Straight Talk: Brad Dean, President and CEO, Discover Puerto Rico

January 14, 2022

If anyone knows a thing or two about navigating through disruptive times, it’s Brad Dean. In 2018, he was tapped to helm Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s first-ever destination marketing organization, following a series of natural and public health disasters, including Zika virus and hurricanes Irma and Maria. 

Coming onboard the year after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island—along with its tourism industryDean quickly assembled a stellar team of more than 50 people at Discover Puerto Rico, leading them in a remarkable period of recovery and growth that boosted tourism 45% in the first 18 months and achieved record-level revenue. 

Today, as he leads the island’s charge to emerge from another crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, Dean is doing so with as much passion and success as he has throughout his career, including a record-breaking 2021 for visitor arrivals and being named 2021 State Tourism Director of the Year by U.S. Travel Association

I’m passionate about our work because travel is much more than just a sector of our economy that creates jobs and generates tax revenues,” he said. “Travel is a transformative tool that shapes people in their communities, nurtures progress for a better future and changes lives each day.”

Dean added, “This is especially true when hosting meetings and events in unique places that leave a mark on your soul, and often introduce attendees to a destination for the first time and enhance a group’s ability to bond and connect.”

Dean said he considers it a privilege to lead a team that puts their all into ensuring that the transformative power of the industry comes to life every day.

“I’m continually inspired knowing that when we do our jobs well and keep the magic of our destination at the center of our focus, our island and its people benefit along with those visiting,” he said.

TSNN had a chance to sit down with Dean and get his thoughts on the challenges and silver linings of the pandemic, how the industry and the destination will change moving forward and what he has learned most over the past two years.  

What is the biggest change your organization has had to navigate during this challenging time?

The pace of business and transactions has certainly changed and our responsiveness in that compressed booking cycle. It’s made us more cognizant of the role that we can play in helping make certain that professional planners have everything they need to not only plan but execute events, and it’s drawn us closer to our clients. That started with the very first thing we did in the pandemic, which was sending out Puerto Rican coffee packages to event professionals. If they’re stuck at home, they may as well enjoy good coffee. Being at home was also forcing conversations that we hadn't had the opportunity to have, and it really made us reassess from a destination standpoint. 

This massive amount of disruption and the change we've been facing has forced us as an organization to determine how best we can meet the needs of planners. It's elevating our service and our responsiveness, and it's also challenging us to think outside the traditional bounds that we've operated by. We always knew the relationship with event professionals was important, but I think we're more appreciative now of the role that we play in helping make sure our partners are successful.

How do you think the industry will be the most changed moving out of the pandemic?

We're certainly going to be far more resilient, and we must be adaptable, especially in this segment of business. Those who are just clinging to what we were doing pre-pandemic, hoping to get back, are going to be frustrated and disappointed continuously. I think the pace and scope of change is going to force all of us to continue to be very adaptable. 

The other thing, and I'm an optimist on this, is that I think it's given us a greater appreciation for the importance of face-to-face meetings, but also the responsibility we as suppliers have in managing the intersection between public health and travel. Pre-pandemic, that was not a top-of-mind consideration. Now, every conversation we're having is about what we can do to make certain that we're protecting and providing for the safety of our residents and visitors. It's not like we ignored it before, but I think it's been elevated. 

Lastly, so much of what we used to measure success by was scalability—number of rooms on peak, maxing out the convention center, etc. While those metrics are still relevant, today, I’m sensing more with partners on the island and colleagues in the industry that we’re more focused than ever before on exceeding the expectations of event planners and their clients, making sure that we're well positioned to manage their health and safety, and delivering on the experience they need to bring them back. It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic for us to appreciate the sheer importance of being face to face and the impact of meetings and conventions, and what that means not just from an economic stance but as a transformative tool, but we can learn from it and build on that.

How do you think Puerto Rico as a destination has changed because of the pandemic, and how will it continue to change moving forward? 

Of course, in Puerto Rico, we had the benefit of this massive investment from the federal government and the private sector after Hurricane Maria, so we're really a new destination with a lot of properties that have recently been rebuilt, renovated or repurposed. But beyond that, the pandemic has drawn the tourism industry, particularly the hotel community, closer together than ever before. We saw that after Hurricane Maria, and we're seeing it again now. It's created a sense of unity, which I believe is the foundation for our resiliency. 

There's also a greater appreciation for the importance of accessibility to Puerto Rico. Historically, most people who traveled to Puerto Rico were based on the East Coast, but now, we’re starting to see more groups from the Midwest and the West, and we’ve expanded our relationship with the airlines, which is crucial. This unity is so important because together is the only way we will get out of this and attract more groups and larger groups for the long-term.

What have you learned most about yourself during the pandemic?

While virtual meetings and digital connections have been essential, I’ve frequently been reminded that many of those have been sustained because of the personal relationships that began face to face. It’s helped me realize the importance of those face-to-face relationships we built before. 

What kind of self-care has been key for your mental health during the past two years and why?  

Working from home more than ever, I’ve been able to spend more time with my family, and that’s been a strength. I’ve also been able to intentionally reach out to my team much more, and that's allowed me to get to know them on a different level outside the workspace. So being able to be with my family and friends, maintaining regular routines and exercise, and having those interpersonal connections with co-workers has been refreshing and inspiring.

Where is the first place you want to travel when the world fully opens again?

While we’re fortunate to travel to so many places as part of this industry, there are two states I haven’t visited, Alaska and Hawaii, so one of those. Also, one of the greatest trips that our family ever took was to the Holy Land. It was such a great experience, and we've always said we want to go back. With the constraints on travel, it’s reinforced in me that it’s time to cash in on this bucket-list trip, so I look forward to returning to Israel at some point.


Don’t miss any event-related news: Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter HERE and engage with us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn!

Add new comment

Partner Voices
Overview: The award-winning Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) goes the extra mile to make every day extraordinary by offering customer service excellence and industry-leading partnerships. From their dedicated in-house Rigging team to their robust Exhibitor Services, The Center of Hospitality brings your imagination to life by helping you host unforgettable meetings and events. With more than 2 million square feet of exhibit space, world-class services and a dream destination, we are committed to making even the most ambitious conventions a reality. In October 2023, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners voted to approve allocating Tourist Development Tax funding for the $560 million Phase 5A completion of the OCCC. The Convention Way Grand Concourse project will include enhancements to the North-South Building, featuring an additional 60,000 square feet of meeting space, an 80,000- square-foot ballroom and new entry to the North-South Building along Convention Way. “We are thrilled to begin work on completing our North-South Building which will allow us to meet the growing needs of our clients,” said OCCC Executive Director Mark Tester. “As an economic driver for the community, this project will provide the Center with connectivity and meeting space to host more events and continue to infuse the local economy with new money and expanding business opportunities.” Amenities: The Center of Hospitality goes above and beyond by offering world-class customer service and industry-leading partnerships. From the largest convention center Wi-Fi network to custom LAN/WAN design, the Center takes pride in enhancing exhibitor and customer experience.  The OCCC is the exclusive provider of electricity (24-hour power at no additional cost), aerial rigging and lighting, water, natural gas and propane, compressed air, and cable TV services. Convenience The Center is at the epicenter of the destination, with an abundance of hotels, restaurants, and attractions within walking distance. Pedestrian bridges connect both buildings to more than 5,200 rooms and is within a 15-minute drive from the Orlando International Airport. The convenience of the location goes hand-in-hand with top notch service to help meet an event’s every need. Gold Key Members The OCCC’s Gold Key Members represent the best of the best when it comes to exceptional service and exclusive benefits for clients, exhibitors and guests. The Center’s Gold Key memberships with Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World greatly enhance meeting planner and attendee experiences offering world-renowned venues, immersive experiences and creative resources for their events. OCCC Events: This fiscal year, the OCCC is projected to host 168 events, 1.7 million attendees, and $2.9 billion in economic impact.  The Center’s top five events during their 2022-2023 fiscal year included:  AAU Jr. National Volleyball Championships 2023 200,000 Attendees $257 Million in Economic Impact MEGACON 2023 160,000 Attendees $205 Million in Economic Impact Open Championship Series 2023 69,500 Attendees $89 Million in Economic Impact Sunshine Classic 2023 42,000 Attendees $54 Million in Economic Impact Premiere Orlando 2023 42,000 Attendees $108 Million in Economic Impact