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Zika Has Noxious Effect on PR Convention Tourism

By on August 25, 2016

SAN JUAN — The outbreak of the Zika virus in Puerto Rico some months ago has dealt a heavy blow to the sector of groups and convention tourism on the island, with cancellations prompting the segment to go on freefall from March to May in particular, Meet Puerto Rico Executive Director Milton Segarra revealed Wednesday.

Earlier this year, U.S. media outlets began to heavily cover the growing number of cases of Zika infection in Puerto Rico, especially after statements by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) on the severity of the problem. The potential infection to pregnant women has been a particular concern when it comes to the Zika outbreak, due to the link between the virus and cases of microcephaly in newborns. Zika is transmitted via mosquitoes and sexual intercourse, and usually shows no severe symptoms.

Since news of Zika cases in Puerto Rico broke, around 60,300 room nights have been lost as a result of the group cancellations, representing some $44.2 million in lost revenue, the Meet Puerto Rico director noted.

During the second quarter of 2016, the most dramatic period of the Zika outbreak on the island, 35 groups cancelled, which led to around 42,000 room-nights lost in a 90-day period. “Right during that time, the CDC had said that they expected about a quarter of the island’s population to eventually become infected, but that was under a scenario in which Puerto Rico would not do anything to address the problem, and that is not what happened at all,” Segarra said, highlighting mosquito control campaigns that have been carried out locally since then, as well as protocols that hotels and restaurants have established on the matter. “However, to compete with an entity that has the full credibility of the market we are most trying to cater is like a David versus Goliath type of situation.”

Meet Puerto Rico Executive Director Milton Segarra

Meet Puerto Rico Executive Director Milton Segarra

The effects of such cancellations will not be felt until 2017, Segarra added, noting that in the groups and conventions segment, the sheer scale of visitors involved in a given event forces meeting planners to book travel arrangements with plenty of time in advance.

One particular association that would have generated some 5,000 room-nights on the island chose to go to India instead. “Another cancellation that affected us deeply was when Major League Baseball decided not to hold scheduled games on the island [in early May],” Segarra said. “Even destination scouting trips, which we pay completely and require no additional expenditures on the meeting planner’s part, were canceled. They wanted no part of the island.”

Further hampering matters for Meet PR, and especially its mission to spur the island’s convention and group tourism segment, was that shortly before the Zika outbreak, a fund that the entity used to provide incentives to groups was significantly cut. “We used to have a $2 million fund that was split in $1 million every six months,” Segarra explained. “For the first half of 2016, that $1 million allocation was cut to just $100,000,” he added. Talks with public officials later increased that amount to $300,000, but it was nowhere near enough to offset the huge blow that Zika would deliver later on.

Nevertheless, Meet Puerto Rico, in conjunction with the Puerto Rico Tourism Company in the leisure tourism side and the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association on the industry side, carried out an intense crisis management that entailed calls to groups who were considering cancelling as well, and in some cases, traveling to talk face-to-face with event organizers. In the case of Meet PR, they were able to bring in 57 new groups, albeit smaller than the groups that left, which brought in about 28,000 room-nights and helped partly offset the massive events exodus, Segarra noted.

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