Remembering pioneer John Bell’s contribution to Caribbean tourism

John Bell, third from left, and Suzy Soto, fourth from left, in a group photograph that was part of a presentation on Bell's work at the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association's conference in Miami last month.

Last month, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association hosted a major regional event in Miami, Florida at the Hyatt Regency Miami.

The event was called Caribbean Hospitality Industry Exchange Forum (CHIEF), and the opening offering was very exciting as it involved numerous Caribbean island attendees who had come to support each other in awards well earned, compete in a culinary competition and share industry trends and ideas.

I attended accidentally, being invited to accompany my mother who was invited to witness a very special award to John Bell, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s first executive director, who served the organisation for 29 years. The CHTA’s website states: “John Bell’s lasting legacy and indelible footprint on Caribbean tourism was foundational to the region’s rise to the world’s tourism stage and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s guiding hand in making that possible.”

Trindiad-based Bell’s achievements were recognised and applauded as CHTA bestowed him with the association’s Icon of Hospitality Award during the opening of the forum on 21 June.

The Icon of Hospitality Award is CHTA’s highest honour, created to celebrate the careers and lives of leaders whose work in Caribbean hospitality.

As some people in Cayman may recall, my mother, Suzy Soto, was an instrumental part of early Caribbean tourism. She noted that she was a part of a panel that hired Bell, so they did know each other for a long time. Bell was accompanied by many family members and his wife Biddy, obviously very proud of his award.

Suzy shared that the Caribbean Hotel Association was formed in 1967 to help market and promote small, indigenous properties in the Caribbean. They were each small, but together they could pool their resources to market for the region. The truth was some owners knew nothing about how to run a hotel and hence Jack Gold (Jamaica) began the Small Hotels Advisory Council (SHAC) that would travel to each island and do ‘property assessments’ to help the owners improve the quality of their product.

Suzy was a part of this team and she recalls, “We would begin at the roadside – how did the property look? Their vegetation, their signage, cleanliness and so forth.”

They would then enter through the front door and into the main lobby and parse through the entire property. Their feedback for improvement was then provided to the government and owners.

Only once they had to recommend shutting down a hotel’s kitchen to the local government, but no action was taken. Unfortunately, one week later, 21 visiting travel agents got food poisoning. From then on, governments would hire SHAC to do these assessments and provide reports back to be shared with the owners for improvement.

This group produced an educational/instructional manual for small hotels in the Caribbean that served many properties over the years.

The other long serving industry members who were in attendance were Alec Sanguinetti and Heinz Simonitsch (the first ‘Icon’ award recipient). There was a small dinner afterward where President Patricia Affonso-Doss brought tears to my eyes when she recounted how Bell had inspired and mentored her in her work in tourism. This was genuine heartfelt praise.

Patricia then left the microphone available to anyone who wanted to ‘roast’ Bell. Most of these were also heartfelt thoughts of praise and thankfulness that John Bell had positively influenced them in a hospitality career.

I was left with a strong impression of the strength of the Caribbean people and how much can be achieved when working together.

Barrie Quappe