose an event she had always wanted to do but never done, she set up a banquet dinner in the underground Great Hall, which has a ceiling height of 15m.
Another option for dinner is the house where George Washington lived for 7 weeks, his only trip outside America. It has been restored to its original state and holds 40 diners, or 500 for cocktails in the grounds.
The tastiest food
Wherever you eat dinner, it is likely to be tasty. According to Jason Yearwood, BTMI representative in Canada, Barbados is the culinary capital of the Caribbean. This is highlighted at the food and rum festival in November, which is appealing to groups, where international and local chefs compete. At other times of the year, a food tour can be arranged, where a group buys produce at the market and cook it for themselves. Or, if you prefer to let others do the cooking, Barbados has top class restaurants, in captivating coastal locations. The most prestigious is The Cliff, which now has a less formal sister restaurant, The Cliff Beach Club, opened in 2015. We also ate delicious meals at Cin Cin, Primo and Daphne’s. Flying fish is a local dish not to be missed and while you may already be familiar with grapefruit, you may not know that it originated in Barbados, as a cross between sweet orange and pomelo.
Don’t worry if your delegates eat too much. Barbados is developing its health and wellness tourism. Most good hotels have spas and often 24-hour gyms.
Lovers of sport can play cricket at the island’s Kensington Oval with Sir Garry Sobers, one of the West Indian cricket greats, watch a polo match, or participate in a rally, where Lewis Hamilton has been a competitor.
Although Barbados has a well-preserved history and a relaxed atmosphere, it boasts a modern infrastructure, including Wi-Fi in many places. Furthermore, the local hoteliers and Destination Management Companies have long experience of catering to MICE groups. We were introduced to three DMCs: Blu Isles, which is Barbadian-owned, and St James Travel & Tours and West Indian International Tours (WIIT), which both also have offices on Antigua and Grenada. Additionally, St James covers St Kitts & Nevis and WIIT St Lucia and Tobago.
As an example of the depth of MICE experience on the island, Helen Schur Parris originally worked for Hilton and set up the DMC Sunlinc 33 years ago, catering predominantly to the North American market. She acquired St James Travel & Tours, which focuses on the UK and European markets, in 2009 and now employs 126 people. Helen notes that, with corporate social responsibility on the agenda, corporate groups visiting Barbados often do community service, which adds to the feel-good factor of an event. She also points out that a major advantage of Barbados is how safe it is. She has an alarm system at home, but rarely puts it on.
Another advantage of the island for English-speakers is that, having been a British colony for several centuries, English is the official language. Barbados’ cultural heritage is widely on display. For example, Bridgetown, the capital, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and houses the Barbadian parliament, the second oldest parliament in the Commonwealth.
Strong historical links mean the United Kingdom still accounts for the majority of tourists, including corporate groups, but the number of US and Canadian visitors is growing. North America is only 4-5 hours away and in the same time zone as Barbados. Germany, Italy and France are the top three continental European markets and the BTMI recently opened an office in Munich, from where there are direct flights in winter.
Good Flight connections
Direct flights from the UK are 8-9 hours. We flew on Virgin Atlantic, which will launch a new twice weekly service from London Heathrow on 12th December 2017, giving them a total of 11 flights per week from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. Barbados also has good flight connections to other Caribbean islands.
When to go / Cost
Prices for flights and accommodation vary considerably depending on when you go. Peak season is December to April, when it is slightly cooler. The ‘wet season’ is June to November, although rain showers are often short-lived and soon replaced by sun again. The differences between the seasons are not as marked as in other places in the world; the year-round temperature in Barbados is a pleasant 23 to 30 degrees Celsius, with 3,000 hours of sunshine a year. Kyle Gittens remarks that the rain is often a pleasant relief and warm, leading Barbadians (or Bajans as they usually call themselves) to name it ‘liquid sunshine’.
Barbados is the most easterly island in the Caribbean and outside the main hurricane strike zone, so hurricanes are rare. The last time one caused major damage to the island was when Hurricane Janet struck in 1955.
In the low season, prices for hotel rooms can almost halve. In terms of overall budget, Gittens comments ‘It’s as expensive as you make it’, pointing to the range of hotels to choose from in various price brackets. While some MICE groups do book in high season, most travel off-peak. Being a small island - approximately 14 miles wide and 21 miles long – with boutique hotels, Barbados is mainly suited to smaller and medium-sized meetings and incentives. There is, however, a conference centre and The Hilton has good-sized meetings and conference facilities.
The Hilton Barbados is the largest hotel on the island. Its 350 rooms include 77 executive rooms and 33 suites. It is located on a peninsula, on the south-west of the island, meaning all rooms have an ocean view, either to the Caribbean sea on one side, or on the other side to the Atlantic. A little further up the west coast is the capital, Bridgetown.
The hotel is currently refurbishing its rooms and spa. The number of suites will be reduced from 32 to 20. However, a new deluxe category of room is being introduced. One of the tallest hotels on the island, with 8 floors, there is an executive lounge on the top floor, presenting excellent views.
The spa opened in 2015, with four treatment rooms, including a massage bed with a base of heated sand.
Group discount applies to bookings of 10 rooms or more and, in principle, all rooms are available to a group. The meeting rooms enjoy natural daylight and there are covered terrace areas for coffee breaks or receptions. In total, the hotel has 10,000sqft of meetings space. There are three meeting rooms that can be divided into 6 rooms, a boardroom and a ballroom for up to 570 theatre-style, which can be divided into 3 sections.
The Platinum West Coast, which enjoys the calm, turquoise Caribbean Sea, is the most exclusive area of Barbados and has the most luxury hotels.
Sandy Lane, a Leading Hotel of the World, is the most prestigious hotel on the island. It has palladian-style architecture, with Italian marble floors and plantation-style furniture and is well-known for its championship golf courses.
The 112 rooms have spacious balconies and there are two penthouses, along with a 5-bed villa. Prices start at just under US$1,000, for an Orchid Room, rising to US$1,700 for the top end luxury ocean view room. Groups receive a discount of 20% in summer and 10% in winter. No groups are accepted during festive seasons, such as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.
Non-guests can play golf on selected courses and use the impressive 47,000sqft spa, which includes a 7,500sqft pool, with waterfalls. Two of the spa treatment rooms have their own hydrotherapy pool.
Meetings space consists of three meeting rooms on reception level in the main part of the hotel, which can be merged into an area of 1,770sqft and two meeting rooms by the spa area, each 988sqft, which can also be combined. A demonstration kitchen allows for participation in kitchen classes.
One of our group, Kathy, an independent incentive consultant, says that when groups come here, they tend to stay on site, as that’s the experience.
Elegant Hotels own six hotels in Barbados, all but one on the west coast. Situated above Sandy Lane in 7 acres of lush tropical gardens is the Colony Club, a genteel, intimate and tranquil venue, which was a gentlemen’s club for rich English plantation owners, known as the ‘planters’. The atmosphere is still that of a London gentleman’s club, albeit in a Caribbean setting.
Its 96 rooms include 30 junior suites. Most rooms are garden/pool facing and despite having a beautiful beach, Omar Carrington, group sales manager, states that it is not a beach hotel per se. Room rates in peak season can be around US$1,000, but after April rates can almost halve. A normal group size for the property is 20-30 rooms, although larger groups, or even an exclusive buy-out, can be accepted in quiet periods. The hotel has two meeting rooms, taking around 75 and 30 respectively theatre-style.
Slightly further down the coast, the Tamarind has a more vibrant, colourful feel, suited to a somewhat younger clientele, around 20- to 40-year-olds, compared to the Colony Club,. The theme is outdoor living and there are many outdoor areas for events ranging from 60-150 people. Fifteen of its 102 rooms are pool/garden view, with the others ocean view. As with all Elegant Hotels, ‘beach ambassadors’ attend to your every whim, bringing drinks and food without the guests having to leave their sunbed. The two meeting rooms accommodate 100 and 15 persons theatre-style.
The top end property in the Elegant group is The House, next door to the Tamarind, with Daphne’s restaurant in-between. Having gained entry through a discreet front gate, a flaming torch walkway leads you into this adult-only hotel, which is designed to feel like your own house, with just 34 rooms. You are greeted by your own personal ‘ambassador’, essentially a butler, who provides 24-hour service. The House does not have its own spa, but one is planned for the future. Except for buy-outs, the hotel prefers groups of maximum 18 rooms.
This year will see refurbishments at Colony Club, Tamarind and The House. The other properties owned by Elegant Hotels are all-inclusive. Crystal Cove, south of Tamarind, has 88 rooms. Just below this, Waves Hotel & Spa, a wellness hotel, opened in August 2016, with 70 rooms and restaurants that can be used as meetings space. Carrington explains that various Elegant hotels on the west coast can be combined for groups.
Fairmont Royal Pavilion is a beautiful hotel, just north of Colony Club. Set in 11 acres, with a half mile stretch of beach, it never feels crowded, according to Catherine Mapp, sales manager. It has an open air restaurant on the beach, with a lovely sea view. All 75 rooms face the water, with 48 ocean view rooms and 24 beach front junior suites, which have butler service. Two rooms are adjusted for disabled use/access. The 3-room villa onsite was refurbished in November 2016 and the hotel rooms are being renovated this year in a contemporary style. The fine dining restaurant was renovated 18 months ago and the other restaurant will also be re-done.
The hotel focuses on incentive groups, says Catherine, as there is not a lot of meeting space, just a small boardroom and a room for about 50 people. An ideal group for them would be 30 rooms, or a buy-out if the timing is right, although not from December to March. A typical group rate for June would be US$399, plus tax, if dining somewhere in the hotel, including the beach, for three nights.
At the bottom of the west coast, just up from The Hilton, the Radisson Aquatica fits a more modest budget. A former Holiday Inn, it re-opened in 2013 as a Radisson, after a $16m refit, with 124 rooms, split into 4-5 categories. There are plans to turn a building at the end of its pier into perhaps 15 rooms by next summer. Outside November to April, in the shoulder season, corporates are welcome, with an ideal group size being 60-80 rooms, depending on the exact time of year. There are 2 meeting rooms, one on the beach taking 80 for cocktails and a 2,000sqft ballroom.
The south coast of Barbados is where the Atlantic and Caribbean seas meet. It has a mix of 3-star plus properties and is home to one of the island’s nightlife hotspots, St Lawrence Gap. Accra Beach, about 5 minutes drive from St Lawrence, is a popular hotel, which describes itself as a 4-star lifestyle deluxe family resort, but it is fine for groups. It has 224 rooms in a range of categories, starting at under US$200. Island view rooms are the only ones without a balcony.
In peak season, groups can take up to 30 rooms, in off-season up to 70 rooms. The hotel has 6,500sqft of indoor meeting space for up to 200 guests, including an executive board room and four meeting rooms. The English and West Indian cricket teams have stayed here.
Ocean Hotels is a Barbadian family owned company with three boutique ‘4-star’ level properties on the South Coast.
Ocean Two, a short walk from St Lawrence Gap, has 88 rooms, almost all ocean front view - 18 standard, plus 65 one-bedroom ocean-front suites and 18 two-bed suites, some of which are made by combining two room types. There are two meeting rooms which each take 70 people theatre-style, as well as a rooftop terrace with a capacity of 90 for cocktails or 50 for a banquet. Group rates start from US$449 in winter and US$249 in summer for a luxury ocean front bedroom suite.
South Beach has 49 rooms in retro chic décor, a meeting room for 40 theatre-style and a penthouse suite terrace, which holds 90 for cocktails. Group rates for a junior suite are from US$349 in winter and US$200 in summer.
The all-inclusive Sea Breeze Beach Hotel is relaunching as Sea Breeze Beach House on 23rd November 2017, with 122 rooms, including 44 suites, mostly ocean views. It will be set within 3 acres of tropical gardens and have 6 dining options and a separate adults-only area. Rates are from US$499 in winter and $349 in summer for a poolside room.
Next to Ocean Two is Elegant Hotels’ one south coast property. The all-inclusive Turtle Beach, in St Lawrence Gap, has 161 rooms, predominantly ocean views. There are meetings facilities for 55 theatre-style and 175 people for cocktails.
For more restricted budgets, the Courtyard Marriott in Hastings, next to Bridgetown, has 118 rooms, including 5 suites. It normally takes groups of 40 rooms or less and rates are around US$229 in peak season and US$142 in summer.
It has 2,600sqft of internal meeting space, with two meeting rooms that can be split into 4 rooms. Outdoor spaces include a terrace and a courtyard next to the car park. The beach is across the road.
The Atlantic coast of Barbados is very different to the west coast. Year-round trade winds buffet the shore with rolling waves, making this side of the island ideal for surfing. This area also offers breathtaking views.
Our group stayed at The Crane, regarded as a prime resort hotel. It benefits from a stunning location, perched on a cliff top above an attractive beach. Venturing into the sea here is possible, but more suited to the hardy swimmer.
The Crane opened in 1887 and is the oldest operating hotel in the Caribbean. The beautiful, spacious rooms are in the grand old colonial style. Corner rooms have their own plunge pool, while ground floor twin-bed rooms have 28-foot pools.
Approximately 5,000sqft of indoor meeting/banqueting space is available and the resort’s 38 acres provides options for outdoor events. There is also a rooftop terrace with a jacuzzi. The five restaurants onsite include the stylish Zen restaurant, which offers great views down to the beach.
The resort is undergoing an extensive building programme, with the newer buildings also in a colonial style. Despite the hotel’s grandeur, the buildings we stayed in let themselves down somewhat in terms of basic maintenance and service. For example, the air-conditioning must work in the sweltering Barbadian night temperatures and problems with the aircon in several rooms were not fixed during our 5-day stay. There were also faulty plugs, irons and a few leaky showers.
In addition to hotels, the island has many villas, which are often used for small, high-end meetings and incentives. There are also luxury developments with 3-bedroom apartments, such as Port Ferdinand and St Peter’s Bay, for groups that are looking for such accommodation.
According to Kyle Gittens, the last two years have seen a significant development of properties on the island. For example, the former Amaryllis is now Sugar Bay Barbados and Almond Casuarina is now Sandals. Further additions are on the way.
Next door to its existing hotel, Sandals is building the Sandals Royal, with around 200 rooms, expected to be finished next year. Together the two neighbouring properties will have 500 rooms, although they will be branded differently.
The Sands is due to open late 2017, although construction has so far been subject to a number of delays. In 2019, another two hotels are scheduled to open, Wyndham Sam Lord and Beaches (a Sandals property).
Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre
Although Barbados is mainly seen as a destination for smaller and medium-sized meetings and incentives, it does have a conference centre. The Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre is 23 years old. It was originally an examination centre, which has been repurposed and now hosts many events. There are 11 meeting rooms, the largest of which can hold 1400 people, plus five break-out areas. In total, the centre has over 100,000sqft of usable floor space, with 70,000sqft of exhibition space. The many entrances and exits mean simultaneous events can be kept separate.
Interpretation booths provide translation in up to 6 languages and the two dining spaces cater for around 250 and 230 persons respectively. Dining can also be extended to the foyer. The centre’s gardens have also hosted events, such as concerts, though not dining.
There are no hotels onsite, but there are 10-12 hotels in the general area, the closest being 10-15 minutes away. Grant, a member of our group whose main business is conferences, thought the centre would be good for association gatherings.
The Bajans are the main asset
For all Barbados’s advantages, as a tropical paradise, with many natural attractions, a rich cultural heritage, modern infrastructure and MICE expertise, many would argue that its key asset is its people. The Barbadians, or Bajans, are incredibly friendly and attentive. On our catamaran cruise, the crew attended to our every whim, regularly coming round to check if we wanted anything, bringing us drinks from the bar. Yet, while professional, they maintain an easy air of fun and humour. This creates a relaxed party atmosphere, where your every need is satisfied.
Clearly, Barbados has strong links to the UK and North America, but the Bajans strive to ensure that wherever your group is from, they will experience the island as a home away from home - just with great weather, beautiful beaches and a wealth of special experiences.