How the Puerto Rico Convention Center Served as the Hurricane Maria Response Center

Hosting what amounted to a 90-day, around-the-clock buyout required a lot of coordination and fast action from convention center staff


As the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association's Caribbean Travel Marketplace kicks off this week in San Juan, Puerto Rico, some attendees might be surprised to learn -- looking around the Puerto Rico Convention Center's (PRCC) pristine halls and expansive meeting spaces -- that it had been the main headquarters for the area's Hurricane Maria response efforts just a few weeks earlier. 

Following the devastation of Hurricane Maria last fall, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as well as local Puerto Rican government officials needed somewhere to set up a central command center from which they could oversee supply distribution, manage operations, and store supplies. Considering the widespread damage to so much of the island and the limited number of facilities with the space and structural soundness to handle such a large-scale operation, the FEMA team soon focused on one venue: the PRCC. 

One of the things that attracted FEMA to the convention center was that it was relatively unscathed by the hurricane, the 600,000-square-foot facility's generators were fully functional and offered the amount of space needed for such an effort.  

"FEMA sent a lot of inspectors come in and they converted this to a federal building, basically," says Jorge Perez, general manager of the Puerto Rico Convention Center. "We transformed into a world-class response center for one of the largest natural disasters in the history of Puerto Rico."

Due to the state of emergency on the island, with a majority of citizens without water and power, the PRCC had postponed all planned conferences and events for the coming weeks. So FEMA signed a lease agreement to use the facilities for three months, moving in on September 24. 

The organization took over about 75 percent of the building -- about half for storage and supplies, the other half for military operations. That military presence was an unusual sight for the convention center's staff, with a three-star general and his uniformed team becoming a constant presence onsite.

"Our loading dock looked like a military base," says Perez.

The supply area held the stocks of water and MREs ("meals ready to eat" for military personnel), from which it could be distributed. The other part of the exhibit hall served for lodging. The west wing's meeting rooms housed the local government and those who visited on official business. 

"We are used to having high-volume events and a lot of events at the same time," says Perez. "The only thing that was different was that instead of a typical three- or four-day event, where we move them in and out and have a chance to regroup and take care of the building, here it was 90 days nonstop. It's the biggest convention we've had."

Not only did this allow the convention center to maintain full employment during a time when they might otherwise have seen few visitors, they even had to recruit additional workers to help FEMA run its operations. With so many hotels closed, it provided temporary employment for food and beverage workers and other support staff.

During the first 60 days there were not any other food options for people working there other than what the convention center staff could provide -- restaurants and stores were closed, hard to reach, or there were huge lines for supplies and food. They served 8,000 to 10,000 meals a day -- closer to 14,000 the first few weeks. They recruited additional staff, running them in rotations to at least allow for rest before getting back to work.

"It was very intense -- nonstop for 90 days," says Perez, adding that while it was a longer event than the staff had ever handled, much of what they had to do was no different than they would have done for any other conference. "The executives at FEMA would say, 'your staff is so great, they're so responsive to changes to setups and moving in and out,' and I'd say, 'yeah, this is what we do day-in and day-out.' We respond to clients, change setups from one day to the other, this is second nature to us."

By late December, as a basic level of normality had returned to the island, FEMA's lease expired and it moved operations out of the convention center. 

"They will be in Puerto Rico for many years," says Perez, but they have now moved to office buildings with space available and other locations throughout the island.

With its huge event wrapped, the PRCC gave the F&B department some rest for the holidays and took care of necessary maintenance work and prepared to return back to its pre-Maria operation level. The administrative office got back up to full capacity and prepared for the 2018 events that had been scheduled long before Maria and had stuck with the PRCC throughout the tumultuous season -- including the CHTA's Caribbean Marketplace, which had been scheduled to hold its event Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2018.

"That's one of the groups that stuck with us," says Perez. "Despite all the negative stuff they were hearing in the news, they came and visited us to see it for themselves and said, 'the convention center is great and the surrounding areas are great.'"

The event, which brings together 29 Caribbean countries, representing 1,170 total delegates, will be an opportunity to spotlight the Caribbean's many attractions -- as well as its resilience. 

"Choosing to host Caribbean Travel Marketplace there this year was always our plan," says Frank Comito, director general and CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. "This year, being in Puerto Rico is particularly symbolic, as we're putting the spotlight on a resilient destination that's open for business again in the midst of its recovery from the hurricanes last September."

The CHTA held monthly meetings with a host destination committee comprised of representatives from the PRCC as well as various local organizations such as Meet Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority, Puerto Rico Tourism Company, and Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association

During these meetings, Comito describes being encouraged by the recovery, and coming away with "no doubt that they were ready to host the most important gathering of the Caribbean tourism industry in January."

Attendees seem to agree. Comito reports that the event is on target to equal or surpass last year's attendance numbers, and that the CHTA has a robust schedule planned. In addition to the business meetings that the Marketplace is known for, the event will also offer site visits to various attractions, activities for buyers and media to experience the destination firsthand, and "what we believe will be a memorable closing night event where delegates can have a special Caribbean entertainment experience while helping to support the ongoing recovery efforts in the affected destinations."

With the Puerto Rico Tourism Company reporting that more than 100 hotels are open and operating and more than 4,000 restaurants are taking orders and serving up meals, the attendees will have plenty of options to choose from beyond the convention center's F&B department.

Perez describes this week's event as a chance "to send a strong message to the industry that Puerto Rico is ready."

"Right now what's most crucial for Puerto Rico's recovery is for these groups to understand that the best way they can help is by sticking with Puerto Rico and bringing their groups here," says Perez. "As a destination, we are really pushing for people to maintain their dates and for other groups to come visit us."