Brad Dean has just transitioned from the helm of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce to his new gig as CEO of Puerto Rico’s new destination marketing organization. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico itself is undergoing a major change as it recovers from Hurricane Maria. Dean and the new DMO represent a new way of doing business. Instead of having separate entities for leisure travel (See Puerto Rico) and conventions/business travel (Meet Puerto Rico), the new DMO will put both operations under one roof.
Dean’s career is coming full circle from his beginnings as an analyst for General Electric stationed in San Juan nearly 30 years ago. It was then that he developed an appreciation for the island’s culture and people, eventually meeting his wife along the way. There’s no doubt that Puerto Rico needs help and Dean might just be the right man for the job. This spring, Puerto Rico has already seen travel numbers rise up to near-record level setting numbers, but there’s still ways to go in terms of instilling long-term growth.
Connect caught up with Dean about why going back is not just a unique professional opportunity, it’s a personal one.
How would you describe the sequence of events it took to get you to be CEO of this new, yet-to-be-named DMO?
After Hurricane Maria, it was really hard to watch what our friends and family were having to endure. But I’m a big believer in the transformative power of travel, not only for us as individuals but as communities. Right now, there’s nobody that needs it more than Puerto Rico. After the storm I watched the recovery efforts closely and it’s my view that for Puerto Rico to enjoy an optimal recovery, travel and tourism have to be a part of that. So, I was really intrigued by the potential of aligning all of the sales and marketing for the island under this new DMO, and as the process unfolded I became increasingly interested and just threw my name in the hat.
I’m sorry but I can’t help but chuckle at the irony of your first job with GE and where you are now.
To add to that, back when I was working as an analyst down there for GE was right around the time that NAFTA was coming online and there was an old tax code in place incentivizing manufacturing. Well, when that tax code eventually phased out, a lot of manufacturing operations were no longer profitable enough to justify island operations. Ironically, one of my first tasks was to evaluate the profitability of operations and determine which could stay and which could leave for other places like Mexico. For me, it’s ironic, but it’s a big personal opportunity to help reverse course and bring jobs and investment back into the island.
What qualifies Puerto Rico’s DMO as a private organization if it’s funded by bipartisan legislature?
Great question. The DMO has been organized as a 501 (C)(6) corporation and it’s led in large part by leaders within the private sector. So if you look at members of the board and some of the key committees, they will be led by the private sector. If you look at the funding model, there’s dedicated funding from what’s referred to as the “bed tax.” That’s the tax paid by tourists staying in transient accommodations. So there is an investment of public funds, but that investment comes directly paid by tourists to reinvest in the tourism industry. This is really common amongst DMO’s so this model is not unique to Puerto Rico.
I think another thing that’s interesting along these lines is if you look at the legislation, not only did they dedicate funding from the accommodation tax, but in addition to the accommodation tax, they ensured additional investment from the accommodation tax to be matched by private sector investment. So essentially the Puerto Rican government is willing to dedicate a portion of their budget to marketing the island, but is also willing to increase that if the private sector steps up. So there was definitely some foresight here that the private sector needs to be involved in leadership roles and financial investments, and I think that puts this DMO in perfect position to be ruled from the private sector with a guaranteed investment from the public.
What aspects of your leadership at Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce do you plan on enacting at Puerto Rico?
I came from the private sector so it’s very important that we instill an entrepreneurial spirit within this organization that will rely on creativity and innovation. We recognize that we won’t be able to outspend the competition, so we’ll have to outwork and outsmart the competition—which is something we’ve done in Myrtle Beach. We’ll also seek to unify all stakeholders behind one brand and one message. Destination marketing is a team sport and requires that we be great collaborators and consensus builders that unify the island’s tourism industry. We will seek to be a very open and transparent organization that all Puerto Rican citizens can feel proud of.
How do you think Puerto Rico can differentiate itself from other island destinations?
Puerto Rico has so many unique amenities and attractions that may be under-recognized by some travelers, so we’re going to excel in marketing the experience. Most people recognize that Puerto Rico has a wonderful climate and beautiful beaches, but there’s so much more to the island than that. We’re going to be exceptional experiential marketers and showcase all of what the island has to offer, not just the commonly recognized benefits.
Second, we’re going to leverage many opportunities throughout the island so that visitors know they can travel throughout Puerto Rico. For example, Puerto Rico has the only rainforest in North America, they have what once was the world’s longest zip-line and they also have traditional favorites like the Bacardi Rum facility tour and Old San Juan. Lastly, Puerto Rico has a completely unique culture and identity that you don’t need a passport to travel to.
Back when you first came to Puerto Rico working for GE, what was your first impression of the island?
I knew about the beaches and golf courses, but had no idea of the deep sense of hospitality and pride that the people took in their island. That stood out to me right away. Another thing is that I was the low-man on the totem pole, so anytime someone had to go out and do a delivery, I got tasked with that. It made me travel and see a lot of the island and I walked away with a great appreciation for the vast beauty and nature of Puerto Rico and a real love for the people. Those always stuck with me.
There’s a personal connection for you and the island, isn’t there?
Exactly, and one of our goals is to build an aspirational brand that reaches global travelers and lifts Puerto Rico to new heights. This is not simply about getting to pre-Zika or pre-Maria levels, but rather about creating an era of prosperity for the entire island and taking tourism to new heights. Puerto Rico is a jewel of a destination and has about anything someone might desire for their next trip.
What do you believe are people’s perception of Puerto Rico after the hurricane, fair or not?
It is worth noting that Puerto Rico tourism has invested in an impressive amount of research that gives us a very quantitative and qualitative analysis. Two takeaways from the research are that there are a lot of people who are anxious to return to Puerto Rico knowing that they can help accelerate the recovery by rejuvenating the visitor economy. There are still some misperceptions: as of today, 95 percent of the island’s power needs have been restored, 120 hotels are open, attractions have been reopened, etc. Not all travelers have been made aware of that and that’s where we come in to help influence the narrative and make sure people have the most up-to-date information.