Puerto Rico Rising

Luis Rivera-Marin

 

Luis Rivera-Marin of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company leads destination through a luxury renaissance.

When Luis Rivera-Marin traveled from his native San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1978 to study economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he left behind a destination that was just coming out of a deep recession. The tourism industry was hit hard and as a result there were scores of hotel developments that were left abandoned due to the economic conditions.

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After he went on to earn his master’s degree from New York State University’s Leonard Stern Department of Economics, where he studied International Business and Marketing, he was recruited by Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. He eventually returned to Puerto Rico to run a convenience store chain called Aurora Food Marketing, situated in the tourist sector of Condado.

But the San Juan he originally left behind was a sharp contrast to the one he returned to years later.

 

“There’s definitely pressure to keep the momentum going. But although it’s a challenge, I know Puerto Rico’s ongoing success didn’t happen by accident. I would just like to keep doing what we’ve been doing, being as aggressive as possible.”

 

“When I came back, Puerto Rico began flourishing with new investments, finishing properties that were left in the middle of construction and opening businesses that were originally shut down,” he says. “I saw that tourism was properly identified as a potential for growth. It was clearly identified that tourism could be a job generator and improve the amount of jobs that we had. It could be more of an engine for economic development.”

He eventually sold his interests in Aurora Food Marketing after his business was involved in litigation. Following that experience, he knew it was time to learn some law, so he obtained his Ph.D. in law from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law and eventually had tenures as an attorney and notary at renowned law firms Lespier & Muñoz Noya and Garcia-Arregui & Fullana. He also has a two-year stint of running his own firm, Rivera-Marin Law Offices. He specialized in the Tourism Incentive Act and represented hotel investors. So, Rivera-Marin got his feet wet by helping hotel investors through the process of incentives.

“I was completely surprised about the complexity of operating a hotel in terms of a business; how complicated it is dealing with the investments, dealing with the trade unions, dealing with operator agreements; how complicated that relationship becomes; what the property owner wants; what the operator expects,” he says. “That relationship I found to be very complex in terms of balance of interest. I found it to be a fascinating industry.”

For years, he continued to represent investors until he was eventually recruited by Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno shortly after Fortuno won the election in 2009.

“He gave me a call and I thought it was to work at the law firm providing advice to the tourism company, but he wanted me to be on his economic development team,” he says.

After serving three years as secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs, the destination saw Rivera-Marin as the right man to lead Puerto Rico’s new vision that called for securing investments from some of the biggest luxury resorts in the world.

Fortuno asked him to assume the post of executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company—the role previously held by Mario Gonzalez-Lafuente. In his new position, Rivera-Marin leads a public corporation with more than 500 employees and a budget of $100 million.

“It’s always a challenge coming into a role like this for a destination that is already successful,” Rivera-Marin says. “There’s definitely pressure to keep the momentum going. But although it’s a challenge, I know Puerto Rico’s ongoing success didn’t happen by accident. I know why we are successful. I would just like to keep doing what we’ve been doing, being as aggressive as possible.”

One can argue that this is perhaps the best time in the history of Puerto Rico tourism to hold such a position simply because Rivera-Marin is maintaining the title in the midst of a great Puerto Rico tourism renaissance that has—and will forever—change the way tourists and locals alike view the destination.

“We are by nature very hospitable, we love our visitors and there is always attention to details, attention to quality,” he says. “We are responsible for product development and quality, and that’s what we are doing in the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.”

Rivera-Marin
Rivera-Marin at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. Rivera-Marin touts the hotel as the harbinger of luxury boom in Puerto Rico.

Once a haven for budget travelers looking to play the slots at night and catch a tan the following morning before heading back after a long weekend has become a Mecca for luxury resorts and affluent travelers with virtually every known U.S. luxury brand calling Puerto Rico home.

The luxury boom essentially started when the classic El Conquistador hotel reopened as a Waldorf Astoria in 2008; the floodgates were thrown open and five-star resorts haven’t stopped pouring into Puerto Rico since.

But the flagship of this luxury boom, if you ask Rivera-Marin, hasn’t debuted yet. That day will come on December 12 when the Caribbean’s first ever Ritz-Carlton Reserve will open its doors on Dorado Beach.

In fact in early October, Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve announced it is now accepting reservations for arrivals. The eagerly anticipated $342 million, 115-key oceanfront luxury resort situated on the footprint of the former Laurance Rockefeller estate, a celebrated destination for more than 50 years, is set to open its doors to welcome clients on the date the Mayan civilization predicted the world would end.

“It’s not the end of the world, but rather it’s the beginning of a new era,” Rivera-Marin contends. “Puerto Rico is about heritage. It’s in our food, in our music and this is one of the first beachfront resorts after Caribe Hilton done by the Rockefeller brothers and this is in the same spot. So, there’s a lot of heritage here. But now it’s taking a step further. We can compete with any property in the nation and anywhere else in the world in terms of luxury.”

Situated on three miles of Caribbean coastline with 1,400 acres, Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve has 100 rooms and 14 one-bedroom suites, all directly on the beach, plus Su Casa, the original plantation hacienda renovated back to its original 1920s style to serve as a four-bedroom beachfront VIP villa.

“They combined the rooms with some private properties,” he says. “We’re talking about $12 million, $8 million, $6 million, $5 million. The $8 million properties sold faster than the properties that were $2 million. So that’s the kind of people getting attracted to this property and we’re very proud of this property. Well, if we’re talking about luxury market, I think this is our flagship right at the moment. And I’m not undermining the other ones, but this is just out of the world. It’s the attention to detail. It’s all about experience.”

San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel’s Mist lounge
San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel’s Mist lounge offers comfortable seating areas for rooftop relaxation with signature cocktails.

Adding to the luxury roll that Puerto Rico has been on for the last few years is the fact that the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel began welcoming guests back to experience the legendary hotel’s dining, lounge and banquet facilities in mid-October.

Built in 1919 by Frederick William Vanderbilt, the Condado Vanderbilt’s lavishness attracted royalty, heads of state, Hollywood stars and industry icons to the hotel’s dramatic perch on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean for almost half a century.

Nearly two decades since the hotel shuttered, the first phase of the Condado Vanderbilt, a historical Grande Dame hotel, reopened on Ashford Avenue following an extensive restoration.

The second phase of the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, which includes 323 guest rooms, will open in 2013. The hotel will offer VIPs a luxurious environment in an exclusive setting, filled with history and the nostalgia of past eras when the hotel was the social epicenter of San Juan.

And if that isn’t enough to convince the rest of the region that Puerto Rico’s luxury boom will last for years, River-Marin shared with Luxury Travel Advisor the exclusive news that Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is looking to set up shop in Puerto Rico.

According to Rivera-Marin, the Four Seasons took over the development of a partially built resort in Cayo Largo (near Fajardo) and it is currently under construction with hopes for a summer 2014 opening. Luxury Travel Advisor also got exclusive word that the destination is in heavy discussions to get a Mandarin-Oriental property in Puerto Rico. Also, JW Marriott is expected to debut in 2013 in Coco Beach, Rio Grande.

But luxury isn’t the only niche Puerto Rico is looking to capitalize on. Rivera-Marin says the destination continues to strive as one for both girls’ and guys’ getaways, attracting single VIPs to its iconic dance clubs. In fact the destination recently unveiled, perhaps its swankiest new nightlife spot, in the form of the newly renovated San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel.

With a $2.5 million renovation well underway, the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel is looking to become Puerto Rico’s nightlife entertainment Mecca with music designed by international DJs, lively parties and celebrity stopovers.

Situated on the exclusive corner of famous Isla Verde beach, the hotel takes its cues from the sapphire-blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and incorporates them into its chic décor.

Renowned as the hot spot for local residents and tourists, Mist offers comfortable seating areas for rooftop relaxation, swimming pool, signature cocktails and an Island-Italian-Spanish-fusion menu featuring Socializers—small plates you can share—prepared with fresh, locally grown ingredients.

Puerto Rico’s thriving nightlife, in fact, has been so hot that it has attracted some A-list celebrities, many of whom dance the night away while filming on location in Puerto Rico. To name a few, Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel and Ben Affleck have all worked in the destination recently, Rivera-Marin says.

Ritz-Carlton Reserve
Ritz-Carlton Reserve is now accepting reservations for arrivals.

He also says the destination is looking to step up its medical tourism offerings with hopes of rolling out packages that marry the medical tourism client with the luxury traveler.

“We are working to pair the two together because we think the type of customer that is interested in procedures like cosmetic surgery, weight loss procedures or anything that has to do with health and wellness is also the same customer that is drawn to luxury” he says. “As opposed to venturing to a country where you don’t know what the conditions are, where you might have complications, come to Puerto Rico. These are the best qualified and trained cosmetic surgeons in the world. We understand there are many South and Central American residents that go to Miami to do their one-day checkup—people that have the money to do that. They’ll go in the morning and they get a complete checkup with a body scan, etc. We are looking to offer something like that. We need to get the word out to these people. You can come here, get a procedure and then stay at one of the luxury resorts to recover and relax afterward. And we are easily accessible.”

But the one niche you won’t see Puerto Rico get involved in under Rivera-Marin’s watch is the all-inclusive resort market.

“Everyone says, ‘Well, you’ve got to get into the all-inclusive market and you’ve got to do this and you have to do that,’ ” he says. “I’d get all these suggestions, but the way I see it and the way we all see it is that we are an all-inclusive island. We might have competitors where guests are driven in a van with dark-tinted windows to a property of 5-10-15 acres, somewhere in the middle of nowhere on an island that you’re on for a whole week and you’re limited to that end. Puerto Rico is much more than that kind of experience. There is too much to see to just stay in one place the whole week. We have an entire coastline that should be discovered.”

But are consumers and advisors alike aware of this? Or do the masses just think Puerto Rico is about San Juan and Old San Juan, ignoring everything else the island has to offer?

“It’s starting to happen now, it is starting to happen because Puerto Rico is basically advertising a lot more than we have been,” he says. “It was the classic beach and relaxation twist. What we have done is we’ve gone and said, ‘We are much more than that.’ You got to experience the whole island and we have known that for a while. But now we have accompanied that with a strategy to develop tools to improve properties that are outside the San Juan metropolitan area and it is working.”

“I love my island and I have faith in Puerto Rico and what we can do and achieve,” Rivera-Marin says, “and what we have already achieved to this point is pretty amazing.”

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