It is now more than two months since the former Casuarina Beach Resort was re-branded as Sandals Barbados and Government granted the company unprecedented extraordinary concessions, creating probably the single largest unlevel playing field the private sector tourism industry has encountered in its long history.
Timing sometimes can be everything and following nearly two years of long stay visitor decline, the anticipated revenue generated through the critical two week Christmas and New Year period, perhaps has never been so pivotal to the survival of the industry, as we enter 2014.
On reflection it appears to me that there has been a degree of gambling behind the recent decisions made. Few can doubt that the Stewart family has built an enviable hotel empire with all the trappings of success, including a private executive jet, with a replacement value of over US$20 million. Yet it must have been a huge calculated risk to acquire a property that clearly was not up to the standards of other Sandals hotels and so close to Christmas.
Much has been made of the lack of funds available to the Barbados Tourism Authority (BTA) and reported outstanding debts, severely limiting the ability of the organisation to effectively market the destination. Whatever, the facts are, those of us that have spent almost an entire lifetime in business have learnt, usually from necessity, to do a lot with very little.
There are so many ways that you can raise the ‘brand’ profile, often at low or no cost. TripAdvisor, is perhaps one of the very best examples. Around 6,000 hotels have recently been awarded the so called Oscars of the hospitality industry, Traveler’s Choice Awards, in various categories for 2013.
At first you might say, 6,000 hotels, that’s an awful lot. But when you then consider, those who receive this coveted distinction are selected by the highest ratings in a single year out of over 650,000 listed hotels in 82 countries across nine regions, worldwide. So less than one per cent make the grade.
Every fibre in my body tells me that ‘we’ should be doing a great deal more in terms of creative marketing and product quality control, if there is any remote chance that our largely tired and lacklustre tourism industry is going to make any meaningful recovery in the short to medium term. And when I say that, I do not mean dramatically increasing the spend of the national marketing budget as clearly ‘we’ are already having difficultly paying the bills.
Apart from some rare exceptions, we seem to have largely lost touch with the most important group of people that sustains the entire industry, the customer or visitor. With the huge explosion of the social media sites, we can no longer think that if we ignore a problem, or try to sweep it under the carpet, that it will simply go away. You only have to spend a few minutes on one of the more popular social media sites to see that a high proportion of those posting observations and experiences have real worries in what direction ‘we’ are heading. This maybe dismissed as a worldwide phenomenon and shared with other tourism dependent nations, but it certainly doesn’t help fill hotel beds and keep our people employed.
Personally, I would like to see two or three of the existing BTA staff, form a quality control monitoring department whose primary or even sole function would be to track comments hourly that are made on the various travel websites, and after a thorough appraisal, respond accordingly in a timely manner. This should not be viewed just in a negative light, but could also be used to thank the many visitors who make positive comments and encourage them to return.
First, I would like to sincerely congratulate Zed Layson and his team at Surfers Point for being awarded one of the world’s top ten surfing schools by the prestigious National Geographic Traveler Magazine. It’s a tremendous accolade for a small business operated by a vibrant young entrepreneur and you would think that it might be a role model example for our media and national marketing agency to highlight. Perhaps they do not fully understand the branding and destination exposure benefits brought by have having ‘famous personalities’ like teen super star, Justin Bieber learning to surf off our shores. Only this year Forbes rated the singer, the third most powerful celebrity in the world, so its not surprising that even an amateur video of Justin taking board lessons off Inch Marlow has been watched by hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube.
Or discussed among his 43 million FaceBook fans.
According to the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) Traveler has a verified circulation of over 725,000 copies, so a readership of nearly 2.9 million people. I would also argue, probably with a demographic profile, more likely to be influenced by Barbados as a vacation choice. By piggybacking on the years of endeavour Zed has taken to build his business, through ensuring consistent customer service, ‘we’ as a destination have not paid a single cent for this extensive coverage.
First let me sincerely congratulate those Barbadian accommodation providers that have received the prestigious TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for 2012. These are not nebulous or arbitrary awards arrived at by a chosen few, but strictly based on the opinions of actual guests that stay and comment on their lodging experience in the named properties.
TripAdvisor state that usually only about 10 per cent of all listed hotels qualify and those inevitably offer exceptional customer experience. Criteria also includes the volume of reviews received within the last 12 months, and limited to those who achieve an overall rating of 4 to 5, out of a possible maximum five, are eligible.
With over 50 million unique visitors to the world’s largest travel website each month, it’s an incredibly powerful marketing tool. Especially for those smaller properties with limited marketing dollars, enabling them to reach out and penetrate a global arena that ordinarily perhaps they could not even dream about.
Up until the time of submitting this column, well over 500 major news organisations and publications have reported on the 2012 TripAdvisor Travelers Choice Awardwinners. Tens of millions of people around the world, among them many that will be making holiday plans will scrutinise the list and finally decide where they feel they can get the very best hotel value for money and level of service delivery.
More astute national, regional and individual city tourism organisations have been quick to link their destination with the awardees, taking full advantage of what amounts to free advertising and promotion.
While our own Government tourism agency has yet to take advantage of this almost unprecedented global exposure, Barbados has done relatively well in a number of categories. 3,943 properties across 30 countries and eight regions have received these coveted awards this year and as their Press Release reiterates, ‘unlike any other hotel honours, TripAdvisor Travelers Choice winners are based on millions of valuable reviews and opinions from travellers around the world’.
For some reason, all the tourism policymakers I have approached have been reluctant to confirm exactly what the law is relating to the registration and licensing of our tourism accommodation.
While researching the mandate of the Barbados Tourism Authority, the body entrusted to regulate the industry, I came up with Chapter 342 of the Laws of Barbados which clearly states under section 25 (1) that ‘No person shall operate any tourist accommodation unless that person first applies for and obtains a licence issued in accordance with the regulations’.
That seems unequivocal and straight forward enough. If the law has been changed and amendments made since this was enacted which significantly changes the rules then please let us know? If they have not, then clearly the law is not being enforced and judging by the increasing number of websites highlighting new accommodation providers which appear almost on a weekly basis, it must be an area of concern.
Perhaps before the internet, unlicensed properties would have gone largely unnoticed, but that has all changed. With travel reference sites like TripAdvisorattracting over 40 million unique visitors per month even properties with 4 or 5 rooms can generate major interest. Many are not registered or licensed at all and some I am told have their application pending but seem to be carrying on business as usual in the meantime.
As two of the last four Tourism MATTERS columns have been dedicated to the subject, it was refreshing to hear the Minister of Tourism recently state that Barbados would be increasing the use of social media to promote the destination.
This following the earlier appointment of a Director of Social Marketing by the Barbados Tourism Authority’s advertising agency in North America, MMG Worldwide, and their launch of a social media tool called Travel Share.
Not wanting to regurgitate large sections of a MMG media release explaining what the objectives of Travel Share are, it would certainly imply that this agency is at the cutting edge of maximising the benefits from this medium.
It therefore continues to beg the question, why are our tourism policymakers seemingly so slow to fully embrace what is considered by almost every competing territory, an absolute integral part of marketing?
When I read in the largest circulation travel trade publication recently, a direct quote attributed to one of our most prominent hoteliers, my first response was to cringe. He stated ‘TripAdvisoris sort of a menace…. because it’s hard to get people to go online to post good comments’. Hopefully this is entirely a personal view and is not being adopted in any national tourism policy.
‘Menace’ or not, TripAdvisor, already the world’s largest travel site, went into history last month by becoming the first travel brand to have more than 40 million unique visitors in one month. So far this year, the site has experienced a 60 per cent growth. TripAdvisoris currently available in 14 languages, across 23 countries worldwide, so it is present in every marketplace that Barbados is targeting.
It’s not likely to go away in the foreseeable future, and that is why more and more hotel groups together with individual properties are learning to embrace the reality and maximise the phenomenal potential. French based Accor, operating under the Novotel, Sofitel and Mercure brands worldwide, now have a TripAdvisor link on the dedicated websites of each of its 4,000-plus hotels.