‘This is a setback, not a reset:’ How Discover Puerto Rico is responding to Hurricane Fiona

Inside the travel organization’s response.

Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: When Hurricane Fiona slammed into Puerto Rico’s southwest region on September 18, the island’s nonprofit tourism entity, Discover Puerto Rico, immediately shifted to focus on the safety and security of visitors.

The Category 1 storm sparked an island-wide blackout and, as of this week, businesses, government agencies and homeowners continued to rely on generators.

Discover Puerto Rico CMO Leah Chandler is based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and 81% of her team members also live on the island. The organization, charged with promoting long-term economic development of all 78 Puerto Rican municipalities through travel, has 22 team members in marketing and communications roles.

Discover Puerto Rico’s priority with any severe weather event is to provide factual updates in real-time. The organization also wants to ensure that people who have upcoming plans are well-informed so they can make the best decisions for themselves and their travel party, Chandler said via email. 

So when the hurricane touched down, Discover Puerto Rico’s first move was to pause proactive efforts on social, paid and earned media. It pivoted to sharing updates from local officials on the status of the island’s accessibility and operations of major tourism experiences, many of which began normal operations a week later. 

Updates were shared on Discover Puerto Rico’s website via a travel advisory and product-tracker update tool and on its social platforms: Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

The organization also encouraged visitors on the island or with vacation plans to contact their travel providers, hotels and local businesses to inquire about potential changes in operations.

“The primary tone of our messaging is built on honesty and transparency,” said Chandler. “As the official tourism voice for Puerto Rico, we must maintain credibility and trust with our audiences, not just consumers, but meeting planners, travel advisors and journalists, among others.”

Discover Puerto Rico and Ketchum, its PR AOR, worked to identify a multi-phased plan for the weeks ahead that would also affect workstreams led by its teams at creative shop R&R Partners and marketing firm Miles Partnership. The phases are named “acknowledge,” “address” and “activate,” reflecting the necessary steps involved in properly assessing the situation prior to beginning proactive efforts once again, Chandler said.

“In the coming weeks, we’ll begin to address misconceptions, as imagery circulates of the areas in Puerto Rico still affected while other areas have remained open, such as the San Juan metro area,” Chandler said. “Tourism, including leisure and group travel, is a critical driver of the local economy and the best way to support the Island. We are capturing real-time imagery to share with visitors on our platforms as part of our next phase.”

Many operations are normalizing. The Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan reopened just one day after Hurricane Fiona, with flights running on schedule. The Mercedita Airport in Ponce also opened in just a few days after Hurricane Fiona, as did cruise ports, with select cruises and ferries resuming just over one week later. Most hotels are no longer running on generators, with operations resuming normally, Chandler said.

In terms of “activating,” Discover Puerto Rico is evaluating the re-introduction of its Live Boricua campaign — Puerto Ricans call themselves “Boricuas” — that launched this spring.

“The campaign emphasizes the faces of the Puerto Rican people and the diversity found on the island, the rich history and culture, and regions beyond the San Juan metro area,” said Chandler. “It’s an invitation to ‘live like us,’ promising a deeper and more meaningful experience to travelers.”

From the launch of the campaign through early September, the organization found that consumers are 101% more likely to arrive in Puerto Rico after seeing the content and those who’ve viewed the campaign stay 12% longer in Puerto Rico, including 6.4 nights versus 5.7 nights.

“Hurricane Fiona is a setback, not a reset for Puerto Rico and our Destination Marketing Organization,” said Chandler. 

The Destination Marketing Organization launched Discover Puerto Rico in July 2018 as the country was rebounding from a devastating 2017 hurricane season. 

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