Still in a state of recovery, hotels in the Puerto Rico capital of San Juan are scrambling to get ready for the high leisure demand season, which begins today.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Today marks the beginning of the high season in Puerto Rico, where just about 65% of the power has been restored since Hurricane Maria hit in September. As leisure demand picks up, hoteliers in San Juan are striving to present guests with a revitalizing destination.
Things were uncertain the initial days after Hurricane Maria battered the island, but for most the part, hoteliers in San Juan said they were well-prepared.
“Maria came just one week after Hurricane Irma, so we were prepared,” said Gisela Rivera, GM of The Wave Hotel in San Juan. Food and water had been provisioned, staff was on call, and generators were in place, she said.
Most hotels in Puerto Rico’s capital city made it through with minimal structural damage. The biggest hurdle was and continues to be the lack of electricity and satellite communication.
“We went 78 days without power and relied on a generator the whole time,” Rivera said. “It was kind of crazy. Our elevator still isn’t working, but thankfully, most of our guests right now are aid workers, and they are not complaining.”
Supporting aid workers and relief efforts
Aid workers from FEMA, the Red Cross, Siemens and other organizations currently comprise the bulk of hotel guests throughout San Juan.
A 27 November bulletin from the Puerto Rico Tourism Company noted that 75% of the U.S. territory's hotels were open and operating. However, a lot of those rooms are not being counted as available inventory.
“These hotels are working with federal government agencies to host first responders,” said Peter Hopgood, Chairman of the Board of Meet Puerto Rico and VP of Sales and Marketing for International Hospitality Enterprises.
He said the tourism industry is serving as a major catalyst for the recovery of Puerto Rico.
Being near the ports of San Juan meant that these hotels were among the first to receive necessary aid.
“We were able to recuperate quickly,” said Yodil Cabán, GM of the DoubleTree by Hilton San Juan. “Within two to three weeks, our area had improved significantly, but there are still a lot of other areas in Puerto Rico that are in need.”
To help with the efforts, he said, his team has been donating surplus items.
Cabán said the most important thing after a disaster like Hurricane Maria is to make sure morale is high for everyone. “We want to be a part of that. When the Red Cross arrived, we wanted them to feel as welcome as our guests normally feel, so we received them with our famous DoubleTree cookies,” he said.
Aid workers were expected to begin departing from San Juan hotels by mid-December to accommodate leisure travelers. The busy winter season kicks off on 20 December, according to The Puerto Rico Tourism.
Hoteliers prepare for the high season
Tourism companies are doing their best to convey the message that San Juan is up and running, but hoteliers fear that some consumers might be swayed by the images of destruction they see on media outlets.
Many of the devastated areas that are being shown on the news are more rural, Hopgood said. “They aren’t areas that leisure tourists would normally visit. The activity in San Juan is a more accurate picture of what tourists can expect when they come to Puerto Rico,” he said.
During the week ending 9 December, San Juan’s ports welcomed some 70,000 cruise passengers. “We are seeing these travelers visit our pools, our beaches and our casinos,” Hopgood said.
The Wave Hotel’s Rivera said she is preparing for the high season as best she can despite limited communication from local businesses and attractions. “We’re still missing a lot of information to provide leisure guests with the best experience,” she said. “We’re working hard to understand which tourist attractions are open, and what is not open on a daily basis. Our front-desk staff needs the right tools to help our guests.”
The road to a ‘stronger’ Puerto Rico
While properties like the Wave Hotel and the DoubleTree San Juan continue to operate under challenging circumstances, others have been forced to close. The Ritz-Carlton San Juan is among hotels that will undergo renovations for an extended period of time.
Jacqueline Volkart, former GM of the Ritz-Carlton San Juan, has since transferred to the St. Regis San Francisco. “After the devastation Hurricane Maria left behind, many of us have decided to move on due to the hotels closing for an extensive amount of time,” she said via email.
While the market will feel the effects of the hurricane for some time, Hopgood believes there’s a silver lining to all of this. “Puerto Rico is going to end up stronger and more beautiful than ever. These hotel renovations will result in great product next year. Our infrastructure is going to be improved. We had a weak power grid system, and that’s getting fixed,” he said.
Hopgood sees these positive changes driving hotel investments over the coming years. “Puerto Rico is going to present itself as an amazing investment opportunity. We already starting to see some interest,” he said.