In recent months, Puerto Rico has taken visible steps to regain its footing after Hurricane Maria and a debt crisis had halted its tourism momentum.

The work has emphasized making it easier for potential travelers to plan trips, correcting visitor misapprehensions, and helping the travelers who do come to navigate experiences while they’re on the island.

At an event in San Juan on Friday, officials described two additional efforts by the island’s new tourism board — the building of a trip concierge mobile app and the creation of a business intelligence tool for island professionals.

These new efforts follow initial first steps to figure out what work would produce the quickest and biggest return on investment for tourism. Boosting the island’s digital presence on travelers’ preferred online platforms was a key finding.

An August 2018 audit of about 6,000 providers of accommodations, food, and attractions by Foundation for Puerto Rico found that only 39 percent of hotels island-wide made it easy for potential customers to email them. Only 19 percent of attractions had websites. About one in four venues had filled out their TripAdvisor listings.

A field study of businesses along Calle Loíza in the Santurce district of San Juan found that many retailers and restaurant owners weren’t active in free digital marketing via platforms preferred by visitors like TripAdvisor, Google, and Airbnb Experiences, said Arnaldo Cruz, director of research at Foundation for Puerto.

Many businesses also weren’t providing consistent and up-to-date, English-language information on opening hours and other basics.

Improving Online Discovery

Stakeholders prioritized making it easier for businesses to tell the world about their offerings via the most popular online channels. So the Foundation has debuted ViewPR, a visitor information and experience warehouse of Puerto Rico.

The tool is free for vendors and suppliers to use. It maintains up-to-date information on the experiences Puerto Rico has. The effort replaces a lengthy and time-consuming process for the owners of businesses. It gives developers an API (application programming interface) to use for automated data-sharing. As of today, ViewPR lists 713 accommodations, 2,004 attractions, and 5,664 gastronomic options.

Seeking Momentum

The island’s steps build on earlier changes. In July, the island separated its tourism board from direct government control, with a new branding as Discover Puerto Rico that emphasizes recovery and renewal, as was highlighted by Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, at Skift Global Forum in New York City in September.

By the first half of 2019, the island aims to debut a My Puerto Rico app. The app will use the hotel operations software of Expedia-owned company Alice to enable visitors to the island to text questions to concierges and tourism experts. Sample query: “I’m at Toro Verde. Where’s good to eat around here?”

There will be a cost to participate. But the first dozens of hotels and other visitor economy companies that sign up will receive discounted subscriptions for the first year of participation to test if the Puerto Rico Tourism Company effort, facilitated by Roca Marketing, is worthwhile.

Countering Negative Messages

After the hurricane, some people in Humacao posted a video in which they sent an “S.O.S.” for help for basic necessities. The video went viral.

The tourism bureau has since returned to the now-recovering community to film an updated, more positive take.

In the video, community members powerwash the S.O.S. away and replace it with messages spelling out “Puerto Rico Awaits” and “Always Positive” around positive messages of Bienvenidos (“Welcome”) and #CovertheProgress.

Posted in August 2018, the video has been viewed more than 13,000 times and prompted positive news coverage on CNN, CNBC, and other broadcast news networks.

An outside consultancy, Miles Partnership, audited Google results to find out what parts of the island had more imagery related to hurricane destruction than positive imagery. It then sent filmmakers to those communities to record positive images. It uploaded these images in ways to maximize the chances they would appear in typical travel-related searches.

The project created 542 images, which received about 1 million views in the first month they were uploaded, the company said.

Understanding Visitor Expectations

Tourism officials have turned to partners Google, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb for information about what customers in potential source markets are looking for. For example, data on travel-related Google search queries about Puerto Rico — meaning searches that aren’t about the hurricane, sports, or other topics — can help the island understand visitor interests.

Travel-related searches for Puerto Rico dipped 30 percent, year-over-year, in the first half of 2018. That dip corresponded with a dip in tourism that the island underwent. The comparison was made by researchers at Google, who looked at patterns in search activity for destination descriptions, content, and video with subsequent booking behaviors as seen through their trips product and government reported statistics. The company found a high correlation of about 0.8 on a scale where 0 means no correlation and 1.0 means a perfect correlation.

Google data revealed that people who do travel searches about Puerto Rico tend most often to be comparing it against a handful of alternative destinations, such as U.S. mainlanders comparing it against Cancun, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and the Virgin Islands, said Alejandro Rico, a Google account executive covering Central America and the Caribbean.

The most effective method for persuasion, Rico argued, is to use videos that hit customer passion points. Brief videos resonate most, with a length of about 47 seconds being a sweet spot. He cited as models a pair of campaigns in other markets — “One Day in Dubai 360° Virtual Tour” by Sygic Travel and “Booking Loves Ramen” about Japan by Booking.com.

In a similar vein, Luis Montoya, a senior executive at TripAdvisor, has advised Puerto Rico to work on boosting the engagement of hotel, restaurant, and attractions owners with reviews on its platform. Visitors judge how thriving a business is partly by seeing if the brand has engaged with any criticism via reviews or shown activity on its listings pages.

The talks were held at the first Destino Hack tourism leaders summit on Friday in San Juan, run by Foundation for Puerto Rico.

Photo Credit: Damaris Ocasio, CFO of Foundation for Puerto Rico, talking about new ViewPR initiative at Destino Hack in San Juan in October, 2018. Skift