The 580,000-square-foot Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC) was built in 18 months, and when it was finished, the tradeshows immediately started filling its three halls.
“It is not like we opened and started doing birthday parties, proms and graduations,” said Margaret Colón, director of sales and marketing for the Puerto Rico Convention Center. “We had no idea that there was going to be such a high level of interest from the local community, but all the conventions and gala events that were on the island immediately moved to the convention center.”
The opening of the facility in San Juan also helped the tradeshow industry grow on a local level, giving rise to local conventions that didn’t yet exist. Other shows were finally able to reach their potential with the expanded space.
“Conventions tripled in size, and gala events went from 200 to 800 attendees,” said Colón. “The San Juan Beauty Show used to be 45,000 square feet, and now it has more than 900 booths and 45,000 attendees in a two-day period. The center has really opened the doors, not only to the international, but also to the local markets.”
Building on those early successes, the convention center is now set to be the focal point of a new project to establish Puerto Rico as a major player in the convention industry. The Puerto Rico Convention Center District, which is to be completed sometime in the next ten years, will consist of 113 acres of hotels, retail stores, office buildings, residences and recreational areas.
“This project is a huge expansion around the convention center and brings an enormous potential for growth,” said Colon. “There is already a light rail in the works that connects the metro area of San Juan to the convention center. Eventually, the plan is to develop the area all the way out to the airport, which is five miles away.”
The project is under the administration of the Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority, which is a public corporation. The project is structured as a public and private partnership, with government investment yielding to greater private investment for development of the area.
One of the unique recreation areas planned for the district is an indoor drive-in movie theater, where the cars are already in the building. The theater will have a number of classic car models, including Corvettes, Porsches and Cadillacs for movie goers to lounge in as they take in a show.
Currently, the 503-room Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel and Casino is the only hotel in the convention center district, but a 250-room Courtyard Marriot is scheduled to break ground later this year. Overall, the district is permitted for 1,800 hotel rooms and 200 residential units.
As the Puerto Rico Convention Center District continues to take shape, the sales side of the equation must also be there to support its growth. That is where the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau (PRCB) enters the picture.
Starting in April, the PRCB inked a five-year contract with the PRCC as its official sales and marketing division. So it is up to them to keep the facility and the district packed with attendees.
“We are really proud of everything that is happening here in Puerto Rico,” said Neil J. Mullanaphy, CHME, acting president and CEO for the PRCB. “When these conventions come to town, their decisions are based on the amenities that we have available to meet the needs of their meetings, but it is also based on the recreational activities they can do as a group or individually here on the island.”
Puerto Rico also has a number of advantages for U.S.-based association looking to give their attendees an international feel to its conference. Since it is a U.S. territory, no passport is required, no currency exchange is necessary, cell phone service is uninterrupted, electrical outlets are 120V and the United States Postal Services, FedEx and UPS all operate in Puerto Rico.
But Mullanaphy is quick to point out that Puerto Rico is mainly an international destination.
“The culture here is a blend of Spanish and African and we are completely bilingual,” said Mullanaphy. “Because of the languages, Europeans, Latin Americans and North Americans all feel comfortable here.”
Location is another aspect of Puerto Rico that helps sell the destination. It’s one that the PRCB is focusing more efforts on promoting.
Over the last three months, the PRCB has added two new staff members that are set to capitalize on the destinations’ location and help organizers reach one of their main goals.
“When I meet with national associations, their future plans are always to have a bigger international presence for their association,” said Mullanaphy. “So when you look at where we are positioned throughout the globe, it really makes sense for us to give that value proposition and say to them ‘bring your convention to Puerto Rico and we’ll provide assistance to help garner a new membership base for you in Latin America, Mexico and Europe.’”
To that end, the two new positions function as liaisons for associations who don’t have the staff but need representation in Latin America and Europe to grow attendee bases in those locations.
“For example, if an association has a sister organization in Brazil, then we will deploy our staff to promote the upcoming tradeshow and drive attendance from Brazil,” said Mullanaphy. “So when associations don’t have the budget to grow international attendance, we tell them that if they book their meeting with us, we’ll provide the marketing dollars in Latin America and Europe.”
Another way that the PRCB is working toward keeping the convention industry going strong in Puerto Rico is with an Opportunity Fund. This fund is meant to offset some of the challenges that come with having a tradeshow at an offshore destination.
The program is in collaboration with the Puerto Rican government and would provide aid in the form of sponsorships to tradeshows and conventions coming to the island. The program has not yet been finalized, but Mullanaphy said discussions are on the right track to get that fund in place to help organizers combat things like increased shipping and logistics.
The PRCB has also partnered with the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association to provide incentives for meeting planners. The latest promotion is called Soar and Stay and provides a free airline ticket to planners for every 100 room blocks that are booked for a convention or meeting.
“What we did is sit down and discuss some of the objections that our hotel partners were hearing, and airline costs was a major one,” said Mullanaphy. “So we figured we could help alleviate some of the planners’ expenses by providing a free airline ticket for keynote speakers, staff members or whatever they wanted to use it for. The great thing is that it helps fill a need.”
In Puerto Rico, the latest estimate for the meeting and convention industry is that it brings $900 million a year into the economy. As development of the Convention Center District moves forward and the globalization of the tradeshow industry continues, that number is sure to be on the rise.
“As I said, we are really proud of everything that is happening here in Puerto Rico,” said Mullanaphy.