Post-Hurricane Maria, Discover Puerto Rico Attracts Back Travelers
Keith LoriaContributing Writer
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Talk about an amazing recovery story: Fourteen months after category 5 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, lodging demand for the first quarter of 2019 was back on par with 2017 levels. Over the next year, Discover Puerto Rico CMO Leah Chandler expects the island to lean into that momentum and see continued growth.
A 16-year veteran of the travel and tourism industry, Chandler has been responsible for branding, advertising, and marketing for a variety of companies, working on both the ad agency and client side. Last year, she was handpicked to become the first-ever chief marketing officer of Discover Puerto Rico, a newly formed nonprofit that supports the promotion of tourism to foster economic growth on the island.
In April, the Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) rolled out its first big campaign, “Have We Met Yet?” a concept that looks to draw inspiration from Puerto Rico’s unique cultural and natural offerings. This represented the first campaign for Puerto Rico in five years and the first for Discover Puerto Rico.
Chandler took some time to talk with CMO.com about her plan to help accomplish that.
CMO.com: What were some of your initial thoughts and goals when you took the CMO position at Discover Puerto Rico in 2018? Chandler: Discover Puerto Rico is a new organization, and I immediately had to hire a team. The DMO was a new entity here. From conception in 2017, we had passed legislation in Puerto Rico to privatize tourism. We had to build out a staff to 50 people, so the first priority was to figure out what kind of culture we wanted and what types of positions we needed. We were focused on a lot of fundamentals of building a business, but also started developing what would become our strategy for marketing. We developed a brand study that gave us a lot of information about the neutrality of Puerto Rico’s brand. We talked to consumers to understand perceptions and understand their barriers to entry and why people weren’t considering Puerto Rico.
CMO.com: What did you learn? Chandler: Coming out of a major national tragedy like Hurricane Maria, you would expect that consumers would have a really negative perception and be hesitant about considering Puerto Rico as a travel destination. But they were saying, “We’re not not interested, but just don’t know what Puerto Rico is about.” This created a blank canvas that we could develop a positioning for the brand and ultimately a new brand identify.
CMO.com: That, of course, led to the rollout of your first campaign, “Have We Met Yet?” Can you characterize the new campaign? What is its strategy? Chandler: We looked at three concepts, and we loved this line right out of the gate. With this new brand campaign, we are really reintroducing Puerto Rico to the world and ensuring travelers know all the things they can experience here. It’s widely known we have beaches, but what we wanted to do was tell the other stories that are so rich here on the island about Puerto Rico’s culture—the food, the music, the history, the architecture. There is such a rich culture here, and it has never really been highlighted. We’re telling new stories people haven’t heard before. We think we have an opportunity to create a global brand for the island that is consistent and builds continuity for Puerto Rico in the years to come.
CMO.com: What mediums are you utilizing for the campaign? Are you going digital, traditional, or a mix? Chandler: Our campaign right now is 100% digital, and we have aspirations to add over-the-top TV and then traditional TV to the mix over the next six months. We are still finalizing our budget for the coming years. It’s mostly content distribution, video and preroll, digital banners, and traditional display media.
CMO.com: Who are you targeting? Chandler: There are a couple of audiences who are really important to us. Certainly, Gen Z and Millennials are a great marker for Puerto Rico. They are interested in the more open agendas and leave room in their itineraries for more impromptu adventures. Puerto Rico is perfect for that. But Boomers are also an important market. We know they take longer trips and spend more when they are here. They are looking for more curated experiences, which we also offer, so we don’t want to ignore them.
CMO.com: What are some of the generational differences in how consumers plan travel in 2019? Chandler: It’s not dissimilar to other destinations. Younger generations do lean toward the choose-your-own-adventure type experiences. They are coming down here with shorter booking windows and waiting until they get on the ground to book experiences and see where the trip takes them. That’s great for us because we are full of off-the-beaten path little treasures that I think younger generations are eager to find and share with their own social channels. Boomers take longer trips and spend more money, but are looking for experiences that are more planned, booking everything before they get here for sure.
CMO.com: “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has been very vocal about his love for Puerto Rico and his desire to help his homeland. Did he play any part in your campaign? Chandler: Not the campaign specifically, but Lin-Manuel and his father have been huge supporters of the island and very, very vocal about their love for Puerto Rico. We’re going to be launching a new video series with them in the next couple of weeks. In the beginning of June, there will be a mini-docu series about Lin-Manuel’s ties to the island. He and his father wanted to explain to the world their love for the island and why people need to experience it for themselves.
CMO.com: How will you measure success of the new campaign? Chandler: In the short term, we are tracking campaign performance really closely. We’re looking … [to] pinpoint [data about] arrivals to the island and tie that back into booking, as well as hotel and airline searches as conversion metrics. There’s also going to be a quarterly evaluation that measures changes in perception and interest in visitation. Then there will be an annual measurement that will be like an ad effectiveness study to say not only, “Hey, did you come to Puerto Rico? How much money did you spend? How long did you stay?” [but also], “Did this messaging resonate with you—did you see it, what was the recall, and did it make you want to come visit and find out more information?”
CMO.com: What is your strategic priority for the next 12 to 24 months? Chandler: We’ll be concentrating on a separate set of focus areas that we want to lean heavily into, like LBGTQ Plus, luxury travel, sustainability travel, nautical tourism, and medical tourism. These are all areas that we have very rich product in, but again, stories that have never been told. We’ll be spending the next 12 to 24 months on laying the foundation of our new brand position and starting to focus on these niche areas and go even deeper.
CMO.com: How are you incorporating influencers into your strategy? What are the opportunities for travel companies from a brand influencer standpoint? Chandler: We have a very robust influencer program. Ketchum has really helped lead that effort. Influencers have the ability to illustrate very authentic experiences through the content they generate when they’re in our destination—it’s a lot more relatable to audiences than what we’re putting out. They continue to be a big voice in assisting Puerto Rico in communicating that we are ready to welcome travelers. We have hosted a ton of influencers over the last year, and post-hurricane we relied heavily on influencers to tell the story of what was happening.
CMO.com: What emerging technology will disrupt the travel and hospitality most over the next two years? Chandler: Technology has definitely enhanced the way we travel and provided more hassle-free experiences. For example, airports are implementing smart technology that is streamlining the process. In other cases, it seems like AI and machine learning is enhancing booking platforms in order to provide travelers with suggestions geared toward them that are much more personalized. That personalization is something that will become more and more embedded in travel experiences.
We partnered with Google over the past year to come to the island and shoot 360 video and still images to help us reposition with how Puerto Rico looks in the Google-sphere. That’s another important piece technology will play. It’s not just about updating our own website. Our brand now lives in this huge ecosystem that’s so much larger than our own channel, so we have to make sure our brand is being represented in an accurate way.