Lobby at Serafina Beach Hotel, Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria tested the island’s heart and its electrical system

When Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto Rico 10 months ago at 175 miles per hour, Ben Tutt was there. As general manager of Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, a luxury resort in San Juan dating to 1919, he and the rest of the hospitality industry supported first responders as they struggled to restore services to the island of more than 3 million people.

“It was tough,” he recalled. “But it was also one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever gone through.” The Colorado native, who married into an extended family in the tropical destination, repeatedly praised the pride and enthusiasm of residents during difficult times.

Vanderbilt stayed open to house employees and aid workers. “Everyone was affected,” Tutt says. Many employees lost their homes. Tutt’s children distributed food.

Employees from Hilton Hotels & Resorts have delivered more than 50,000 meals to those in need and launched On the Road to Recovery, a volunteer program with monthly aid initiatives at organizations such as Boys & Girls Club, Hogar de Ninas and Children’s Hospital San Jorge.

Redefining Prepared

A tragic casualty of the ominous headlines back on the mainland was the island’s tourism industry—which is one of the few growing sectors of the U.S. territory’s economy.

Brad Dean, incoming CEO of a newly forming Destination Marketing Organization—which markets the island with the hashtag #PuertoRicoIsReady—is working hard to overcome the public relations hit. He sees blue sky on that front. “Many planners see bringing business to the island as a moral imperative,” he said.

Rhonda Baker, assistant director of NACADA, is one of them. She saw the opportunity to do good as one reason to bring an annual conference for 4,000 members of a global community for academic advising. Affordability, convenience (everyone speaks English and uses dollars) and magnificent beaches put the island on the short list even before the weather disaster. After Maria hit, she immediately started planning a CSR project. From clean-up to replanting coffee plants, volunteer efforts allow visitors to be part of the solution.

At the same time, Baker includes a strong force majeure clause in her contracts. “We prefer to never have to use it,” she said.

Hard Lessons

“The resiliency of the people of Puerto Rico is nothing short of extraordinary,” Dean said. He sees the destination as a standard-bearer for preparation, logistics and the leveraging of disruption to improve the regional economy.

The island—particularly the countryside outside San Juan—is still repairing damage, as the patchwork of blue FEMA tarps viewed from the air illustrate. However, that preparedness was evident when an electrical outage in April (due to contractor error) was fixed for most residents in a single day. The hospitality industry immediately switched to generators to keep the lights on.

When asked what lessons were learned, Tutt began listing improvements in building materials and amenities at refreshed properties, then paused before saying, “We are all wary of what the next hurricane season will bring, but we have been through the ultimate test, and we are experienced, strong and ready.”

Property Update

Of 148 hotels, 130 are open—many with fresh new surfaces. Five Hilton properties are operational, including Embassy Suites by Hilton San Juan Hotel & Casino, which will be unveiling new meetings and public space in October.

By the end of 2018, Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve; St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort; El San Juan Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton; and Melia Coco Beach plan to reopen. Caribe Hilton’s 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 652 guest rooms on a 17-acre private peninsula are scheduled to follow in early 2019.

The all-new Serafina Beach Hotel opened in March with 96 guest rooms and the 2,295-square-foot Oceanfront Ballroom. Also taking the opportunity to reimagine its offerings is The Condado Plaza Hilton, where the poolside terrace and some rooms remained open while the ocean-facing spaces are under construction. Farther down Ashford Avenue, San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino will reopen a damaged tower in August with a new focus on its beachfront and an Ocean Club wellness center to adjoin the undamaged 10,348 sq. ft. of event space and casino.

Many properties didn’t have any real down time. Puerto Rico Convention Center’s 600,000 sq. ft. of exhibit, ballroom and terrace space under a signature domed roof temporarily converted into a shelter and storage for the donations that poured into the city. Next door, Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino’s 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 503 guest rooms were back in business within two weeks.