Taking the Leap: Meetings Success in Puerto Rico

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<span>Taking the Leap: Meetings Success in Puerto Rico</span>
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Puerto Rico’s vibrant culture and top-level amenities make it a great place for meetings and events. The Island has something special and has known it is time to expand its offerings in the meetings market. Starting in the midst of recovery from devastating tragedy might seem bold. But Discover Puerto Rico knew it was time. And the results speak for themselves.

Starting in the Wreckage

Event planning in Puerto Rico was the furthest thing from most people’s minds after Hurricane Maria. But in reality, the Island was back on its feet in record time and ready for visitors.

Launched in 2018, the Discover Puerto Rico DMO faced several major challenges. Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Island back-to-back in September 2017. And before the hurricanes, the Island had been facing financial instability and an outbreak of the zika virus.

The hurricanes’ devastation in some areas was undeniably catastrophic. But as Deborah Cohen, CMP and Director of Meetings and Conventions Marketing at Discover Puerto Rico says, the people are resilient.

“The people of Puerto Rico are some of the most resilient in the world. The community united to support one another and their hospitable nature flourished even further, which was reflected in the tourist experience, making it second to none.”

The Island rebuilt quickly. The airport was open just two days after the hurricanes and the cruise port was operational just 2.5 weeks after as well. The Convention Center was not damaged and actually served as the response center, housing many FEMA workers.

In all, Puerto Rico announced it was ready to welcome visitors again right before the holidays. But this message was buried, unable to reach potential visitors and meetings planners.

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More than Beaches

Prior to the hurricanes, Puerto Rico’s tourism market was surging. Puerto Rico has all the amenities of other Caribbean islands. Beautiful beaches, stunning landscapes, vibrant nightlife, delicious food and top hospitality have drawn people to the Island for decades. But the people are what make it truly special.

“The culture is what sets us apart,” says Cohen.

That same resilience that rebuilt and reopened the Island in record time is also what makes Puerto Rico so special.

The Island is an international destination, blending African, Taino Indian and Spanish culture. But it’s also easily accessible, offering a seamless travel experience. If you’re an American, no passport, currency exchange or altering of phone plans is needed. It’s an alluring option for planners and there is a lot more development on the horizon.

But the wonderful culture and welcoming environment didn’t matter if the word couldn’t get out. And that’s where Discover Puerto Rico stepped in 2018. 

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Tackling Perceptions

Perceptions are vitally important in the meeting space. Everyone has perceptions about destinations– perceptions that may or may not be true. CVBs and DMOs don’t just work to change perceptions, but to create experiences that meetings and events guests will fondly remember.

Discover Puerto Rico worked to get the word out through several different avenues.

“It was vital to ensure planners and press were brought to the Island to see for themselves the progress that was made in such a short period of time,” Cohen says.

Discover Puerto Rico also knew they needed to guide the conversation at the one-year anniversary of the hurricanes. With the initiative #CoverTheProgress, Discover Puerto Rico urged media coverage to focus on the amazing progress. Instead of tragedy, Discover Puerto Rico pointed out the Island’s astonishing recovery.

This one-year mark was vital. Media coverage can influence perception and impact tourism and the perception of travelers and planners. But Puerto Rico and the people at all levels in the hospitality industry were ready for visitors.

The campaign worked. Research from the World Travel and Tourism Council shows that travelers stay away from a destination after a natural disaster for up to 23.8 months. Puerto Rico beat those odds. According to Discover Puerto Rico, positive conversation surrounding Puerto Rico tourism grew from 50% in July 2018 to 80% in December 2018, post-anniversary. Some of the popular anniversary themes became “Open for Business” and facilities were “better than ever.”

To keep the positive message going, Discover Puerto Rico embarked on an aggressive communications strategy with undertones of “seeing is believing.” Consequently, the New York Times named Puerto Rico the number 1 place to visit in 2019. The Island also hosted top tier talent and influencers, including performances of Hamilton and Jimmy Fallon.

Finally, to show planners Puerto Rico’s full recovery, Discover Puerto Rico crafted “The Power of Puerto Rico.” These videos followed several meetings planners as they toured the Island. The videos represented Puerto Rico’s full comeback and the Island’s readiness for meetings of all kinds.

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Increasing Growth

The word was out. Puerto Rico isn’t just back. It’s actually doing better than ever, and the data clearly shows this story of triumph.

The Island is on-target for 2019 to be a record-breaking year with standout passenger arrivals and revenue levels higher than in the years before Hurricane Maria.

Fiscal year 2018-2019 was the most successful year in the Convention Center’s 14-year history with:

An increase of 26% in total attendance (644,000 visitors) over the previous 13-year average
96% overall customer satisfaction ratings along with a 21% increase in total events
417 events, which was more than the previous 13-year average

From January-April 2019 occupancy spending reached its highest in 8 years

Immediate perception in the meetings industry also rose significantly with meeting coordinators reporting an increasing willingness to book:

3 Months Post-Maria – 24% willing to book Puerto Rico
6 Months Post-Maria – 47% willing to book Puerto Rico
12 Months Post-Maria – 62% willing to book Puerto Rico
18 Months Post-Maria – 71% willing to book Puerto Rico 

And beyond the data are the moving stories from those in the tourism industry. The local tourism industry created a “thank you” video that depicted the progress on the Island and all of the tourists and event planners who supported Puerto Rico.


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Looking Ahead

The meetings industry never sits still. Discover Puerto Rico is already building on its success and creating the best meetings experience possible. In early 2020, a new entertainment district, El Distrito, is set to open. The five-acre hospitality and entertainment district was built in a partnership between Island Hospitality Partners and the Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority.

El Distrito aims to further support events, conventions and performances of all types in the Caribbean region. The plaza will include a show room with space for more than 6,000 people, 8 movie theaters, a variety of restaurants, bars, lounges and local events.

The Island is also expanding its work in sustainable tourism with the creation of the first “Design and Operation Guide for sustainable Tourism Facilities”. The guide highlights green lodging offerings and experiences. And the natural experiences available in Puerto Rico are truly unique, with three of the world’s five bioluminescent bays, the only rainforest in the U.S. forest system and vibrant pink salt flats.

Puerto Rico is a shining example of the strength of community and the power of positive media. From the culture to the natural wonders to the hard work of the local tourism industry, Puerto Rico’s growth shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the Island continues to flourish it’s truly a place unlike any other for meetings, events and beyond.

For more on Puerto Rico, watch The Connectors, a series invested in the events industry.

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