by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | April 06, 2018
It has been six months since Puerto Rico was battered by Hurricane Maria and executives of San Juan-based International Hospitality Enterprises (IHE), which has a portfolio of eight hotels in Puerto Rico, are eager to get the word out that the island is ready for group business to return.

 "We went through some very difficult times, no doubt about it," said Jose Suarez, president of IHE. "But not one of our hotels was closed before, during or after Hurricane Maria. Our main driver was keeping our team members employed, and we were back to normal in 30 days."
Ben Tutt, general manager of the 212-room Condado Vanderbuilt, acknowledged that some group business on the books had been canceled in the months following Maria, but added that the hotel has been actively working with clients to rebook events, particularly incentive programs. "We reached out to every single group we had on the books after the hurricane and said can we get you down here, because we really want you to see for yourself that we are open," said Tutt. "We said, 'Can we keep the deposit and move your program to a year down the road?' Many said they wanted to come back and help."

According to Peter Hopgood, vice president of sales and marketing for IHE, corporate group business is slowly returning to normal. He noted companies such as Bacardi, Coca-Cola and Pepsi all held events in recent months. What is really needed, however, is the return of incentive business.

"The market we need to ignite again is the incentive market. It was on its way up, and then we got hit with the Zika virus, followed by the hurricane," said Hopgood, who is also vice chairman of Meet Puerto's board of directors, the destination marketing organization for the island. "This is an opportunity to get back into the incentive market, which has a longer booking window. We are going to be attacking and promoting on every front to lure planners to view the destination as an incentive destination. We are a lot better than what they see and hear."

Yodil Caban, general manager of the DoubleTree by Hilton San Juan at Gallery Plaza, said his hotel is turning to social-media platforms to self-promote and market IHE properties. "We hired an experience ambassador, whose sole responsibility is to highlight experiences travelers can have at our hotel, and we are doing a lot of live video, because video doesn't lie," said Caban, who added that FaceTiming with clients has become another valuable marketing tool.

The goal, said Hopgood, is to position and market Puerto Rico as an incentive destination that cannot be overlooked. "That will be our strongest campaign for the next six to nine months," said Hopgood. "We are going to get people down here, to look at Puerto Rico from a meeting planning perspective and see for themselves if the island is ready or not. Because, we definitely feel it is ready."