Puerto Rico is not only making a comeback, but it's poised to be better than ever for visiting travelers and groups. That was the message from a panel of hospitality leaders who gathered for a roundtable discussion about the destination, the progress it's made recovering from last year's devastating hurricane season and the dramatic improvements and new attractions visitors can expect over the next few months.
"There is a comeback story like our industry has never seen being written," said Brad Dean, CEO of the island's new destination marketing organization, Discover Puerto Rico.
He was joined on the panel by Clarissa Jimenez, president and CEO of Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association; Pablo Torres, general manager of Caribe Hilton; and Danny Hughes, executive vice president and president, Americas for Hilton. Matt Cooper, chief marketing officer of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, moderated the discussion, which touted the progress the destination has made since the "one-two punch of [Hurricanes] Irma and Maria," as Dean called it.
Jimenez explained that the destination is now seeing an average of 110 daily flights via 28 different airlines and that of the approximately 15,000 hotel rooms endorsed by her association that were available prior to Hurricane Maria, about 3,600 remain unavailable but "by December we will have most of the properties reopened with a great new product."
Epitomizing this reinvigoration is the famed Caribe Hilton, opened in 1949 as the first Hilton property outside of the United States and believed to be where the Piña Colada was invented. Set on a peninsula just a few minutes from historic Old San Juan, it was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria, requiring it to close its doors since last year. But come this winter, that will change. Torres described how the Caribe Hilton will open by the end of the year, following a top-to-bottom renovation of its 650 rooms, F&B outlets, check-in area and 65,000 square feet of meeting space, including two ballrooms and 25 meeting rooms.
"At the end of the day, we are going to have a brand-new hotel and are going to be stronger than ever," said Torres. "We are bringing back the Caribe personality -- this is a golden opportunity."
The reopening will coincide with both the 70th anniversary of the property and the 100th anniversary of the Hilton brand.
"[Caribe Hilton] really introduced American travelers to the island of Puerto Rico and more than that, the whole Caribbean, so it's a very special place for us as a company," said Hughes, who in a previous role in sales and marketing for Hilton oversaw the relaunch of the property almost two decades ago. Now in his new position for just over a week, Hughes emphasized that "this is my first trip out of our offices" since taking on his new position, and that "it's appropriate and very personal for me to be here to talk about something I care very deeply about."
Beyond the rebounding hotel inventory, the panelists described how groups will be able to take advantage of all-new attractions, notably District San Juan, a five-acre entertainment area that includes venues for large-scale live events, right across from the Puerto Rico Convention Center. It is expected to open in late 2019 and Dean compared it to LA Live but with a distinctive Latin and Caribbean flavor.
"The District San Juan would be a game changer at any point in time, but the fact that it will open roughly two years after Maria is a testament to the resiliency of the people of Puerto Rico," he said.
In addition to the island's new offerings, the panelists also pointed to its new destination marketing organization as an added value for groups visiting the destination. Rather than a governmental organization that changes depending on the administration in office, Discover Puerto Rico will have a more "consistent message and solid brand that doesn't change with the political cycles," as Dean put it. He added that the message would be less focused on the island's beaches and more on cultural, architectural, gastronomic and other elements that differentiate it from other Caribbean destinations.
The panelists repeatedly emphasized the important role played by meetings and conventions in this recovery, with Dean calling corporate events "a magnet for commercial investment."
Hughes added that "every group attendee is a potential customer. Every one of us in this room has been to a city for the first time to attend a meeting and said, 'this is a pretty cool place,' and come back on a personal level. That's what we'll have in Puerto Rico."
Torres estimated that meetings accounted for 20-25 percent of the island's business.
"We are hearing from meeting planners that they want to do the right thing -- and the right thing is to bring business to Puerto Rico," said Torres.
Dean said that the biggest impediment he's seeing to bringing back groups is the question, "Are you ready?" which the panel answered with an enthusiastic "Yes." As Dean put it, "There is no better way to help your fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico than to schedule your next vacation, meeting, conference or convention and help accelerate this economic recovery."