One Year After Maria, Puerto Rico Has a Bright Forecast

After coming face-to-face with the destruction of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico now has the opportunity to rebrand and redefine its identity.

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It’s been almost a year since Puerto Rico met Hurricane Maria, and the island is undergoing a massive rebuild to change the tone of conversation from disaster to opportunity. With the launch of a new DMO and dissolution of its pre-existing tourism and marketing organizations, Puerto Rico is ready, willing
and able to declare to the world that it’s open for business.

From the outside looking in, this is no easy sell to many event planners in all sectors.

It seems as though any time Puerto Rico makes the mainstream news, it’s in the wake of dayslong power outages, protests or an ongoing economic crisis.

A big question mark now looms over the island. But as any good event professional knows, it is also an opportunity for industry leaders to take advantage of the scrutiny to correct misconceptions.

For instance, traveling to San Juan feels like traveling to another country to many first-timers. It’s not until they’re aboard a U.S. domestic flight that they realize it’s closer to home than they originally thought. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory—albeit nestled in the heart of the Caribbean—there’s no need for U.S. planners to bring passports or worry about going through customs.

The island hosts the largest convention center in the Caribbean, with 600,000 square feet of meeting space that housed victims and first responders during the hurricane. Puerto Rico has 150 hotels—120 of which are back up and running post-Maria—1,855 restaurants and bars, 13 golf courses, 15 casinos, and more than 120 attractions and activities. Its capital city of San Juan is the second-oldest city in the Western Hemisphere and home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Recovery is Underway

Things are looking up for the island after successfully hosting Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and Caribbean Travel Marketplace in March.

From the rooftop of Puerto Rico Convention Center, you can’t frame a photo without catching a construction crane. Even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico relied heavily on its tourism and meetings industry—primarily business from the mainland.

As it attempts to rebuild old buildings and undo cosmetic damage to vibrant districts like Condado, a hearth for boutique hotels, restaurants and nightlife, Puerto Rico is hustling hard to become the premier destination it once was.

The numbers don’t look half bad to start.

The island saw a record-breaking level of visitors over the Easter/Passover holiday this year and plans to keep the momentum going with new developments like San Juan’s $89 million District Live! multiuse entertainment complex that broke ground in late 2016 and is set to open in fall 2019.

Major hotel groups like Hilton and Marriott have used the hurricane as an opportunity for multimillion-dollar renovations as many seek to reopen this fall or early 2019. Among the most anticipated openings is the famed El Conquistador Resort, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, which is offering highly discounted room nights and other incentives to book now.

With a massive rebuild taking its course, Puerto Rico needs to address the question at large: What about the next hurricane?

The short answer is there’s no way to tell. Puerto Rico is a gem in the Caribbean, an area that will always be at risk for devastating hurricanes.

“One day we’re a meeting facility and the next day we’re a world-class command center,” says Jorge Perez, general manager of Puerto Rico Convention Center. “It speaks to our flexibility.”

That attitude sums up much about how the island operates. Residents go about their daily lives with no chip on their shoulder and pride in being Puerto Rican.

Managing the Press

Alma Pedrosa, chief financial officer of the newly created Discover Puerto Rico, openly acknowledges one of the organization's first tasks will be to address a public image crisis.

Prior to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was coming to terms with an economic crisis surmounting to $73 billion in debt. The Zika scare did little to help the island’s cause.

The DMO surely won’t position the island as a sympathy case, but event professionals can’t help but notice Puerto Rico's almost unfathomable string of bad luck.

“I believe it’s a moral imperative for our industry and those in it to recognize that Puerto Rico needs our assistance at this point,” says Deborah Sexton, former PCMA president, who delivered a keynote during an education session at the beautiful Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico during a FAM trip in April.

Sexton went as far to reference New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a model of recovery. She recommended that Puerto Rico reach new relationships in the industry if it wants to see results in the long run. However, many will find that to be like comparing apples to oranges.

Brad Dean, who left the Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Chamber of Commerce to become CEO of the Discover Puerto Rico, acknowledges the discord between what people will find on the island versus what’s being displayed in the media.

“There are still some misconceptions," says Dean, whose career began as an analyst for General Electric stationed in San Juan nearly 30 years ago. "As of today, 95 percent of the island’s power needs have been restored; 120 hotels are open; attractions have been reopened, etc. Not
all travelers have been made aware of that, and that’s where we come in
to help influence the narrative and make sure people have the most
up-to-date information.”

To address this, Dean mentions there’s already an agenda in place. The battle must be fought from both ends. Not only is there an urgent need to address media outlets and spread the word that Puerto Rico is open for business, but there also needs to be an in-house effort to deliver an experience that will make a lasting impression on visitors of all kinds.

Pushing Toward Prosperity

Despite many trials on the road to recovery, there have been glimmers of hope and warmth for the island. Baseball, arguably a top export of the island, has been a source of joy for Puerto Rican natives and an easy way to lean in with its mainland.

In April, Puerto Rico hosted a series between Major League Baseball's Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians that fell in line with another islandwide power grid failure. That didn’t stop the fans from sitting through five hours and 16 innings to see the Twins come out on top by one run to cap a thrilling event.

Ushering in this hopeful new era for Puerto Rico, Dean has already announced a few new key hires.

Alongside Pedrosa as CFO, Leah Chandler, previously chief marketing officer at Branson (Missouri) CVB, has been named the DMO's CMO, and industry veteran Ed Carey has been appointed chief sales officer.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello acknowledged, “We have been working tirelessly to show the world we are open for tourism and business, and the MLB celebration will play a significant role in doing so.”

Baseball, “America’s pastime,” is a powerful force in Puerto Rico as multiple Puerto Rican-born players have lobbied for their homeland in
the states.

Their efforts have rallied across industries and into pop culture with icons like Lin-Manuel Miranda advocating for Puerto Rico’s rebuild onstage during this year's Academy Award telecast. In July, the "Hamilton" mastermind helped form an arts fund for the island to be known as the Flamboyan Arts Fund. The hit show is coming to Puerto Rico in January 2019 for a limited run. Miranda will reprise the title role for the first time in two years, and has said the show will donate its profits to the fund.

With numerous island offerings, luxurious accommodations, and rich history and culture, Puerto Rico is an easy sell—pending good weather.

As it faces the pressure to make over its public perception and rebuild its brand and notoriety, many people will be looking to book their stay when they think the coast is clear. Judging by the influx of travelers who have already made their way back to the island, Puerto Rico appears to be on track.

A springtime FAM trip made a lasting impression on press and planners across all industry sectors. “Meet Puerto Rico, the hotels and the DMCs did a stellar job of showcasing the island and all that is available,” says Sarah Williams, senior sourcing specialist at BCD Meetings & Events, who attended the FAM trip.“By this time next year, the island will look like a bright, shiny new penny, with all the hotel renovations completed. I hope 2019 will be its best year yet.”