The Puerto Rico Convention Bureau is actively selling for 2018 meetings and conventions despite the fallout from Hurricane Maria, but with the rebuilding efforts, the island should reposition itself more as a hub of industry innovation rather than just a U.S. tropical paradise.
It’s been just a few weeks since Hurricane Maria, following in the wake of Hurricane Irma, hit Puerto Rico. Many of the major branded hotels in the capital city of San Juan are not taking reservations due to damage caused by the hurricane in September, although they are expecting to return to full operation at different times throughout the remainder of the year.
Here is a list of hotel closures and expected re-openings, updated as of Monday.
However, the large properties located in and around the capital are presently booking meeting and convention business for 2018.
Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico, the island’s convention bureau, said his organization’s priority since the storm has focused mainly on collecting and sharing accurate information about how the island is recovering in the short term. Looking further ahead into 2018, the bureau is developing a long-term marketing and operations strategy capitalizing on Puerto Rico’s leading status as an economic driver and meetings industry hub in the Caribbean to engage meeting planners worldwide.
All of the news highlighting the lack of electricity, fuel, and drinking water in areas of the countryside outside San Juan are distracting from the short-term message that the island is being rebuilt and meeting planners should keep it in mind for 2018, according to Segarra. The hubris surrounding President Trump’s uneven handling of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria isn’t helping matters, either.
Skift spoke with Segarra at the IMEX America meetings industry trade show last week in Las Vegas for added insight on the present situation and future strategy.
Skift: How has the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau prioritized its operations since Hurricane Maria passed through?
Milton Segarra: The most important thing right now for the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau is that we are a source for trusted, fact-based, honest, and transparent information to inform our clients and meeting planners about what’s going on in Puerto Rico. That’s it. The hurricane was so powerful that all of the island was affected. All of the island. But it’s important to say, and this is not diminishing the level of damage anywhere, but some areas have been impacted much worse than others.
Obviously in San Juan, which is the capital city and where you have the central government, the resources and all types of support systems, we’ve seen a little faster progress. We are seeing a return to normalcy, versus the mountain regions and other non-metropolitan areas that are difficult to get to, and that don’t have the equipment. Things are becoming more normal because of the interaction of the military, FEMA, and the local government people.
Skift: How are the hotels faring, especially in San Juan along the Condado and Isla Verde districts where many of the big group properties are located?
Segarra: As for the hotels, some are open and operational, and we have some hotels that received significant damage. They are closed now but they’re saying that they should be back in business within one to six months. Those announcements will be done by each hotel or company. In Condado and Isla Verde, most of those sectors already have power.
Skift: How about the Puerto Rico Convention Center complex? Did it sustain much damage?
Segarra: About 48 hours after the hurricane, the Sheraton Puerto Rico Convention Center started operating in conjunction with the Puerto Rico Convention Center. They sustained no major damages. The convention center right now is the command center for the local government, FEMA, and the military, and it’s also a shelter. Early on, it was used as a hospital. During the storm, I was so afraid it was going to end up somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.
Skift: What happens right after a major weather event like Hurricane Maria? Do planners just tend to shy away from the destination for awhile, or are you booking business here at IMEX for 2018?
Segarra: Absolutely we’re booking business for next year, and let me tell you why. We’re all prepared to submit information directly to our clients about what’s happening in Puerto Rico day-by-day. Parallel to that, we also have a complete calendar of events, including sales missions and planner familiarization trips to bring people to Puerto Rico starting in the first quarter of 2018. Because, I mean, six months from now, eight months from now, our members are going to be asking, ‘Hey, what about the business? Where’s the business?'”
Skift: What questions have you been hearing most from your local hotels and other members?
Segarra: The Puerto Rico Tourism Co., the government of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association, and ourselves have been very active with our members. Every time there is a big news or update, we communicate it with them. We have already prepared a marketing and communications recovery plan to share with our members about what we’re going to do from now until next summer. And we have all of those activities defined by market segment, and in terms of what types of messaging will be going in the marketing website, in our industry communications, in social media, and how we’re reaching out to planners.
That’s the type of engagement we’re having with our members. While they’ll fix their own problems, they know there is an organization moving forward, looking at business, informing responsibly, and so on. The worst thing that can happen is we get disconnected from the marketplace because of this recovery period. And even though we might not be successful in booking business immediately today or next month, when time comes, we’re still going to be visible and we’re going to get the business.
Skift: What do you think of President Donald Trump’s recent comments attacking the mayor of San Juan and the local recovery efforts, overall?
Segarra: I can’t go public with that because I represent an organization that has more than 300 members, and they might have differing opinions. And as president of that organization, I might be in agreement or not to what he said, but as an official I cannot make a statement.
As a person, though, I think it was insulting in terms of how everything was presented. We thank the U.S. government for their efforts and support, but we are U.S. citizens. We want to make sure that the national government — the White House — understands that, and steps up to bat and supports us like any other community of U.S. citizens.
Skift: Looking ahead, how can Puerto Rico reposition itself as sort of the business capital of the Caribbean, from the standpoint of advanced industries, to engage planners? Traditionally, the convention bureau’s focus has promoted the island’s tropical experience and quality of infrastructure, relative to the region. But can more be done to differentiate the island from a business leadership perspective?
Segarra: Throughout the entire Caribbean, and I’m including the Dominican Republic as well as, in a certain way, Cuba, when you see the numbers, Puerto Rico has the most meaningful numbers in terms of overall dollars spent in the tourism sector. Having said that, the real entrepreneurial spirit that we have is what sets us apart. The fact is that manufacturing accounts for almost a third of our GNP, and where, for example, 12 of the top 30 medications that are prescribed in the U.S. are manufactured in Puerto Rico. We also lead in the volume of medical devices that are manufactured here, just to give you an idea of how different we are when you compare us with the landscape of the rest of the Caribbean.
This storm has been a game changer, this situation. What’s going to happen from now on, our spirit and processes of innovation that we have are going to be elevated to another level in terms of how we present ourselves to the world. In terms of how we continue developing, and how we build things. We need to look for other ways to make Puerto Rico an example of leadership in innovation, not only to the region, but for the world about how to prepare for these types of disruptions.
Skift: There are some signature events in the Caribbean, such as the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival, that have evolved over time to help define their destination. Could Puerto Rico develop something similar, like a Caribbean version of South by Southwest in Austin, for example, celebrating advancements in innovation, creativity, and technology across the entire Caribbean basin?
Segarra: Well, we have some regional events in Puerto Rico. They haven’t been elevated to national or worldwide standards, but I agree with you. We need to develop two or three flagship type of events that will elevate the brand, will elevate the awareness of the destination, of what can be done in Puerto Rico that leverages our best and brightest people. That is something that’s been discussed, and I think it will eventually happen.
Skift: Are you going to be engaging companies, which might be considering booking a meeting or convention in Puerto Rico next year, in any new ways?
Segarra: What we’re doing right now is we’re building a path to restore normalcy and business. What we’re going to be doing is we’re going to be knocking on some doors. For example, regarding the corporate social responsibility mandates that all major Fortune 500 companies have, we’re going to be approaching them to see if we fit into those programs and how we can collaborate. So, that’s one direction.
Number two, there is a big component of construction companies, technology leaders, and rebuilding experts that will be visiting Puerto Rico in the next year, and staying in Puerto Rico, so we’re going to look at those businesses as well to strengthen our network of leaders across all different industries. That has direct benefits for meeting planners in those industries, and for the people of Puerto Rico in general. Our corporate business will rebound because there are many multinationals that have operations in Puerto Rico, and they need to meet in Puerto Rico. So they will continue to increase in numbers once they see and understand what’s here for them and our facilities, and how we’re rebuilding better and smarter for the future.
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Photo credit: The Puerto Rico Convention Center is undamaged and presently operating as a base for FEMA's recovery efforts. Meet Puerto Rico