Central America, the southernmost region of North America, lies between Mexico and South America, separating the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean Sea. It comprises seven countries—Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador , Guatemala, and Belize—and encompasses everything from beautiful coastal lowlands to temperate highlands and misty, mountainous regions.
Meetings, events, and incentives in this part of the world are incredibly diverse. Luxury marinas and seaside resorts, historic colonial hotels and venues, and jaw-dropping nature preserves combine with a surprisingly robust meetings infrastructure and industry professionals to offer planners an out-of-the-box alternative for events from exhibitions to incentive trips. Team-building takes on a new dimension when paired with a treasure hunt in the jungle in Costa Rica, a hike up a volcano in Guatemala, or a tribe immersion experience in a national park in Panama.
The region’s appeal has steadily increased over the past few years with the opening of internationally-branded hotels in bigger capitals such as Guatemala City, Panama City, and San Jose (Costa Rica), and new cutting-edge convention centers like the Panama Convention Center on the Amador causeway at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.
This is the third top venue for the country known as the “Crossroads of the Americas”: Panama is also home to the Atlapa Convention Center, an 8-acre complex bordering the Pacific Ocean with an events capacity for 10,500 people and, until now, the largest MICE facility in Panama and Central America, and the Megapolis Convention Center, another modern venue connected by skywalks to the Radisson and Hard Rock hotels.
The new Panama Convention Center, which is slated to start operations in the second quarter of 2021 with four major international events, is a single building with a central common space of 12,000 m², a 4,000 m² banquet area, a 15,000 m² exhibition hall, and a series of meeting rooms surrounding the grand foyer; it will have a capacity for 23,906 attendees. The avant-garde Center is only 30 minutes from one of the best airports in the region, the Tocumen International Airport, and near Panama City’s top hotels. Of note is the fact Panama City has over 20,000 rooms in top international brand hotels including Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, Westin, and Wyndham.
While there’s no doubt Panama is a juggernaut for venues and hotels, neighboring Costa Rica offers an extremely competitive alternative, offering easy connectivity via two main international airports, and an excellent infrastructure for meetings that includes some 17,000 hotel rooms between the main MICE areas of Guanacaste and the Central Pacific and Central Valley, including the Holiday Inn San Jose Downtown – Aurola, with 7,300 m² of event space, and the Crowne Plaza Hotel San Jose Corobici, with 3,500 m² of event space, as well as the modern Costa Rica Convention Center in San Jose (3,000 attendees).
Costa Rica was also singled out as the 9th most frequently chosen country in Latin America to host meetings (ICCA), and boasts a high education level and an astounding diversity of attractions and activities. The North Pacific area, in particular, is a magnet for incentive groups. Here, an international airport can fly in attendees to the Guanacaste area, rich in national parks, golden beaches, and charming towns, as well as a thriving hotel scene that includes brands such as Four Seasons, Hilton, Westin, Andaz, and W, among others. The country also has a considerable edge in value over that of its Central American counterparts: it is considered part of the “North American area” by the IRS, and—as with Mexico—US delegates can deduct event-related expenses.
Farther north and closest to Mexico, Guatemala has the biggest economy in the region and has been investing in infrastructure and professional training programs to increase its market share in Central America’s meetings industry. It is experienced in hosting world-class events from maximum-security gatherings of royalty and heads of state to large medical, academic, and corporate conventions and congresses. Its excellent domestic and international connectivity, extraordinary multicultural and natural attractions, tremendous value, and safety are just a few of the characteristics that will appeal to planners looking for something out of the ordinary but not extreme.
Guatemala City spearheads the country’s meetings industry thanks to a mature segment infrastructure with internationally-recognized hotel brands (Marriott, Sheraton, Radisson, and Hyatt, to name a few) with on-site meetings and event space with cutting-edge technology, as well as the country’s most prominent dedicated convention space, COPEREX industrial Park Fairgrounds. Less than an hour outside the city, La Antigua is a 500-year-old city and the crown jewel of Guatemala’s tourism. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the country’s second most sought-after MICE destination, predominantly for incentives and smaller VIP meetings, upscale dinners, inaugurations, and closing ceremonies in its many plazas, gardens, and historic buildings. Organizers have executed city-wide takeovers, with attendees staying in its gem-like boutique hotels holding events on rooftops with views of the surrounding volcanoes or meetings spaces with state-of-the-art electronics.
While the world continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, at Meetings Alliance we want to showcase possibilities for future meetings and events as we are optimistic about the future of our industry. Before planning any events, please be sure to contact local convention and visitors bureaus and/or venues for information on current travel information and safety protocols.
Costa Rica Tourism Board www.costaricapuremeetings.com
Meetings Panama www.meetingspanama.com
Guatemala Convention and Visitors Bureau www.guatemalacvb.com
Tourism Ministry of El Salvador www.mitur.gob.sv
Nicaragua Ministry of Tourism www.visitnicaragua.us
Honduras Institute of Tourism www.iht.hn
Belize Tourism Board www.belizetourismboard.org
Top Meeting Cities in Central America
According to the International Congress and Convention Association, the following are the top five meetings cities in Central America, based on the number of rotating international association meetings in Latin and North America in 2019:
As a benchmark, it’s interesting to note Orlando, FL ranked no. 22 with 25 meetings, and Los Angeles, CA ranged 25 with 24 meetings.