Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

Puerto Rico's experience in crisis management has been sorely tested during Covid-19.

The pandemic struck as earthquakes were battering the south coast and parts of the island had not yet recovered from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Discover Puerto Rico last week convened a diverse group of tourism professionals to assess how lessons learned from the island's crisis preparedness and recovery strategies will play a role in the post-Covid era.

"There is nothing more critical than learning from the challenges that Covid-19 has presented our industry," said Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico.

Maintaining constant communication with the local Puerto Rican business community was essential to balance the health crisis with the pandemic's economic impact, according to Manuel Laboy, executive director of Puerto Rico's Central Office of Reconstruction, Recovery & Resiliency.

"We knew we had to maintain focus and a balance between health and the Puerto Rican economy. Communication was essential. Uncertainty was something we had not seen before," he said.

Communication and transparency was a key theme shared by the panelists.

Diana Plazas, chief sales and marketing officer of Caribbean and Latin America for Marriott International, said that communication and transparency was "key to crisis management."

"Stay top of mind with travel advisors, consumers, tourism boards, destination managers, partners and stakeholders on every platform possible," she said.

Scenario planning was a critical element implemented by Marriott, CLIA, and Discover Puerto Rico.

"The best thing that CLIA had going was that we had had scenario planning over many years," said Anne Madison, CLIA's senior vice president of global marketing and strategic communication. "Without scenario planning and debriefing after crises to build upon those learnings, you have nothing."

"Our customers will be with us going forward," she added. "Stay top of mind with travel advisors, consumers, tourism boards, destination managers, partners and stakeholders on every platform possible."

Jose Suarez, chairman of Discover Puerto Rico, described Puerto Rico as having "a Ph.D in resilience, having been through many natural disasters and political unrest."

"Discover Puerto Rico's Crisis Preparedness Playbook clearly identified next steps  based on potential scenarios, with respective team members understanding their roles," he said.

His team held weekly meetings with the health department, airport authority, the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. and key stakeholders.

Agility was also cited as a top priority during Covid.

"Communication, adaptability and the ability to pivot to respond with relevant and timely information was the best thing we could do," said Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destinations International.

His organization ran 64 webinars between last March and this January on destination management and marketing. "We knew that in this crisis people looked for resources, direction and guidance," he said.

The panelists were asked their outlook on the timeline for the return to travel.

Welsh estimated that leisure domestic travel will be fully back in 2022, "but business travel is lagging, and it could be 2023 or 2024."

Madison said that "we have to create a reset moment. People are looking for an authentic experience, but it must be safe. I don't know what the future holds, but we will continue to be agile. CLIA is not mired in the past. We will resume operations responsibly, communicate our plans, provide updates, use a phased-in approach. People have their own level of confidence, and when they feel the family can travel safely, they will do so."

Travel will resume "when you communicate, provide data, progress reports and vaccination numbers to instill traveler confidence and trust. We must continue to be transparent," Suarez said. 

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