An executive with San Juan, Puerto Rico-based International Hospitality Enterprises and the territory’s new tourism board reflects on a year ago when Hurricane Maria hit the island and how his team prepared and is making a comeback.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—The people of Puerto Rico are no strangers to hurricanes. However, the island has proven its resiliency time and time again—including its hotel and tourism industry.
It’s been one year since Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, and while many homes, businesses and hotels faced devastation, six hotels under San Juan, Puerto Rico-based International Hospitality Enterprises’ management portfolio survived the storm fairly unscathed.
Peter Hopgood, VP of sales and marketing at IHE and chairman of the Meet Puerto Rico board of directors, shared with Hotel News Now his perspective on how the island’s tourism business is faring and how his company’s hotels approached the storm and its aftermath.
He said going into the one-year anniversary of the storm, people would expect the island to be completely devastated, but “surprisingly because of the resiliency in Puerto Rico, because people wanted to move forward probably faster than anywhere else,” that’s not quite the reality.
Becoming experts on preparation
Before Hurricane Maria even hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, the island had already faced the scare of Hurricane Irma a few weeks before, which “devastated some of the Caribbean islands,” Hopgood said. He and his team used Hurricane Irma almost as a rehearsal. Learning from past disasters, along with constant communication, really helped, he said.
“We pulled out the binders (from the company’s hurricane preparedness program), we went through the protocol to prepare for a hurricane and we were blessed to find out we were not hit directly,” he said. “(So it) prepared us for what would be a real scenario that happened two weeks after that.”
Much of the success had to do with constant communication between staff and guests and learning from past disasters, said
When Hurricane Maria hit, Hopgood’s team knew what to do and made sure to check that generators were working, enough food and water were in stock and that there were enough volunteers to ride out the storm.
“We ask for volunteers; we don’t point fingers at people, we don’t ask them to stay,” he said. “The blessing is that over (our) six hotels we had plenty of volunteers who wanted to stay at the hotels and help us through the storm, and most importantly right after the storm.”
He said each of the six properties—which range from independents to Hilton and Marriott International brands—remained open during Hurricane Maria, which was a companywide decision. There was the feeling of responsibility for the community, he said, as he saw many other hotels in the area were closing and evacuating people.
“We had to provide shelter,” he said. “We were shelters for the community, other guests that were in other hotels and also shelters for some of our staff that did not feel safe at their own homes.”
He said International Hospitality Enterprises’ only hotel that sustained the most immediate damage was the Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde in San Juan, which had about 40 guestrooms damaged by water and were taken out of inventory. The staff was able dry the rooms, remove carpeting and ensure the rooms were livable again.
“Our staff became the heroes on making sure we jumped back into operation with no interruption at all, because all hotels were fully loaded in terms of generators and fully equipped with food and water and supplies to last at least two weeks,” he said.
Hopgood said while the hotels remained open and operating, he was proud that not a single staff member was laid off. His team actually picked up additional staff from other properties and industries, he said, and one of his main concerns was leaving people without jobs rather than generating revenue at the properties.
“We were able to … get people to be working immediately because they needed cash. They also needed distractions, they needed to be working, they didn’t want to be at their homes,” he said.
Many other hotels in the area that decided to shut down or evacuate people were not able to resume operations as quickly, which resulted in layoffs or delays in openings and filing insurance claims, he said.
Overcoming perceptions, market challenges
Starting in late 2015, he said, the island was in the midst of a Zika virus outbreak, which resulted in “ a black cloud over us until mid-2017.”
He said Puerto Rico was gearing up as a destination to enjoy a comeback during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, but “unfortunately we got Maria. Slam one right after the other. After we (went) through Maria, I think the perception is not about Zika (anymore), people forgot about Zika … it’s about how ready is Puerto Rico for somebody to travel for leisure.”
And while the island did see record performance growth after Hurricane Maria, he said, it was mostly related to tourism from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and infrastructure companies coming to improve power, roads, and water and sewage systems.
Hopgood said hotels in the area are now “up to par, if not better than (they were) before Maria, at least those that were operating. Those that shut down are going through an extensive renovation process in order to come back with a big bang in newly renovated facilities.”
From a development standpoint, Hopgood said he feels optimistic that not only are more investors looking at Puerto Rico, but he thinks they will be taking more chances on developing, buying more hotels or investing on the renovations of the hotels that were damaged by the storm.
Before Hurricane Maria hit, he said Puerto Rico was already in motion of transforming its tourism branding and marketing. He said for decades the island’s hospitality industry requested that the branding, marketing and positioning of the destination would be shifted from a government agency to a private nonprofit organization—which it recently did, under the company Discover Puerto Rico.
It’s also important for tourists, he said, to understand that Puerto Rico is a U.S territory and the Food and Drug Administration is there approving the infrastructure and making sure the rivers aren’t being polluted and that the water is safe.
There might also a perception that produce isn’t satisfactory and Hopgood said he met with his executive chef, who is a fan of farm-to-table, and asked him how he felt about the usability of raw materials in Puerto Rico right now.
“He told me that he’s having the best ever (season) because nature took care of the (cleaning) of the ground,” Hopgood said. “The old plants got taken away and now we have all these farmers producing more varieties of produce than they were before (Hurricane Maria) … so now our chef has more variety and better quality than before Maria.”
While there’s always room for improvement on infrastructure and systems, he added, the island is ready to host tourists.
“We’ve been like that months ago,” he said. “It’s just a perception.”
Hopgood said he hopes to spread the word and have his team become ambassadors of what to do when a disaster hits while still supporting the industry.
“I was telling my team that it’s interesting how the tourism industry is resilient to any devastation, catastrophe … we quickly adapt to the negative and make it a positive. And you’ve seen it around the world, whether it’s 9/11 or (Hurricanes) Katrina or Maria or Florence. … the hospitality industry adapts and really comes in to support and assist on the rebuilding of any destination,” he said. “That was key for us as a company.”