What is it like when the boss shares with her team that she is going through similar struggles and anxieties about the COVID-19 pandemic? That she worries about the viability of the company she ran for decades, and its ability to pay employees, she has come to regard as family.
Roseanne Myers, the general manager of Atlantis Submarines Barbados and a stalwart of the island’s tourism sector, was unafraid to share her experiences, trials, triumphs, and faith in her company’s resilience, and that of Barbados, to rise from the devastation caused by the pandemic.
In a revealing conversation with COVID Weekly, Myers said it was the discovery that the Cayman Islands’ Atlantis submarine would shut down its operations permanently, just two months after the deadly viral illness was reported there last year, that jolted her.
“I spoke to my team when I heard that Cayman was going to close completely, permanently. I was fired up to do whatever we could, not to go that route. We had determined that was not going to happen here. That fight is still ongoing,” she conceded.
What has buoyed her, and her team’s confidence has been Government’s tourism lifeline in the form of the Barbados Economic Sustainability & Transformation (BEST) programme. The administration’s determination not to retreat or surrender to the COVID-19 shocks on the island’s health, economy, and social sectors, has lifted Myers.
The 61-year-old may be in one of the most critical battles of her career as a manager and corporate executive.
The immediate past president of the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) should have been in science-based field; not a marketer, convincing people from around the world to come visit Barbados and enjoy all that the country has to offer.
She studied Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of West Indies, Cave Hill Campus here, and at the Mona Campus in Jamaica, and spent her early years at the Intel Corporation as a quality manager.
Knowledge of Tourism Marketing
“After my time at Intel in management, I came into the tourism sector and then learned everything there is to know about marketing in the sector because we started Atlantis Submarines from scratch.
“Not only was it a new product, but it was also an innovative product as there was only one other submarine in Grand Cayman. We had the unique task of building from zero knowledge, and zero revenue, to a company that has been around for 34 years.”
She recalled the doubts some had verbalized about the viability of underwater submarine dives, and at a price point that was more than 50 per cent above what other popular attractions like the Jolly Roger, Harrison’s Cave, and various catamaran cruises were offering.
Background in Manufacturing and Process Engineering
“Because of my background in manufacturing and process engineering, I fully understood what it took to run the operation. I also spent much time understanding how the submarine works, how the boats work, and actually, I supervised the building of the 100-passenger catamaran, that we now have.
“Every wire on that boat I know. I know when the engine went in. I learned about the centre of gravity. What it would take for it to nose down and operations to make it fuel-efficient. My background really helped me,” she recounted.
During her tenure, Myers has visited every Atlantis site in the world except Atlantis Guam, in the Pacific. She was there in the early days of the Hawaii company where there are five subs in operation and consulted with Aruba in the Dutch Caribbean, and with St Thomas in the Virgin Islands on the early marketing plans. Barbados is now the longest-running Atlantis Submarine attraction, and this year is celebrating its 34th anniversary.
The tourism executive knows that business start-ups are tough. But the process of sustaining a tourism-dependent entity in a global pandemic, is a task of epic proportions.
No Retreat, No Surrender
In one of her first acts when COVID-19 began enveloping the region and undermining the hospitality sector, Myers dispatched a bold letter to the company’s headquarters in Vancouver, Canada.
In her proposal outlining the plan of action to the directors, Myers borrowed from the mantra of Minister of Health and Wellness, Lt Col Jeffrey Bostic, that there would be “no retreat and no surrender”. She informed the directors she was determined that Atlantis Barbados, would not be a casualty of COVID-19.
Financial Safety Nets
“What COVID has taught me is that we take for granted the safety nets that have been built into our systems in Barbados,” she told COVID Weekly.
Among those safety nets is the National Insurance Scheme’s (NIS) 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, that provide approximately 60 per of employees’ insurable earnings.
Recalling how she went on the breadline along with all the other employees of Atlantis in 2020, she remarked: “At least we knew that everybody would have something that they could depend on to take care of their families for about six months.”
The tourism executive added: “We laid off the staff, but we never lost track of them. We kept in communication via Zoom because we always indicated that this was going to be a temporary measure. We had some seasonal, part-time staff that we kept for as long as we could.”
Myers had no qualms about admitting her heightened anxiety as the months went by and the NIS benefits drew to an end.
“Once the government threw out a lifeline in the form of the BEST programme, we grabbed it very quickly and we also negotiated with our bank so that we had a couple of safety nets to keep us.
“At first, we thought it would have kept us going until June/July 2020 and then the restart was pushed back to December and it looked unbelievably hard to consider a business that would make zero revenue from March 17, last year to December, but we were very confident at that point.
“By December hotels reported strong enough bookings that we could come back into the market with some sense of normalcy.
“But, of course, Boxing Day happened with the COVID-19 spike. We had resumed operations, but the country was in lock down again.”
Programme Helped Tourism Businesses
A strong advocate of the state programme that allows tourism-based companies to receive up to 80 per cent of employees’ wages and salaries, if they re-engaged their workers, Myers said it was the best thing that could have happened to Atlantis Submarines Barbados during this period of economic and financial upheaval.
“That programme has substantially helped a number of tourism businesses. The only way to survive is to be viable through a period where you have no revenue. And you could only be viable if somebody is giving you some kind of revenue to pay your staff.
“In my circumstance where we have highly skilled pilots . . . it is very important for us to keep those people and to make sure that they are engaged. You cannot train a pilot in four or five weeks. We just could not afford to lose them.”
She added: “Under the BEST programme, my staff are getting 80 per cent of their 2019 salary, up to the NIS maximum and will do so for up to two years. I am not losing the core people I have. No, I am not.”
Upskilling and Reskilling of Staff
Myers, who in February 2021 was appointed chairperson of the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc (BTMI) and the Barbados Tourism Product Authority (BTPA), understands how critical it is for all Barbadians to do all they can to join the fight to survive this crisis. That is the reason she accepted the challenge to take on this leadership role in tourism while still steering Atlantis Submarines to safer waters.
She credits her management team at Atlantis with ensuring the company retains the talent that is experienced, competent, and ready to hit the ground running when it is safe to do so.
The business executive added: “The BEST programme is one of the things that has saved me and the management team from some of the stress associated with COVID-19.
“While we are on the BEST programme, staff were being paid; everybody can take care of their families to a certain extent, and we are keeping them motivated through upskilling and reskilling, and by talking to each other about the things we are doing.
“That lifted a huge load because about 60 per cent of the staff have been with the company for over 20 years.
“You can’t just let them go like that. BEST has allowed us to at least get that off our minds and to work on how to build this business back, once the numbers are there.”
While the operations of the submarine attraction are stalled, employees are involved in the maintenance of equipment, as well as novel endeavours such as aquaponics, marketing, stress management, and conversational French and Spanish.
“Our people were trained at the Samuel Jackman Prescod Institute in photovoltaic (PV) installation. We have a PV project which we are working on to possibly charge the submarine using renewable energy.
“We are hoping that by the time we return, we will have enough staff trained that we can do the installation ourselves with the guidance of an engineer. We also have people doing training in electrical vehicle maintenance.”
Even as Myers has found some respite from the COVID-19 whirlwinds, she is conscious that other business executives and company owners were not so fortunate.
Observing that she never envisaged, even in her worst nightmare, that the travel and tourism industry would collapse around the world at the same time, she said COVID-19 created the perfect storm.
One of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic for Myers was seeing the fear in the faces of local managers, business executives and entrepreneurs, large and small.
She revealed: “We spent a lot of time together chatting about what we could do. I could see the fear in all of us, collectively, that businesses we have invested so much in, were on their knees, and could possibly close completely.
“You saw it in their eyes and as a leader, you saw it in the eyes of your staff who were fearful that they might not be able to support their families.
“I also witnessed it in the eyes of people who own businesses. That fear that they could lose everything that they and their families had worked so hard to achieve.
“That was most unnerving because collectively, we were in a very shaky place, where none of us could help each other except that we could talk about it. The fact that we are all in it together has really helped.”
At the same time, Myers is a woman of hope and faith.
“I feel strongly that together we can fight and get out of this crisis because it levelled the playing field for all of us . . . Leadership and academic excellence are the hallmark of Barbados. That is something we have to build on. We have taken it for granted, somewhat,” she contended.
Myers, however, praised the leadership of the country in navigating through one of the most difficult and treacherous times in the island’s post-Independence history.
“I am confident tourism will return stronger than ever by late summer 2021 but we have to stay disciplined a little longer,” she advised.
This article appears in the April 26 edition of COVID Weekly. Read the full publication here.