A tale of two islands

Flying back to the coolness and autumn colours of Europe I’m listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s Islands, high above the scattered Nuvole Bianche – white clouds – of the Caribbean.

E tie se uei lu core miu stae qquai.

A travel angel took me to Aruba and Curacao this week. Two islands with 365 days of sunshine. Islands just off the Venezuela coast and outside of the hurricane belt. Two and a half hours south of Miami and an average 10 hours from Central Europe. I had been in Aruba before, attending the Site International conference a couple of years ago. Curaçao I only associated with the liquor that makes exotic cocktails turn blue. I should have known better…

One happy island

One of Aruba’s best assets is its remarkable repertoire of powdery, white-sandy beaches, some of them rated as best in the world. Wind beaten Fofoti trees and palms give a special touch to the scene. Add to this the ever-sunny sky, shimmering turquoise water and a refreshing breeze and you have the perfect setting for a well-deserved break or memorable incentive experience. Aruba has been developed well in the last two decades on the tourism, conference and incentive market and has made a good impression in North and Latin America. Aruba has a lot of airlift. The island has the flexibility to host both big conferences or smaller retreats and a handful of DMC’s create lively tailored events to meet even the most demanding requirements. Oranjestad is the gateway for travellers arriving by air or by cruise ships. The major resorts are located in the North West on Palm Beach which reminds me of Cancun. All the big names are here. My favourites were the Radisson and the Hyatt Regency. For a more boutique like experience I would recommend the private villas of the Tierra Del Sol resort, golf and country club. Inland, the boulder-strewn desert terrain offers eclectic landscapes. Cactuses providing shade to birds, turtles, goats and the beautiful iguanas. Balmy Aloe Vera is everywhere and the Arikok National park is definitely a welcome alternative from a day at the beach. For lunch with the locals we stopped at Zeerover (pirate in English), a Caribbean version of the well-known Oesterput in Blankenberge on the Belgian coast. No Jack Sparrow in sight though.

Blue Curacao

Curaçao also has its fair share of sun, sea and beach but has to me and my co-travellers’ opinion a higher touch of authenticity. This is something that always appeals more, especially to a European incentive travel clientele. Few places in the world bring the Caribbean and European history together in such harmony and cultural splendour. As proud member of the UNESCO World Heritage list, its capital of Willemstad, split by a natural waterway, showcases a Dutch-Caribbean tutti fruti of cultures, history, and ethnic gastronomic escapades. Such riches are eagerly waiting to be discovered by those few who are seeking something new, real and different in their next travel award destination. Beaches and coves are never far away and a healthy colourful reef invites for snorkelling and scuba diving..

The green countryside is dotted with beautiful yellow painted land houses and quaint little villages. Buildings and houses on the island remind me of the old Dutch countryside. Locals are nice (dushi!) and welcoming, life is cool. Long gone are the days of slavery and cotton plantations; aloe vera and fruit plantations are still there. Good quality and casual dining are available all over the island. Tiny in size, yet bustling with vibrancy and allure, this captivating island offers a unique escape and a haven of tranquility for artists and people who need a relaxing and sunny break.

We were staying at the Hyatt Regency Curacao Golf Resort, Spa and Marina, offering views that are second-to-none; this is a full-service Caribbean hotel, perfectly situated on a long stretch of white sandy beach between two bodies of water: the Caribbean Sea and the Spanish Water Bay.  Located on one of the few remaining natural preserve peninsulas in the Caribbean, this hotel offers several fine dining restaurants with indigenous menu creations; a full-service spa and fitness center; multiple outdoor pools, poolside grill, lounge and cabana area. For those with a great swing there is the 18-hole Pete Dye designed championship golf course. Meeting enthusiasts will love the multiple indoor and outdoor banqueting space opportunities. For those who want to stay in the capital I would recommend the Kura Hulanda hotel and definitely dinner at ‘De Gouverneur’, my travel angel’s favorite. Nearby is also a great private hotel, the Avila, where the Dutch royals stay when on holiday and the queen has her own little private beach.

Eco-logistics

Whilst on the islands I took the time to meet with my Site friends Wichita, Ruben and Shirley from ECO Destination Management Services, who have offices in Aruba and Curacao. Eco DMS is the only company exclusively devoted to developing, managing, and handling of motivational experiences for their valued clients and their guests, laced with creativity and pizzazz, designed to deliver business results. Their efforts are dedicated to each group’s individual requirements designed to provide the most exciting entertainment packages, specific meeting requests, smoothly orchestrated transportation experiences and high energy themed reward events. ECO not only offer the traditional social programme elements but work à la carte, with the client to offer unique experiences. One night in Aruba, Ruben had a group enjoying a Carnival festival in San Nicolas where we were joined by hundreds of locals in a street party. Not an experience as in Rio but great fun for incentive groups. Other ECO exclusive programme elements include ‘barefoot elegance on a private island’, ‘Brushstroke at Sunset’ and cooking classes with a local celebrity cook.

In terms of activities, both in Aruba as in Curacao, one has the choice from the following menu: deep sea fishing, sea kayaking, sailing, snorkelling, scuba diving, sunset cruises, wind- and kitesurfing. 4×4 island tours, mountain biking, off road adventures, golfing and exploring flora and fauna. CSR activities include art workshops with local ladies making chichi dolls. As in my native Belgian people speak four languages. Here this means Papiamento (the national language), English, Dutch and Spanish. 

A case study on destination marketing

It takes a great personality to manage and drive a convention bureau and my meetings and incentives industry colleagues in Aruba must be some of the luckiest in the world. Success is not guaranteed by beautiful weather, white sandy beaches and fun. It takes a lot of hard work to bring a destination from average to top class. In Aruba, they have a lady with balls -her name is Jerusha. Not only had she prepared a full programme well in advance, she was as anticipating as a DMC should be and showed grand hospitality on a level that many hosts in the meetings and incentives industry do not reach. Jerusha advanced on every site inspection, showed constant flexibility and made us experience her destination to the fullest whilst never driving us like cattle. Everybody knows her and she knows everybody. She’s a great story teller and a fun person to be with. I already know whom I’m going to nominate for the Hugability Awards next year!

Curacao on the other hand is far from this. This destination, which has all of the elements to succeed, needs to find this inspiring person or team of specialists. The local organisation of the site inspection trip was shambles; hotel and DMC partners were called in far too late and were never allowed to fully performing and showing what they can do. The head of the bureau only showed up for a dinner at a hotel that was completely badly casted and which would never work in an incentive programme. The dining experience was a joke and the interactivity zero. It took my travel angel a lot of blood sweat and tears to bring the programme to a success. But she did – kudos to her to make it happen. I suggested to the DMC’s and hoteliers whom we have met to get together and fix this, not just let government officials run destination marketing like extra-terrestrials.

More information on the touristic aspects of this destination can be obtained from http://www.facebook.com/pages/Aruba/53580614675 or http://www.facebook.com/curacaotb

Speaking of extra-terrestrials, did you know that starting from 2014, Curacao will enter the Space Age? Buy your ticket now, the countdown has begun…

Flipper, or the cherry on the cake

They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there under, under the sea!

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