Following is an edited version of the speech delivered by the chairman of the Barbados Tourism Authority, Adrian Elcock, at the annual general meeting of the Intimate Hotels of Barbados on July 30.
The tourism industry is one of the most dynamic and complex industries in Barbados. It evokes strong opinions from almost all persons in our society. The opinions that have been espoused include: that authorities don’t know what they are doing; we are not getting enough visitors to the island; we should be focusing all of our efforts in a particular market; we don’t have enough attractions; the majority of the hotel plant is tired; the earnings from the sector are insufficient; hoteliers always complaining; the unions are always threatening; and so on and so forth!
It has been interesting to me to have heard all of these opinions during my three-year tenure at the BTA as the chairman of its board, and it has been even more interesting the vitriolic and muscular tone in which these opinions are shared –– oft-times at the minister and the chairman in particular. It led me to ask myself why this would be so?
Why would an industry that has been described as one of the most important sectors be constantly derided and pilloried, rather than a united, patriotic stance taken to ensure that the interests of all are protected?
I can only surmise that the opinions being espoused are predicated on the fact that there is a lack of total knowledge about why the sector is important; how susceptible the industry is to global shocks; and misinformation from persons who should know better . . . .
As far as I can see, there is no reason why people should not know that we are susceptible to global shocks. The only way we can have a visitor to our island is if the person originates from another country. So if there is a major issue in that country, it will limit the ability for that person to travel freely.
As far as I can see, there is every reason why people are misinformed. Our media houses of recent ilk seem to thrive on sensationalism as the basis of a story; our politicians are constantly engaged in a game of one-upmanship; our industry partners, and hoteliers in particular, recognized a long time ago that the more complaining they do, the more likely the Government of the day would buckle and provide concession after concession at a cost to the country that we cannot afford; and finally, there has been a growing cynicism among our people when something positive is being said and there is a view that such commentators must be politically biased.
We cannot continue on this path. This sector is too important to too many families in this island. We need to wrap ourselves in the flag of patriotism promoting our country at every opportunity. Technology has allowed more voices to enter discussions, but in the same token it allows those discussions, whether negative or positive, to be instantly promoted to countries outside Barbados, also known as “source markets”.
So we can no longer say that we don’t all play a part in determining the fortunes of our country, because what we say is being heard at some level or the other . . . .
In the last nine years, the highest point of long-stay arrivals was just over 570,000 persons and the lowest point, 508,000 arrivals –– a difference of 62,000 persons. For the same nine years, the most money spent on marketing for those long-stay arrivals was $77 million and the least amount was $41 million, and none of those two marketing numbers correlate to the high and low point of arrivals.
So when we study the nine-year trend we can easily see that there is not a correlation between our spend and our arrivals. I choose nine years, but the pattern holds true for the last 15 plus years. There is only one sensible conclusion for this.
We have spent many years spending the taxpayers money in unscientific ways. So we need a change in our marketing ethos and strategy –– a radical change.
Our airlift averages one million seats. It is the primary way our long-stay visitors get to the island. We have roughly 60 per cent of that seat capacity available to us for visitors. What do I mean by that? Barbadians travel significantly for business, leisure, and visiting friends and family in the diaspora. I am not convinced that Barbadians have understood the nexus between their travel and our capacity to get visitors to the island.
The natural question would be: why not increase the capacity? The basic answer is that there is a significant cost to doing so. It costs the BTA on average $16 million a year to support airlift.
What does that mean?
An airline would rather fly when [planes] are full. That naturally happens in the winter season and at Crop Over for some markets. [Airlines] would rather deploy those planes to other areas that can make them more money.
So simplistically speaking, we need to keep those planes in the sky travelling south-east to Barbados, and we pay them to do so; and there is only so much we can afford to pay.
The other option is that we have to stimulate enough constant demand to keep those seats filled with visitors organically. To do that, we have to have someplace for those people to stay. Without enough hotel capacity we cannot get more seats and we will not grow!
I take this opportunity to share this, because I never knew or understood these issues before I assumed this role. And because of the noise in the air, I never heard. So I implore the stakeholders to distil the noise so the people can hear!
There are many more issues I can ventilate, but the above gives me the appropriate segue required to address what we are doing about it and to get into the meat of what you asked me to speak about –– in summary, the way forward.
Over the last three years, our board has taken the time to understand all of the major issues we faced in tourism as a country. We have had to ask ourselves some difficult questions: is the BTA relevant to the times? Do we have the right people in the right places? Are we spending our resources in the most efficient manner? Are the policy decisions of Government appropriate for our needs? How do we achieve change without compromising the foreign exchange we are expected to deliver? There are no “yes or no” answers.
As it relates to Government policies, there are four main policy decisions that supported the BTA’s vision:
1. Concessions: we supported this initiative because our hotel plant desperately needed upgrading. Our hotels needed to be given every incentive to undertake cost-effective improvements so that they could become more competitive in the marketplace.
2. Investments: we need new room stock in the country that focuses on two important sectors –– the United States market demographic and the families sector. I am not sure that we as a people have recognized that there is very limited capacity for family travel to Barbados. There was a huge void when Almond Beach Village closed it doors –– and it is expected that will be replaced in the near future.
3. Source markets: to mitigate the risk of global shocks, we needed to diversify our markets. I know there has been a lot of criticism of this, and strong views that we should be focusing only on our core markets; but we need to be pragmatic, sensible and unemotional about this matter.
Continental Europe was a natural target for expansion due to our familiarity in Brtitain, and due to the vacation profile of Europeans. They travel for at least two weeks. Two weeks on island means more spend. So we recognized we can buttress our anticipated decline in arrivals because of our capacity issues by diverting resources to “protect the spend”.
Latin America simply makes economic sense. They are our neighbours; they are a powerful economic bloc; they are natural opportunities and synergies for international business expansion; and their peak travel seasons are within our low season. It is an investment in our future. Simple as that.
So within the ambit of Government policy, we are building on a strategy of growing the United States market through new hotel investment; buttressing our low seasons by increasing family travel in summers and by investing in niche activities such as sports, entertainment, and conferences; and most importantly we have stabilized the spend patterns.
The recent Barbados Central Bank balance of payment survey proves that our spend is up compared to last year’s for the same period, and that last year we earned more than the previous year. It went on to reveal that the average spending had recovered to 2008 levels. This is not by accident!
Finally, structurally within the BTA, we recognized we also had to change. To be blunt –– extremely blunt –– we had good people who were not getting an opportunity to shine; and we had people who were not appropriate for some of the positions they held. We also recognized we were a slothful, wasteful, and inefficient organization in an increasingly dynamic, technologically-driven and commercial industry. We just could not be successful unless we radically restructured, refocused and reprioritized the organization! . . . .
The BTA has for all intents and purposes been an entity that has not been able to escape the shackles of tradition. These shackles have seen an organization morphed in size; steeped in sameness; and relentless in its zeal to preserve the status quo. Like many other statutory corporations, we have convinced ourselves that we must have more and more to achieve success, rather than challenging ourselves to look at what we do, and how we do what we do, to see if we can do better.
Young minds have been stifled and frustrated with non-existent opportunities to grow. Some of our older and more experienced colleagues have embraced complacency and pessimism in an environment that has been tainted by partisan politics and internal tribalism. All of this has created an environment devoid of enthusiasm; lacking in creativity; and naked of the passion required to lead our country’s marketing to the world . . . .
We started with our canvas blank. We asked ourselves what it is we wanted to achieve. The answer was quite simple: for our people, we wanted to create an environment where we could properly motivate a team of special people to enjoy their primary job of selling and marketing Barbados to the world . . . . An environment that would pay people fairly for their efforts; reward persons for excelling at their work; and provide opportunities for personal and professional development.
For our country, we want an environment where our people will unleash their innate creativity and unbridled passion to galvanize the attention of the world towards Barbados. This will be achieved through the newly established Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc.
Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. will come into reality within the next two weeks. We have interviewed every single employee of the BTA and assessed their skills. We have identified those persons whom we believe can successfully contribute to the new vision. By necessity and by default, we will lose some people.
In addition, we have utilized independent consultants to help us identify new and dynamic leadership, and I am pleased to say we have identified and made offers to a new executive all-Barbadian highly qualified leadership team and it is anticipated they will all be in place by early October after they transition from their current roles.
This new organization must think differently, look differently, and it must be designed to be nimble and responsive. It must embrace the Barbadian people both at home and in the diaspora to reinforce its mission and purpose. Our international partners embrace this philosophy, and the effectiveness of future relationships will depend on it.
The world of business and marketing is moving faster and faster, and information can be global in minutes. This requires a completely new mindset for the new organization. There is no place for business as usual. Constant pursuit of bold new ideas and speed of execution for objectives set will be key tenets for the success of this newly restructured organization.
Embracing this progressive mindset is the only way to ensure that the new organization innovates and differentiates itself within the industry, and more importantly captures the interest, imagination, and motivates visitors to our island.
We will be successful through the deliberate steps that we are taking. In the United States, we have recognized that we cannot grow that market without an abrupt shift in strategy.
Our strategy is simple, but it will be effective. We will accept the reality that the tour operator business model is dying in the United States, and we will delve headlong in the arena of stronger alliances with the digital travel trade and direct to consumer marketing.
We will use strategic alliances to own that digital space within the Caribbean tourism space, and we will dominate the conversation with the consumer.
In terms of our human resource deployment, we will increase the number of BDMs in the United States in key cities, and their job will be to build upon existing travel and demographic trends, research, and data, and strategically increase our arrivals from these areas to support the increasing and improving room stock anticipated over the next three years.
In the United Kingdom, we will continue to expand our dominance of this market by developing outside of the south-east towards the north. We will build strategic alliance with tour operators who have dominance in Manchester and Scotland, and we will look for opportunities to stimulate further travel from Ireland.
By focusing in this manner, it will allow us to create further demand for airlift from Manchester, and this will be strategic to our continental European expansion as this proves to be a better hub in the absence of slots at Heathrow. To support this, we will have a physical presence in the north of London.
Continental Europe has enjoyed significant growth for us, especially Germany. We will continue to dominate the space for the German travelling to the Eastern Caribbean, and this winter we will add our third flight out of Germany on Condor. We will begin an aggressive push into France, so we can build that market in the next three years.
To do this, we are finalizing a strategy to feed off of the 14 flights a week that enter Caribbean airspace from France. This hopefully will lead us to close the circle on our negotiations with Air France, by showing them a sustainable pattern of visitors who originate in the French mainland.
With the addition of WestJet to our tourism arsenal from Canada in 2009, we have proven that there is still a lot of demand for Barbados. The board has approved a proposal that will see significant increases in airlift over the next few months on both Air Canada and WestJet . This airlift will be supported by additional staff being deployed to Canada; and an aggressive consumer co-op campaign with our airline partners.
We will continue to invest in Latin America because it simply makes sense as I explained before. We have approved additional resources for this region, and we have negotiated new airlift from that region for 2015.
We have had a huge hole in the Caribbean with the demise of RedJet. We must get Caribbean Airlines and LIAT to work with us and allow us to develop competitive fares and packages to support our expansion in the region, particularly out of the French Caribbean, which has shown significant growth for us over the last three years.
To rebalance our arrivals across the year in order to develop a year-round destination, we will reorganize our sports department to be more strategic in focus. We will have a true Sports Tourism Department with trained personnel and international linkages to marketing companies that operate within that space.
We have had a number of discussions with a large international agency, as recently as yesterday, and it is hoped that we can achieve a strategic partnership that will catapult us into that sphere. This, by far, is one of the most important priorities for the new BTMI as it endeavours to make Barbados a compelling year-round destination.
I have taken this opportunity to communicate these changes, so that you have it contextually. We have made these decisions because we needed to. We need to have the best people; use the best technologies; and to utilize quantitative data to improve our decision making.
We will have a bold new organization, with bold new directors and management, and with a bold, new, ambitious focus and identity. There is no other way!
We cannot continue the way we are, as we are causing a multitude of problems when we don’t perform on all cylinders firing. We need to start now to transition our marketing efforts seamlessly into the BTMI.
In this process we have lost and will lose some people who have spent many years in the industry. We thank them for their service. I also want to take the time to sincerely thank our labour partners, the Barbados Workers’ Union, led by Sir Roy Trotman and Toni Moore-Bascome, who in our negotiations exhibited a pragmatism, respect, and cooperative spirit as we dealt with these changes.
I have always been a supporter of unions, and my faith was reinforced through our experiences with them. It is because of their efforts that a new generation of workers can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone and who are leaving, and forge ahead in defining the new industry for the next decade and beyond.
Our patriotism must always take precedence over narrow personal parochialism. Every effort we make is for the betterment of our nation; and this is a tremendous responsibility, and honour, that rest squarely on our shoulders, given the importance of tourism as a source of revenue to Barbados.
We are not saying that there will not be challenges ahead or that it will be easy, but I firmly believe that this organization has an extremely bright future ahead. It will require creativity, ingenuity, and commitment.
As Barack Obama said on his inauguration “our stories are singular, but our destinies are shared”.
We need each other to make this right!