Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of the Palm Beach County Convention & Visitors Bureau in Florida, has faced several challenges since stepping into his role: a distressed economy, problems created by the prior administration and a need to broaden the county's vacation-related image from an exclusive getaway for the well-to-do.
In a recent interview, Pesquera said: "We're crafting a new brand here and reinventing the way we do business."
Pesquera, who spent several years in tourism positions throughout the Caribbean, assumed his Palm Beach post in November 2007, succeeding Warren "Mac" McLaughlin, who had held the post for 19 years but resigned following a scandal in which the bureau's former controller embezzled $1.6 million.
The new CEO did not catch a break. The economy was beginning to head south in his first months on the job, accounting for a 4.5% drop in hotel occupancy in the county in 2008.
And 2009 has been no better. "This is a challenging year," Pesquera said. "Group and corporate meetings business has taken a dive. We'll be down this year in visitor numbers and spending because travelers are trading down in accommodations, spending less and staying a shorter time."
Add to that Palm Beach County's image as a premier resort destination, which "presents an even greater challenge in light of the prevailing backlash against corporate excess," Pesquera said.
But he's optimistic for 2010. "We will get over this by next year. What we have already set in play at the CVB will work to our advantage now and when we emerge on the other side," he said.
Pesquera and his team have launched product analyses, research and consumer surveys; restructured sales departments; strengthened the CVB's website; launched e-marketing campaigns; and identified niche markets.
"We're rolling out fresh activities and attractions that are conducive to many new markets," Pesquera said.
"This is not your grandma's Palm Beach."
The county's tourism, which annually generates an economic impact of $2.8 billion from 4 million visitors as well as Palm Beach County's image as a vacation getaway for the wealthy had its origins in Henry Flagler, an American railroad tycoon. In 1894, he built the 1,100-room Royal Poinciana Hotel, the largest wooden structure in the world at that time. That same year, Flagler founded the towns of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach and two years later built the Palm Beach Inn (renamed the Breakers Hotel Complex in 1901), overlooking the Atlantic.
Through collaboration with cities and towns, the CVB has organized the county into nine regional tourism clusters, each of which offers different activities geared to targeted markets, such as cultural, culinary, historical, nature-oriented, sports, shopping, meetings, dive, drive, family and weddings.
That content appears on the CVB's redesigned website and represents the expanded brand and image to a new audience.
"For so long Palm Beach County was defined by big mansions and historic resorts," Pesquera said. "Tourism is the engine that drives the economy of the county, and we recognize that what may have worked in the past no longer produces the results that our destination deserves."
Palm Beach County will be 100 years old on April 30. That will be the launch date for numerous events, including art and film festivals and a boat show. Celebrations in the coming year include a promotion called Deal of the Century, where hotel rooms at certain properties will go for $19.09 per night for three-night stays through December. All-day parking charges and meals at certain restaurants also will be pegged to the $19.09 rate.
Pesquera said that the CVB had seen a lot of interest from hoteliers on this package; more than 60 of the county's 200 properties had signed on.