“I’ve lived through nine hurricanes ... nothing can compare to what we lived through in September 2017.”
Robert Rodriguez, president & CEO of First Class Destination Solutions in Puerto Rico, says Hurricane Maria was nothing less than devastating to the island, the economic impact of which is estimated to be $43B to Puerto Rico alone. Yet in a time when many would opt to take the easy way out and throw in the towel, the island and its people are doing just the opposite and working together to show the world that Puerto Rico is open for business.
Literally translated to “rich port,” Puerto Rico has a population of close to 3.4 million on a mainland that is approximately the size of Connecticut. The average temperature year-round is 82 degrees, making it an ideal vacation destination for those looking to soak up the sun on one of its coastal beaches. But the interior of the island provides a vast landscape of mountains, waterfalls, and the only rainforest in the U.S. The town of Old San Juan abounds in history with Spanish colonial-era architecture and brightly colored buildings. Tourism to the island amounts to more than 3 million people annually and is especially appealing for U.S. travelers who don’t need a passport to enter the island unlike other areas of the Caribbean. Unbeknownst to many, however, is the fact that the economy is largely driven by manufacturing, predominantly in pharmaceuticals and textiles.
“There’s something for everyone. You can’t leave without experiencing Old San Juan, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. We have 28 acres of pure vegetation in the rainforest, with waterfalls, flowers, trees, and birds,” Rodriguez says. “We have beaches with black sand or white sand. There are water sports, ziplining, skydiving ... and if you love good food, you’re going to love Puerto Rico. We cook with love and passion and everything has amazing flavor.”
Small but mighty, Puerto Rico has been rife with opportunity, especially for someone such as Rodriguez, who, at 19 years old, figured that a job driving a car would allow him to make money while finishing his college education.
So there he was in 1996, doing what seemed to be an ordinary trip from the airport to a residence when the gentleman in the back seat asked to be picked up again the next morning. But instead of providing a trip, Rodriguez found himself in a meeting with executives from Colgate-Palmolive.
"…In a time when many would opt to take the easy way out and throw in the towel, the island and its people are doing just the opposite and working together to show the world that Puerto Rico is open for business." – Robert Rodriguez, President & CEO of First Class Destination SolutionsThey told him that they were planning to build the company’s first 100-percent robotic plant in Puerto Rico. “The CEO was coming to the island and they asked if I could get more cars,” says Rodriguez, who only had one sedan at the time. “I said I could definitely get more.”
Business snowballed from there. The Colgate account was daily work, and in 2000, when Amgen, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies, was planning a billion-dollar-plus expansion in Puerto Rico, Colgate referred them to Rodriguez, who secured the contract. “At that point I started buying smaller transportation companies to be able to provide this service for the corporate market in Puerto Rico, which was largely unattended,” he says.
He handled work steadily, even through the downturn after 9/11, but when business returned, a new opportunity in the form of executive protection presented itself. High-end corporate clients started requesting these services and First Class became the only company in Puerto Rico to provide this in combination with chauffeured transportation.
Rodriguez credits this for one of his biggest accounts, Live Nation. “In 2006, we took care of the Rolling Stones for eight days in Puerto Rico. Just before they left, [the tour’s] executive director came to me and said this was the first time they had no problems with transportation and they wanted me to handle the Live Nation account,” he says. “Since then we have handled logistics, transportation, and security for every event they bring to the island.”
Another major shift happened for First Class just a couple years later, but Rodriguez was fully prepared thanks to his business partner Vice President & COO Michael Berrios. A New York transplant, Berrios came to Puerto Rico when he was 21 and never left. He built a career as a concierge, holding the chief concierge position at the El San Juan Hotel before teaming up with Rodriguez. Berrios’ background added a level of service most would only expect from a destination management company (DMC), but the advantage here was having a fleet of vehicles at its disposal.
But back to that opportunity: Rodriguez says one of their main accounts, the Bank of Puerto Rico, asked if he was ready to play in the major leagues. “They said I needed to pull myself together because a new five-star hotel was coming to Puerto Rico—the St. Regis,” he says. “In order to be part of the St. Regis, the most important aspects are the chauffeurs and service level. And with Michael’s knowledge as a chief concierge, we won the account. The hotel (St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort) opened in 2010 and we provided a Bentley limousine and Rolls-Royce for their fleet—a first in Puerto Rico, among the six vehicles assigned to it.”
Other hotel accounts soon followed, including the Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton Reserve. First Class opened in-house operations on each site, complete with sales and dispatch staff, along with vehicles.
Rodriguez and Berrios realized the company had now become more than just a transportation provider, prompting a name change from First Class Transportation Services to First Class Destination Solutions. It painted a more accurate picture of everything the company could offer, says Rodriguez. First Class has several divisions underneath that umbrella, including destination management services for groups, conventions, and hotels; traditional chauffeur services for clients such as Johnson & Johnson, Astra Zeneca, and Amgen; executive protection; wedding planning (a must considering the number of destination weddings held on the island); and a division for adventures and tours around the island.
Rodriguez is supported by an executive staff that includes Affiliate Manager Michelle Torres, who is stationed at The Ritz-Carlton San Juan and has been with the company for 12 years; Office Manager Carmen Maldonado, who has been with the company for 10 years; Group Planners David Lopez and Jolle Perez; Corporate Sales Manager Audrey Rodriguez; and Wedding and Events Planner Jessica Duran, Rodriguez’s wife. First Class has 32 employees, including chauffeurs, administrative staff, and car washers/detailers, and a fleet of 34 vehicles.
At its height, First Class had 53 vehicles in its fleet, from sedans and SUVs, to Turtle Top vans and ultra-luxury models. Headquartered in San Juan, First Class has about 2,500 square feet of office space, and an additional 11,000 square feet for vehicle storage. The space is designed for visitors, with a special area designated for wedding clients and conference rooms to welcome corporate clients. Chauffeurs even have facilities with showers, gym equipment, and a lounge.
While many of these aspects of the company remain intact, things started to change for First Class and Puerto Rico at large in 2016. When news of the Zika virus, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes, began making its way to the contiguous United States, the CDC issued a travel warning for parts of Central and South America. Puerto Rico was also on the list.
“It was bad judgment on behalf of the government,” says Rodriguez. “It created a dip in tourism; we lost about 40 percent of our business.” First Class had to downsize, from 53 vehicles to 47, and its driving staff was trimmed to 33 chauffeurs. Just as it seemed the world was learning there was no real threat and there was a light at the end of the tunnel, Category 5 Hurricane Irma passed through the region in the first week of September 2017.
“We were without power for almost a week. It destroyed St. Thomas and St. John,” Rodriguez says. Immediately, he and staff sprung into action to help those islands. First responders helping on the islands—approximately 680 of them—stayed at hotels in Puerto Rico, and First Class provided their transportation.
In the midst of that, another hurricane was developing, with Puerto Rico in its direct path. “We were prepared for the worst,” Rodriguez says. “We closed the offices in each of the hotels and brought the fleet to the main office in San Juan. Twelve cars went to The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Juan, which is next to the airport. We figured if anything happened to our office we could run everything from the Ritz.” Employees went home to ride out the storm with their families, including Rodriguez.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria stormed through Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 155 mph. Power was out across the island—and would be out for another 11 months in certain parts of Puerto Rico. Forty hours after it passed, when people were allowed back on the streets, Rodriguez began to take stock of what had happened to his company and his employees.
All employees survived, although five sustained damage to their homes; one lost everything. Without a second thought, those employees and their families were told to stay at the office. Fortunately, everything they needed was there: a generator supplying power, diesel, and a kitchen for making meals. “We didn’t have too much damage. The main gate flew like a kite, but none of our vehicles or building had damage,” Rodriguez says.
It was a different story for the offices at The Ritz-Carlton Dorado and St. Regis. Both were wiped out.
From this point on, it was survival mode for First Class. “It was a challenge daily to get diesel [to run generators]. The priority was for hospitals, followed by police and fire departments. Cell towers were down so we went to single-band radio for communication. One lucky thing was that we had put fiber optics in three years ago, so we did have internet, but no way of hearing back from chauffeurs,” he says. To resolve this, First Class set up tables at the Marriott lobby and the FBOs with a laptop to check in on arrivals and trips.
“The corporate travelers didn’t stop coming,” says Rodriguez. “We had transportation for them and everything was pitch black, but the work kept coming. It kept us alive in those weeks and months after Maria because tourism stopped completely.”
Surprisingly, Rodriguez and his competitors, many of which are mom-and-pop operations, became closer. “We are the biggest operator in Puerto Rico, but we helped others by giving them work, storing their vehicles in our lot, and supplying diesel and gas for them. Everyone became closer and anyone who came by the office was offered a meal. We were making 45 plates of lunch and dinner a day,” he says.
Friends on the mainland also reached out to check on First Class. “The industry response was amazing,” Rodriguez says. “And they haven’t stopped supporting us.”
In early November 2017, First Class got bad news. Hotels were shutting down completely due to damage, including the St. Regis Playa Beach, The Ritz-Carlton Reserve, and The Ritz-Carlton San Juan and Dorado. It would be a year before any of them re-opened.
It meant another downsize was inevitable for First Class. Fourteen vehicles were sold, including the ultra-luxury models, and 22 employees were laid off. “Of those 22, we were able to find work for 12 of them with clients,” Rodriguez says.
Lessons were learned on a daily basis, he adds. “We learned about an action plan, what to do before an emergency and how not to leave things for the last minute.” He highlights action steps like taking pictures and an inventory of everything, as well as securing enough water, gas, and diesel to run generators. Having cash on hand is another detail to work out, since ATMs were down for 72 hours. The company is also working to get as many solar chargers as possible and the CB radios are staying nearby in the warehouse because they were so useful.
“The relationships we have with suppliers really came into play during this emergency,” he says. “We provide service to Sam’s and Costco, and they took care of us getting fuel and water for employees. Then the hotels and FBOs—those are the main people you need to get to and we went personally to those places. We had to get there to give service.”
The biggest lesson is not to panic. “We learned we just have to wait until the storm passes. Once it passes, we check on our family and employees and after five hours the upper management meets in a central location,” Rodriguez says. “We hope we never experience something like this again but now we know what to do.”
He is hopeful too that the U.S. government learned some lessons from this disaster. “This was the first time the U.S. had to deal with a devastation like this and there was no plan,” he says. “How do you manage a flooded island with no power, no communication, no ports, no airports? It was a challenge in those first three weeks, but with that being said, we are U.S. citizens but we weren’t treated like it.”
Normalcy hasn’t quite returned to Puerto Rico, says Rodriguez. “Electricity is still out on parts of the island, some areas don’t have traffic lights, and 70 percent of the rainforest, one of the main destinations for tourists, is still closed,” he says. “As you go around the island you can see a lot of the debris that is still left. Many things take you back to that day.”
"The coporate travelers didn’t stop coming. We had transportation for them and everything was pitch black, but the work kept coming. It kept us alive in those weeks and months after Maria because tourism stopped completely." – Robert RodriguezBut Puerto Rico is nothing if not resilient. Rodriguez says the island is poised to see its best tourist season ever between March and November. Hotels reopened, most of which did major overhauls on their properties, and new hotels are slated to open this year for an estimated 3,800 additional rooms to welcome tourists.
“We still have challenges but the island is safe and open for business,” Rodriguez says. “San Juan is open, with many beautiful hotels and restaurants, and plenty of things to do including the longest zipline in the U.S., and Flamenco Beach, which has been ranked in the top five most beautiful beaches in the world. The Ritz’s Dorado Beach property reopened with a brand-new hotel and restaurants. Things are coming back stronger than ever.”
Rodriguez says Lin Manuel-Miranda, creator of the Broadway musicals Hamilton and In the Heights, has done something priceless for the economy by bringing Hamilton to Puerto Rico. “The way the economy moved from December to January, it’s indescribable. Plus Jimmy Fallon, one of our oldest clients, came to Puerto Rico and filmed his show here. He comes often with his family and loves the island. We can’t thank them enough for showing people we’re ready.”
And while major events didn’t really come to Puerto Rico in 2018, Rodriguez says 2019 will have some serious star power with names so big he can’t even reveal them yet.
Just last month, First Class hosted the Driving Results peer group for a long weekend. Although Rodriguez is not himself a member of the group, its founder Arthur Messina insisted on bringing his members to see the island operation.
“It’s amazing to have them here and helping the economy. It’s what we need most,” Rodriguez says.
While the past few years have been an uphill battle for Rodriguez and many who count on tourism for their livelihood, he is still thankful for all life has provided him.
Among his blessings are his wife and their three daughters, ages 25, 15, and 13. When they want to get away, they seek out cold weather. This past winter they spent time in Canada and New York, trading flip flops for boots and loving every minute. He counts his career as “the most amazing hobby” he’s ever found. “I get to have fun every day with a great team. It has given me the opportunity to learn a lot about Puerto Rico and show the world we can offer the same level of service as any big city in the world,” he says. [CD0419]