Ritz boss: ‘Risks must be taken on road to recovery’

Interview: Marc Langevin

The Cayman Islands may have to take some ‘calculated risks’ to bring tourists back to the destination.

That’s the verdict of Marc Langevin, general manager of the islands’ biggest resort, The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.

Langevin told the Cayman Compass he is cautiously optimistic about the long-term future for the hotel and for the tourism sector.

But he warned it would be a long road back to the kind of record-breaking visitor numbers seen in recent years. And he said Cayman would have to take some chances to get there.

“Government has done an amazing job in protecting the population,” he said. “The unlocking (of the island) is going to have to take the same focus.”

He was speaking as the hotel reopened three of its restaurants, putting around 100 people back to work.

Langevin said this was a small step in the right direction. He is hopeful staycations, sanctioned from next week, could give the hotel some small business while the borders remain closed.

But he said The Ritz-Carlton and other resorts need overseas visitors back soon. He is confident that there are tourists that want to come back to Cayman this year.

“We will see guests back in the hotel, but at what level?” he said.

“It is going to depend on technology, on testing, but also on the willingness to be able to make it happen, accepting certain risks when we do that calculation.”

Private jets could bring back first tourists

Langevin believes staycations can serve as a gateway phase to allow hotels and other businesses to iron out their post-COVID-19 protocols.

And he said high-spending tourists on private jets could be the first overseas visitors allowed back to the island – providing a small, manageable group to process and test new entry protocols.

Marc Langevin

He said this would help get tourism back up and running in a phased progression, adding, “It is a natural path that will bring us to the next step.”

He expects it will be a “long staircase” of small steps before tourism returns to anything like pre-COVID-19 levels.

With social distancing part of the new reality, hotels will have to subsist at reduced occupancy levels for some time.

He said group bookings, conferences and conventions were gone for the foreseeable future.

“We don’t know how many airplanes are going to come back; we don’t know what the capacity will be with restrictions on the airlines; we don’t know if the customers will be willing to go through whatever testing requirements government is going to make.

“There is a lot of unknowns and it is evident that we will have to be creative and figure out how we survive in this new environment.”

Fewer visitors with the same base costs adds up to a higher price for global travel in the long term, Langevin said.

“At some point, somebody is going to have to pay for it. Right now, everyone is accepting a loss. It is a way of surviving, but business will change and pricing will be different as we move forward.”

Cayman’s reputation enhanced

The manner in which Cayman has handled the health side of the crisis could ultimately enhance the island’s reputation as a safe place for higher-spending visitors, he said.

“We are number five in the world for testing; I think number one in North America, certainly number one in the Caribbean – that is invaluable for customers looking to resume their lives and know they are safe.”

He believes the new antibody tests – which show if someone has had the virus and developed a degree of immunity – could also provide an additional layer of security as staff go back to work.

He believes many tourism workers may have had the coronavirus already.

“I would not be surprised in the hospitality industry, because we are so customer-facing, if a lot of us have been asymptomatic through the crisis.”

Retraining workers

With the hotel and stayover tourism industry expected to come back much faster than the cruise sector, Langevin said there may be some opportunities for Caymanian employees to switch from one sector to another.

But he said it would involve a comprehensive government and industry-wide effort to assess skills and experience, and to provide training where possible in a socially distant environment.

He added that it was not correct to assume five-star hospitality jobs were easy.

“It is not just you (click your fingers) and anybody can work there, it is not true. There is a long path.”

He said the COVID-19 crisis offered a chance to rethink the future of the industry and the hotel is keen to play its part in helping shape that future.

“I am optimistic because it is the only way I know how to deal with life,” he said, “but I am reserved at the same time.

“I can see no matter what we do, it is going to take a long time to get where we want to be.”

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