by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | April 27, 2018
It has been seven months since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, causing widespread devastation, including crippling power outages. Yet, despite the enormous strides made on the hotel front to repair and reopen battered properties, group business has been slow to return, as planners remain in a wait-and-see holding pattern.
"Puerto Rico is facing a serious public-image crisis," acknowledged Alma Pedrosa, who this week was named CFO of the newly established Puerto Rico Destination Marketing Organization, created through the merging of Meet Puerto Rico, the DMO that has worked to bring meetings, conventions and incentives to the destination, and the leisure-tourism focused Puerto Rico Tourism Co. But she also was adamant that the U.S. territory was well prepared and eager to host group business.
 
"It is unfortunate when one thing, like the recent power outage, gets so much attention, and all of the other strides we have made go unnoticed," said Pedrosa this week during a roundtable discussion with media, hours after her appointment became official. "We have spent a great deal of our time trying to counteract all the negative press coming out of the U.S. mainland. Frankly, managing the public perception of our island is our biggest challenge. We know we are ready."
 
The new DMO will have a $25 million budget, funded by hotel taxes, plus another $5 million in matching funds, provided it can generate $5 million in private funding. That would give the agency a potential $35 million to position and promote the island as a destination. Leah Chandler, the former chief marketing officer for the Branson (Mo.) Convention & Visitors Bureau, takes over as CMO of the PRDMO effective mid-May.
 
Prior to Hurricane Maria, Pedrosa said, group business accounted for 130,000 room nights a year, for a fiscal year that runs July 1 to June 30. For the current fiscal year, which has two months left, groups have notched just over 50,000 room nights on the books. Of the island's 15,000 hotel rooms, about 5,000 are under renovation, including major meeting properties such as the Condado Plaza Hilton, Meliá Coco Beach, the Ritz-Carlton, San Juan, and the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort.

Pedrosa said she is focused on 2019, when all of the hotels will be back online with all-new product, which will give the new DMO a solid footing to position Puerto Rico as the premier meetings destination in the Caribbean, one you don't need a passport to enter if you are a U.S. citizen. "The new hotel products will absolutely make us very attractive. And our new DMO will have one voice and one consistent message, which is something we need," she noted. "We are definitely looking to a much brighter future."