Tourism optimism despite tough times

Cayman’s tourism officials are optimistic that winter tourism in Cayman can be on par with last year.

In a hostile economic climate, which has seen Bahamas’ luxury hotel Atlantis let go 800 staff and other Caribbean islands’ hotel occupancy rates go down, Cayman is expected to fare relatively well this season.

Chief Officer with the Ministry of Tourism Gloria McField Nixon said, ‘We’re seeing it hit mass markets first and we’re not at all complacent in the challenges that that will project to our destination moving forward.’

President of CITA Stephen Broadbelt said, ‘It is expected that mass tourism destinations such as Cancun, Dominican Republic and. properties such as Atlantis will see a greater impact from the downturn in the global economy. Cayman may weather the storm better than other destinations and our outlook through the next six months is cautious, but optimistic.’

A lot of preparation for this economic downturn was done over the past year by tourism officials in Cayman.

‘We feel we’re in a strong position because we have been anticipating and preparing for this day for a year now,’ said Ms McField-Nixon.

In late 2007 the Department of Tourism, private sector and the Ministry saw indications there was going to be an economic downturn, especially in the No. 1 source market of the US, which represents 80 per cent of Cayman’s visitors, explained Acting Director of Tourism Shomari Scott.

Together they held a tourism summit in which strategies were examined and it was decided to tweak the household income target market and come out with better communication in advertising materials in order to reach the affluent.

‘The good thing about the affluent is that recessions and economic downturns, they’re less affected by it just due to the fact that they are wealthier,’ said Mr. Scott.

So when 2008 rolled around they had new creative materials in the marketplace and new strategies that aligned more with the affluent.

They also did research to see where else Cayman Airways could fly to benefit tourism.

The direct service to JFK had already helped to get the No. 1 source market – the Northeast US – visitors directly to Cayman.

Based on market research, they decided to reinstitute service from Chicago and Washington, DC, was the next best opportunity for the tourism market so it initiated that route for this winter.

And now the DoT is continually keeping up to date with trends in the industry through more frequent meetings with consultants AMEX and the Harrison Group. It has also increased its private sector meetings and are in continuous contact with the airlines and wholesalers to discuss what their outlook is.

And although December and January look as though they are on par with last year, it is much more difficult to forecast how tourism looks a few months out.

‘The issue is right now consumers’ behaviour has changed in that the booking window is actually 30 days or less, whereas previously we could sit and look months out and know the state of the industry,’ said Mr. Scott.

But he said they have cautious optimism because from the hotels and airlines standpoint, December is looking good for the Cayman Islands and now that January is getting closer the bookings for that month, are also looking good.

‘From all intents and purposes they [December and January] should be as good as last year,’ he said.

Of course an active hurricane season affecting the Cayman Islands has been another challenge. And although room stock has been lost in Cayman Brac this season and from the Courtyard Marriott closure on Grand Cayman, a priority has been to re-accommodate those visitors elsewhere within the Cayman Islands.

Ms McField Nixon pointed out that DoT obtains information on forward bookings based largely upon the hotel partners and airline partners.

‘So we look at what are the load factors coming into the country and the projections for that as well as what are the occupancy levels of bookings that our accommodations sector are recording.

‘The challenge is that those key indicators have become increasingly shorter time frame bookings so the ability to look out is compressed in this type of climate so we’re having to take nothing for granted,’ she said.

It is literally a case of fighting for bookings month by month, she said.

A national promotion is also in the marketplace to entice consumers, because even the affluent are looking for a deal.

DoT worked with CITA to have a national promotion with a resort credit that is being used in all of the different gateways and in national advertising to give customers a sense of value.

Mr. Broadbelt stated ‘We are focusing on offering added value rather than slashing prices.’

Mr. Scott said: ‘From our research we’re finding that 80 per cent or more are actually waiting for a deal to be in the marketplace because they want value.’

The PRIDE customer service programme will also help instil this sense of value, he said.

‘Our affluent visitor will pay twice the price for three times the value and the one way you elevate value is to increase the customer service standards . . .’

Mr. Broadbelt notes that people are still going to go on vacation despite the economic crisis.

‘They may not buy a new car or a new house, but as long as they have a job – they will still take a vacation. They may not travel to Europe and if they plan to stay closer to home then we expect Cayman to be high on their list.’

‘But one key factor that is a concern is that visitors may not spend as much when they come on vacation.

‘Our arrival numbers may stay the same, but what may change is how much they spend here and how much of this stays in the local economy.’

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