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