If you haven’t thought about Puerto Rico as an international destination to plan or attend business meetings or events in the past, you may be in the future. Visitors to Puerto Rico say that the music, beaches, weather and attractions are factors that lure them here. And meetings professionals are considering San Juan because of its commitment to creating an environment for hosting successful meetings and conventions.

Business events are important to the local economy. In fact, they infuse roughly$900 million annually into Puerto Rico’s economy, according to data from the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau.

So, if you’re here for a meeting or want to explore San Juan, the following travel tips may help you:

San Juan: Attracting Business Meetings

If you’re hosting or attending events in a tropical or island environment, it’s important to know that a venue or facility has strong communications capabilities. That’s not a problem in San Juan — the island delivers a state-of-the-art meeting experience with the dynamic appeal of a tropical, off-shore destination.

Communication services are wired for business just like on the mainland — and our currency, language and business culture are the same. Puerto Rico has a rich history, unsurpassed natural beauty and distinctive culture that’s easy to explore – Old San Juan, El Yunque rainforest, museums, cuisine and other activities are easily accessible to delegates.

On my flight to San Juan in June, I had the opportunity to sit next to a corporate event planner (USA in the financial services industry) who shared some of her impressions with me. She selected the Gran Melia Puerto Rico for its ability to create an intimate setting, the destination’s easy access, and the opportunity to allow attendees to extend their stay into the weekend. She also found Puerto Rico to be cost effective for the program.

Puerto Rico Convention Center Pedro Rossello

After the convention center opened in November 2005, it seems that the range of meeting options which may be hosted here changed forever. The Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC) is located just by a private marina. Shaped on the outside like a wave and a facade made of glass, the convention center itself is a spectacular building. It’s structured into three sections, and has 580,000 square feet of space. The interior colors of blue and green reflect the floral colors of Puerto Rico as well as the sea. The convention center hosts about 400 meetings and events each year, and roughly a dozen or so citywide convention events are held annually at San Juan Convention Center.

Hotels in San Juan

More than 30 world class hotels are located near the PRCC, ranging from small, intimate hotels to resorts, according to data from the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau. I stayed at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino which is located in a nearby and busy city neighborhood, but located on the beach (see San Juan Marriott Review for more details). It’s a conference and special events hotel, and La Concha, A Renaissance Hotel (another Marriott property), is just down the street and also on the beach.

San Juan Marriott Resort. Courtesy image

Another business hotel located in the city is the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino (next to the convention center). In addition to being a convention hotel that is LEED certified, the Club Lounge offers an amazing terrace that can be used for special events. With 503 rooms, this is the largest hotel in the city. There’s a wonderful terrace that is covered and offers spectacular views that can be used for private events (I had lunch there one day). And this is also the host hotel for the ICCA congress.

Two additional hotels I visited were El San Juan Hotel & Casino and The Ritz Carlton San Juan. Both hotels are located in Isla Verde, which is a little closer to the airport. At El San Juan Hotel & Casino (a Hilton property), you get that old world feeling the moment you walk in — dark wood lines the walls and ceiling, and they have an amazing mix of different chandeliers throughout the first floor. Guest rooms are a comfortable size, and there’s outdoor space (meeting space is in the lower level). The Ritz Carlton is also a business hotel that focuses on corporate meetings and events, and certainly reflects the luxury brand’s standards. Both hotels are beachfront. To be sure, San Juan has many other worthy business hotels.

Dining in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Food is a big part of the Puerto Rican experience, and San Juan has numerous options. Local cuisine typically includes items such as beans and rice. And plantains are served in a full range of styles from fried plantains to mixtures with chicken or seafood.

Budatai Restaurant in San Juan is a great option for Asian-inspired Puerto Rican cuisine (and decor). Located above high end shopping, Budatai is a two-story restaurant that also has an outdoor patio where you can enjoy a private table. Perla Restaurant can hold up to 140 people, and it’s located inside La Concha Hotel. Specializing in seafood, the concept puts you inside a clam shell on the beachfront in a contemporary and sophisticated environment. Another option is Jam Restaurant, a smaller bistro, but you’ll really enjoy the dining experience (as I did).

In Old San Juan, many of the restaurants are small and family owned. As part of a walking food tour (great activity idea), I first stopped into Aromas, which opened only a couple years ago. They served a simple appetizer of small, fried chicken bites (wings) with plantains, and this went great with a Pina Colada. For a more traditional lunch entree, check out Rosa de Triana — they make an amazing rice with beans (actually, presented separately and in shared portions for groups of two). The bean sauce included potatoes and carrots as well. I had that paired with Mofongo — mashed plantains made with garlic and chicken broth; mofongo is often topped with vegetables, crab, shrimp beef or chicken (which is what I enjoyed). In Puerto Rico, plantains are served as commonly as potatoes. This, combined with a Spanish sangria, makes a nice afternoon.

Activities in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Shopping in Old San Juan is one of the biggest draws to this city where you’ll find local crafts to international designer luggage. Calle del Cristo is the main shopping area in Old San Juan where visitors will find gold and jewelry, art galleries and other novelty stores. There are also major outlets such as Dooney & Bourke and Coach. I stopped into El Galpon, a small shop that specializes in Puerto Rican cigars, Puerto Rican folk art and masks, and Panama hats. I stopped in the middle of the day with an American baseball cap and walked out with my Panama hat which is a must in the Caribbean. If you enjoy spices, check out Spicy Caribbee which offers everything from mild to hot, and is located just across from El Galpon. And check out some of the dining suggestions outlined above as well.

For a more adventurous option, consider Hacienda Campo Rico, a ranch that is located within a short drive of the city and airport. Here, you’ll enjoy activities such as horseback riding, ATV tours (I had a great time on the track) and ziplining, but Hacienda Campo Rico also offers a spectacular special event function space.

Last, it seems to make sense that you should incorporate a little bit of time at the Bacardi Rum Distillery. For groups and individuals, the tour is quick, but it also includes a couple of drink tickets. There’s a covered, outdoor seating area where you can enjoy your drinks at the end of the visit (and a gift shop to bring home your favorites). It’s my understanding that Bacardi offers other unique venue spaces for rent, which may be worth checking out.

More Insights about San Juan

If you’re searching for an urban island environment, San Juan has the infrastructure of a city and the lure of the Caribbean. With 3.7 million people living on the island, Puerto Rico is a melting pot of Spanish and American influences. And there are many resort options on the island (100 miles long and 35 miles wide). Puerto Rico is the fourth largest Caribbean island by population, but it stands out among the options for larger conventions and meetings.

It’s clear that San Juan is investing in expanding its infrastructure to prepare for a growing base of visitors in the future, and that’s a favorable sign for the international business tourism community. Plans are in place to attract more visitors from the U.S. as well as South America and Europe. And there’s a long range development plan to connect the convention and marina area to Old San Juan within the next 10 years — this area is already on track to becoming a vibrant meetings and events community in San Juan now.

It also doesn’t hurt that traveling here doens’t require a passport (at least for Americans).

I’m looking forward to returning for future visit so that I can experience the rainforest and the bioluminscent bays.

Updated. Initially published October 2, 2012.