A Tourism Roundtable

This issue, The Bermudian takes the pulse of the island’s tourism industry by speaking to five leading members of the hotel, hospitality, retail and tour-boat sectors of the economy. We canvassed their views on a wide range of topics, and we think that you will find their answers illuminating.

From Left:

Choy Aming
A tour-boat captain with wide experience of the island’s tourist trade. He has worked with most of the island’s ships, hotels and tour companies, as well as promoted Bermuda through his work as a filmmaker.

Teresa Chatfield
Director of MEF Enterprises Ltd., operators of the principal restaurant group on the island as well as a nightclub, cottage colony, catering company and luxury charter boat.

Somers Cooper
Managing director of A. S. Cooper & Sons, a family-owned retail company that was founded in 1897 by Alexander Samuel Cooper.

George Terpilowski
Managing director of Fairmont Bermuda, overseeing the operation of the Fairmont Southampton Resort and the Fairmont Hamilton Princess hotels.

John Harvey
Chief executive officer of the Bermuda Hotel Association, the official trade body that represents hotels in Bermuda.

In your daily interaction with tourists, do you think that the amenities, activities and value proposition that Bermuda offers are satisfying them? How could we improve on what we offer?

Choy: Generally, they seem satisfied. Price is a big issue, especially with the combination of these economic times and the megaship-visitors’ spending patterns. However, attraction prices are in line with the rest of the world. I talk to about 100 tourists on a busy day. Many have been here before and come back because it is friendly, safe and clean compared to other islands. People still love the beauty and charm we offer, but some modernisation would be appreciated. Many first timers have told me they would come back if there were $200-per-night hotels instead of $500.

Teresa: Bermuda became comfortable with the product they were offering and their return visitor enjoyed a simple, laid-back, taking-a-walk, reading-a-book holiday. Cheap airfares worldwide made it possible for that same traveller to do that in more exotic locales, and Bermuda became boring. During the day, there is no lack of activity: on the water with sailing, snorkeling, scuba, water skiing, parasailing, paddle boarding, deep-sea fishing or boat tours, and on land with golf, beach volleyball and tennis, all of this at a world-class standard. Many of these activities are de facto expensive wherever you are. Is Bermuda more expensive? Yes, but for many of the sporting activities, the extra cost is not an issue, and if you don’t want to spend then the beach, a towel and a swim is always an option. For the history and culture buff, there is more than plenty to see and do and by international standards Bermuda’s museums, forts, etc., are not expensive.

The main problem is the nighttime offerings. You can drink and eat, and there are some relatively new and interesting initiatives such as Chewstick and outdoor movies and Monday nights at Snorkel Park. Overall, the entertainment and excitement is lacking.

Somers: I think our offerings are limited and are basically the same things we offered 50 years ago. The value for money has been skewed by our high cost of living, which many times makes us uncompetitive. We kept the tourism industry on autopilot while we serviced the lucrative international business sector, never asking “What happens if that goes away?” I think we have struggled to create a cruise-ship port that works well and satisfies the average passenger completely. From what I hear, most would still rather be moored in Hamilton if they had the choice.

George: What sets Bermuda apart is the beauty of the island, the proximity to the U.S. mainland and the cleanliness and the great care exhibited by the appearance of local homes, in comparison with other island destinations. The value proposition is more challenging as the perception of Bermuda is expensive. The reality is, it is expensive, but so are all other island destinations!

John: There is always a need to reinvest capital into our existing hotels, and it is hoped that a new five-star hotel property would raise the bar.

Are you in favour of introducing casinos in Bermuda? Why, or why not?

John: Many years ago, the Bermuda Hotel Association membership were not allowed to have televisions in their hotel guest rooms, nor allowed to take credit cards. With time, these rules changed. Hotel guests today demand to have a wide variety of amenities including gaming. As a consequence, Bermuda must introduce gaming so that we can fully compete with similar resort destinations.

Choy: I am in favour of casinos in Bermuda. That does not mean we build a Vegas strip but consult with the right people and do the research to see what suits us best. And the religious groups should stay out of it—that’s why democracy separates church and state. From what I have seen, we could look at a European model. I went to the Casino De Monte Carlo in Monaco for my birthday, and I felt like James Bond. That was pure platinum. Maybe we can’t have that, but high end, closer to Monaco than Atlantic City.

Teresa: Casinos are a subject of emotive debate, but new hotel development is unlikely to come without a casino. The island has to make a choice between allowing the hotels to have gaming licences and seeing a further slide in hotel beds and revenue and, as a consequence, jobs. There are models Bermuda can follow without drastic social consequences, but equally well the introduction is not a panacea for the economic issues we face. But the introduction of casinos allows for subsidised entertainment, which would make a significant improvement to Bermuda’s nightlife.

Somers: I think that if controlled properly it could add a dynamic to Bermuda’s product offering that would benefit the entire island. It could kick-start our tourism industry again and encourage foreign investment.

George: I am in favour of looking at any ideas that potentially might extend the high season. If gaming is a concept that is collectively embraced by the majority of residents, then it is something that should be seriously considered, especially if a portion of the revenues generated can be utilised to support programmes that have been cut back or are in danger of being cut back due to financial pressures on the overall economy.

Are you in favour of a national airline for Bermuda? Why, or why not?

Choy: Yes, but like casinos, it definitely should be examined thoroughly first. We have seen low-cost airlines in recent years; some worked and some didn’t. However, with a national airline, there is no multinational corporation out for maximum profit—this is us promoting us. As long it does not lose money, it promotes Bermuda, creates employment and gets air passengers here, hopefully cheaply. Air passengers spend more, something like 20 times the amount a cruise-ship passenger spends. As long as we break even getting them here, we still win.

Teresa: If Air France, British Airways and American Airlines all struggle in the current economic climate to turn a profit
and small national airlines all make a loss, Bermuda is not in a strong enough position economically to contemplate it on a national basis. The current model where the overseas airlines get guarantees when they agree a new route to Bermuda has encouraged new airlift to the island. The issue will be, with fewer residents and fewer tourists, trying to make sure that all the existing planes are kept filled and the routes kept open.

Somers: No, I think the lack of scale for a local airline would make it financially unviable.

George: We need to continue to develop relationships with our current carriers and improve service from key gateway cities.

John: Bermuda should undertake a very thorough and unbiased study on the pros and cons of having a national airline.

Is the Department of Tourism doing an adequate job of marketing Bermuda overseas—fishing where the fish are, as the saying goes? What might they do differently?

Choy: They could do a better job. We have a lot of repeat visitors—most of Long Island has been to Bermuda, seriously. We don’t need a push in the Northeast. These people know about us, and they return, but not every year. Direct flights from Chicago, for example, would directly link a huge new market in the Midwest. We are so close; one movie and the flight is over. This island paradise is three to four hours away on a cheap Bermuda Airways flight, watching the Bermuda promotion video, getting coupons from Bermuda shops and free rum swizzles on the plane.

Teresa: I am not privy to Bermuda’s marketing plan, although I know that there has been criticism of it over the past few years: that Bermuda was invisible whilst destinations such as the Bahamas and Jamaica had vibrant and visible campaigns. Visibility on the Internet is key, and exposure in major events rather than pure advertising is a better use of dollars. Events such as the deep-sea fishing tournaments are a perfect medium to expose Bermuda; they spend money and are here every year in July for a major tournament. Other quirky ideas, such as the Chelsea Flower Show, which gets major newspaper and TV coverage, have been floated.

Somers: I think we could do better. One problem I see is that our Tourism Department has been unable to partner with a single advertising firm long enough to offer a strong and consistent message.

George: The BDOT is doing a good job with the resources they have. They are fishing where the fish are and supporting our key markets.

John: The Tourism Ministry has professional folks who intimately know our markets and work with us to ensure that Bermuda’s presence and awareness is evident. Needless to say, with more funds we could do more.

What is your view on the introduction of a Tourism Authority, independent of Government, to manage and develop our tourism product? I am referring to a body that would be in charge of communications, community relations, marketing, events, product development and related issues.

John: I support the introduction of a Tourism Authority, as does the Bermuda Hotel Association membership.

Choy: I like the idea of more independent entities, because the Government is a juggernaut. They move slowly by nature with red tape, checks and balances, etc. A smaller independent body could move more freely and get things done faster. They could also work directly with tour operators, retailers and other stakeholders to better facilitate the needs of everyone involved. They would need a good, impartial mediator. This type of organisation may not solve all the issues, but it should make a better, more streamlined, more profitable experience for tourists and locals.

Teresa: The presence of a Tourism Authority rather than a Tourism Department means that political control would disappear and that policies could be developed and followed rather than having each new tourism minister stamping their own authority and ideas. This creates more stability for the tourism product and makes a long-term plan more feasible.

Somers: There is real merit to a Tourism Authority, which would hopefully involve seasoned professionals who will have to live or die by their success or failure. They would have to be accountable. The more we can remove politics from the equation, the better in my opinion.

George: We are making headway with the Bermuda Alliance for Tourism; however, a dedicated, independent Tourism Authority would be best for Bermuda. Hire dedicated, qualified professionals, guide them with a concise strategic plan and then get out of their way and let them do their jobs. Right now we have too many chiefs, and the mission is confused.

Tony Brannon, Tom Butterfield and Michael Freisenbruch have announced plans for a John Lennon memorial to be unveiled in June 2012. The hope is that fans of Lennon will travel to Bermuda to see the memorial, learn more about his relationship with Bermuda. Is that sort of entrepreneurial approach to tourism what we should be doing more of? If so, who should be responsible for those types of initiatives?

John: This type of initiative has merit, but it will need other on-island offerings to make it work, i.e., beaching, golfing and a musical concert to reflect on John Lennon’s memory and accomplishments.

Choy: I just read about what they are doing, and I love that idea. It is great on many levels. Entrepreneurial approaches are effective because they usually come about and evolve quickly and also change if necessary according to the market needs. I think a mix of Government, a Tourism Authority and some entrepreneurs could be great. There is not one solution or one body that will fix the problem. It will take a balanced approach from a few sides. Tourism can be fixed, but it will take time, fresh ideas, multiple angles of attack and cooperation.

Teresa: Bermuda is a small and extremely entrepreneurial society. Tony Brannon has already introduced beach tennis to the island and brought a number of international beach-tennis events here. Many of the attractions here were developed by individuals rather than being Government sponsored: from the annual house-and-gardens tours to the January Performing Arts Festival or the Film Festival to the biggest festival of all, Cup Match. All grew up because people make them work. It is not, therefore, possible to make someone or a Government body responsible for these events. But Government can make it easier by having a central Government liaison to expedite the process when an idea comes forward, to co-ordinate the different permissions needed.

Somers: It sounds like a good idea that will give visitors another reason to come here and add another landmark to the very old must-see places on the map. It shouldn’t cost a lot either.
George: It is a great niche marketing opportunity that if marketed correctly could bring new visitors to the island. It is one of many ideas that might bring new visitors to the island, and each little bit helps.

What one thing could Government do, perhaps in the area of regulations or investment incentives, to assist those working in the tourism sector to provide tourists with a more satisfactory visitor experience?

John: I, like many others, wish to see the redevelopment of the waterfront in the City of Hamilton, which could include a convention centre/theatre, elegant shopping and a selection of restaurants to please everyone’s appetite. This would necessitate the removal of the docks. This iconic development would assist with improving hotel occupancies between November and March.

Choy: Tax relie
f for tourism business. The seasonality of tourism only allows income for maybe seven months a year. Drop the payroll tax to zero as they did for retail, at least for the winter months. People buy things year round. You can’t snorkel in January. Maybe even specially priced health insurance for seasonal workers to make working in tourism more financially appealing? And end the immigration restrictions, like the visa rules. We are a tourist destination that makes 80 or so countries get visas, but we have no embassies. If people have enough money to stay longer than three weeks, let them.

Teresa: Bermuda needs to have one-stop shopping for anyone investing or coming up with an entrepreneurial idea. There should be firm deadlines for response on any initiative. Slowness of change is a characteristic of governments but slowness of response in this economic environment is suicidal. Both existing businesses in the hospitality industry and potential new businesses need to have an entrepreneurial response from the Government on any business-related matter, be it labour, investment, planning. Speed, not sloth. Action, not avoidance.

Somers: I have been a firm believer for a long time that real duty-free shopping could be a great offering to our visitors and another feather in Bermuda’s cap when advertising to the potential visitor. Everybody likes to get a deal and pay less than they would normally pay at home. The foundation of Bermuda retail was selling English woollens, china and glassware to Americans at favourable prices.

George: Make sure that the image of Bermuda as a safe destination is not just an image, but also a continued reality. Once that position is lost in the minds of the travelling consumer, it is almost impossible to regain. There is a rising tide of crime that is impacting the hospitality community, and it should be taken very seriously. Invest in crime prevention.