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Groups and conventions turned off by Puerto Rico’s lack of cleanliness

Convention Bureau concerned about the absence of an environmental consciousness among citizens


March 3, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Litter, stray dogs, the absence of an environmental ethic among Puerto Rico residents could throw a monkey wrench into the island’s efforts to pick up more groups and conventions just when Puerto Rico is poised to become a stronger competitor, thanks to the soon-to-open convention center.

"We have lost groups because of the number of stray dogs we have on our streets," said Ana María Viscasillas, president of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, a vigorous partner to island hotels in securing the conventions and meetings that represent a third of their overall occupancy. The 43-year-old organization runs on a $7.3 million budget funded through a percentage of the room tax and fees from its more than 500 tourism-industry members.

"We can be the most hospitable people in the world but if we don’t keep our island clean, what we’re showing the world is that we’re insensitive," said Viscasillas, a palpable frustration in her voice as she discusses this issue. "It is the responsibility of the citizens of Puerto Rico to help preserve our island for us and future generations."

Worse, the problem of litter and graffiti on public monuments is forcing the government to close certain venues that are too expensive to maintain. But closing access to such treasures as Icacos Island, off the coast of Fajardo, and Fort San Gerónimo, next door to the Caribe Hilton, is a regrettable policy as they are the kind of unique venues favored by groups and conventions. The absence of such alternatives, according to Viscasillas, could turn away potential clients.

Still, things are looking up for Puerto Rico in terms of conventions and meetings, a business whose aggregate value to the island economy is about $900 million per year by the Convention Bureau’s own estimates. In fiscal year 2004, the Convention Bureau helped secure 554 bookings, and Viscasillas is confident of improving those results during the current fiscal year thanks to the strengthening economy. To date, the organization has signed up 348 groups on behalf of island hotels and the new convention center, which is scheduled to open later this year.

Meeting planners, she said, used to plan three to four years in advance but this is less true these days, especially with corporate meetings (including incentives, training, sales and budget meetings), many of which are now materializing at the last minute. She said planners can afford the shorter scheduling window because company employees are sure to attend these meetings, whereas conventions require building up attendance, which can take more time.

The convention and meetings industry, a $102 billion industry nationwide, remains as cutthroat as ever. "Competition is extremely fierce," said Viscasillas, going on to note that Puerto Rico now competes with worldwide destinations, not just U.S. cities., especially those on the East coast, such as Miami, Tampa, and Fort Lauderdale. Competitors include Hawaii, Latin America, Europe, even points as distant as Dubai, a Middle Eastern nation that is attracting American conventions thanks to direct air access via Atlanta.

The choice of a destination isn’t a haphazard decision and is taken by planners who carefully ponder such aspects as pricing, the value of what they are getting in exchange for each dollar invested, cleanliness, and security. Viscasillas noted concerns about terrorism don’t just apply to air access but also to "the preparedness of hotels to handle any dangerous situation."

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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