Cayman Villas, the 50-year-old pioneer of the vacation-property rental industry in the Cayman Islands, has become the latest business casualty of the coronavirus crisis.
With no return of tourism on the horizon, Juliet Cumber-Forget has given up the lease on her office on Owen Roberts Drive, which acted as a welcome lounge and check-in centre for arriving visitors.
Cayman Villas’ five housekeepers had to be made redundant in August after the business had gone four months with no income coming in. The rest of the staff are on half-pay, handling a small number of local staycationers.
Cumber-Forget said, “There is no sense in continuing to pay the operational overheads when there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”
She is not hopeful that tourism will resume in a meaningful way before next summer.
Despite the ‘soft opening’ of the borders earlier this month, she said there was little interest from the owners of the 94 properties in her portfolio in visiting Cayman while a 14-day quarantine remains in place.
“Our owners are suffering too. Their businesses have been impacted and they don’t have the time or inclination to come to Cayman for a long stay.”
A lot of owners are taking their properties out of the vacation rental pool and seeking long-term tenants to get them through, she said.
Cayman Villas, which has been on Owen Roberts Drive for more than 30 years, has moved to a smaller space at the Don Foster’s building on South Church Street.
Cumber-Forget said her father, Mervyn Cumber, had offered her the space to cut costs and help keep the business afloat.
Cumber closed Don Foster’s dive shop when the virus first hit. He has since leased part of the business to long-time employee Sergio Coni, who is running a reduced operation, without the retail and tour boat business, from the site.
Cumber-Forget said the vacation rental business which, room for room, accounts for as many beds as the hotel industry, was suffering just as badly. Cancellations throughout the summer were deferred to September.
But as the deadline got pushed back and details of the conditions attached – particularly the mandatory 14-day quarantine – became clear, another round of cancellations ensued for bookings through to March 2021.
The announcement of the Dart group last month that it was downsizing its hotel operations was another sign, she said, that it was time to cut back.
“If Dart can’t pull it off with the resources that they have, we are all in trouble,” she said.
“I can’t keep throwing money into an empty pit with no prospect of tourism returning within the next six months.
“My thinking now is that it might be best to put the business into hibernation for nine months and try to start up again next November.”
Cayman Villas was started by her mother and father in 1970. A host of celebrations had been planned for the 50th anniversary this year.
Instead, it has proved to be a momentous year for the business for all the wrong reasons.
Cumber-Forget believes many business owners are in her position, having to make tough calls about their future as the likely length of the tourism crisis begins to become clear.
“I think we are going to see a lot of restaurants and bars and other tourism businesses close down or go to weekends only,” she said. “It could potentially be a ghost town, and the government needs to realise this.”