As conferences go, the Caribbean Tourism Organization's recent State of the Industry Conference in St. Martin went well. It generated news, provoked some spirited panel discussions, fielded a roster of experienced and articulate industry pros and addressed issues critical to the region.
But as a travel experience, it was less than stellar. In fact, it was a complete bummer.
What ticks me off is that St. Martin (the French half of the Dutch-French island) is a fun destination with colorful, local markets; amazing cuisine, as one would expect on a French island; and parades and cultural events full of joie de vivre.
But it certainly did not shine for me the week of the conference. Nor was I alone in my exasperation. Circumstances were such that our expectations surrounding the basic building blocks of travel -- air, hotel, transfers, meals -- were not met.
It was a CTO conference, and it was the CTO that booked the speakers, designed the program and laid out the hour-by-hour schedule, from the opening ceremony the evening of Sept. 15 through the wrap-up press conference the afternoon of Sept. 17.
No problems there.
It was everything else that fell apart.
Who's to blame? I don't know. And I don't care now, because it is after the fact. But it's a disappointment when a stimulating conference in an interesting, fun destination is overshadowed by botched bookings on flight itineraries, accommodations in decrepit hotels and a complete lack of concern or interest from island hoteliers and local officials regarding myriad problems and complaints from conference delegates.
All of us at the conference work in the industry, but we were also there as visitors.
That gave me pause.
What if a real visitor had bugs in the hotel room (I did, and they were really big ones!) or worse, flooding in the hotel room?
A group of 10 reporters' rooms flooded in a hotel that should have been condemned anyway: bathroom fixtures falling off the wall, mildew in the room, peeling linoleum floors.
They mutinied, packed up their soggy suitcases, gathered in the lobby at dawn and demanded that they be moved to another hotel.
They were, but that was slim consolation for two members of the group whose ground-floor rooms in the new hotel were burglarized.
Maybe it's the lack of transparency that really bugged me the most (along with the memories of hairy-legged centipedes and the three nights I slept with both the lights and my shoes on).
No one could be bothered to give us a straight answer.
"What happened to the Internet?" I asked the general manager at my hotel.
"No, it isn't."
"There was a storm. Lightning struck the big antenna on the island, but it's been fixed."
Variations on this explanation included a story that a cruise ship in port had dropped its big, heavy anchor and severed an important cable link.
Internet problems dogged us, except in the press room at the conference hotel.
At our hotel, when the Internet was working at all, the connection was sporadic and the signal weak -- so weak, in fact, that a colleague had to file his stories while sitting on the toilet in his bathroom, where the signal was somewhat stronger.
When water suddenly stopped flowing at another hotel one morning, many delegates were caught mid-rinse, shampoo in one hand, soap in another.
That stuff happens occasionally, but when it happens three mornings in a row, you've got to wonder if anyone cares.
Some delegates checked out and headed to the conference hotel, where everything did work. But no one officially could stay there because it was on the Dutch side of the island, and this was a French side-hosted conference.
Other delegates filled their bathtubs with water the night before, just in case. Some raided the minibar for bottled water to brush their teeth or shave. They were charged for the bottled water at checkout, of course.
One delegate was seen striding toward the sea, shampoo in hand.
When hotel management was questioned, the response was that too many guests were showering at the same time.
This was a big hotel, and it's been around awhile. That answer just didn't jibe with reality.
Transfers were another sore point.
Following the evening events, some delegates experienced long, long waits for their vans. They asked the local tourism staff, assigned as minders for all of us, if they could take taxis instead. Those who did rode at their own expense.
I had a great driver. She was on time each morning, picked up three of us and entertained us with interesting commentary on the island and its customs and culture.
It was arranged that she would take me to the airport when I left. I had a transfer voucher. Everything was set.
Well, not exactly. The "transportation team" approached me en masse at the designated pickup spot at the conference hotel and told me I couldn't go with my driver.
"She's not licensed," one of them said.
"What do you mean?" I asked. "She's been driving us all week."
"No, you can't use her. If you do, you have to pay."
I explained that I had my transfer voucher and everything was arranged.
"No, she can't drive you, and she is on the other side of the island anyway. You have to go with him," pointing to a guy standing beside a van.
"She has my suitcase," I said.
"Don't worry about it."
That was the final straw. I was no longer the mild-mannered reporter but a tired, irate traveler who'd had enough.
When my not-quiet tirade ended, I was put in the van and told we would "rendezvous" with my driver of choice, but only to get my bag.
We pulled to the side of the road halfway to the airport, my "unlicensed" driver pulled up, the suitcase transfer was made (I'm sure it looked like a drug deal going down) and the ride resumed.
Call me a masochist, but I'm not giving up on St. Martin. I've been there before, and I will give it another shot in the future.
Maybe this all was just the perfect storm of bad circumstances colliding simultaneously.
Besides, the CTO still managed to pull off a great conference. Credit where credit is due.
Email Gay Nagle Myers at [email protected] nd follow her on Twitter.