From the moment she arrived in Barbados in 1972, British-born Sue Springer knew she had a tremendous contribution to make to the local tourism industry.
And 44 years later, the industry stalwart continues to blaze the trail for this 166-square mile paradise.
With only about a month to go before she steps down as chief executive officer of the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA), the veteran hotelier recalls the years she spent helping to grow the industry while developing her own skills and those of others.
“I feel totally blessed that I have been able to be here to be a part of this exceedingly exciting industry – one that has allowed me to develop so many friends and colleagues and be able to interact with my Caribbean colleagues,” said Springer.
“I have grown tremendously. Speaking with people in the street, people in the industry, people in the region, internationally, Prime Ministers, government ministers and anyone else you can think of, it has just been an incredible journey,” she added.
One of the things Springer instantly fell in love with when she came to the island was the culture. She remembered being “absolutely blown away” when she observed people wearing bright coloured clothing at a funeral here.
“That was one of the first impressions I had. There was a big culture difference…,” said Springer, who also recalled meeting the island’s premier Errol Barrow.
Perhaps the most pronounced shifts witnessed by Springer in the industry over the past four decades has been the island’s transformation from being a seasonal destination to a year-round one.
Another significant change, she said, is the variety of hotel offerings ranging from all-inclusive to apartment hotels, villas, and condominiums, among others.
“So all of this has developed into now giving an incredibly strong product, so that anybody selling Barbados has anything to sell, whether or not you want to be budget or whether or not you want to be high-end . . . whether or not you want to be pampered or you want to be independent and self-catered,” Springer said.
She added that the island’s attractions have also developed tremendously over the years, setting high standards and high levels of professionalism. The hotelier also pointed to the variety of culinary experiences on offer, saying they were also a part of what kept visitors coming back to these shores.
“And what is exciting now is that so many other people have come on board, creating some community tourism outlets. I think one of our other major strengths that we now have and have been developing over the last ten to 15 years is our culinary experience,” she commented.
But it was not always the intention of this captain of industry to be directly involved in tourism. Growing up, Springer wanted to work in the health sector.
“I was very active in sport and one day we were playing hockey . . . and I fell and had a major injury in my back, and when I tried to apply to do physiotherapy I failed the medical. So, I said ‘well, if I can’t help people physically and medically, I will help them with R&R (rest and relaxation)’,” she explained.
In Barbados, she immediately got to working in the industry. She was not only employed at the prestigious Sandy Lane Hotel as a training manager when she started her tourism career, but she also saw it necessary to share her knowledge.
“In those days, when you had a work permit you had to give back to the country. Therefore, I also lectured at the Hospitality Institute one day a week for free. So, I worked five days a week at Sandy Lane and one day at the Hospitality Institute,” said Springer, who later took up teaching full time at the Institute.
Shortly after, she returned to England for a few years.
But passionate about the tourism business here, Springer returned to the island in 1986 and took up a post at the then Paradise Beach Hotel.
A few years later, she was made joint manager of Discovery Bay with her husband Horace Springer, who later died from a brain aneurism.
“So I was then made sole manager of Discovery Bay. Then I joined what was then St James Beach Hotel. And I went managing Colony Club and then Tamarind Cove and then I moved to Almond Beach Village. And then I was brought on board by a gentleman who had purchased land on the south coast to open what was Turtle Beach Hotel, and then I came at the BHTA,” recalled Springer.
It was while functioning in her role as CEO of the BHTA for the past 16 years, that the Christ Church resident got a bird’s-eye view of the industry and spread her passion even further.
“I have only ever done tourism, so I don’t know anything about anything else,” the 66-year-old mother of two said proudly.
“That is what has made these last 16 years so very exciting, because you are looking at the industry all the time from an aerial view of the different issues that are required by all the entities that are in the industry.”
“It has allowed me to grow. It has allowed me to, I hope, do some good for Barbados. I am an adopted Bajan and I feel very proud of that especially with the 50th Anniversary of Independence. I feel very privileged to be able to represent Barbados and I hope that is what I have been able to do in a positive manner during all the time I have been involved in the tourism industry, which is the sector that really drives the economy at the moment.”
And as Springer looks forward to the future, she said her hope was for even greater collaboration between stakeholders in the industry for the benefit of both locals and visitors. This, she said, was essential for the island to remain a destination of choice.
One of her main concerns remains the lack of ease of doing business in the country. Stating that business facilitation was critical to the tourism business, Springer said “we need to be able to be competitive”.
“Tourism is a global business so we need to be able to be very competitive, and business facilitation in every aspect – private and public sector – needs to be something we concentrate on,” she cautioned.
Accepting that she has made some strides in achieving a lot of good for the industry over the years, Springer said she believed there was always more that could be done.
“There have been things I have done, yes. There have been things that I have not been able to do and have been disappointing. And there will always be something to do,” she said.
Springer is expected to rejoin Elegant Hotels Group next year as a general manager at the Colony Club property, where she is hoping to continue sharing her knowledge and helping in whatever way she can.
Expressing heartfelt thanks to the media for the support shown to her during her time at the BHTA, Springer said there was always one thing she had to keep in the forefront of her mind.
“I wake up every day and I say to myself ‘please don’t let me make a mistake or say something that is going to affect maybe 15,000 people that are working directly in the industry and maybe about another 20,000 working indirectly in the industry and the reputation of Barbados’. I take that really seriously. So, when I am speaking to the press, travel agents or tour operators, and when I am travelling or at a trade show, I make sure that what I am dealing with are facts,” she explained.
Springer, who has three grandchildren, said whatever spare time she gets, she enjoys spending it frolicking on the beach – one of the things visitors from all over world come here for.
“I love water skiing. I love the beach. I love the water. I love being on the water, in the water and under the water. I do scuba diving as well,” she said with a laugh.