PUERTO RICO—Just one year following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the U.S. territory is recovering, breathing new life into Puerto Rico’s hospitality and tourism industries. With the help of design teams, hotel employees and the resiliency of its people, properties are finally beginning to welcome guests back once again.
According to Discover Puerto Rico, a private, not-for-profit enterprise, by mid-2019, total room inventory of 15,000 rooms will be back to pre-Maria levels, as a result of the work being done to rebuild the island.
For example, take Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, which reopened in early October of this year following a September 2017 close, after an extensive refresh of its interiors. In addition to the initial damage caused by the hurricane, the property lost power, and so the interior couldn’t keep up with the heat and humidity, causing further problems for the property.
“The whole island plunged into darkness, literally,” said Michael Crosby, design director and principal for Wilson Associates. Wilson Associates completed the restoration, the same team that designed the property 10 years prior.
He continued, “Furniture had to be replaced. Initially, this was a cleanup operation and work that’s not visible had to take place, like getting pipes and irrigation systems in place and removing tree debris everywhere.”
With this being Crosby’s first restoration following a natural disaster, there were a few aspects of the project that he had to acclimate to, like waiting for insurance companies to come and assess damages before the design team could actually begin work.
Even prior to the storm, the design team, along with hotel staff, had to prepare in a way that it wasn’t used to.
“In preparation, there was a rush to secure everything. Furniture was displaced, and there wasn’t time to inventory everything—they were running against the clock as the storm was approaching,” Crosby said.
Other hotels in the area underwent this process as well, with safety at the forefront, then with a focus on bringing back amenities and restoring the design of the properties.
“The team has been working extensively on restoring the property back to its pre-storm state,” said Martin Smith, managing director of El San Juan Hotel, a Curio Collection Hotel, which is gearing up for its reopening in December after closing in September 2017. “First, we needed to assess the situation, stabilize and ensure the property was safe for everyone. We then focused on bringing back online areas of the hotel that could operate as we began housing first responders and relief workers post-storm.”
Part of the restoration of Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, was preparing for these types of weather events. Crosby said that on the guestroom terraces, Wilson Associates removed the built-in furniture pieces like beverage stations and replaced them with large loveseats that could easily be removed and brought inside in the case of another storm, preventing future damage.
In addition, all of the new outdoor fabrics selected for Dorado Beach are now outdoor-grade, like the weather-proof cabanas at the beach club, and can be transported with ease. The closer the buildings are to the ocean—which ironically gives them their appeal—the worse the damage can be, Crosby said.
“When you see the damage and the result, you realize there’s certain furniture or pieces that could be a little different, or different material,” Crosby said. “Anytime you have a resort like that, that’s pretty exposed with indoor and outdoor pieces, being able to secure these things is vital—and to know where to put it all. It’s all occupied with furniture already [the interior], so where do you put it? These things are unpredictable.”
With the recent restoration, Wilson Associates also had a chance to update its previous design work on the property. This included a new color scheme along with new amenities like a re-concepted restaurant, renewed presidential suite and double king guestrooms in replace of double queens, a feature the company picked up from guest requests.
“Every time guests return, they like something new,” Crosby said. Wilson Associates did, however, keep the hotel’s theme the same—paying homage to Puerto Rican culture—something necessary during this tough time.
“They [locals]rely on tourism. Hospitality is key and has a lot to offer culturally as well. We draw on local culture for the design,” Crosby said. “Overall, the project—when we first designed it 10 years ago—had such a strong storyline, and that’s always a good thing to have when designing something. It helps to guide you through the process to the end and deliver a good product.”
The Ritz-Carlton brand also played a role here, with a history of crafting stories focused on locality.
“Ritz-Carlton likes to reference history, local culture and the natural side of the island,” Crosby said. “If you take those three into consideration and stick to them, that’s how you create the strong story, base the design on that and work from that. It’s appealing to locals and exotic to tourists.”
The blend of highlighting local character and culture while also attracting tourists is essential, and especially in this case after such destruction of infrastructure and a test to the hospitality space.
“El San Juan Hotel is so vital to the city because each opened hotel represents progress in Puerto Rico,” Smith said. “The [unincorporated U.S. territory]is relying on tourism to help get them back on their feet since the hurricane.”
Also vital is maintaining some original structures, and for the El San Juan Hotel, this meant keeping some original craftsmanship, the lobby chandelier, hand-carved mahogany in the ceiling and columns, and vaulted arches throughout the lobby and registration area.
“El San Juan Hotel’s classic aesthetic, while also being enhanced to accommodate the needs of today’s guests looking to visit Puerto Rico, offers guests a unique blend of historic and modern design,” Smith said. “We honor Puerto Rican culture and tradition in everything we do—from the coffee in our ‘Cafecito’ in the lobby to local art and photography displayed in the guestrooms.”
Smith said that this wasn’t a renovation because nothing was changed, but rather, it was bringing everything back to its original state—something that not only hotels, but Puerto Rico’s people, were determined to do as well.
“Today, there’s even a renewed sense of pride,” said Jose González, area general manager for Marriott Hotels. González is also the liaison to Marriott International’s franchise partners around the island. “You can feel it. You can see it in the eyes of people in our communities, including our associates at our hotels.” HB