They came to New York on Sept. 25 on very short notice from around the U.S., Canada and Mexico. More than a dozen CEOs of tour operations. Twelve airline executives. The ranking officers of nine hotel companies. Representatives of travel agencies and associations. Public relations specialists. Tourism officials. An airport director. An ambassador.
Their common interest was a desire for the speedy recovery of Los Cabos following the direct hit the resort area received from Hurricane Odile on Sept. 14.
After meeting for two hours with the Mexico Tourism Board, they left with reassurances that the destination is being restored swiftly.
And, if an anticipated marketing campaign rolls out on Oct. 15 as planned, consumers may end up with more than reassurances that Los Cabos will be ready: They will have a guarantee.
The 48 people who assembled in New York are responsible for bringing Mexico 95% of its North American leisure visitors, Mexico Tourism Board CEO Rodolfo Lopez Negrete said in his introductory remarks to the group.
He said the tourism board had received $5 million in incremental funds from the federal government, essentially to save Los Cabos' fall and winter tourist seasons.
Although wind caused a still-unknown amount of damage and knocked out utilities, the area did not suffer structural damage, the beaches survived intact, pier and airport damage was primarily cosmetic, and many shops, stores and restaurants are already back in business.
They were told that utilities were either restored or would be within a week (at press time on Oct. 2, power had been restored to 97%). As for the rest of the work to be done, it's primarily a matter of cleaning and making nonstructural repairs, the tourism chief said.
But damage to perceptions of the resorts' readiness to receive guests is the critical need to be addressed, he stressed.
Lopez Negrete was upfront about another aspect of why this meeting was urgent to the destination, tour operators and hoteliers. He wanted to reassure airlines that demand would be restored quickly to prevent aircraft from being reassigned away from the destination.
"We want to make sure that airline seats are not detoured outside of Los Cabos," he said. "We want to reassure airlines that seats will be filled with stimulated demand."
On the aviation front, Fernando Bosque, director of airport operator Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico, said that Delta, Southwest, Virgin America and Spirit will restart service from some markets on or within a day or two of an originally predicted Oct. 8 reopening to commercial traffic. That date was subsequently moved up to Oct. 3 when an Aeromexico flight from Mexico City resumed operation.
Currently, airport officials are focused on "cleaning and removing debris," Bosque said. "The problem was on the north side where windows blew out, but the gates didn't suffer badly. The damage was aesthetic."
He also showed before-and-after photos underscoring significant progress in the cleanup/fix-up operations.
(Meanwhile, Holland America Line was scheduled to call in Cabo San Lucas on Oct. 3 with the Zuiderdam, Princess Cruises on Oct. 4 with the Star Princess, Norwegian Cruise Line on Oct. 5 with the Norwegian Pearl and Carnival Cruise Lines on Oct. 6 with the Carnival Miracle.)
Ruben Reachi, minister of tourism for Baja California Sur, the state in which Los Cabos is located, said that the local association of hotels issued forecasts showing that, of the 12,000 rooms in inventory, 5,103 would be open by Oct. 15. The number would move up to 6,500 by Nov. 1, to 7,225 by Nov. 15, and would reach fully operational by Dec. 20. (The number for Nov. 15 has subsequently been raised to 8,600.)
"We understand that hotels are not enough," Reachi added later. "Activity companies will be operational in October. Sixty percent of restaurants will be ready in 30 days. Some golf courses are open now, some will be in 30 days — in many cases greener than ever."
Ernesto Adduci and Travis Klausmeier of Lapiz presented that advertising agency's comprehensive plan to restore confidence in the destination quickly around the theme, "Los Cabos. Unstoppable."
All aspects of the campaign are designed to showcase the destination's readiness. The first phase is heavily focused on social media, but with the expectation that the unusual nature of the campaign will create buzz and news stories.
Those who had sent messages of support to the destination after the storm are currently receiving direct messages with updated photos of the same locale they had posted, with the message that their support is appreciated and "Take a look — we are back." All will have the hashtag #unstoppable.
Some visitors who sent messages of support will be rewarded with a surprise offer of a complimentary trip there now, so they can see the destination with their own eyes and become social media ambassadors.
In phase two of the social media campaign, celebrities will be hired to reply to tweets that have a selfie attached, with a tweet from the celebrity's account that includes a selfie of the celebrity in the same location and pose, urging the original tweeters to come see for themselves that the destination has returned.
The "unstoppable" campaign will also involve the people of Los Cabos. In one video ad, beautiful scenery will be intercut with tourism workers, stretching and warming up in preparation for getting back to work. The final shot will be of an airport tarmac worker stretching, bending down to pick up wands and then guiding a plane into its gate. Words would then appear on the screen: "On Sept. 14, a hurricane hit Los Cabos. Today, we are ready as always. Los Cabos. Unstoppable."
Another aspect of the campaign directed at consumers will be a large screen in a highly trafficked area whose left half would show a Los Cabos locale before the storm, and the right half would have a live feed of that exact same place as it currently is.
In partnership with travel agencies, airlines and resorts, the tourism board wants to send the message, "We are so confident of Los Cabos' readiness that we will guarantee a prebooked vacation."
The gist of the guarantee is that if a booking is made from Nov. 15 through Dec. 15, "If we aren't ready for you, we will send everyone in your group to another Mexican destination, on us."
The Dec. 15 date was subsequently pushed back to Dec. 24, and it has been decided that the program will be offered in partnership with specific hotels rather than as a destination-wide guarantee.
Another focus of the campaign will be unusual fundraising events that will put the spotlight on the destination while raising money for local aid groups.
For instance, famous artists will be invited to turn debris from the storm into art for an open-air gallery. A surfing event will be held in which surfers will make boards out of debris.
The subtext is, rather than simply give to a charity, help others by booking a flight and filling a room.
In reaction to the campaign, almost all who spoke praised both the speed and creativity of the plan, but concerns about readiness were also expressed by some.
"Are you willing to commit to this?" asked David Hu, president of Classic Vacations. "I'm getting emails from properties saying they are closed until Dec. 15."
Pablo Azcarraga, president of Mexico's National Council of Tourism Business, responded by saying that Nov. 15, the day the guarantee kicks in, "is a reachable goal. We've had discussions with many hotel companies, and many, many hotel rooms will be ready by mid-November. Many properties will be ready earlier."
Lawrence Elliott of Sunwing Travel Group voiced strong opposition, saying he didn't like the before-and-after concept, nor mentioning the hurricane damage at all. "The consumer will forget the hurricane unless we remind them."
He also said that as a charter operator, the guarantee was not workable or practically applicable for his company.
But the plan received the endorsement of a powerful player in Mexico, Alex Zozaya, CEO of Apple Leisure Group, parent of AMResorts, Apple Vacations, Travel Impressions and CheapCaribbean.com.
"I'm sure we will have enough inventory for the demand we can create," he said. "There will be enough rooms in the categories [that travelers] will be booking to set the date and make it happen. I think we should go ahead with the promise."
Likewise, Carlos Vazquez, CEO of Solimar, blessed the campaign. "We're going to be ready Oct. 20 with our four hotels."
Funjet Vacations President Mike Going praised the "creative, fresh approach" but felt the guarantee would be "an operational nightmare."
Victor Mayo, product leader for Libgo Travel, said, "I want to echo what [Zozaya] said of the guarantee. I think it's terrific, but what is the fine print? What are the details?"
Zozaya made two pleas to fellow hoteliers during the discussions. He warned them not to delay reconstruction of hotels in anticipation of collecting business-interruption insurance payments, noting that those who did that in 2005, after Hurricane Wilma hit Cancun, recovered more slowly than those who moved quickly.
And he cautioned against lowering rates.
"We will not fix this problem with price," he said. "If we lower the rates in Los Cabos, it will take years to come back, and it will affect the entire country, and even other countries. We can add value in the short term with perks and benefits, but I beg you, please don't use this as an opportunity to discount prices."