Op-Ed: ‘Puerto Rico has a PhD in resiliency’
José M. Suárez made that statement during a recent virtual panel among travel industry leaders, who shared lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis. And I couldn’t agree with him more.
It’s a phrase we share frequently here at Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) for which José serves as chairman of the board. Our job is to promote the many benefits of the island to tourists and business travelers, and that hasn’t come without challenges since our formation in 2017.
Hurricanes … political unrest … earthquakes … and now COVID-19. These crises have impacted Puerto Rico and its economically vital tourism industry. But each time — even throughout this devastating pandemic — the island and our people have risen to the occasion, overcome these challenges and come back better than ever.
José and his fellow panelists — representatives from government, cruise, hotel and DMO organizations — shared a number of keen insights revealed through their work responding to COVID-19 and previous disasters. And I have a few key revelations of my own, based on the determined efforts of citizens and businesses throughout the island to overcome any challenge.
My first lesson is that preparedness is essential in battling an emergency. Discover Puerto Rico has been able to quickly respond to sudden and devastating problems because of the work we do long before a crisis strikes. Our crisis playbook includes 15 to 20 scenarios of just about anything that can go wrong in a destination, and it provides our team with the tools and information to confidently spring into action.
For instance, when COVID-19 suddenly shut down the island, our team used the playbook to pivot from promoting the island for travel now to keeping Puerto Rico top-of-mind once travel opened later. I sit on the Public Relations Task Force for Destinations International, an organization of numerous DMOs all over the world, and no one has a crisis playbook like ours.
Being prepared also has given us the ability to be agile, which is my second lesson. We’re fortunate to have a talented team of travel and communications professionals who understand — and love — Puerto Rico, and they have been amazing in developing communications strategies and tactics that provide journalists, travel agents and consumers with facts about the island during and after any crisis.
Their agility was evident in 2017, when Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Without missing a beat, our team moved from promoting the island’s many wonders to informing the world about how Puerto Ricans worked together to recover. Content emphasizing the island’s resurgence encouraged tourists to come back in droves, and by 2020 Puerto Rico was listed in more than 20 “places to go” lists from top media outlets such as Condé Nast Traveler, Huffington Post and NBC News.
But our agility wouldn’t have mattered if our team wasn’t creative, too. During COVID-19, when travel ground to a halt, we needed to find interesting ways to keep potential travelers interested in Puerto Rico. And our team really delivered. Realizing most travelers would need to delay travel to the island for many months, we brought the island to them – through live virtual tours of 22 of the island’s top destinations. These tours, conducted virtually by actual tour guides, drew thousands of virtual visitors.
Perhaps the most important lesson for communicating during a crisis is to be accurate and transparent at all times. Even if the information is unpleasant, tourists or potential tourists deserve to know the truth. For COVID-19, that meant providing all the latest information on health, safety and travel protocols, and even discouraging people from traveling here at the onset of the pandemic.
By telling the truth, we gained the trust of our audiences. And we also identified an important group of potential tourists to the island — responsible travelers — who we know will abide by all laws and requirements when they are able to come to the island safely. So, we’ve been aggressively targeting them.
Another participant on the recent virtual panel — Anne Madison of cruise industry organization CLIA — shared an interesting insight: “One of the silver linings of the pandemic is the pent-up demand for travel.”
We’re seeing that, too, at Discover Puerto Rico. When people are ready to travel again, they will be most drawn to those destinations that kept them honestly and creatively informed about the realities of the pandemic.
Tourists will come back. And we’ll be ready to welcome them with open arms.