Puerto: Recovery and Rebirth After Hurricane Maria
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Puerto: Recovery and Rebirth After Hurricane Maria

By Rich Luna | May 15, 2019

Maybe it was a subtle bit of irony on the part of Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s destination marketing organization.

Here was a group of meeting planners, brought to Puerto Rico to witness firsthand the recovery and rebirth of the meetings and events business from the ravages of Hurricane Maria 18 months ago, celebrating with an inspiring closing party at the historic Castillo San Cristóbal, a fort that has survived 236 years.

The cultural immersion of food, music and dance on the grounds of a UNESCO World Heritage Site told a story counter to some of the national headlines of an island embroiled in a battle over funding and respect. Rather, the story here is one of pride and commitment to restore the island’s meeting and event industry.

The solid walls of the fortress are only matched by the resolve of many on the island, from Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, to those working feverishly to get a unified message out to the meeting planning community: Puerto Rico is back and ready for your business.

“The challenge has been unlike any in my career,” says Dean, who was named to the CEO role a year ago. “Normally you shape the message and deliver the message. So much of the attention has been cast in a negative light.

“Puerto Rico is not just open for business, but we’re ready and eager to welcome visitors back. We’re thriving in this recovery and setting a pace for recovery that will be a model for future destinations that have to contend with what Puerto Rico had to come through.”

The story is well known. Maria, the Category 4 hurricane with 155 mile-per-hour winds, devasted the island, causing about US$100 billion in damage. Thousands were without water and power. Puerto Rico’s meetings business was hard hit as well. Nearly a quarter of the island’s hotel rooms were damaged.

Today, it’s a much different story. El San Juan Hilton, which had just completed a $65 million renovation, is bustling with business. New rooms have been added to properties such as the JW Marriott in Dorado. The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort reopened in December after a $60 million renovation, and the Caribe Hilton—where the piña colada drink was created—is scheduled to reopen this month following a $140 million renovation. Not only are the rooms getting a makeover, but so did everything from the 65,000 square feet of meeting space to the food and beverage options.

Those are just a few examples of the rebirth of an island. What doesn’t show up as brick and mortar is the spirit seen throughout Puerto Rico.

It shows up with Dean, who spent nearly 20 years with the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Area Chamber of Commerce.

“I took this job in part because of a personal commitment to the island,” he says. “My wife is from here and I started my career here, but this also was a unique opportunity to be a part of a historic rebuilding and recovery process.

“There is such an entrepreneurial spirit here. I’m inspired every day by our recovery, which honestly started the day after the hurricane.”

Up to that point, the meetings business had been on a decline for about five years, Dean says, forcing him and his team to “reassess and reposition the product to accelerate the recovery.”

“We knew coming into this we faced a huge challenge,” he says.

Puerto Rico scored a coup by being selected to host the World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit in 2020.

That will help showcase Puerto Rico further as a meetings destination. The island’s success so far has been measured on the leisure side of the business, but “we know meeting planners have a challenging role and it is critically important that we need to show the pace of recovery, the new and refurbished products that are coming, but also the unique experiences that Puerto Rico has to offer that many people just don’t realize.”

That includes events like the one at the Castillo San Cristóbal, which was optimized to show meeting planners the possibilities. Whether it’s the island’s beautiful beaches or a tour through Old San Juan to see the colorful umbrellas above Fortaleza Street, the experiential aspect of conducting business meetings in Puerto Rico is definitely an allure.

Jon Bergeron, superintendent of the San Juan National Historic Site, has been impressed with Puerto Rico’s commitment to rebuild.

“Look, honestly, we had lousy infrastructure before the hurricane,” he says. “The one benefit is they’re taking a step backward in planning and thinking about how we improve the infrastructure. In the long run, Puerto Rico is going to be better for it.”

 

Author

Rich
Rich Luna

Rich Luna is Director of Publishing for MPI and Editor-in-chief of The Meeting Professional.