Submitted by Brubaker
A photo clip on CNN during the US elections showing a little girl crying because she was sick and tired of hearing the news associated with President Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney election campaigns has prompted this blog. Like the election vitriol, the incessant reactive rhetorical rantings emanating from Barbados’ sidewalk superintendents and armchair supervisors about their destination’s tourism industry have become inordinately objectionable and are turning off would be visitors.
The recent adverse comments posted by visitors in Trip Advisor about their ruined holiday experiences in the Gap also do not auger well for Barbados and further aggravate the situation. Both groups paint an unsavoury image – all is not well in Paradise, serious plant deterioration is occurring, and Barbados’ tourism continues to be like a ship in a tempus, floundering aimlessly without a rudder.
The reprehensible behaviour is causing irreparable damage to Barbados’ reputation as a holiday destination and in the long run will be extremely costly to repair. To get an impartial evaluation of the state of Barbados’ tourism industry, a consultant involved with the marketing and promotion of Caribbean tourism was interviewed and asked to give his thoughts and insight on the challenges Barbados faces for the future.
The following are his comments:
Q. What is your assessment of Barbados Tourism industry and what can be done to improve the present situation?
A. This is a double barrel question and I will try to answer in two parts. Let me start by respectfully stating my comments may upset some people but the intent is not to cast aspersions or demean anyone but rather to assist.
First, my opinion of Barbados’ tourism industry today is that it appears to be stalled in a 1990 time warp. Tourism officials and stakeholders seem to be languishing on the laurels of previous years and this situation warrants the Public and Private sectors joining forces to formulate and implement a new strategic plan for reviving the destination’s tourism industry. If there is any substance and truth in the phrase “tourism is our business” and if tourism is to continue to be the engine of economic growth, the parties responsible must act swiftly to reinvent Barbados as the Caribbean premier holiday destination.
The time is ripe for the Barbados Tourism Authority to review its advertising and public relations agencies appointments. The role, function and placement of its overseas offices should also be addressed. For the tourism industry to be productive it must cease being a football for the whims and fancies of political parties. It has to adopt and implement a new professional industry approach to better serve the interests of the Barbados public.
Second, the BTA currently faces several challenges and until these are resolved, the tourism industry will not produce desired results.
Some of the challenges which require immediate attention are:
1 – Destination Image – The marketing activities of the global travel conglomerates, tour companies and seasonal airlines, which feed off Barbados’ tourism plant during peak season present a distorted image of the Barbados brand. Their programs usually feature a select number of upscale properties and would be visitors are led to believe accommodation on the island is limited to the hotels featured in their brochures. Upscale hotel bookings generate higher revenue for tour operators and as a result the majority of the small hotels, the backbone of the island’s tourism industry, are not included in the operators’ promotional activities.
The travel conglomerates also abandon Barbados at the end of the winter season and redirect their promotional campaigns to support other holiday resorts of their choosing for the summer. This action further creates the false impression Barbados is a seasonal destination. Reasons touted for reducing/discontinuing off season service suggests summer traffic to Barbados comprises mainly of VFR visitors and the volume does not generate sufficient revenue to sustain their operations.
If the truth be told, the modus operandi of these companies is governed by the ROI factor. Huge financial resources coupled with vertical integrated organization structures allow them to control the travel industry and to create programs which direct travellers to the Mediterranean, Europe, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Florida, etc at a time when Barbados needs visitors.
The BTA, the BHTA and other tourism stakeholders should counteract these images with promotional programs which present a true and comprehensive picture of the many types of accommodation, the costs and the range of activities available on the island. They should convey a strong message that Barbados is a year round holiday destination.
2 – Destination Marketing – Barbados’ marketing campaigns are not compatible with the requirements for operating a modern day tourism plant. While they may have contributed to the success Barbados enjoyed during the previous 50 years, they ought to be replaced with a new motivational marketing strategy which will attract visitors and also allow the island to be in charge of its destiny.
The BTA’s soft sell advertisements featuring a young Caucasian couple frolicking on what seems to be a private beach with a bottle of Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon champagne or a barely discernable sunset picture of the Cliff restaurant are passé.
They may appeal to wealthy visitors but not to the majority of people interested in coming to the island for their holidays. Today’s visitors are looking for value and bargains and why would anyone want to come to Barbados when for around $1500.00 they can have an all inclusive 7 nights/8 day holiday for two – accommodations, meals, airfare, transfers, drinks and taxes – in Cuba. These advertisements encourage would be visitors to go elsewhere. Candidly speaking, the BTA marketing programs need an extreme makeover.
3 – Destination Airlift – The continued dependency on subsidizing airlines to bring visitors to Barbados is of major concern. This arrangement cannot go on forever and has become quite costly. Barbados’ lucrative air routes have been profitable financial ventures for scheduled, charter and seasonal airlines – British Airways, British Caledonian, Laker Airways, Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines, American Eagle, Air Canada and Wardair – to mention a few. Some carriers are no longer in business, some have merged and others are still flying. Even BWIA had a viable operation on its Barbados designated routes until envy over passenger loads crept into the picture and the T&T government decided to phase out that airline and launched Caribbean Airlines.
Today the Government of Trinidad & Tobago enjoys a monopoly on Caribbean airspace through ownership of Caribbean Airlines and Air Jamaica while Barbados still grieves over the demise of Caribbean Airways. The uneven playing field is about to be drastically tilted in T&T’s favour with the emergence of a new Jamaican airline called “Fly Jamaica” and the opening of “St. Vincent’s Argyle International Airport”. Negotiations are also underway between Grenada officials and Caribbean Airlines to fill the void created by British Airways cut back on weekly services to that island.
Not aware of the forces behind the new airline but worthy of note is that the proposed routes are somewhat identical to those flown by Air Jamaica and Caribbean Airlines – Kingston to Guyana, New York and Toronto. In light of the absorption of Air Jamaica by Caribbean Airlines and the recent talks respecting the discarding of the Air Jamaica logo, this could be an attempt to re-establish a Jamaican airline presence in the industry.
St. Vincent’s new Argyle International Airport is slated to come on line in December 2013 in time for the tourism high season. The project was designed to accommodate jet aircraft the size of Boeing 747-400s and to facilitate direct flights from Canada, USA, Europe, Central and South America. This could be a new competitive airline hub in the making. As a result visitors to that destination will no longer need to transit through Barbados.
These activities will affect Barbados’ visitor traffic and Barbados’ Ministry of Tourism must initiate corrective action. Barbados should be exploring all avenues to secure its own airlift by aligning itself with a single carrier with global operations and designate it to be the island’s airline.
There is one such carrier currently flying to Barbados daily and the powers that be should move ASAP to start negotiations with its Board of Directors. Compared to other Caribbean destinations, Barbados as a sovereign country would encounter no difficulty in obtaining approval for air routes applications.
4 – Destination Product – Part of the vulnerability of Barbados’ downward spiralling tourism industry is self deception by tourism officials and stakeholders that the island is a high-end destination. A total of approximately ten or twelve, 20 – 30 year old hotel properties, Sandy Lane excluded, situated on Barbados’ west coast with locally assigned 3/4 star ratings does not dictate or constitute a destination’s brand.
During the previous 50 years Barbados achieved its popularity as a year round destination with a variety of accommodation and activities for anyone wishing to visit. It was never ever promoted as a high-end only destination or a mass tourism resort. Barbados’ image today in the market place when compared to other Caribbean destinations is an over price island with very little to offer visitors. This is a major problem for the destination and needs to be corrected.
The other half of the challenge involves the lack of visitor arrivals during the off season. The annual crop over festival may provide some assistance but its contribution is limited to July and August.
Back in the late sixties/early seventies, the Canadian office created and introduced the Barbados Bonanza Program which ran from April 16 to December 15 each year. It promoted and featured all aspects of the island’s tourism plant. In overseas markets, it involved airlines, department stores, shopping malls, bill boards, radio and TV stations, newspapers, travel press and the travel trade. The full marketing mix was utilized to attract visitors for many years. This program was extremely successful and was introduced in the US market. It was also copied by several Caribbean destinations.
With today’s large promotional budgets plus proper marketing guidance, the BTA and BHTA should come together and revisit this type of programming to generate summer traffic. It could be modified to promote winter traffic for properties not included in tour operators programs. It proved to be an excellent marketing vehicle in the past and with the addition of some new wrinkles, there should no reason why it could not work again.
5 – Destination Product Distribution – The BTA and the BHTA have traditionally utilized conventional sources – airlines, wholesalers and tour operators – to handle Barbados’ product distribution in overseas markets. While these outlets generated huge visitor traffic numbers in the past and should be continued, the BTA and BHTA should venture outside the bubble and explore other new avenues that are available.
Other Caribbean destinations have successfully endorsed new distribution ideas which have helped to increase visitor arrivals. Barbados must do likewise to regain possession of its tourism industry or be left behind as new destinations emerge. The BTA would be well advised to take a look at Cuba, the Dominica Republic and Jamaica to get an appreciation as to why their individual tourism plants are enjoying high visitor traffic.
6 – Destination Tourism Plant Management – It is a known practise in Barbados that whenever a new government is sworn in, statutory boards become the parking spot for government supporters. Unfortunately in the present economic climate, with tourism apparently on the wane and reputed growing pressure from the IMF to devalue the Barbados currency, partisan appointments in the tourism industry are being perceived as the political incorrect thing to do.
There was a time when appointees to the Barbados Tourist Board were selected on the basis of the contributions they could make to the tourism industry but somehow these characteristics not longer seem to apply. Destination marketing activities appear to have hit an all time low and what was once a vibrant, prosperous tourism destination is vastly becoming a mediocre resort probably due to the lack of industry expertise. Government’s objective should be to ensure these positions are filled by the appropriate qualified persons in order for its main revenue generating industry to perform at peak levels at all times.
The trickledown effect of partisan practises supported by subtle union intimidation has also permeated the BHTA and this further compounds the industry’s issues. Leadership qualities, knowledge of the tourism industry and competence are requisites for the association’s executive posts but these also seem to have gone the partisan route. Hotels are quietly being replaced by condominiums which reduce the number of hotel beds and industry jobs. The number of hotel closures on island is also not going unnoticed in investment circles. Until the tourism industry undergoes a major overhaul, well known hotel brands will not invest in Barbados.
Another destination management responsibility which appears to have fallen by the wayside is visitors’ safety and treatment. Drugs, crime and growing demeaning attitudes towards tourists are contributing to the decline in visitor traffic. Trip Advisor’s blogging and other comments on the Internet on these issues do not help the destination’s reputation. Tourism security is of prime concern to visitors and the Ministry of Tourism and the BTA must establish at the earliest possible date a special security task force (TOPPS or SCM or a combination of both) to serve the industry. There are plenty of resources readily available in the Public and Private sectors. It’s just a matter of knowing where to find them and how to best utilize their services.
7 – Destination Hotel Association – The blame for the challenges Barbados’ tourism industry is experiencing cannot and should not be totally attributed to the BTA. The BHTA and its members are equally responsible.
John Fareed’s comments (Barbados Advocate, Sept 17/12) in his featured address at the 3rd Annual General Meeting of the BHTA – “too many people did not use their website or social media channels as strategic marketing tools, but simply “online versions” of their existing brochures” is a good indicator of the short comings of today’s industry’s stakeholders.
The belief by hoteliers that all one has to do is to purchase a computer, establish a website, join twitter, face book, LinkedIn, etc and this will result in visitors flocking to their hotel is ludicrous. Marketing expertise, budgets and a proactive plan are the tools for selling hotel rooms.
In addition to maximizing utilization of the hotel’s computer equipment, hoteliers and other stakeholders need to get off their butts and start pounding the beat visiting travel professionals in overseas markets. No one will act on their behalf unless they have paid representation. If hoteliers are unwilling to go that extra mile to sell their facilities, they will continue to experience low occupancy levels.
Contrary to popular belief rivalry for tourism dollars is quite fierce between Caribbean destinations and hoteliers need to be up front and center in the industry to get their share of business. Attendance at WTM, ITB and other international trade shows maybe good for one’s social life or ego but the ROI will be greater by building strong working relationships with front line travel professionals in the destination’s bread basket markets.
In the event the BHTA and other tourism industry stakeholders have lost sight of their roles, someone should remind them the Public sector creates the infrastructure, but it’s the Private sector’s responsibility to develop and manage the facilities. If occupancy levels are down, the BHTA and its members should not wait on the BTA to undertake marketing/promotional activities. Under strong leadership, the association could launch its own advertising campaign and mobilize members to visit various markets to drum up business. The resources are available and market visitations could be organized with the support of the BTA overseas offices.
Last but not least, all responsible parties should be aware Tourism is an industry which is constantly under scrutiny. It requires people with special qualities to make it work. Somehow this rare breed of people seems to be on the decline in Barbados’ tourism industry.