One Year After the Storms

ABOVE: Old San Juan was among Puerto Rico's many areas hit hard by Hurricane Maria. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is welcoming tourists back.

By any measure, the 2017 hurricane season was one for the ages. In quick succession, horrific storms Harvey, Irma and Maria destroyed lives and the infrastructure of communities in their path.

In the following, M&C looks at the recovery of three destinations hit especially hard by the storms -- Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys, plus an update on Houston -- and how local tourism organizations are working to revive travel and meetings business. 

Hotel Update: Puerto Rico
Ninety percent of Puerto Rico's hotels and resorts that suffered hurricane damage had reopened as of press time, with others expected to come back online soon.

Opening this month:
• 115-room Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve
• 139-room St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort
• 388-room El San Juan Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton

Opening in December 2018:
• 486-room Melia Coco Beach (Formerly the Gran Melia Puerto Rico, the resort is upgrading 120 rooms as part of The Level, a new luxury section with private restaurants, concierge service and more.) 
• 416-room Ritz-Carlton, San Juan 
• 652 room Caribe Hilton
• 171-room W Vieques Island

Opening in 2019:
Nearly 4,000 new hotel rooms will be added to the island's inventory by year-end 2019. Major projects include:
• 150-room ALOFT Ponce Hotel
• 250-room Dreams Resort & Spa 
• 150-room Four Seasons Cayo Largo Resort
• 225-room Mall of San Juan Hotel 
• 400-room JW Marriott (formerly the Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach) 


From "S.O.S." to "welcome"

The devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico continues to play out in the news, on Capitol Hill and in some of the still-ravaged sections of this battered U.S. territory. Heartbreaking images of destroyed homes and distressed victims still resonate a year after the powerful storm.

While controversy still swirls around much of the ongoing relief effort, the island has seen some solid infrastructure upgrades, the launch of a new destination marketing organization, the reopening of 90 percent of its affected hotel inventory (see "Hotel Update: Puerto Rico," left) and a slate of new properties and venues on the horizon. For such a tourism-dependent destination, these are vital lifelines pointing to a hopeful future. 

Puerto Rico is now seeing an average of 110 daily flights via 28 airlines and expects service to return to pre-hurricane levels by the end of this year. The Puerto Rico Convention Center was up and running by January, along with lots of development nearby. Just across from the center, District Live!, a five-acre entertainment district with large-scale event venues, will open in late 2019.

"We are not just open for business; we are ready, able and eager to welcome groups back," says Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, the island's new DMO, which debuted in July. 

Nevertheless, the uneven pace of recovery has led planners to delay or postpone decisions, according to Dean, and meeting and incentive business is 70 percent below pre-storm numbers. The greatest challenge now, he adds, is "battling outdated perceptions." 

To that end, this past August the DMO launched an initiative to showcase the progress the island's tourism industry has made to date. Residents, travel agents and others involved in drawing visitors and attendees have been encouraged to post images capturing the recovery efforts with the hashtag #CoverTheProgress. As part of the campaign, residents of Humacao, one of hardest-hit areas, worked with the tourism community to replace the S.O.S. sign painted on a road in the aftermath of the storm (an image that, photographed from above, went viral) with a warm message of Bienvenidos! -- welcome. 

At the kickoff of the effort, Dean said, "While there's still progress to be made in some areas of the island, we're asking for the vibrancy of Puerto Rico as a tourism destination to also be shared, and for the milestones that the local industry and communities have worked hard to achieve to be celebrated. We're taking this moment to encourage all audiences to help us spotlight our tourism recovery and invite travelers to visit us, as tourism is a vital contributor to the economy."

To re-engage planners, Discover Puerto Rico is undertaking an aggressive sales and marketing tact, offering more fam trips and upping its presence at industry trade shows. "We are not talking about what Maria did to Puerto Rico, but how Puerto Rico is recovering," says Dean. Having spoken with a number of clients who hope to return to the destination, Dean is "incredibly optimistic" that meetings and incentives will come back. "Planners are encouraged that we made progress in such a brief amount of time."

Caneel Bay Resort, St. John, USVI, remains shuttered. At press time, plans for reopening had yet to be announced.
Caneel Bay Resort, St. John, USVI, remains shuttered. At press time, plans for reopening had yet to be announced.

A tourism agency takes charge

"There is no doubt that the storms of 2017 were a major disruption to our tourism industry," says Commissioner of Tourism Beverly Nicholson-Doty of the two category-5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, that ravaged the U.S. Virgin Islands last September. 

Images of the aftereffects revealed buildings destroyed, airports damaged and debris littering the islands' once-pristine beaches and harbors. Especially hard-hit were many large meeting and incentive properties. Even today, about 50 percent of hotel accommodations remain closed (see "Hotel Update: U.S. Virgin Islands," left). 

"Groups are welcome to the territory, but most of the smaller hotels are not able to meet all the needs of a larger MICE program," notes Nicholson-Doty. 

Yet, the USVI is steadily restoring and rebuilding its tourism infrastructure, and the department of tourism is playing a major role in the process. Its first step was the launch of a 150-day "rolling" marketing plan (since completed) to establish priorities and a road map of activities to pursue during the destination's recovery. The plan included a commitment to provide regular updates to partners and the community via the website. The site, still accessible, offers a comprehensive chart showing the recovery rate of all tourism segments involving the islands, including cruises, lodging and flights .

The USVI Department of Tourism also determined it was vital to maintain a presence at key trade shows across the United States and to strengthen its marketing efforts. The agency launched video clips of locals' tales of resilience, highlighted offerings that were back online (shopping, dining, watersports, beaches, culture) and promoted images and stories of recovery and resilience with the hashtag #USVIStillNice

The territory continues to attend meetings and industry events and maintains strong relationships with organizations such as HelmsBriscoe, ConferenceDirect, HPN, Experient, MPI, PCMA, Cvent, ConventionPlanit and SITE "to share our MICE messaging," says Nicholson-Doty, who notes that the tourism body continues to play an integral role in marketing and promoting the destination. "Educating our business partners is key," she adds. "We also engage with our local DMCs, off-site venues, landmarks, excursions, etc., to make sure they are operationally ready to host visitors, groups and events."

Despite the challenges of the past year, there have been many positive accomplishments. Among them is the launch of Spirit Airlines' St. Croix-Fort Lauderdale route. The carrier also will begin service between Orlando and St. Thomas this November.

On the accommodations front, the 138-room Buccaneer hotel in St. Croix has reopened, cruise ships are once again including the USVI in their itineraries, and many smaller properties and villas (including a number that host small groups) are available. 

And "voluntourism" is on the rise: This summer, the tourism agency launched Purpose in Paradise, a program that pairs visitors interested in helping the islands' recovery efforts with local nonprofits in need of assistance in education, the environmental and economic development.

"I believe that we will emerge with a newer and more competitive tourism product," says Nicholson-Doty. "The improved hotels, attractions and infrastructure will provide a stronger foundation for our socioeconomic development and will further benefit our communities." She expects that group business will be back to pre-hurricane levels in the islands by early 2020. 

Now open: Hawks Cay Resort, Duck Key

Hotel Update: Florida Keys
Last month, the 177-room Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key, one of the Keys' largest meetings properties, reopened following a $50 million renovation, bringing the Keys' number of properties back in operation to 90 percent. Following is an update on other properties poised to debut. (For a more comprehensive list go here.)

• On Key Largo, the 200-room Baker's Cay Resort (formerly the Hilton Key Largo) is scheduled to open by late fall; the resort has 17,000 square feet of meeting space. 
• The Bungalows Key Largo, the Keys' first all-inclusive, adults-only resort, is slated to open by the end of 2018. The luxury property will offer 135 guest units. 
• The 145-room Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina on Islamorada is scheduled to fully reopen in the fall.
• Slated to open in early 2019 is the new 24-acre, 199-unit Isla Bella Beach Resort on Marathon Key. The property will offer more than 24,000 square feet of meeting and event space. 
• On Little Torch Key, Parmer's Resort is fully open with 44 units, including two cottages and a new 90-foot-long beach. Just off of Little Torch Key, Little Palm Island Resort & Spa is scheduled to reopen in 2020.
• Two Key West properties coming online this fall are the 64-suite Laureate Key West, which was set to open in September, and the 148-unit Parrot Key Resort, to reopen Nov. 1 with four pools and a new restaurant offering poolside al fresco dining. 

-- L.A.G.

Perception vs. actual impact 

Hurricane Irma ripped through the Florida Keys last September, damaging the 125-mile chain's hotels, attractions and numerous parks. Though the Keys fared better than other destinations in the path of the storm, says Jack Meier of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, "everyone got lumped together, and the perception was that the destination was devastated." 

In truth, the damage varied greatly within the chain. Key Largo and Key West were the least impacted, as were most hotels and businesses on the bayside, or gulf side, in Islamorada and Marathon. On the Atlantic Ocean side of Islamorada and Duck Key near Marathon, some hotels had significant storm-surge impacts, while the most severely impacted area of the Keys was west of the Seven Mile Bridge to around Big Coppitt Key. 

Compared to Puerto Rico and the USVI, the Keys' recovery has been swift: As of this September, the council, which serves as the Keys' destination marketing organization, reported that 90 percent of all properties were operating, with nearly all affected resorts -- as well as several new hotels -- projected to be fully open by the end of the year (see "Hotel Update: Florida Keys," left). 

In addition, all Keys attractions are open, and fishing, snorkeling and diving charters are operating. Among the latest news:

• On Big Pine Key, the new 1,840-square-foot Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center will open in late fall. The center will showcase the Keys' four national wildlife refuges with exhibits, space for interactive events and more. 

• On Key Largo, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first undersea park in the U.S., is now open for most activities. 

• In the Lower Keys, Loggerhead Beach, along the Atlantic Ocean in Bahia Honda State Park, was scheduled to reopen late last month. 

Airlift is another bright spot: Beginning this month, United Airlines will offer daily nonstop service to Key West from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, with a second daily flight being offered from February through May 2019.

From mid-December 2018 through May 2019, United will offer daily Key West-Chicago service. American Airlines will resume daily nonstop service this December into Key West from Dallas-Fort Worth, through April 1, 2019. 

The good news on the Keys' recovery doesn't necessarily translate into a bounce-back of groups, however. While a $1 million ad campaign launched by the DMO last fall and winter drew leisure visitors, the meetings business is taking longer to recover. 

"Although we are in a better place than last year, we have not turned the corner yet," notes Jack Meier, but he is confident that the renovated resorts, along with several new property openings, will greatly increase the Keys' appeal to planners in the near future. 

Houston: Life After Harvey

Last August, Hurricane Harvey dumped about 50 inches of rain on the Houston area. The flooding was catastrophic for residents, but the city's tourism infrastructure was relatively unscathed, with 98 percent of hotels coming back online almost immediately. The George R. Brown Convention Center reopened a few weeks later for the Texas Society of Association Executives conference, held Sept. 17-19.

The exceptions were two damaged Omni properties that had closed in the storm's aftermath. The 400-room Omni Houston Hotel at Westside began welcoming guests again in October 2017. Finally expected to reopen this Nov. 1 is the 378-room Omni Houston Hotel, with 30,000 square feet of meeting space. Water reportedly reached the second floor, and the hotel is making necessary repairs as well as completing a $30 million renovation.

Despite Harvey, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau reported record numbers for 2017, booking 429 conventions and meetings, representing 802,852 room nights, up from 765,401 room nights in 2016.

"Last year was truly a remarkable one for Houston," says Mike Waterman, president and CEO of Visit Houston. "We hosted an amazing Super Bowl, endured Hurricane Harvey and celebrated our first World Series with the Astros. Harvey was amazingly impactful for Houston, but in the end helped show the world who we really are -- a resilient, prepared city of doers taking care of each other."