Discover Puerto Rico CMO Leah Chandler talks tourism during a pandemic

Discover Puerto Rico CMO Leah Chandler
Discover Puerto Rico CMO Leah Chandler

Chandler talks about promoting safe travels and reinvigorating the island's tourism industry post-pandemic.

When Leah Chandler took on the role of CMO of Discover Puerto Rico in 2018, it was a trial by fire.

The Destination Marketing Organization started Discover Puerto Rico in July 2018 as the country was just coming off the devastating 2017 hurricane season. In 2019, political protests erupted over issues with local government. And, in January 2020, a series of earthquakes shook the island.

The subsequent onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was just a continuation of crisis marketing, according to Chandler.

“It really allowed the DMO and the island as a whole to hit the ground running,” she says. “Compared to our competitors in the Caribbean and DMOs in the States, we have a really robust crisis playbook with about 25 scenarios, including airborne illness and contagion, so we could adapt quickly if not easily.”

Discover Puerto Rico is the nonprofit tourism entity for the island charged with promoting long-term economic development of all 78 Puerto Rican municipalities through travel.

Working with Ketchum, the body's PR agency of record, Chandler oversees marketing efforts meant to draw visitors to the island with cultural and nature offerings while communicating health and safety measures that safeguard residents and tourists.

Managing COVID-19 expectations
When the pandemic hit and the first cases were reported on Puerto Rico, the bulk of Chandler’s marketing efforts were centered around educating travelers on health and safety.

The island remained open to visitors throughout the pandemic, so Chandler had to strike a balance between keeping locals safe and managing the expectations of visitors taking advantage of fewer crowds.

Her first order of business was completely aligning messaging with the Puerto Rican government and regularly checking in with the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the department of economic development and the governor’s office.

Island officials responded aggressively with safety measures, implementing lockdown curfews and mask mandates and installing thermographic cameras at airports to monitor temperatures almost immediately.

“Aligning us with the government and the people making those important decisions allowed us to have the right tools and information to share with our industry partners, consumers, trade media, travel advisers and influencers who had plans to come to the island,” Chandler says.

The Discover Puerto Rico website became the most reliable source of comprehensive information as executive orders were issued and restrictions were tightened or loosened. The travel advisory page has had almost 9 million views in the year since it launched.

To keep the island top of mind, Chandler and her team worked with Ketchum’s creative agency R&R Partners on an ad campaign focused on the concept of “time” that was designed to evolve in different phases as the pandemic progressed.

Phase I, All in Good Time, made it clear it wasn’t the time to travel to Puerto Rico, but visitors would be invited back later.

As travel restrictions were lifted, Phase II became a call to action, letting travelers know it was Time to Plan and Time to Book travel for when it was safe. This phase focused on building confidence in safe travel again.

Phase III used visuals to make visitors excited that It’s Time to travel once more.

The campaign allowed Chandler to manage the expectation of visitors and rapidly adapt messaging as restrictions on the island changed.

“People are making an investment to come to the island financially, but they’re also making decisions about their health,” Chandler says. “It’s not just a vacation. It’s wondering if their family is going to be safe and feeling confident they will enjoy themselves when they get there.”

Safety of Puerto Rico’s residents was also an important factor to Chandler. When placing paid media and social posts, she used behavioral targeting to reach responsible travelers.

The strategy targeted people more likely to buy PPE and when vaccinations started rolling out, Chandler focused on adults over 65 since they would be more likely to be vaccinated.

“Every move we make is extremely surgical, and when it comes to who we are bringing to the island, it’s not a free-for-all message,” she says. “We know there are a lot of people who want to travel and don’t want to have restrictions on that travel. That’s OK, but Puerto Rico is probably not for you right now.”

The key to Chandler’s success over the last year has been maintaining a constant line of communication to the local tourism industry and private businesses on the island.

“Those key stakeholders are as critical as if we were talking to the consumers themselves, because they’re on the front lines,” Chandler says.

Every government protocol, mask mandate and safety measure had to be properly communicated to hotel desk clerks, valets and tour operators.

“Our industry has done an incredible job with consistency, and that builds confidence,” she says. “If you walk into a restaurant, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Ponce on the south side of the island or in San Juan, you’re required to have a temperature check and to hand-sanitize."

Communication with local business also included updates on air arrivals, hotel occupancy and short-term rentals. Chandler sends an email blast at the end of each week with research to show how Puerto Rico is trending against other destinations.

Virtual vacation
When it wasn’t as safe for visitors to travel to the island, Discover Puerto Rico took advantage of the growing acceptance of virtual events and created a series of remote vacation activations.

“A lot of destinations found themselves paralyzed at the beginning of the pandemic, but we decided we were not going to let this crisis happen to us,” Chandler says.

In April 2020, the first Virtual Vacay was launched, which allowed viewers to immerse themselves in cultural experiences from the safety of their homes.

Using platforms such as Instagram Live, Facebook and Zoom, audiences were transported to Puerto Rico for a weekend escape and could participate in salsa classes, Bomba dance performances, tours through El Yunque National Forest, rum cocktail and authentic cooking demos and coffee-making lessons.

Through the Destination Marketing Organization, Puerto Rico also became the first destination to use Google Earth and offer live guided tours on Facebook Live. Viewers could follow a local tour guide around the island and ask questions in real time as they learned about the island's culture, history and natural habitats.

The campaign had massive pickup from an earned media standpoint, won several awards and garnered more than 1.1 billion impressions.

“Our industry locally loved seeing consumers so excited, engaged and interested in learning about the destination,” Chandler says.

To encourage curiosity about Puerto Rico’s fauna, Discover Puerto Rico launched the Adopt a Coquí campaign in partnership with local organization Conservación ConCiencia.

The campaign highlighted the growing priority of sustainability and conservation by encouraging donations of $25 to symbolically adopt a coquí, the island’s beloved native frog.

To support local businesses struggling from lack of traffic, the marketing body partnered with e-commerce platform Brands of Puerto Rico to spotlight authentic local goods offered on the site during the holidays.

The site experienced more than 1,024% increase in sales from December 2019 to December 2020.

Once restrictions began to loosen more, Chandler remained nimble as Puerto Rico eased back into increased visitation.

She and her team recognized the staggering number of remote workers seeking alternative destinations and created the Deskover Puerto Rico program.

This offered opportunities for mainland visitors to work for an extended period of time from Puerto Rico through a contest that supported future bookings. Six two-week “workations” to the island will be awarded, with winning trips taking place from August 1-15.

Applicants had to register on the Discover Puerto Rico website, where they were also educated on health-and-safety protocols.

“It’s the perfect setup for people to come and work remotely for an extended period of time, because you don’t even need a passport,” Chandler says. “It looks like a promotion from Discover Puerto Rico right now, but it really is taking off and could be a very long initiative.”

As the world continues to recover and vaccination rates rise, Chandler is optimistic that travel to Puerto Rico and tourism in general will bounce back.

“We’ve done a lot of things right in the past year to ensure we’re setting ourselves up for success,” she says. “And we’re already starting to see the fruits of that.”

Occupancy and both short- and long-term rental numbers are increasing at a “really really fast clip,” and as Chandler forecasts over the summer, the trend continues.

“It’s a testament to the work that’s been done over the past year at Discover Puerto Rico in tandem with our agency partners and with our local stakeholders to say, we’re not going to take this lying down, we’re going to push through, and we’re going to come out on the other side,” Chandler says.

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.

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