Major industry conference set to discuss tourism development

When the tourism industry congregates in St. Kitts for a State of the Industry Conference, all minds will be on one goal: Developing a winning tourism strategy.

Hugh Riley, secretary-general of the organisers, the Caribbean Tourism Organization, exclusively told the Compass that the theme of the bash, which takes place from 10-12 October, was carefully chosen to stimulate debate.

“We realise, of course, that tourism is an extremely competitive industry worldwide. The Caribbean, as the world’s most tourism dependent region, must have strategies that win in this environment.

“Also inherent in the theme is an understanding that there has to be a strategy and each element of our programme speaks to a strategy for winning in this extremely competitive arena,” Mr. Riley said.

His organisation has the responsibility of bringing parties together, he said, while accepting the fact that winning is not the product of everyone working alone.

“We have to bring the troops together to discuss what the strategy is, which is one of the functions of the conference. It is also important to accept the fact that there are new players every single time,” he said. “Between the beginning of 2011 and now, here at the organisation we have had 17 new Ministers of Tourism, so anything we say is new to these new people even though to others there may be familiar themes. We must always understand that there is turnover and that some things require reinforcement. We also have to take new thinking on board and ensure unity and strength.”

The St. Kitts conference also features meetings of the board of directors, the council of ministers and an election to bring new leadership to the organisation.

There are then two days full of specialised sessions dealing with critical issues in terms of the overall strategy, Mr. Riley said.

At the conference

One of these is the continuing issue of intra-island travel. This was partially addressed by the short-lived budget airline RedJet, but in the aftermath of that company’s implosion, discussion is back on the table.

“RedJet left us with very clear evidence that Caribbean people wanted to travel within the region. For the few months it operated, the numbers went up. I think from that the lesson is very clear,” Mr. Riley said.

He said governments were able to facilitate projects even if they did not fund them. In some cases, governments do own tourism infrastructure but largely their roles are financial assistance, facilitation and guidance to the private sector.

Private-public sector partnerships are an underlying theme throughout, said the secretary-general, including the importance of pooling resources.

“The whole notion of ‘One sea, One voice, One Caribbean’ is the mantra of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. It is not about every sector going off and doing their separate thing. It is about the strength of unity and economies of scale. This theme runs through everything that we do,” he said. “You will hear a lot about marketing the Caribbean brand. We are trying to engender debate, response and audience interaction. There are opposing views on such things as whether the Caribbean should market itself as ‘an upscale product,’ or whether it should not.

There is a lot of diversity of opinion there and whether the Caribbean should go looking for international brands or if local investment is key.”

The Caribbean Tourism Organization’s view is that both the structure and system of international brands, plus the confidence engendered by local investment, is an equitable mix to strive for in order to create the right product.

“The right message is clearly about marketing and the channels we use. This is just one of the sessions but will clearly attract a great deal of interest,” Mr. Riley said.

How to win

Identifying a winning strategy may be the theme of the conference, but there are assets the region has that can make this happen. He said it is about attitude.

“The people make us winners; we have to have the entire disposition that we are in this business to win. This is not a sideline for the Caribbean; it is central to our survival as a people,” he said. “We have got to understand that what we are selling is a superb experience and in order to deliver that experience we have to be excellent hosts at all levels. From frontline to back of house, at every contact point we have to internalise the fact that we are selling an experience that has got to be superb. Otherwise people are not going to come back for more and they will not recommend it to friends, family and people in their sphere of influence.”

Infrastructure and bricks and mortar have to be right, added the tourism chief, but it was important not to be misled that having a five-star product without having five-star hospitality would work.

“This is incredibly important. There are going to be destination competitors out there which do not necessarily have five-star infrastructure, but if they have five-star service and five-star hospitality that is something we have to worry about,” he concluded.

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