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Wooing big spenders

luigimarshall, [email protected]

Wooing big spenders

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Within a span of four months, international eyes have been focused on Barbados, with pop superstar Rihanna winding up the North America leg of her LOUD tour in a concert here in August, and the NBC’s Today Show moving its Where In The World Is Matt Lauer? segment to the shores of this island, before millions of viewers.
But whether those events will make a real impact on the performance of the country’s main foreign exchange-earning sector remains to be seen.
Recently back from the 2011 World Travel Market which took place November 7 to 11 in London, president and chief executive officer of the Barbados Tourism Authority (BTA) David Rice spoke to NATION Associate Editor Dawne Parris about those prospects and the overall projections for the sector, as well as how the BTA sees the controversy swirling around Rihanna affecting her three-year contract with that agency.
First off, what came out of the World Travel Market and what specifically benefited Barbados?
Rice: When we went to the World Travel Market we wanted to achieve a few things. One of the things . . . was that we wanted to secure additional flights for next year. We’d been having discussions with three different countries in continental Europe and in one case we have on our desk for our board to approve an additional flight starting next winter and we’re fairly confident that will happen. The other two countries have also provided us with proposals in order for them to begin flights out of those locations, starting in the winter.
We also wanted to be able to understand what our first half of next year looks like, especially knowing that in the UK [United Kingdom], which is our largest source market, the decision period is in December and January – 35 to 38 per cent of those who are coming to travel in the following year book – and we were pleased to see that the two main carriers and the markets themselves had a very promising outlook for the first quarter of 2012.
In almost all areas we’ve seen increases but we need to do work in order to maintain that momentum throughout the second quarter.
We also wanted to solidify sporting initiatives.
What has been the performance of the tourism sector so far this year?
Rice: The country is up almost eight per cent from January to October. It’s a strong performance year over year but we don’t just measure the previous year.
When we look at 2008, which was a strong period for Barbados, we are ahead of 2008 by 7.2 per cent.
That’s visitor numbers, but how does that translate into dollars and cents for Barbados?
Rice: The spend is down by about $7 on average [per visitor] over the previous year and obviously it concerns us. We at the BTA, while we do not directly have our hands on spend, our responsibility has to be how we market, whom we market to because if we believe we’re able to get a different type of visitor or a visitor who is probably inclined to spend more, we need to be able to do more of that. We’re working on that in all of our markets.
So how are you going to target the big spenders?
Rice: If you take a look at the performance to date, you will see that the luxury market is up over last year. We’re getting them here and getting them to spend money, but we need to do it in a wider sense. It’s not one thing that you do, though. The continuation of quality and value for price paid helps with that, but I also believe that we need to do more events, things that would encourage those who would normally not come to come here and see what we can do. I think that when they come here they would see that this little island of ours has a lot of advantages.
We have seen, in our villa accommodations, double-digit increases and one of the things that tells us is that in Barbados there are those who are inclined to come to our country and spend money because they know the quality of service and quality of product are there. That’s why that market is growing and that’s why that market is something we’re concentrating on, more so than we’ve done before. But the luxury market represents less than 17 per cent of our total share, so we can’t put all our eggs in that basket.
How about the cruise sector? How has that performed so far this year?
Rice: Cruise this year is up over last year, about five per cent.
And the visitor spend is also down there?
Rice: The spend overall is down, no question about it, and I think that we need to, as I said earlier, take a look at our marketing efforts. But one hand can’t clap; the private sector has to be sure of a couple of things. We can’t afford to look at ourselves as a winter destination and say we’re going to throw away the summer, we’re not going to have the restaurants open or the attractions.
If we have on a given month, because of an event, more visitors than we’ve had in previous  years, it’s incumbent upon the private sector to understand that it means they have to make those things available to them [tourists].
Some small hotels close and then they’re reopened and I don’t know what message we’re sending, but we’re a 12-month destination, so we need to be able to make sure that as long as we’re bringing visitors to this country we have things for them to do.
We’re near the end of 2011 now. What are your projections for the sector next year?
Rice: We’re about 7.9 per cent up from January to October. We expect November will probably be even with last year and December we expect to be up by about six per cent. So we expect to be up over 2010 by about 7.5 per cent.
I don’t want to mislead anybody; it’s going to be tough because there are lots of destinations that are working just as hard and in some cases it is less expensive to go there than come to Barbados. But what we have as advantages – whether it be the events that we have, the frequency and sustainability of our events – really tells a story that we’re committed, because we’re not doing one-offs. Year after year, we’re doing something – the Food, Wine And Rum Festival, for example. So there’s a tremendous amount of confidence and hope.
Do you believe tourism is still in a position to be the big money-earner for Barbados and help pull us out of the economic downturn?
Rice: No question that it is. I think it is helping, very much so. The fact that you have more people coming to your country alone tells you that the efforts that we’re making are helping. You can look at it and say we’re in a recession, so we don’t expect any more, but we’re not like that in Barbados. We believe we can get more visitors each year, more opportunities, more flights, more people coming than have ever come here before, so 100 per cent we believe that we are helping.
Would you say there’s no reason to look elsewhere for that kind of foreign exchange for Barbados?
Rice: I would never say that. One of the things that came across very clearly to us when we were at
World Travel Market is that we have an opportunity to look at the business opportunities that should be developed. I think one of the things clear to me is that we need to be able to say, yes, tourism is vital and is key, but there are other areas that we should be focusing on.
I may be speaking out of turn, but one of the things that seemed to be almost clear from the World Travel Market this year was that we need to leverage, not only from tourism officials, but investment officials going to World Travel Market. There are opportunities out there, to be frank with you, that I think we may not be grabbing as much as we can.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister of Tourism because at those meetings he was dealing with business questions and investment opportunities and I think we need to do more of that. What we should be able to do is when we go to World Travel Market, for example, there should be a separate component where we speak to individuals who want to speak to us from a business and investment perspective; some of the other countries are doing that.
Following Barbados’ recent exposure on NBC’s Today Show, officials were very upbeat about how that would boost tourism. Can you quantify how Barbados will really benefit from that?
Rice: I think the fact that you have 5.4 million in terms of viewership on the Today Show, it means that we’re going to be exposed to a lot more people than before. What we have to do is to be able to leverage the interest so the expectation is that we would see, based on the Today Show, an increase not only in awareness but also in visitors. 
But you can’t say how much tourism earning we are likely to get out of it?
Rice: It would be premature for us to give a quantum. But what I expect is that with this tremendous exposure we had on the Today Show that we will see in the short term, especially in the first three or four months of next year, an increase in numbers, certainly from out of the United States.
I remember a lot was hanging on Rihanna’s LOUD concert here a few months ago. We were projecting an influx of tourists and substantial revenue for Barbados, but there was nothing really in the numbers to shout about once the figures came out from the Central Bank.
Are these expectations coming out of the Today Show, like that concert, just pie in the sky dreams?
Rice: I don’t think so. I think we have to be realistic in our expectations though. The Rihanna show was on August 5, and we certainly saw in August more visitors than we’ve ever had before; there’s no question about that and no denying that. But remember that it’s a three-year relationship we have with Rihanna, it’s not just one show alone, and I believe that over the course of 2012 there are going to be either events or there is going to be interest that will generate more visitors to our country. So I don’t believe that it is unrealistic expectations, but I don’t think anybody ever said that it would be immediate, like in the next 30 days.
As we’re speaking about Rihanna now, is the BTA at all concerned about the negative publicity she has been getting recently because of her controversial behaviour, music videos, etcetera?
Rice: I think that sometimes, to be honest with you, we’re a bit harsh on Rihanna. We think that she will continue to promote us and we think she is a good ambassador to our country. She will continue to have those who have never heard about Barbados hear more about it and take a very big interest in our country.
In fact, I can tell you that soon after the concert, we had two or three investors who were on this island, specifically because of the relationship that we have with her, taking a look at opportunities in hotels.
Can you tell me who those investors are and what exactly they’re looking at?
Rice: I can’t give you any more [information], only because it’s a work in motion and a work in progress, but I will tell you that it was significantly because of her.
Is there anything in the BTA’s contract with Rihanna that speaks to her behaviour and decorum?
Rice: Of course, it does. But let me say this very succinctly – we do not believe that Rihanna is going to do anything to embarrass Barbados.
And you don’t believe that anything she has done so far has either?
Rice: No, I don’t.