July 31, 2002 – Just how effective a combined effort of the government and the private sector can be in pursuing the tourism dollar was brought home to local hoteliers and public officials Wednesday by an expert from one of their nearest neighbors and biggest competitors.
Several gubernatorial candidates and a scattering of senators joined executives of hotels large and small at a Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort luncheon to hear what Jorge Pesquera, executive director of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, had to say.
Pesquera said revenues from group travel to Puerto Rico neared $40 million in the last year. The convention bureau receives 12 percent of hotel tax revenues, roughly $5 million a year. With 47 employees, Pesquera said, the organization is well on the way to making Puerto Rico the "preferred meeting destination of the Americas."
The bureau, a not-for-profit entity, focuses on marketing Puerto Rico as a meeting and convention destination. Pesquera, a 25-year veteran of the travel and tourism industry, serves as a director of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association and of the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus.
Leadership is the key to the bureau's success, Pesquera said. "You need good government structure. You need a balanced government structure — one that promotes consistency," he said. "Otherwise, you're going to lose market share to those out there who are doing it well."
Pesquera's presentation at the meeting, hosted by the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, lent credence to the lobbying efforts of local hoteliers. The Puerto Rico Convention Bureau has worked since 1962 to develop group travel as a major economic resource for the commonwealth. According to Pesquera, it has been very successful.
Listening intently as Pesquera described the bureau's accomplishments were many hoteliers who have long lobbied for a private-public tourism authority in the Virgin Islands. Legislation was prepared in late 1999 to create a Virgin Islands Tourism Authority made up of private sector representatives in the majority and government representatives in the minority.
The proposed tourism authority would have been empowered to disburse the territory's hotel tax revenues — then accounting for some $11 million a year — to promote the Virgin Islands as a visitor destination. Hotel tax revenues are by law exclusively for tourism advertising and promotion; however, the funds have consistently been raided to meet government obligations and pay for special-interest projects.
The Legislature passed a bill creating a tourism authority as part of the Fiscal Year 2001 Omnibus Act, but Gov. Charles W. Turnbull vetoed the measure in February of 2001 — while approving a 2 percent increase in the hotel tax. The Legislature later rescinded the tax increase.
Two months after vetoing the public-private authority, Turnbull in an executive order created a Tourism Advisory Council, a move soundly rejected by the private hospitality sector. He named as the four private sector members the executive directors of the territory's two hotel associations and chambers of commerce; the four bodies subsequently said their managers would not serve. The council's activities have not been made public.
According to Pesquera, the Puerto Rico government has "recognized the value of public-private non-profits." He said 80 per cent of the bureau's funding comes from the hotel room tax with the rest derived from member dues, cooperative marketing (as with airlines and hotels) and revenue from a contract with a convention center under development.
Public-sector support has enabled the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau to "impact the entire tourism industry," he said. The bureau's function, he said, is to serve as the center of the commonwealth's overall "destination team."
The bureau reaches potential travel groups through a combination of direct marketing, Internet presence, newsletters — to both members and customers — and sales offices in the mainland United States and Spain. Last year, Pesquera said, his agency worked with more than 700 groups traveling to Puerto Rico.
Asked by audience members what the territory would need to do to implement an agency on the same model as his bureau, Pesquera said it is simple: "You have to get the right people in place and move forward."
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