Previous Crises Laid the Groundwork for the COVID-19 Response in Puerto Rico

Author: Casey Gale       

Puerto Rico

A building crane towers above the San Juan coastline. Because of hurricanes and other crises, Discover Puerto Rico had crisis-preparedness plans in place that helped it deal with the pandemic. (Allison Murray on Unsplash)

For better or for worse, Puerto Rico’s meeting and tourism community is familiar with crises — from dealing with earthquakes and damaging storms like Hurricane Maria to facing political upheaval. So, when COVID-19 began to spread in late 2019, Puerto Rico was able to respond more quickly than other destinations, as it had crisis-preparedness plans in place and trusted partners to help execute those plans.

“Our CEO Brad Dean likes to say, ‘Puerto Rico has a Ph.D. in resilience.’ This is a degree we’ve earned,” said Jose M. Suarez, chairman of Discover Puerto Rico’s board of directors, during the recent “Lessons in Recovery” virtual panel hosted by the DMO. The panel also consisted of representatives from Cruise Lines International Association, Destinations International, Marriott International, and Puerto Rico’s Central Office of Reconstruction, Recovery, and Resiliency.

Puerto Rico’s resiliency is a testament to the power of partnerships, Suarez said. “We had created a robust crisis preparedness playbook with our partners at our public relations agency Ketchum before COVID-19 arose,” he said. “That allowed us to have clearly identified team members to address various issues and the initial steps in place to address both current and future visitors, as well as immediate concerns with appropriate government entities. The importance of enhancing communication with local key partners was made clear to us,” he said, when the DMO tackled various crises in the past. When COVID-19 began, the Discover Puerto Rico team met on a weekly basis with the Puerto Rico Department of Health and Aerostar, operator of the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, Suarez said. “Establishing open and constant communication with key stakeholders has been crucial for us.”

Diana Plazas-Trowbridge, Marriott International’s chief sales and marketing officer, Caribbean and Latin America, agreed that already having crisis preparedness plans in place — and working with partners across the globe — was crucial in navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“We have some set-up crisis protocols and plans” in place, Plazas-Trowbridge said, “that we were able to leverage,” adding that the support of Marriott’s global teams was crucial in the early stages of the pandemic.

“I think seeing the fact that this crisis started in China in December of 2020, being able to start seeing the impact [it was having in China], how they were addressing it and … reacting to it, and then being able to also share some of their best practices — how they were closing the hotels, reopening the hotels, working with the local communities, etc.,” Plazas-Trowbridge said, was really helpful. “I think really leveraging that, but also the crisis toolkits that we’ve had over decades of working in this region, really is what came into action.”

Casey Gale is associate editor at Convene.

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