The Aftermath: Post Hurricane Maria – Puerto Rico -( Part 4 of 5)

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It’s been about a year and half since Hurricane Maria went through the Caribbean.  In this first segment, I have reached out to a few of our ABC members based in Puerto Rico to see how Hurricane Maria affected their business.  I have asked them a few questions, and after I received their responses I decided to feature their stories separately.  After receiving the content from everyone I reached out to, I found out that Jimmy Fallon was recording a show in Puerto Rico which I am sharing in case you missed it.  It was awesome, but most importantly it will prepare you to understand what our ABC members went through and how they survived.  

VIDEO: Jimmy Fallon Meets Puerto Rico 

Part 4 of 5:  Meet ABC Member Chezelle Rodriguez,  CD Weddngs, Toa Alta, Puerto Rico

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Chezelle Rodriguez

Event Planner | Floral Designer | Speaker

CD Weddings

Office: (787) 919-0532 Cell: (978) 549-2522

Email: hello@chezellerodriguez.com

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We have been in business for 16 years now. In 2003 we began in Massachusetts doing all kinds of events. When the economy in the United States plummeted in 2009, we decided to move to Puerto Rico and focused solely on Destination Weddings. The entire island is our playground including Vieques and Culebra Island. We live in the metro area in the city of Toa Alta.

In 5 years, we became one of the top wedding planning firms on the island and worked hand in hand with the Puerto Rico Tourism Company to strategize and represent the island outside of it. My dream job began to change in 2016 when Zika was the main topic of every news report. Even though I never actually met anyone who had Zika all of our clients and potential clients began to send us messages cancelling their plans to have their wedding in Puerto Rico. I remember jokingly saying, “I wish that a hurricane would come to the island to just clean the environment and that way we’ll get rid of Zika”. I learned to be careful with what I confess with my mouth… a year later we were hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

I never thought that a person’s life could change in a day but mine did. We had three weddings planned for the month of September 2017. One in the beginning and the other two were September 23rd & 24th. That’s right, back-to-back weddings and our firm did all of the florals/décor for our weddings so we had to begin working the week before the wedding. Puerto Rico does not cultivate flowers that can be used in weddings like Hydrangeas, Roses to name a few. The process of working with flowers on the island is that we have to order these flowers from different parts of the world and have them shipped two to three days prior to the wedding day.

After our first wedding was complete we were faced with the news of hurricane Irma, arriving on September 6th and we needed to prepare for it because it was a category 5. It had been 20 years since Puerto Rico had been hit by a hurricane and everyone was just relaxed about it. Thankfully Irma did not cause as much damage as expected and a week later we began to see news about hurricane Maria, another category 5 hurricane expected to arrive on September 20th.

I notified my clients about the process of flying their flowers in and how they could perish. One decided to postpone their wedding until we knew what the outcome would be of the hurricanes but the other decided to continue with their wedding. We had the flowers for their wedding flown in on September 19th and prepared them in our coolers to preserve them for the wedding that would take place in 4 days. I was confident that we would have the same outcome as hurricane Irma from a week ago and that we would only loose power for a couple of days and not have much debris or damage. My client ended up loosing all of their flowers ($5,000 worth) and the disappointment from their decision made them postpone their wedding until a year later. My life and business changed forever on September 20, 2017!

We lost power, water, and worst of all, every form of communication. There was an eerie silence where all you heard was generators and helicopters. Panic started when we had no way to call a relative or friend to see if they made it OK. The lines in the gasoline stations and stores were over 9 hours of wait and everything was rationed because the island had no surplus making everyone on edge and on survival mode. I think the experience was apocalyptic and every person that lived it feels the same way. We were stripped of everything we owned and knew. We were all vulnerable and didn’t know how to pick up the broken pieces. I lost my business in the blink on an eye. We planned over 50 weddings a year and now we were getting cancellations left and right. I had wished Zika had gone away and now it did but I lost a lot more.

CD Weddings was the main source of income for my family and I had to think of a way to stay afloat. I had to restructure what was left of the company. I remember sitting down and writing what talents were God given and implemented them to what was left of our business. That is how I began to focus more on speaking engagements. If I couldn’t bring people to get married in Puerto Rico, I could speak about how beautiful my island is and give an update on the island post hurricane Irma & Maria at all of the conferences that I was invited to. I was determined to spread the word that we were hit but we are never going to give up on our island and that we will have a great come back.

A month after the hurricanes hit we left the island and moved back to Massachusetts in order for our kids to not miss the school year. I visited New Orleans, Las Vegas, California, Washington DC, Mexico and Dominican Republic for speaking engagements. I would visit the island two to three times a month to keep my house up and see how the island was progressing and I’m happy to say that I am moving back home to focus on weddings again.

I knew that I had to wait until the main hotels reopened in order to see the increase in weddings. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company now has a DMO called Discover Puerto Rico and they are focused on the marketing and branding of the island. This new initiative is also helping to attract tourists. Another amazing thing that is happening is that Lin Manuel Miranda has taken Hamilton to Puerto Rico and along with him is celebrities like Jimmy Fallon who filmed from the island. Everyone is focusing on bringing the island up and seeing it healthy again.

I am seeing more leads headed my way via Google searches and hotel recommendations. I had to lower my rates in order to attract clients but I plan on putting them back to normal once I have at least one wedding a month. My goals this year is to write a book about my experience and to continue to be an ambassador for my island in speaking engagements.

The PR wedding industry came together after the devastation and we are closer than ever. Everyone is there to help each other. We are all in a group chat and also have created Facebook groups where we can ask questions about venues (for example, Are they reopened? Do they have running water?) And also if we need help at an event I have noticed that people are joining companies in order to produce amazing events where before everyone was on their own. Everyone shares their resources and that is a true blessing.

If this were to happen again, I would be more prepared than before. As far as the business goes, I would have a plan set out to postpone any weddings until about a month after or so. There really is no way of knowing if we will be hit again with a category 5 hurricane or an earthquake or any other natural disaster. What we do know is that having wedding insurance should be #1 in the budget when planning a destination wedding. I was thankful to have wedding business insurance but for my clients I never enforced it. I do now.

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 Photography Credit: Jesart Photography

 

 

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