[Editorial] Destination Marketing of…Not Such Fatal Attractions
The occasion was the 2010 International Surfing Association World Championships being held at Middles Beach in Isabela on Puerto Rico’s northwest coast. The world literally had its eyes on Puerto Rico to witness Kelly Slater compete for his 10th world championship—a feat steeped against long odds given Slater’s age at 38. Because there was a Category 1 hurricane named Tomás churning to the north some 200 miles away, the conditions were perfect—the wind beast combined with offshore winds bestowed glass smooth faces on some 15-foot waves.
True to form, Slater was stellar and took his 10th title in a final heat in which he topped Australia’s Bede Durbidge. In a press conference that took place soon thereafter, Slater, surrounded by a necklace of microphones, waxed poetic about Puerto Rico’s fantastic waves, the hospitality of its people and the beauty of Isabela, Aguadilla and Rincón. Thanks to that event, local restaurants were packed that evening as were area hotels. The economy benefited from a world-class event.
Truth be told, Puerto Rico has the wares to repeat that moment time and again. But politics gets in the way. Such was the case during the previous administration when former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, at the behest of seven-figure advisers, set out to stage the “zombification” of Puerto Rico on Capitol Hill to push for the passing of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act (Promesa). “The schools have no electricity, the people will go hungry and the Zika virus has taken the island by storm,” they told solons on the Hill.
With that rhetoric of the damned, Puerto Rico shot another hole in its own economy. The strategy backfired when World Baseball Classic games, which had been held on the island during the first incarnations of the global event, were canceled due to Zika concerns.
But that is all past. Right now, Puerto Rico has 10 out of 13 members of a destination marketing organization (DMO) in place that in theory should help to sell Puerto Rico’s tourism attractions to the rest of the world. The Ricardo Rosselló administration patterned its DMO on those of Barcelona, Bermuda, Aruba and others.
Other models across the U.S. have proven very effective in drawing people to their destinations. Such cities as San Francisco, New York and Orlando, Fla., are shining examples of DMOs that have attracted scores of visitors from across the globe to visit world-class attractions. The latter of these, home to the Disney, Universal and SeaWorld trifecta of theme parks, outlines a strategy and sets in motion tourism brigades that carry it out with Swiss Army precision.
Puerto Rico can do the same, but it must not languish through paralysis by analysis. In a wide-ranging interview with Caribbean Business, Puerto Rico Tourism Co. Executive Director José Izquierdo touted the importance of private sector experts in the success of this latest attempt at a DMO. Izquierdo is right—we must chart a course—through a marketing strategy mapped out by private sector experts and services delivered by the foot soldiers of hospitality on the ground.
That last component is so essential. Once you bring the folks here, can you get them to return. Although we are a very hospitable people, we do not have a concerted and consistent campaign for excellence in customer service across the board. And that is essential for success. In a study published by this newspaper in 2015, customer service ranked as the single most important factor in return business and fostering word-of-mouth marketing. Forcing people to wait in line or being unattended to at a table for at least 10 minutes will not cut it.
To that end, folks on the board should contemplate recruiting local schools such as Escuela Hotelera de San Juan and the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Restaurant & Hotel Administration, turning out talented professionals in the hospitality industry and culinary arts who follow high standards of service excellence.
Puerto Rico has the otherworldly beaches, golf courses that have been rated “Best of the Best” in the Robb Report and ranked among the Best in the Caribbean by Golf Digest, 500-year-old fortresses and a monster zipline called the Beast that is a rock star of the ecotourism realm. Bring the tourists here, take good care of them and maybe we can start to rub two nickels together as others in the administration handle debt restructuring in the times of Promesa.