Food is a topic at the heart of the travel experience — but it still was surprising how many travel advisors turned out last week for Tourism Cares for Puerto Rico, an outreach trip to the island that focused largely on food sovereignty and sustainable farming.
For the first time in recent memory, a travel agency (AAA-The Auto Club Group) was a full sponsor — and ASTA and ACTA, Hickory Travel Network, MAST, Valerie Wilson, and even Millennial agency owner Molly Murphy of Vitamin T Vacations, were onboard, noted Robyn Tauck, owner of Tauck World Discovery.
The destination surely was a draw for agents, offering them an opportunity to see Puerto Rico two years post-Hurricane Irma, and to judge for themselves whether the island is ready for their customers. In San Juan and Ponce, at least, it surely is.
Also a draw was the opportunity to mingle with local suppliers and heavy hitters in the travel industry; there is nothing like being covered in purple paint to build a bond. So, too, was the cause, rebuilding an educational center focused on growing sustainable food sources in small rural communities. And much of the talk was about food — sustainable food and food sovereignty, where to take groups to eat in the big cities and on the small farms, and how to include rural farmers in the farm-to-table movement.
Making a difference, making connections
“I own my own travel agency and I feel really thankful to have met everyone here, Delta Vacations and Classic Vacations, and the travel insurance companies,” said Molly Murphy, when the audience was asked to share some takeaways at the closing breakfast. “From the get-go, I felt like I’m in the right place. It’s going to take a lot of little things, but just seeing all of you, I realize that it’s possible to make a difference. It was also amazing just meeting all the local tour operators and getting their contact information and saying, ‘We’ll work with you,’ instead of just telling customers, ‘Here’s a tour company that has good reviews.’ I’ll definitely be back very soon.”
While travel agents are “just starting to get in tune” with the social responsibility projects offered by Tourism Cares, MAST has been promoting them and “our members are starting to take notice,” said John Werner, attending for the fourth time.
AAA-The Auto Club Group, meanwhile, has been participating on a regional basis — but this year, was inspired “to bring travel to the forefront and step up and show that we, too, believe in sustainability and social responsibility by attending en masse,” and sponsoring the group’s travel on the island, said Chief Experience Officer Ernesto Díaz.
“I’m a city slicker, but helping the Puerto Rican farmers was a humbling and almost spiritual experience. It helped me understand how Tourism Cares impacts local communities,” Díaz said.
For AAA, meanwhile, the opportunity to schmooze and work with local suppliers while putting a roof on a pigpen “was just great — I only wish I had more time here,” Díaz said. “We have sent millions of customers to Puerto Rico, and so it was important to me to understand how the recovery process is going, to come and visit and accelerate the recovery process. Now we have to communicate that we have vetted the destination and it’s safe to come back. The island is in great shape — come enjoy the music and the food and the warmth of the people.”
About that food..
From the farm work to the evening events to the Tastes of San Juan tour, food was in the spotlight. In the wake of the hurricane, Puerto Rico realized how dependent it was on imported food, and taking control of their own food sovereignty through sustainable local farming projects became a pressing priority.
Many local farmers also are opening their businesses to tourists, with farm tours and on-site dining through local organizations, like El Departamento de la Comida, a nonprofit collective. “Most farms have their own restaurants in beautiful places, but they don’t promote them to tourists. We try to bring people out from the tourist traps. If you want to see Puerto Rico, you have to go out and see Puerto Rico,” said Tara Besosa, founder of El Departamento de la Comida.
Indeed, “you know better than I do that our customers want this,” said Marriott’s Jose Gonzalez. “They are looking for unique experiences. Most of my guests want one day at the beach and then they ask where else can they go. We say, ‘Go see the local communities.’”
The three local Marriott properties, which used to import 90% of what they serve, now are working with local suppliers to source as much as 60% locally, using a new logistics platform that “connects them in an easy way.”
Farmer Efren Robles, of Frutos de Guacabo, agreed: “Just spread the word and come to the farm. We are working hard to make sure you have a good experience. Come see something besides San Juan. Just travel, it’s a cool place, just have fun.”
Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company announced the formation of Discover Puerto Rico, its new marketing arm, created “not just to help tourism recover, but to reposition the brand as a premier destination in the world,” and highlight “the rich vibrant culture that comes from the blend of Caribbean and Spanish and U.S. influences,” said CEO Brad Dean.
But the biggest buzz was around a fascinating presentation by Christian Denier, executive director of Refill Not Landfill, which is working with hotels to offer tourists free refillable water bottles and fresh drinking water.
Americans alone use more than a billion water bottles a year, said Denier; in addition to helping solve the problem, he credits interest in the program with making his hotel the busiest in town. “Guests adore us, bring the bottle home, tell their friends. We’ve seen an increase in revenue and daily room rate — and we’ve saved 1.5 million bottles in Cambodia alone.” (For more information, go to www.refilltheworld.com.)
As for the takeaways from the trip, Groups Specialist Michelle Holbrook, of Classic Vacations, said three key elements make San Juan stand out: the food, the people, and the architecture. “They will help us bring people here instead of to the Caribbean and the all-inclusives that I sell every day,” she said.
Carolyn Cauceglia of Amadeus is thinking of bringing top customers here for a team-building event; John Sutherland will be putting pressure on Collette to create a tour here. And Robyn Tauck felt this was “a game-changer event. With the representation here from the travel agencies and the airlines, I think this is the time for the advocacy to stop and the action to come.”