On Sept. 20, 2017, darkness swallowed Puerto Rico whole. The gloom was both literal and figurative at the hands of Hurricane Maria, which replaced sunshine with storm clouds and prosperity with adversity as she charged violently across the island. In the days, weeks and months that followed, tales of devastation and destruction dominated Puerto Rico's storyline. Even now, a year later, headlines about Maria -- whose death toll recently was revised from just 64 people to nearly 3,000 -- stress everything that Puerto Rico lost and mention nothing of what it managed to retain.
A couple weeks since Maria's anniversary, however, Puerto Ricans have a different tale to tell. Instead of ruin, they boast of recovery. In August, for instance, Discover Puerto Rico -- Puerto Rico's official destination marketing organization -- launched a public-relations campaign on behalf of the U.S. territory's tourism industry. Directed at members of the news media charged with covering Maria's anniversary, the "#CoverTheProgress" campaign urges reporters to abstain from fixating on Puerto Rico's crisis and instead report on Puerto Rico's comeback.
By changing Maria's narrative in the media, Discover Puerto Rico hopes to persuade visitors -- including meeting planners and attendees -- that Puerto Rico is not only open for business, but firing on all cylinders in order to deliver a visitor experience that is as exceptional after Maria as it was before.
At least one organization doesn't need to be convinced: the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which successfully hosted its 61st public meeting, the ICANN61 Community Forum, March 10-15 in San Juan -- less than six months after Maria's rampage.
Why Puerto Rico?
Because ICANN is a global organization, San Juan was the perfect choice for ICANN61, according to Nick Tomasso, ICANN's vice president of global meeting operations and managing director of its Middle East and Africa operations.
"As a global organization and community, ICANN needs to conduct meetings in all parts of the world to interact with our existing stakeholders and attract new ones. It is important that we have participation, representation and engagement from people all around the world," Tomasso explains. "ICANN61, based on our geographic rotation schedule, was to be held in North America in March 2018. Members of the Puerto Rico Top Level Domain (NIC.pr) proposed San Juan as a location. The ICANN meetings team conducted a thorough analysis of meeting and hotel facilities, other infrastructure and services, and availability of high-speed Internet connectivity on the island. Our assessment came back favorable, with the location either meeting or exceeding our requirements."
When Maria hit, the obvious question was: Would Puerto Rico still be able to meet or exceed ICANN's requirements? Although it hoped so, the organization wasn't so sure.
"Following Hurricane Maria, like everyone else watching or reading the news, we witnessed the devastation on the island of Puerto Rico," Tomasso says. "ICANN's community members continued to express their strong desire to keep ICANN61 in San Juan, if at all possible. And we closely monitored the recovery efforts in San Juan with the hopes of keeping the meeting on track."
A Familiar Feeling
Maria wasn't Puerto Rico's first disaster. Nor was it ICANN's. In fact, the organization previously was scheduled to meet in Puerto Rico in 2016 -- but moved the event to India over concerns about the Zika virus.
"That was a tough one to take, when a group chooses India over your destination for health reasons," Milton Segarra, former president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico, toldSuccessful Meetings last year. Although Puerto Rico lost ICANN's 2016 conference, he said, it learned an important lesson when it persuaded the organization to re-book for 2018. "The best way for destinations to overcome misperceptions is by arming themselves with facts and being totally transparent."
That lesson was top of mind when Maria threatened to scare off ICANN for the second time. Because of it, things turned out differently this time, suggests Tomasso, who says Puerto Rico in Maria's aftermath painted a powerful picture of a destination that was bouncing back instead of falling down.
"The meetings team was finally able to visit the island in mid-November to assess conditions firsthand. Once on the ground, we found that substantial progress had already been made in restoring San Juan to its usual vibrancy," Tomasso recalls. "The single issue we faced was two planned main delegate hotels had closed following the storm and would not reopen in time for our conference. Other suitable hotels were quickly identified to replace the ones lost. With assurances from Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that San Juan would be ready to host us in March, we were confident that we could hold our meeting in Puerto Rico."
From Stormy to Successful
When March arrived, the news media was still buzzing about Puerto Rico's tragedy. ICANN, however, was celebrating Puerto Rico's triumph.
"San Juan is an outstanding location to hold a conference," concludes Tomasso, who says more than 1,500 people from around the world attended ICANN16, which included 350 individual meeting sessions over six days at the Puerto Rico Convention Center. "The Puerto Rico Convention Center suited our needs perfectly, and the staff were professional and accommodating. The hotels provided excellent accommodations for our delegates and local restaurants were enjoyed by all. The warmth and hospitality of the Puerto Rican people, the beautiful surroundings and the weather made for a very enjoyable experience. All resulted in a successful ICANN61 public meeting."
It may be true that Puerto Rico isn't the destination it was prior to Maria. On the storm's one-year anniversary, however, one has to admit: The experience enjoyed by groups like ICANN suggest it might actually emerge from the crisis even better than before.