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This week, Discover Puerto Rico held a virtual panel discussion, “Lessons in Crisis and Recovery.” During the discussion, representatives from various travel sectors discussed what they learned this past year while handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Puerto Rico has a Ph.D. in resilience,” said Jose M. Suarez, board of directors chairman, Discover Puerto Rico, adding that after going through political unrest, hurricanes, and earthquakes, the island had an idea on how to handle a crisis.

“When COVID started, we met weekly with the Puerto Rico health department, the airport manager, and the Puerto Rico tourism company,” he pointed out.

Local Puerto Rican journalist and broadcast personality Armando Valdes Prieto, who moderated the conversation, asked the group, “What was the single most important tactic you worked on with your team?”

“Nothing can replace the real experience of travel. When people feel it’s safe for them and their families to travel, they will come back.”
— Don Welsh, President & CEO of Destinations International

Don Welsh, president & CEO of Destinations International, said, “We’ve worked with Puerto Rico after natural disasters,” commenting how his team pulled from the experience of working during a crisis. “March to December we did 64 webinars. Whatever the information was that was needed for that week, we did something.”

Though COVID-19 was the focal point last year, that wasn’t the only crisis the island was still working to recover from. “We were still dealing with the earthquakes of the south and the hurricanes,” said Manuel Laboy, executive director at COR3 (Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience). “When it comes to Puerto Rico having a Ph.D. in resilience, let’s not take that lightly. In three years, we had a record-breaking hurricane, and a pandemic that reshaped the globe. At the start of COVID-19, we made a tough decision to proactively lock down the island and establish a curfew. We were one of the first jurisdictions in the U.S. to do that. For the first time in our modern history, we had to lock down the economy.

“We had to deal with multiple disasters mostly at the same time,” he said. “Maintaining communication with the industry was essential. Uncertainty was something we have never seen before.” He added that focus and the capacity to really communicate in a situation that has never been seen before, were two of the things that helped them plan through the pandemic.

When asked how CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) is working with the DMOs to bring back cruising, Anne Madison, sr. v.p., global marketing & strategic communications for the organization, said, “Everything we’re doing is based on: reputation, regulation, and legislation. It’s very important for cruise lines and destinations to work together, not only on messaging—everything has to be backed by science and medicine, but also be holistic—but also having protocols in place.”

puerto rico's lessons
Old San Juan. (Photo credit: Discover Puerto Rico.)

Lessons Learned
Madison also noted that through the pandemic, they’ve learned to approach crisis communication differently and they’ve changed the way they conduct ongoing research. “One of the things we put in place right away was to increase the frequency of sentiment tracking, and to look at economic data. At the beginning, we tracked the economic impact of the suspension of cruising. We knew not to use that information at the beginning because it would have been seen as tone deaf. It’s about knowing when to use it.

“We had to learn not to be hurt by what was said by certain people, or the media,” Madison added. “We stayed the course and were proactive; we weren’t deterred by the naysayers. You have to stay the course to know you’re doing the right thing, at the right time, to meet the goals you put in place in the beginning.”

Welsh added, “When there’s a time of crisis, people are looking for leadership, for direction, for the tools they need to get through the day. We’ve learned that technology can be used and can be used effectively.”

“This isn’t a one and done pandemic, this is going to change the face of travel.”

—Anne Madison, senrior v.p., global marketing & strategic communications, CLIA

“At Discover Puerto Rico, we’ve learned that data rules,” said Suarez. “More than ever we are leaning to the data to guide us. Data dictates all, including our marketing.” And as for advice, he says, “Look to the future with transparency. There has never been a more critical time to communicate how to enter a destination. There should be no surprises. We have made a great effort to communicate what’s expected to keep our travelers and people safe.”

Laboy said he’s learned three lessons during the pandemic. “One: We are humans. At the end of the day this affected us at a very personal level despite our jobs. So, how are we going to move forward? Two: In my current role, I’m responsible for billions of dollars for recovery in the next couple of years. But I have to remind myself that there will be a next disaster—we don’t know when or what shape or form, but we need to understand that regardless. This pandemic put us in the position of continuity. Three: Puerto Rico is very lucky. We have Discover Puerto Rico; our leadership has had to go through the toughest of challenges. We have the most equipped DMO in the world, I would say, with lessons learned, tools, experience, and knowledge, to get us to the next phase in growing tourism. But we have to do it mindfully because there will be disasters in the future.”

Traveler in Puerto Rico.

The Future of Travel in Puerto Rico
“Puerto Rico is bouncing back, and bouncing back better,” said Valdes Prieto. “I think that’s attractive to people—they want to participate in something that’s coming back.”

“You got the infrastructure, world-class hotels, lift coming into the market. Nothing can replace the real experience of travel. When people feel it’s safe for them and their families to travel, they will come back,” said Welsh. “Domestic leisure is starting to take place. The leisure numbers are predicted to be at the 2019 level in 2022. Meetings aren’t expected to come back until 2023 or 2024. And long-haul travel, as airlines and cruise lines return, isn’t expected until the 2024-2025 stage.”

Diana Plazas, CSMO, Caribbean & Latin America at Marriott International, added that what she’s learned is that,Cleanliness and protocols have become the new luxury. How we communicate that to guests—what they need to do before, how it’s going to be when they arrive.… Same for digital things; how we’re leveraging the mobile app even more—all those things are here to stay.”

Welsh noted that people will return to leisure travel “when people feel [they’re ready] for themselves and their families on their own timeline. We will be in a period of time where it’ll take a couple of years for people to settle in and figure out what’s right for them.”

“Travel is an incredible, resilient industry. People continued to dream about travel all through this pandemic,” said Plazas. “People are eager to get back out there and explore the world or get back to their favorite places, their favorite beach. It’s about reminding them what it’s like when they get back to these places.”

“People now want to plan a type of 360-degree experience,” added Madison. “What happens before they board, and what happens afterwards. This is adding to the increased impact of travel and the cruise contribution. I think you’re going to see more of the protocols are going to have to stay in place. This isn’t a one and done pandemic, this is going to change the face of travel. It’s not just about the crisis itself, but what happens afterwards, and the years afterwards.”

“This is a reset moment where everyone is starting anew,” she added. “People are looking for destinations they can have authentic experiences in. The allure of big destinations is still there, but there’s an increased interest in smaller destinations that probably didn’t get a chance to compete before now.” She added that many of these smaller destinations are being seen by travelers as safer options to the more crowded, larger destinations.

Plazas added, “We are seeing an increased interest of travelers from the mainland—travelers who wouldn’t consider the destination before—because so many other destinations like Grand Cayman remain closed. We have to work on how to continue to attract more of those travelers that never considered the island before.”

puerto rico's lessons
Aerial views of El Morro Fort in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Safety & Regulations
“The message from last year, which is the message today, is that Puerto Rico wants to be, and is, a safe destination,” said Laboy. “The marketing that has been going out is a message to attract responsible travel. You can do everything to enjoy the destination, but you have to follow the rules for it to be safe. There are task forces from different government agencies working together, putting together strategies that if you don’t follow the rules, there will be consequences.”

Suarez added, “We learned during Maria times to let the public know what was closed and what was open. We have applied that to the current crisis. Most businesses are open, but we do have special hours. It’s all constantly reported on the Discover Puerto Rico page. Visitors should expect an island where everybody is wearing a mask, there’s no exception. People are following the rules. We invite you to have fun and enjoy the island, but follow the rules.

“We need to be transparent with the locals and visitors and let them make the decision if they feel comfortable to come to Puerto Rico.”
—Jose. M. Suarez, Board of Directors Chairman, Discover Puerto Rico

“Vaccinations are key. We have to continue to communicate to our visitors that we want you to visit, but you need to be a responsible traveler. There are still some restrictions—restaurants have an 11 p.m shutdown, bars are still closed. You can come and see people having a great time on the island, but with restrictions still in place.”

Madison added, “We don’t know what the new normal will be. We don’t know what the future holds and what it will be.” However, she pointed out, “We are agile and handling it responsibly,” noting four key phases she has been focused on during the pandemic: “The Response Phase—you can’t pay any attention to anything other than what’s the right thing to do. You have to make decisions on a people first level. The Rebuilding Phase—this is a time when you can start to set the record straight. You acknowledge that more can be done. The Reinvention Phase—you’re collaborating. You’re validating your plans with authorities. The reinvention is setting the foundation for the resumption of operations. This is the phase we’re in now. It’s about providing evidence of reinvention to provide trust and confidence. And time to get the word out consistently and credibly. The Resumption of Operations Phase—you provide a plan; a phased-in approach. You’re inviting people to come back and share it with others. People have their own levels of risk—and they will decide when it’s time. You just have to provide the work and communication to help them make that decision. We are now at the beginning of the resumption phase,” she said.

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Paddleboarding at Caja de Muertos in Ponce. (Photo credit: Island Adventure.)

Laboy added, “Resiliency has to have a new purpose and you need to connect that to the visitor experience in the destination. That’s one thing—progress. When you show progress, you need to communicate that progress, but it also needs to be real. Back during Maria, people started visiting in November 2017, and six months later those people came back and they saw progress. Now we have a new reality and that new progress needs to be communicated. People are going to be looking for outdoor activities now. We need to connect and communicate that progress, and the progress needs to be real.”

“We need to continue to share data of how many people have the virus and how many have been vaccinated,” added Suarez. “We need to be transparent with the locals and visitors and let them make the decision if they feel comfortable to come to Puerto Rico.”

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