12 OCT 2017: Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico said Hurricane Maria was “a big monster that paid a hard visit” to the island. While Puerto Rico was hit hard by Maria, most of the damage was done to mountain and coastal communities. The main metropolitan area around San Juan, where one million of the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans live was largely unscathed in terms of destruction of buildings and infrastructure. The capitol region was without water, power and telecommunications services, but that is coming back at a noticeable rate.  

Things may not be as rosy as The White House thinks, but Segarra and other industry partners are seeing improvements. Segarra’s view is that because San Juan looked so good, White House staffers may have mistakenly taken that as representative of the situation across the island.

Since Maria wasn’t their first hurricane many facilities, like the Puerto Rico Convention Center, major hotels and office complexes are equipped with their own power plants, so some work can be conducted.

Meet Puerto Rico offices, for example, have electricity for six hours a day. Staff are organized into two teams with a full team meeting on Mondays, and one team coming to the office Tuesdays and Thursday, the other handling Wednesday and Friday. Out of the office, staff work wherever they find power and cell service.

For industry partners, this has been a difficult fall. Tour companies, restaurants, nightclubs, attractions and others have lost at least two weeks’ worth of revenue in September, plus all of October and they expect a weak November.

One sales director said, “It’s going to be a hard quarter.” There are reports that some hotels have laid off staff while they assess the damages to their properties. On the upside, Segarra says there is no indication any hotel will close permanently.

Some San Juan hotels are operating at capacity. What is different is the clientele. Instead of leisure and corporate guests they are accommodating people involved in the recovery process: FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the military, firemen and electricians brought to the island to repair and restore infrastructure.

If there is a positive to Maria it’s that the island’s primary tourist and meetings destination – the strip from the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport (SJU) to old San Juan – has been spared. The airport is fully operational. The cruise port will be at full capacity by November 1st. And the Puerto Rico Convention Center is intact. During the hurricane and immediately afterward it has been a command centre for local government, the military and federal agencies overseeing the recovery work. It’s also served as hostel and hospital.

The bulk of the island’s 16,000 rooms are in this lesser-impacted metropolitan area.

Segarra says, “We have a very diverse product. Obviously the highest concentration of Puerto Rico’s 16,000 rooms is in the San Juan metropolitan area. We have a very appealing configuration in terms of rooms. In San Juan from the airport all the way down to old San Juan you have three different touristic zones. Isla Verde has a beautiful beach.

“Then we have Condado where you have a phenomenal shopping, nightlife and hotel district. And then old San Juan with old architecture, plus city hotels, activities, arts, history and cultural events. The rest of the rooms are distributed in resorts outside of San Juan. To the east you have the El Conquistador, which is a Waldorf Astoria property with close to 1,000 rooms in a beautiful location.

“Plus you have the TRYP by Wyndham Isla Verde in front of the beach and the Gran Meila, and then we have 10 very distinctive high-end 5-star resorts, from the East Coast to the West Coast that have different and diverse offerings for the luxury market. Then there are small inns across the island, in mountains and along the coast that provide an ample opportunity to get to know Puerto Rico more intimately.

“The entire island has infrastructure to provide a safe and beautiful experience. At this moment that is interrupted because of the hurricane, but because it’s so diverse and so big and so important in our economy it will start coming back and we will rebuild the access and experiences to offer to the visitor.”

Some properties, like La Concha Renaissance, Condado Vanderbilt, the San Juan Marriott and Sheraton Puerto Rico are fully operational and accepting reservations. The Intercontinental San Juan and Verdanza Hotel are operating with some amenity limitations, but with a full range of services. Others like El Conquistador, Caribe Hilton, Gran Melia, Condoda Plaza are closed while they assess any repairs that need to be made.

“I don’t want to give the wrong impression, things are the way they are. We were hit by a category 5 hurricane and that monster really hit us hard. But we’ve been able to move the needle and continue day-by-day to become better and better. I’m convinced that the recovery process will be faster than people are expecting.”

Segarra refuses to say Puerto Rico is reopening, “because we’re not closed”. Instead, he suggests that a revamped product will be ready for January 2018. And from a group meeting perspective all services and facilities will be fully recovered in the first quarter of 2018.

The island’s post-Maria theme could be: Recovery And Rediscovery since 2018 marks the 525th anniversary of the discovery of Puerto Rico. With so many Caribbean nations taken out of the market by successive hurricanes, this may provide Puerto Rico with a type of renaissance as a sun destination

 

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