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A successful CMO has many roles, including leading an organization's marketing department, establishing marketing strategies, and tracking successes and failures. How can a CMO create a highly successful career? What tools, strategies, and approaches can a CMO use to be successful? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Leah Chandler.

Leah Chandler

Leah Chandler

A seasoned expert in the travel industry, Leah Chandler holds nearly 20 years of branding, advertising, and marketing experience driving change for key destinations. She assumed her current role as Chief Marketing Officer of Discover Puerto Rico in May 2018 and has held various roles through her successful career including Senior Account Manager at Hirons & Company, managing Indiana Tourism for over five years, and Account Director at H & L Partners, leading efforts for Missouri Tourism’s brand repositioning in 2013. Before joining Discover Puerto Rico, Leah was the Chief Marketing Officer for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! To 'get to know you' a bit better, can you share your personal backstory with us?

From a very young age I was enamored with travel. I didn’t travel a lot as a child, but when I did, it was mostly road trips with my family. Coming from a small midwestern town, I was captivated by how different a place could be from where I lived—it certainly wasn't hard to impress me! Growing up, the biggest trip I took was a cruise to the Caribbean. I was so intrigued by the experiences stemming from different cultures, the warm hospitality, the beaches, the food—everything was new and wonderful. I cried at the airport because I was so devastated to leave these beautiful, new places behind. 

As much as I grew to love travel, I hadn’t considered it as a career. My path was paved by marketing and public relations, which proved to be a valuable foundation for my eventual work in this amazing travel industry. I began my career at small agencies in Indianapolis, where I cut my teeth on travel-related accounts and eventually ran the Indiana Tourism business at their agency of record. I would make several moves throughout my career to other agencies and eventually move client-side in 2013. 

The way my love for travel parlayed into a meaningful and fulfilling career is not something I ever intended or even dreamed of, but am immensely thankful for. 

What do you think was a pivotal moment that led you to becoming a CMO?

I can’t say there was a single moment that led to my path of becoming a CMO. Moreover, a series of small, but influential moments in my early years of working on tourism accounts illuminated a career journey that’s not only fun and interesting, but truly impactful and filled with purpose. I saw first-hand how tourism could bring life to small towns and local businesses—how the hospitality industry created jobs and bridged cultures. I knew that in becoming a CMO I would have the opportunity to influence strategy and decisions that could drive these initiatives forward. In marketing leadership positions, we can influence opinions to generate revenue, yes… but more importantly, we can influence opinions to generate change—that’s where the real magic lies. 

Can you share an interesting story since working with the Island of Puerto Rico?

The evolution of the Island’s tourism since joining has been interesting in itself! Since my start with Discover Puerto Rico in 2018, we have continued to break records in travel and tourism to the Island following adversity, which has a larger impact on the communities here, and this is something I’m deeply proud of. In 2022, Puerto Rico had over eight million overnight visitors to the Island, a 23% increase from pre-pandemic levels. Approximately $8.9 billion in revenue generated by travel and tourism, and a 39% increase over 2019—which speaks to the importance of our efforts.

I started my journey with the Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) when hired as CMO by conducting deep research as we looked to create longevity for the destination and brand, which had not been done before the creation of a DMO. Since then, we’ve built upon the foundation we created for more intricate marketing with untold stories, new niches and innovative campaigns.

While people travel to Puerto Rico for many reasons—food, culture or natural wonders, to name a few—there is one shared aspect on everyone’s mind: the sunshine. We tapped into this with something ultra-unique.

Sunlight has been scientifically proven to greatly influence moods, and given its prime Caribbean location, the Island has plenty of “Sunshine to Spare.” This became the name of a major program led by Discover Puerto Rico; an effort to remind travelers—especially in the coldest and darkest months—that Puerto Rico is sunny and warm.

To get this message across, we partnered with the Pantone Color Institute and worked with a Puerto Rican physicist Dr. Hector J. Jimenez who, through a series of models, calculations and methods, was able to identify the hue of the sunlight as it shines over the Island. These findings turned into the official color titled, “Puerto Rico Sunshine.” To promote the Island’s official color, we then created various items including a paint product with ECOS Paints and a dress by fashion designer Christian Cowan, which made its way to the New York Fashion Week runway. 

In addition, the response to this on a local level was unlike anything we could have imagined. A multitude of local Puerto Rican small businesses and brands to create products—from Rogative to Bettina Cosmetics—that can now be found on an official Sunshine Shop and Sunshine Route: allowing consumers to purchase these products and/or find them locally.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?

Brad Dean, Discover Puerto Rico’s CEO is without a doubt someone I owe a great debt to. A person gets a chance to work with someone like Brad once or maybe twice in a lifetime—a selfless, thoughtful, intentional, brilliant leader who wants his team and destination to shine. The very first time I spoke to Brad was during a phone interview in early 2018. I was pacing my living room, trying to anticipate the questions and ensuring I hit all of my talking points.

In the midst of the conversation, he shared his passion for this “mission”: to bring prosperity to Puerto Rico by positioning the Island as a premier destination. It was the first time I’d ever thought of a job as a mission—something so much bigger than marketing vacations—the opportunity to really change a destination for the better. I knew in that moment that I was dealing with not only a special place but a very special person in Brad Dean. He is a transformational leader and working alongside him is an honor. 

Can you please share your favorite 'Life Lesson Quote'? How is it relevant to you in your life?

My mom has always said “what’s right isn’t always popular, and what’s popular isn’t always right.” This has been a great reminder throughout my life and career. We have to make so many decisions on a daily basis, and many are not popular. In a world with opinions and criticism constantly swirling, it’s so important to know what you stand for—and equally important in the professional world to have data to back it up! Throughout my career, leaning into data and research to make informed decisions has provided confidence in times when I knew my decision was going to be challenged, and has helped me and my team remain steadfast in the face of detractors. 

Having reached this space, what do you believe are the five things you need to be a highly successful CMO?

To be an effective CMO who drives results like those accomplished by Discover Puerto Rico, it's important to meet consumers where they are. This requires a variety of strengths and a specific skill set. I’m also proud to have a strong team in these areas, which has allowed for successful, award-winning work. 

  • Agile — Crises, for example, which Puerto Rico has seen a lot of, have made us stronger. The destination’s highest tourism figures ever have consistently followed adversity. What’s our secret formula? The ability to ebb and flow with the situation. Learnings have allowed us to realize that this is the most critical: flexibility has allowed us to fine-tune our strategies over the years. In times of crises and not, it’s critical to react appropriately and effectively in just the right amount of time to stay relevant. 
  • Preparedness — Being prepared is critical as a CMO. What are we up against in our industry and how can we prepare for this—from economical headwinds to natural weather events? How am I going to mobilize the team whatever the situation may be? We’ve created both a Crisis Preparedness Playbook and an Economic Playbook to guide us, with roles for our team. 
  • Storytelling — Our brand campaign, “Live Boricua” is unique to Puerto Rico and its people. This movement born out of Puerto Rico—with insights, creative, and assets from and driven by Puerto Ricans—highlights how to enjoy things the Boricua way, which means a person of Puerto Rican descent. One thing that was very important to us in creating this campaign was that we asked locals to help us share and shape their own story. The brand campaign mission is to change the way people think about Puerto Rico and redefine travel, differentiating between visiting and truly experiencing the Island. This is about more than merely disrupting the category; Discover Puerto Rico is looking to create a new one. 
  • Strategically Impactful— We prioritize a data-driven approach to market the destination in big ways that keep the consumer excited. We also identify and prioritize markets based on air service and connectivity to the Island. For example, our team used the launch of the newest direct flight from Detroit to San Juan to create an intimate media event to introduce local journalists and influencers to the Island.
  • Trailblazer We like to be the first to lead the creative charge. In fact, Puerto Rico has Sunshine to Spare, and for the first time ever, Discover Puerto Rico has captured the unique rich red-orange color of Puerto Rican sunshine to inspire past and future travelers to plan or relive the vacation of their dreams, and to spark pride in the vast Puerto Rican diaspora. Additionally, the creation of ‘Live Boricua’ Island history was made with two females, Cinetrix Director Mariem Pérez Riera (she also directed Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It) and Young Collective photographer Steph Segarra directing all visual components of an on-Island tourism brand campaign. 

What are some of the main issues that CMOs commonly struggle with? What can be done to address those challenges?   

The travel industry is certainly different than the rest. The evolving landscape forces us to add layers to our strategic thinking, which include navigating many variables that impact travelers, including crises. 

In the last two years alone, the world has taught us quite a bit about how to navigate challenges and be agile in the face of adversity. Reiterating the need for preparation, agility and not shying away from overcommunicating with stakeholders and visitors to keep them informed and inspired. Our past adversity in Puerto Rico allowed us to fine tune tools that have aided in the Island’s recovery. We have been able to mobilize our team at the DMO like never before and fortify the tourism economy through visitation resulting in the Island achieving record breaking numbers in 2021 and 2022. 

What can be done about the challenges? Prepare your team. Create contingencies. Don’t be afraid to overcommunicate. Don’t let your guard down. I mentioned the Preparedness Playbook we created, full of possible scenarios and appropriate reactions. This comprehensive buildout included air pathogens even before the pandemic. And we continue enhancing it given the evolving elements like COVID and our team as variables within its intended use.  

What do you believe is the most effective way to stand out and make an impact?

Root what you do in values and strategy. This goes for both the way you lead your team, as well as the way you lead your work.

Being an empathetic leader means meeting your employees where they are. Supporting strengths and providing meaningful work has been essential to ensuring my team’s success. I’ve also learned it’s ok to let your team see you fail. Without failure, we cannot learn and grow. I want our team at Discover Puerto Rico to know that failure is a part of progress—both personally and professionally. Seldom does risk not involve some type of failure, and without risk we are challenged to innovate and evolve.

Values based marketing—something I’m immensely passionate about—intertwines marketing strategies with what drives you. The creation of our campaign, ‘Live Boricua’ was founded on research and consumer insights as Discover Puerto Rico explored several creative concepts and tested them via focus groups. One thing that was particularly important to us in creating this campaign was asking Puerto Ricans to share and shape their own story. Everyone from the camera operator and the still photographer to the onscreen and voiceover talent is local to Puerto Rico and not only are the people local, but every product they are wearing or using on-screen is also Puerto Rico-made—all the way down to the jewelry.

Use data to guide you. The DMO continues to innovate in our approach to consumers by continuing to root what we do in data and staying true to our brand ethos – the incredible culture that makes the Island and the experiences we offer completely unique to other destinations. Through strategic research, we have worked hard to identify the type of traveler that we aspire to attract, dubbing them the conscientious traveler. This traveler is excited to learn more about a destination, respectfully interact with the people and places within the destination and remain thoughtful and conscious of their impact on those around them.

Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to many people, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

I have been fortunate to work to create movements with the help of our amazing internal team and external partners. In beginning our work at the DMO, I quickly realized that while our destination is extremely diverse, this was not an area we were amplifying in our local or off-Island efforts. We worked quickly to execute research and gather data specifically around the destination’s level of welcomeness to the LGBTQ+ audience. We found that while the destination was known in small pockets of LGBTQ+ travelers, we did not have strong general awareness of how LGBTQ+ friendly the Island is. This created a now 5-year emphasis in learning, training, fostering, growing and embracing not only LGBTQ+ travelers, but also our own LGBTQ+ communities on the Island. Our work in this space has now becomes a springboard for larger DE&I efforts that we feel strongly will reverberate for years to come. 

I am also very passionate about encouraging travelers to shop locally when visiting Puerto Rico. It’s important for Discover Puerto Rico to spotlight local partners through content, media events and direct research on the conscientious traveler. In fact, we have seen a strong positive reaction from our valued local community through our launch of the Sunshine Shop. Our team partnered with local businesses to bring ‘Puerto Rico Sunshine’ to life through limited-edition products that are created by locals but can be enjoyed by visitors too. Local brands like Bettina Cosmetics and Rogative (accessories) have announced their very own ‘Puerto Rico Sunshine’ merchandise like nail polish in the color and a chuchería (tote) bag. 

Additionally, Discover Puerto Rico launched its second annual “Small Business. Big Stories.” partnership with Brands of Puerto Rico this past November. This activation was made to encourage travelers to support local entrepreneurs on Small Business Saturday and give these brands a larger platform. The collaboration highlights the Island’s small businesses and their products as a vivid reflection of the destination’s unique culture. Within the “Small Business. Big Stories,” spotlight on the Discover Puerto Rico website, shoppers can find a wide range of locally made products including art, food, coffee, and more, coupled with rich background on each product and their creators.

Our destination believes in strengthening from the ground up locally and Discover Puerto Rico is actively helping prepare Puerto Rico’s tourism businesses for the digital future. Through the activation La IDEA, the DMO is helping local business owners create a stronger digital presence on platforms such as Google, Yelp and Trip Advisor. This, in turn, will help reach and inspire consumers to support their local communities and businesses to bolster economic success.

Since September 2022, the leisure and hospitality sector on the Island has employed 91,700 people, the highest ever on record.

Stephanie Hood
By Stephanie Hood

Stephanie Hood is an experienced marketing professional and Editor of The CMO. With nearly a decade spent as Marketing Manager at Discover Holidays and Executive Editor at VIVA Lifestyle & Travel, she built her career leading editorial and marketing teams and strategies that turn six-figure budgets into seven-figure profits. She now enjoys connecting with the world's top executives to learn their secrets to business success, and shares those insights right here with her community of like-minded professionals. Curious what she’s uncovered? Be sure to sign up for The CMO newsletter.