“Puerto Rico has a Ph.D. in resilience,” said Jose Suarez, chairman of the board of directors of Discover Puerto Rico, speaking on a virtual panel called “Lessons in Crisis & Recovery with Discover Puerto Rico.” He explained that after going through recent hurricanes and earthquakes, the island learned about key areas it should lean into. One was a crisis preparedness playbook that enables team members to address issues. “The importance of communications was made clear to us,” said Suarez, adding that there have been regular meetings with the island’s health, travel and business leaders since the pandemic began.
“Data rules,” said Juarez, noting that marketing will be dependent on the situation. He said the biggest piece of advice is to look to the future with transparency. “There should be no surprises for visitors,” he said. Suarez said most businesses, major attractions and beaches on the island are open, but there might be changes in hours. Bars remain closed, and restaurants must close at 11 p.m. Information is constantly updated on the Discover Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico Tourism Company websites. Visitors should expect that everyone will be wearing a mask.
Similarly, Manuel Laboy, executive director of the island’s Central Office of Reconstruction, Recovery & Resiliency, said that suffering a 100-year earthquake and 100-year hurricane “really reshaped how we see things on the island.” He said Puerto Rico was one of the first jurisdictions in the U.S. to lock down. He explained Discover Puerto Rico is fortunate in having had to face major challenges in the last few years so that “we are probably the best equipped DMO (destination management organization) in the world.” He added, “We have the lessons learned, the tools and the knowledge to get us to the next phase in tourism.”
On the cruise front, Anne Madison, senior vice president, global marketing & strategic communications for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), said the industry had to be in lockstep on messaging, and any kind of resumption has to be holistic and informed by science and medicine. She said that CLIA increased the frequency of its consumer sentiment tracking to see where its actions were resonating. It also was important to “stay the course,” she said, learning not to listen to certain voices and not be distracted by naysayers. “We had to learn what hearts and minds you have to change,” said Madison.
She said that what the association is hearing from travel advisors is about the strength of the desire to travel, “which will not go away.” She said that advisors are saying they want a “360-degree experience,” meaning pre and post travel as well as the cruise itself. “This is not a one and done pandemic,” said Madison. “It will change the face of travel, including in many good ways.”
The pandemic, said Madison, has created “a reset moment.” While in the past, heavily funded destinations were able to get a greater share of the marketing voice, now everybody is starting anew. She said that while there will still be a lure for big destinations, people will be looking for places that offer authentic experiences and safety. “I am having many conversations about this with travel agents,” she said, “and we need to formalize this.”
Don Welsh, CEO of Destinations International, the trade organization for DMO’s, said Puerto Rico is in a good position for a recovery because it has the infrastructure, wonderful hotels, adequate lift and more. He said that hopefully tourism will be recovering by summer. “Nothing can replace the real experience of travel,” he said, “and people will come back when they feel it’s safe.”
Diana Plazas-Trowbridge, chief sales & marketing officer – Caribbean & Latin America for Marriott International, said there will be numerous pandemic-driven innovations that will remain post-pandemic. That includes digital tools like the company’s mobile app. In addition, companies have to listen to customers as far as how hotels manage social distancing and enforce mask rules. “We need to stay top of mind with customers,” said Plazas-Trowbridge, “and knowing that we have to be nimble and not just go back to the way we did things before.”
“We have to remind ourselves,” said Laboy, “that there will be a next disaster. We don’t know what form it will take or when it will happen, but we need to understand that we need to continually be prepared.” He said the island has to continue to show progress so that someone who comes today should see a better situation on their next trip in a few months.
Madison said resumption of travel will depend on travelers themselves, noting, “People will decide when it’s time. You have to create the groundwork to help them make that decision.”
And Plazas-Trowbridge said one bright spot is that many travelers who never considered Puerto Rico are doing so now because of restrictions elsewhere and the goal should be “to communicate with them to keep that momentum going.”