Bermuda Tourism Authority CEO Bill Hanbury sits down with The Bermudian to discuss his vision for the future of Bermuda tourism.
It will come as no surprise to hear that Bermudians are cynical about tourism these days. The public is still reeling from the effects of short-term spending over long-term investment, and the distrust fostered over those years is reflected in the latest numbers charting Bermuda’s confidence in the success of the Tourism Authority, as published in a recent survey by the Royal Gazette. This cynicism might be healthy had we never demanded much of past tourism administrations, but the more the industry suffers, the more reliant we become on its regrowth. This leaves us with a toxic and potentially calamitous mixture: total dependency on the one hand and growing distemper on the other. Times are too desperate for us to be cynical today, but the cures for what ails us seem to remain too numerous and illusive for hope.
In what could be seen as a step towards improving democracy in Bermuda today, control over the industry has been delegated to what might well be called a “tourism technocrat,” an expert in the field with a vested interest in widespread success. Whereas a minister was only beholden to voters and public opinion, Bill Hanbury is beholden to the market, and that’s the way he likes it.
Unfortunately, the transparency needed to make this tourism technocracy work has not been forthcoming. Minister of Tourism Development Shawn Crockwell has refused to disclose how much Hanbury is being paid which has raised concerns among the community over his appointment, perhaps unnecessarily. Without an open and transparent process, such assumptions will inevitably be made.
But Hanbury’s objective and the markers on which his success will be judged are clear. In order to reinforce a new sustainable industry, the Authority must harness the twin forces of globalism and localism. The world must want to come to Bermuda, and Bermuda must want to welcome it with organic tourism products, world-class hospitality and a touch of colonial nostalgia. For all intents and purposes, Hanbury seems to recognise this. The question, as always, is whether he can deliver.
Governments around the world are now suffering the consequences of irresponsible spending policies that failed to address long-term sustainability. Was this a contributing factor in the decline of tourism, and when will we stop the spending and start investing?
One of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve been here is the fact that we are really good at short-term investments. But they’re usually at the expense of the long-term sustainable programmes. And we’ve just got to stop doing that. There have been a lot of people who have come to me and said, “Why aren’t we spending money on this?” or “Why aren’t we spending money on this event or that event?” We’re just not doing it. We’re just not going to do it the way we used to do it. If it’s not generating tourism dollars, if it’s not giving us image push across our brand channels, we’re not gonna pay for it anymore. To go spend a million dollars for Beyonce is not something that we need to be doing. It just doesn’t make any sense. Beyonce can be seen countless times in the United States. There are other examples with smaller price tags, but they all add up, so we’re just not going to be investing in “nice” events or “nice” activities if they’re not generating substantive tourism revenue. It’s just that simple. So, from that perspective alone we’re already doing a better job of investing in our future.
This is a two-pronged problem for us: you’ve got a demand problem in the marketplace, which has stopped coming to Bermuda; it’s just that simple. I mean we have not got the job done; it’s obvious. If you’ve looked at what’s happened from a numbers perspective over the past 30 years, I mean… [He begins drawing a furious chart on my legal pad.] What’s happened is: in the last 30 years the international tourism economy has doubled. There’s been a huge increase in international visitation globally. Dubai, Dubrovnik, Abu Dhabi, 20 years ago nobody even knew, well you might have known about Dubrovnik, but Abu Dhabi? It was not a destination. It was a patch in the sand. So the reality is, not only have we declined in the last 30 years but we have fallen completely behind the rest of the global tourism economy. We just haven’t been smart about how we promote Bermuda to the world. We have allowed ourselves to live on our laurels. We’re still living on the laurels of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and the entire marketplace moved by us. And the reality is we really didn’t do what needed to be done to stay contemporary in the market.
The second part of the challenge is on the product side. In my opinion, we still have all the great beaches. All of the great resorts? Not as much… We still have great golf courses; we still have this incredible ambiance that is Bermuda, just like it was here in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, so I’m very bullish on the product actually. People have said, “Well there’re not enough restaurants, there’re not enough hotels, there’s not enough of this, there’s not enough of that.” Well, you’re talking to a guy who promoted Syracuse and Buffalo, New York, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so don’t tell me how bad the product is here.
What are we doing wrong?
One: people want to shut the doors here in November and open back up in April when the cruise ships come in. Au contraire! Do you think they shut the doors in Syracuse, Buffalo or Milwaukee for six months out of the year? Absolutely not. We cannot consider ourselves a seasonal destination, which we’ve done. We’ve basically written off half of the year and so what happens is you end up… [He grabs my legal pad again, this time drawing a slope up and a slope down, like a mountain, illustrating the drop-off in tourism during shoulder months.]
…so why in God’s name would we just say this is okay? This is what the BTA is gonna be doing, start filling those valleys. We don’t need to worry about July and August. Let’s think about how we’re going to fill these valleys. So, all of our marketing effort and all of our work from a brand perspective need to be filling those valleys. And I’ll tell you, each one of those valleys may be worth a hundred million dollars to the economy, just doing that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
And how do we do that?
Again, it goes back to kind of the demand side of the equation. You’ve gotta do a better job with PR, you’ve gotta do a better job with social media, you’ve gotta do a better job with advertising and the way we manage our creative. I don’t think it’s been well coordinated.
We do have an amazing product that lends itself to what is now being called the “Instagram” market. The reason that trend is taking off is because it’s free advertising. If a person you follow takes a picture of herself in a skimpy bikini on a gorgeous Bermuda beach, that is exposure earned at no expense. How will we be using social media to our advantage?
So here’s the problem. Our digital footprint in the video and photographic world is abysmal, in relative terms to other resort destinations. So we’re going to be very entrepreneurial and very aggressive about improving our video library, improving our photo libraries, and actually using them in messaging.
Any visitor that’s making a decision is usually making it based on a visual cue, a visual stimulant that they see and say: “Ah, that looks great!” We don’t market like that though. We’re not marketing like that, and so I mean just kinda getting up into the twenty-first century and marketing to the twenty-first century, and again, this is…I don’t believ
e…I’m not blaming the agency in London or other PR firms or ad agencies or Lou Hammond in New York; I’m blaming us. They managed us. We haven’t managed them. We’re gonna flip that equation on its head and start really managing these people. We have, like, eleven advertising agencies, PR firms or representative firms that are all over the world that are representing us, and they’re sitting out there like that. None of them are talking to each other.
Does our tourism product bring to mind the saying: “A camel is a horse designed by committee”?
Exactly. Those days are over. I mean, nobody is calling me up and telling me that my marketing ideas are good ideas or bad ideas because I’m not taking any of those phone calls. I’m not a politician; I’m a marketing guy, and for better or worse that’s what I’m gonna go on, and my success will be judged by the number of people that get off airplanes and the number of people that get off cruise lines.
Is that where the BTA can succeed where the Department of Tourism failed?
I think so. We’re in this for the long haul and we’re focusing on the long-term brand-building versus the one-offs that the ministry became known for. And I don’t want to say that in a bad way, I mean, that’s just the way it was. Also, we’re not here to appease government constituents. I have a reverence for the market. I listen to the market and you know what, I appreciate what people are saying around here and I want to take input from people and I really do value it, but the number-one thing I’m listening to is the market. Whatever the market’s telling me is what I’m going to do. I’m going to respond to that. I’m not gonna respond to, you know, which particular political party may be on top on any particular day. I’m going to respond to what the market is saying about what it wants.
So let’s go on to that, the market. There is a very big trend towards ecotourism today. One of the interesting stats that came out of a travel-trends survey recently was that over 60 percent of British tourists said that they were “very concerned” about the environmental impact of their trip, but fewer than 30 percent of those tourists ever specifically inquired about environmental impact. Should we be catering to this trend, to the traveller’s desire for more of an authentic, unspoiled environment to explore?
Absolutely. The global consumer today, they want to touch it, feel it and experience it. They don’t want it curated; they’ll curate it themselves. They are smart enough. What we’ve tried to do is curate their experience here. We’ve tried to tell them what experience they’re going to have. Those days are over. We won’t be around at all if we keep trying to curate what everyone wants to have done. We need to give them the information and then let them do their own thing, let them dig in, and touch, and feel, and see and experience Bermuda.
We have to connect the dots for people so that they can actually discover this culture, the performing arts, the visual arts, the culinary delights. We have not done a very good job at that. People get off the plane and we haven’t connected the dots for them.
You mentioned that people have to create their own experience and that we don’t want to be curating that. I would say that we are almost inadvertently curating that with the way that we move our tourists around the island. We can’t keep sending tourists to Horseshoe Bay. How do you create the infrastructure to get these people to these organic, sustainable tourism products?
It’s a big, big issue, and something that the BTA’s going to weigh in on at some point, once we get our sea legs under us a little better. When a visitor comes here, hopefully we’re going to give them better information to connect these dots. We have interactive maps; we have [smartphone] apps; our website becomes more robust; even the collateral materials we’re producing will be better. Bus schedules, ferry schedules, we’re gonna actually begin to work on those kinds of things. But you have also got to give them additional alternatives. I’m not going to get into the rent-a-car debate. We’ll let other people decide. But for all the complaining about the traffic here, that tourists shouldn’t drive rent-a-cars, what it does is necessitate great public transit. It’s not an option. It’s an essential part of the destination that we have great public transit because we don’t have rent-a-cars; we don’t have hotel shuttle buses; it’s difficult to walk on the roads here and it’s a very difficult environment for cyclists. To put mopeds in the hands of visitors is not always the best of ideas. Even with rental cars…I mean…I’m an American. Many of our visitors are Americans. For me to learn to drive on the left-hand side of the road is a very difficult thing to do. It’s not easy. So there’re a lot of barriers to visitors around transportation, whether it’s bikes, motor scooters, no rental cars—limited opportunities to get around the way a lot of people get around urban destinations. So with all that said we have a great public transit system, when it works. We’ve just got make sure it works all the time. So I would suggest to you, and anybody who had any common sense about the tourism economy would suggest, that since you have very limited transit options for the general public and for our visitors, you better make sure the transit is an essential service, and I’ll leave it at that. I’m not trying to get in a fight with management or the labour union or anybody like that, but the reality is that if we want to be a top-notch destination, visitors demand stability, predictability and efficiency. If you don’t have those three things, you’ll see it in the market. The market could care less about what the unions believe, what management believes; it could care less. They’ve already made the decision to go somewhere else.
You mentioned when you first came on that you wanted to go after the luxury market. What does that mean for training, for entertainment, for our attractions, for our infrastructure, for sustainability? How does that target audience inform everything else down the line?
We need to do a better job of nurturing our great music groups, our great dance groups. We have not done a great job with that, so the BTA is trying to nurture more of that with some of the grants that you’re gonna see us award. There [needs to be] more emphasis on arts and culture, on the visual and performing arts. And that’s what the luxury traveller wants by the way. They’re like everybody else, they’re experiential in nature. They want to touch it, feel it, see it, hear it, taste it; that’s what this, that’s what the market is going to. It’s no longer a curated world.
What can we do in small ways in practical terms every day to help the tourism product?
I’d like to call it “Team Bermuda.” There oughta be 60,000-plus residents here who care about the tourism product. It’s the other leg of the economy and I believe if you listen to what Parliament says and what everyone else is saying around here, the economists, that it’s the only part of the economy that really can grow organically.
That we can rely on for years to come?
Exactly. Tourism doesn’t go with the ebb and flow of the economics of Wall Street or whatever they may be doing in insurance and reinsurance. Although those are important industries, this is something that is indigenous to us and we can control our own destiny when it comes to this. It is also something where you can create jobs for the next generations of Bermudians. You don’t need people from offshore; you don’t need experts from afar. We are our own experts when it comes to tourism, and there’s a whole generation of k
ids sitting in schools around here that need jobs. For the next generation, I’m convinced that the tourism economy can provide family-sustaining, upwardly mobile jobs that people can be proud of, so you’re gonna see us doing a lot of work in the schools and a lot of work on-island to better promote the fact that tourism is fundamental to our economy.