The local tourism industry should be recruiting staff now to prepare for the possible reopening of the borders later this year, the Cayman Islands Tourism Association advised its members this week.
Although no timeline has been set by government for when tourists can return to the islands, the industry’s businesses need to be ready to remobilise for when they do return, CITA president Marc Langevin told association members at a meeting on Thursday, 27 May, at The Ritz-Carlton hotel.
CITA leaders, citing the statistic of 120 million vaccinated Americans, are calling for a controlled reopening, beginning with limited numbers of tourists, and increasing those weekly if it is proven that Cayman can safely accommodate them.
Langevin said this gradual reopening needed to be done “prior to the summer”.
“We cannot ramp up just moving from October to November or December. We cannot simply ramp up; we need to prepare our protocols, potentially use that time to train [staff], and we could use some customers to train them… We need time to figure out how the system can handle it,” he said.
The hospitality industry also needed time to sort out its supply chains, which have been disrupted by the pandemic and would need to get back on track before the high season begins.
Difficulties in finding flights to the island for newly hired, or rehired, expat employees, as well as the time needed to train local people who are taking up jobs in the industry for the first time, means employers in the tourism field should already be working on recruiting staff, Langevin said.
“If you have not started to do recruitment, you are already late and you will not be ready for Christmas,” Langevin told the packed conference room.
Since COVID-19 regulations closed the local borders 15 months ago, more than 2,500 tourism employees have lost their jobs, and most hotels, restaurants, water-sports and tourism attractions only see business at weekends, members were told. And while locals are taking staycations on island, the average hotel occupancy so far this year is less than 15%, according to CITA.
Representatives of some of Cayman’s largest hotels spoke of a decline in future bookings, not just for high season this year, but for next year and the year after, because overseas travel agents are unwilling to risk booking their clients into hotels when there is no clear path for reopening that has been publicly communicated.
With other islands in the Caribbean already opening their borders to tourists, Cayman is losing out on its market share of international tourism, CITA representatives said.
Meeting with government
The association’s board met with the new government earlier this month, and had what Langevin called a “very honest and direct” encounter. “There was no holding back on both sides,” he said.
During the meeting, government officials pressed for an increase in pay for workers in the hospitality industry and for more Caymanians to be hired in the tourism field.
In a press release issued by government following that meeting, Tourism Minister Kenneth Bryan, who hosted the meeting, said, “The COVID pandemic has presented us with a timely opportunity to correct the imbalance that has existed for too long within our tourism workforce. Integrating more Caymanians into the vacant roles is a win-win situation that will add more authenticity to our tourism product, while providing Caymanians with the ability to be gainfully employed and able to support themselves and their families.”
Langevin said CITA was addressing these issues as a priority, and urged members to take steps to try to employ Caymanians in vacancies within their companies, as the islands gear up for reopening. He said his own establishment, The Ritz-Carlton, has already held job fairs and approached Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman to place unemployed individuals at the hotel.
He said the hotel estimated it needed to hire 500 people to ensure operations can be ready for remobilisation in November, when The Ritz-Carlton, which will soon close its rooms for renovations, will reopen. So far, 50 Caymanians had applied, he said.
CITA treasurer Markus Mueri noted that 3,300 Caymanians are receiving monthly government stipends of $1,500, and suggested that those recipients should be surveyed to determine who is working in tourism on reduced hours and wages; how many involved in stayover tourism have been laid off or are on sabbatical; and how many are out of work due to the loss of cruise tourism.
He said some of the stipend recipients were now working in other industries, like construction or retail. He encouraged employers in the hospitality industry to reach out to those individuals to invite them to come back to work in the sector. “We need to get these back… let’s open our arms and support them and let’s get going. That is very essential,” he said.
Mueri said CITA plans to create a campaign to attract Caymanians to the industry, which would involve training programmes for a variety of jobs. He said the association was working with the Department of Tourism and WORC to help place Caymanians in jobs within the sector.
He also addressed the concerns raised by government about pay within the tourism industry, where the flat rate is $4.50 an hour. Cayman’s minimum wage is $6.50 an hour, but a lower sum is acceptable if the employee receives gratuities.
Mueri displaying a graphic outlining typical pay of various jobs within the industry, which showed, for example, a server or bartender working during high season being paid a basic annual wage of $10,000, and earning up to $40,000 in gratuities and another $6,000 in incentives and side tips, leading to a total of $56,000. He also gave the example of a kitchen steward earning $17,000 a year, who can receive up to $15,000 in gratuities, meaning that steward is making $14.25 an hour.
However, he said, obviously, those levels of gratuities and tips cannot be reached with no tourists on island.
“Opportunities in our industry are enormous. You drive around this island and look at the hotels, the new buildings, the new developments – jobs in restaurants will be widely available. Every Caymanian is welcome to come and work for us and get some training and move to the next level,” Mueri said.
CITA also urged all its members and all staff within the tourism industry to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The association, in partnership with R3 Cayman Foundation, is offering a $10,000 cash prize, and $15,000 worth of other prizes, to people across Cayman who get vaccinated before the current vaccine supplies expire at the end of June.