As Puerto Rico worked to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria at the end of 2017, the leaders at the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) were worried about hosting the organization’s annual Caribbean Travel Marketplace at the Puerto Rico Convention Center from Jan. 30–Feb. 1. “It was a concern about capacity, a concern about safety and security, and a concern that the destination would be ready,” said Matt Cooper, chief marketing officer, CHTA.
Cooper voiced those concerns to partners at Meet Puerto Rico, the island’s convention district authority, and the hotel community. The hospitality community assured him that they would be ready to welcome more than 1,000 attendees for the event. “We promised the CHTA team that we would have our facilities ready for their conference and would not let them down, and we didn’t,” Alma Pedrosa, CPA, CDME, acting president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico, told PCMA after CHTA attendees departed the island. “That is what you get when you visit and work with Puerto Rico — a group of professionals who gives and keeps their word and works hard to create a hospitable and welcoming environment.”
That environment doesn’t always make headlines, though. “General consumer media has wiped the entire region off the map,” Cooper said. “Puerto Rico has received the brunt of bad publicity in talking about the extent of the damage. When I landed here for a planning meeting in December, what I saw was a ready San Juan. It was inspiring to see such a comeback in such a short period of time.”
However, the comeback is far from finished. In late January, the governor of Puerto Rico submitted a troubling forecast: an 11-percent contraction for the economy and an 8-percent population drop for next year. Before the destruction of Hurricane Maria, the island was already reeling with the challenges of restructuring massive public debt. The pre-existing financial crisis, coupled with the costs of rebuilding, have raised questions about how the island will move forward.
Business events can help ensure a brighter future for Puerto Rico. The CHTA Marketplace delivered an estimated $1.5 million in impact to the island’s economy, and there are more events in the pipeline that will add to that number. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers will host the ICANN Community Forum in San Juan from March 10–15. These groups are doing more than strengthening the economy. Pedrosa said that Meet Puerto Rico is helping clients incorporate CSR components into their programs, such as planting new coffee plants, to give attendees opportunities to contribute to the island’s recovery.
“Thousands of Puerto Ricans depend upon the tourism sector, so we need to be sharing accurate updates and booking business so that there are jobs and income to return to,” Pedrosa said. “We want our clients and future attendees to know that our hotels, airports, and ports are sound and up and running as well as most of our attractions.”
After his experience at CHTA Marketplace, Cooper said that Puerto Rico remains a viable potential host consideration for event organizers. “I would recommend it every day, all day,” he said. “The hospitality and the culturally immersive experience that we received has been overwhelmingly positive. Come to Puerto Rico. Bring your meetings to Puerto Rico.”
“The Puerto Rican people are strong,” Pedrosa said. “We did not give in to despair [after the hurricane], but immediately fought back by rebuilding.” She and his team will continue to contribute to that effort by working hard to book more industry trade shows and events this year. “Many of our clients have rebooked for 2018 and beyond,” Pedrosa said. “We believe that being transparent will help planners make better decisions and group business will continue to consider Puerto Rico due to the range of offerings we are known to have.”
For the latest status update on hotels, attractions, and services on the island, click here for a complete infographic from the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.