Puerto Rico may have lost power for a well-publicized few hours last week, but I could feel nothing but electricity from the moment I landed on this Caribbean island.
Nothing like a “powerful” first impression, starting with the radiant smile and warm welcome from Douglas White of Enchanted Pearl Tours Puerto Rico at the airport, followed by the moment I walked into the Serafina Beach Hotel.
The vibe emanating from this boutique beachfront spot is Mid-Century Mod meets Caribbean cool, complete with a poolside DJ and the hip aMare signature restaurant.
It was the first hotel to open after Hurricane Maria slammed through Puerto Rico six months ago, and it’s a meetings-ready, design-driven, food-forward standout.
We headed to the Puerto Rico Convention Center to get the scoop on other current events in Puerto Rico; how the destination is faring, upcoming developments and the status of several other hotels throughout the island that have been closed for renovations since Hurricane Maria.
“The big message here is that Puerto Rico is ready for your business,” Gabriela Ong, vice president of sales for Meet Puerto Rico, told a room of roughly 40 visiting meeting planners who are here to gauge the readiness of the island for meetings and events.
Approximately 135 hotels are up and running on the island, in addition to 4,000-plus restaurants, 16 casinos and countless activities, Ong said, not to mention all of the establishments in Old San Juan.
“This seven-block ‘museum’ has amazing architecture that is over 400 years old,” she said. “Puerto Rico is known for its beautiful beaches, but there's a lot more, and we want to make sure that aside from a successful meetings program, attendees take away an experience.”
Meanwhile, power is not an issue, with 95 percent of the island back on-line, including San Juan, where the bulk of the destination's meeting facilities are located.
Back in Action for Groups
A testament to the destination’s ability to host large groups after Hurricane Maria were two major conventions held at the Puerto Rico Convention Center earlier this year. The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s Caribbean Travel Marketplace was held in January 2018 and had rave reviews from those attending, Ong said.
The Puerto Rico Convention Center is the largest and most technologically advanced in the Caribbean, with 600,000 total square feet of space that accommodates up to 10,000 people.
Those distinctive features were key during Hurricane Maria.
“We have a design that is so great it passed a hurricane 5 wind test, and 48 hours later we were up and running as the headquarters of FEMA, the home to 700 first responders and the host of the vice president of the U.S., the speaker of the house and governors from New York and Florida,” said Jorge Perez, general manager of the Puerto Rico Convention Center. “One day we’re a meeting facility and the next day we’re a world-class command center. It speaks to our flexibility.”
Additionally, it speaks to the center’s new tagline: “Do your thing.”
That means conventions, meetings, anything you desire, Perez said, including an upcoming concert by Puerto Rican rap-reggae artist Bad Bunny and the Trap Kings, which will attract 22,000 people.
It also means impromptu poses, as we discovered, in front of the center’s fun new “selfie spots,” with one background being “#DoYourThing” and the other “I ‘heart’ Puerto Rico.”
We had a chance to check out the Puerto Rico Convention Center, with its impressive design—suggestive of a wave in motion—and soaring spaces. The facility has an expansive lobby and foyer featuring all-glass walls and ceilings, allowing for plenty of natural light.
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Meanwhile, major improvements are in store right across the street, where District Live! is taking shape.
“This is going to be a game-changer,” said Noelia Garcia, executive deputy director for the Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority. “We want to be the perfect combination of business and fun.”
District Live! is set to include an 8,000-seat theater, 18 commercial spaces for restaurants, bars and shops, eight movie theaters, interactive screens and open spaces.
Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority also encompasses other top group venues: Antiguo Casino, with 45,000 square feet of space, and Bahia Urbana, a bayside venue mostly popular for outdoor activities.
The Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority's three anchor hotels are the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel and Casino, Hyatt Place San Juan and Hyatt House San Juan.
The Recovery Effort Continues
Several properties took the opportunity to close and undergo extensive renovations following Hurricane Maria, including:
The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan plans to reopen April 1, 2019, with several major enhancements.
The resort designed a new lobby lounge that now features a large bar overlooking the pool and property, creating a more energetic ambience, as well as the lobby terrace, one of the property’s standout spaces for groups.
Other meeting spaces are being transformed with details such as blues representing the ocean, monuments representing the Old San Juan and sandy colors.
This year, 416 rooms at the resort will be renovated, as well as the casino and the beach and pool restaurants.
St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort is also undergoing a major renovation that will transform the property from dark plantation woods to a bright, neutral color scheme. The 139-room resort, a sanctuary 35 minutes from the airport, is renowned for its personalized experiences, including the plantation house, where all guests are greeted, and its 6 p.m. champagne service, complete with storytelling.
The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort plans to reopen in October 2018.
El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort is expected to reopen in the first or second quarter of 2019.
“We’re going through a major renovation with hurricanes Irma and Maria two weeks apart last year,” said Dermot Connolly, managing director of the property. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity for El Conquistador.”
The property is situated in the northeast corner of the island and boasts remarkable vistas, Connolly said.
“The views are some of best in world,” he said. “You can see all the way to St. Thomas on a clear day, and on a really clear day all the way to Tortola and the British Virgin Islands.
"And before the hurricane we had phenomenal views," he added. "Now we really have phenomenal views. It’s nature’s way of pruning the landscaping.”
A marina, championship golf course, private island and bioluminescent bay that is within walking distance are among the highlights of the resort, much of which is perched on cliffsides overlooking the water.
“It’s really a true destination resort experience,” Connolly said.
Melia Coco Beach is also in the midst of a complete renovation and expects to reopen in December 2018.
The project includes all 486 junior suites, which will feature marble floors and private balconies, as well as improvements to its main ballroom and all meeting venues.
Melia Coco Beach offers 40,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space.
“We have the perfect location, since we are the closest resort to San Juan International Airport and greater San Juan,” said Luis Perez, associate director of sales and marketing for Melia Coco Beach.
“With our renovation, it’s going to be amazing," he added. "One of best things to come out of this is that you’re going to have a brand-new destination when you book Puerto Rico.”