|High season finishes strong for many (April 22, 2010)|
|Written by By DAN O’CONNOR|
|Friday, 18 February 2011 15:33|
“We only have one go-around with this life, so we have to enjoy it while it lasts,” he said, admiring the group’s 40-foot, TMM-chartered catamaran, moored at a safe distance from the beach. “For me, I work for my toys.”
Even though it’s not a perfect world, the California resident said he would honour his ideals — a mentality perhaps shared by many visitors who have helped make this tourism season, which officially ended on April 15, more successful than last year’s.
From the Road Reef Marina, where TMM houses its charter fleet, to the high-end villas at Bitter End Yacht Club in North Sound, Virgin Gorda, and beyond, many businesses that rely on a healthy tourism sector are reporting signs that the industry is bouncing back from a dismal 2008 and 2009, to a promising 2010.
Recent Caribbean Tourism Organisation statistics are a helpful indicator of the prosperity on the horizon in the region.
First quarter 2009 arrivals showed a 6.6 percent decline, while arrivals dropped by six percent in the second quarter and two percent in the third quarter, according to the statistics. However, welcoming 2010 on a positive note, fourth quarter arrivals rose by one percent.
Here, BVI Ports Authority statistics show that the number of outgoing passengers, which mirrors incoming, dropped from 582,592 in 2008, to 526,592 in 2009.
However, so far this year, the numbers appear to be on the rebound. The BVIPA recorded 290,895 departures up to April, up from 265,370 during the same time period last year, according to Myrthlyn Hodge, the BVIPA financial comptroller.
Similarly, about 34,000 yachts had registered with BVI Customs in 2007, said BVI Customs Comptroller Wade Smith. That number plummeted to 23,000 in 2008 and 20,153 in 2009.
For the most part, the local tourism industry has shown signs of steady improvements, said BVI Tourist Board Director Hadassah Ward, pointing to a solid year for larger property rentals.
But, while 2010 statistics are not readily available, initial signs show that smaller rental properties — like villas — have continued to struggle, Ms. Ward added. However, others are reporting a humble revival from a tumultuous 2008-09.
John Glynn, vice president of sales and marketing at BEYC in North Sound, Virgin Gorda, said 2009 will go down as one of the most financially devastating years in the resort’s 25-year history.
“Last year was about the worst year I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And this year, it’s not a top year, but we’re doing a little above average. … But we’ve had to work harder for it.”
To try to boost business, the resort has turned to social and direct marketing strategies, which are becoming popular with many businesses within the tourism sector here.
The marketing VP pointed to BEYC’s Facebook page as an example, and said the more than 1,400 “fans” are able to keep up with the resort from around the world, at the click of a mouse.
The resort also has a Twitter account, where it provides up-to-date information about events and special offers.
BEYC has a large client base of mainly return visitors, who have made the location a vacation destination for years, according to the vice president. The resort also reaps the benefits of a large number of customer referrals, he added.
Otherwise, Mr. Glynn attributed the resort’s recent success to an economic rebound. Heading into the off-season, the marketing VP said he will remain focused on his target market, as the resort will offer special deals to return and referred customers.
Last minute bookings
It’s a short trip west down North Sound’s shoreline from BEYC to Leverick Bay Resort, where last-minute bookings have had employees gasping a sigh of relief, as rooms begin to fill.
“Up until the end of last year, things looked pretty dismal for this year,” said Monica Willis, manager of Leverick Bay Resort and Virgin Gorda Villa Rentals. “But as the season kicked in, we were seeing a lot of late bookings, so we’re pretty happy with what we’ve got.”
Boats filling the marina at the resort are a reminder that business is back, she said. However, challenges still remain in filling rooms, while villa rentals are on the rise, Ms. Willis added.
Rates dropped last week, as previously scheduled, from $149 a night at the resort’s hotel, to $109. Furthermore, residents are offered an even better rate, $80 a night, during the resort’s off-season months.
Historically, the months heading into summer are not as bad as those going into the fall season, she explained.
“May [bookings] look pretty good; June is not so bad; then we move into July, and August through November is just suicidal, which has been the case for about 10 to 15 years,” Ms. Willis explained.
While the manager said it is a constant struggle to book rooms over the summer, winter months are already filling up, which helps keep her optimistic.
“We are actually taking bookings for next year as I speak,” she said. “The trend here for our villa rentals is people book anywhere from six months to a year before they come out.”
However, last minute rentals have become commonplace in recent years, she added.
With the current level of bookings coming in, and the anticipation of more last minute bookings, Ms. Willis said she will remain positive moving forward.
“I’m very optimistic for next year, definitely more so than last year,” she said.
Take a trip to the scarcely populated sister island of Anegada, and you’ll notice that not much has changed among local tourism outlets that rely on the charter boat industry, according to Vivian Wheatley, manager of the Anegada Reef Hotel.
The hotelier said the establishment has fared evenly over the past several years, virtually escaping the recession.
“We haven’t really dropped [in bookings],” Ms. Wheatley said. “Last year was good — it wasn’t a bumper season, it was fine — and this year was good, too.”
Moving forward, the hotelier said she would like to participate in the BVI Tourist Board’s Staycation programme, an incentive launched last summer to help provide special package deals in the off-season.
Last year, the hotel benefited from the incentive, which had been offered to tourism businesses throughout the territory.
“If they offer that same promotion, we’ll take part in it again,” she said, adding that the summer season usually brings last minute bookings, making it difficult to plan ahead.
On Jost Van Dyke, customers are just now starting to loosen up their pockets, according to Tessa Callwood, co-owner of Foxy’s.
“People are just feeling way more willing to spend,” she said. “Last year they were just way more conservative. … [Now] everyone’s coming out with their whole family.”
This year, Ms. Callwood said she’s noticed a lot of signs that previous trends are coming back to the island, which traditionally benefits from a large United States spring break crowd and visiting snowbirds.
While the bar and restaurant’s famed New Year’s Eve party yielded relatively low numbers, Ms. Callwood said business began to pick up later in January, and stayed up.
Over the summer, she said she plans to close the kitchen from August to October.
“There’s just too much overhead for those summer months,” she said.
But in the meantime, the popular waters on the islands’ south side remain dotted with boats, the restaurateur said.
On Tortola, The Sugar Mill Hotel in Apple Bay is noticing a slight increase in bookings from last year, according to the establishment’s owner, Jeff Morgan.
The hotel has been propelled into the off-season with a “very big comeback” in March, Mr. Morgan said. In all, the first business quarter ended up slightly ahead of last year’s dismal figures, which were down 20 percent from 2008, he added.
Moving forward, the long-time hotelier said he’s predicting prosperity in 2011.
“I’ve been here 30 years, so you could say this is my fourth recession — granted, it was the worst,” Mr. Morgan said. “I think what’s going to happen, is 2010 will be a transitional year, and we’ll see a comeback in 2011.”
The Sugar Mill tends to flourish with the business of return visitors and retirees — neither of whom are widely dependent on the job market, he said.
But, if the market continues to spike, he said it may bring a sense of optimism to the on-the-fence clientele who are debating a Caribbean vacation.
Across Tortola, The Tamarind Club in Josiahs Bay provides an illustration of an establishment similarly on the up-and-up.
Tamarind owner Cindy Clayton explained that many tourism-oriented establishments on Tortola have been working together as a team during these tough economic times. Combined with customer incentives, Ms. Clayton said business on the island is beginning to look up.
“I think everyone is doing these marketing incentives … to try to put together deals with different companies, like dive and sail companies, offering packages, and keeping prices as low as possible, because the tourists out there really are looking for deals,” Ms. Clayton said.
While bookings at the East End, Tortola resort are up from 2009, they are far below 2007 and 2008 levels, she said.
“I’m still worried about getting back to where the 2006, 2007 level, before the bottom fell out,” the hotelier said. “Hotels were running at 80 to 90 percent occupancies, and we haven’t seen that in three seasons.”
Ms. Clayton said one indicator that tourists are looking to spend less than previous years is that many of her customers are flying into St. Thomas, and then taking a ferry or charter to Tortola. Cheaper and greater flight options to the territory’s neighbouring airport in St. Thomas may attract a budget-conscious tourist, she added.
Even though Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas offers more options to a larger client base, LIAT station manager Shon Adams said it’s business as usual at the company’s hub at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport on Beef Island.
The location has not only maintained its regular flight schedule, but it also has added more options to cater to the yacht charter industry, Mr. Adams said.
“We have not reduced anything; if anything, we’ve added a few flights — charter flights — for companies like Sunsail, who bring additional business to the territory,” the station manager said.
Two additional weekly charter flights have been added to accommodate the steady flow of yachting enthusiasts coming to the territory.
“It’s definitely better [this year],” Mr. Adams said, speaking generally about the influx of VI-bound flights.
The Virgin Islands is home to one of the most prosperous yacht chartering industries in the region, with fleets of catamarans and monohulls available for rentals throughout the various marinas in the territory, and several boats also offering daysails.
Many of these companies similarly are reporting a rise in bookings, largely attributing the steady revival to a burgeoning global economy. However, others report that business is slow, and most industry stakeholders interviewed for this article said the industry isn’t out of troubled waters just yet.
Captain Christopher Smith of White Squall, which offers daysails, said the company didn’t need a new strategy or marketing plan to enjoy a prosperous year.
“This year, thankfully, was better than last year, but certainly not as good as years prior,” Captain Smith said, adding, “We know we’re in for a tough one. … You just got to be optimistic and hope things start to pick up.”
Captain Gary Cottreau of Kuralu Charters said he continued with previously successful marketing methods that have kept the daysail company afloat for the past 20 years.
“We keep hitting those hotels — I guess we’re doing a little more advertising — and we’re targeting the local market,” Captain Cottreau said. “We’ve been fairly busy. We could be busier, but I can’t complain.”
The Kuralu captain attributed the company’s sharp 2009 dip in bookings and revenues to a flat-lining economy, and a target market holding firm to its assets.
Captain Steve Wooster of Aristocat Charters spoke proudly of a year that has allowed the company to excel.
“I’ve got to be honest: [Business has been] very good,” he said. “I have no complaints at all. We’re well up on last year.”
Referrals and return business continue to be the main selling point for Aristocat and other charter companies through the territory.
Cindy Chestnut, manager of Conch Charters, described recent business as moving “up, up, up.”
She estimated that bookings were up 15-17 percent from last year. The company recently purchased more catamarans, which are more popular and more expensive than smaller monohulls, and which helped the company prosper with a higher fleet volume, she said.
A lucrative on-season means that the charter company can enjoy a relaxing off-season, during which Ms. Chestnut plans to catch up on maintenance.
“We don’t count on summers,” she said. “We try not to take any charters for a six-week period, over August to October.”
Conch’s prosperity, along with its rebounding competitors, can be viewed as a sign of a recovering economy, she said.
“If the charter companies are doing well, we’re a good indicator of a healthy economy,” Ms. Chestnut said.
Dick Schoonover knows the ups and downs of the chartering industry well. As the owner of Charter Port BVI, it’s Mr. Schoonover’s job to book crewed yacht charters for various excursions throughout the territory.
And this year, while many predicted the chartering industry would continue to struggle, he saw business come alive.
“In general, I think the crewed yacht industry has fared better than expected,” he said. “[In 2008], the last day of September, that’s when it all came crashing down — that year was miserable,” he said. “Then the stock market perked back up, late last summer, and we had a better September than we had before.”
While the on-season hit, numbers grew, he added.
“The curious thing is, we probably had about 40 percent more bookings coming in December than in the past year,” he said. “Then we rolled around to January and we were busy booking for next year.”
With the effects of the recession still lingering, Mr. Schoonover said he has noticed an increase in catamaran bookings, which he equated with budget-minded shoppers.
“It’s been a tough market for smaller boats — boats that can take two to four guests,” he said of the smaller monohulls. “People will usually just rent with six of their friends or so and get a bigger boat.”
With a larger booking comes bigger savings, he added.
However, prices have remained steady, the charter manager said, adding that the high gas prices force charter companies to keep their prices steady in order to maintain overhead costs.
When a charter company asks him if it should lower prices to increase business, he usually advises against it, he said.
Looking ahead, Mr. Schoonover said summer bookings are beginning to pick up, but remain rather low.
“For our summer bookings, we’re not burning down the house, but it’s not as bad as it was a month ago,” he said.
At The Moorings, which has made a name for itself as one of the leading regional charter companies, the effects of the recession are still being felt, according to Clarence Malone, director of operations.
“It certainly was a bad year,” Mr. Malone said.
Asked if business has picked up from a rocky 2008, he continued: “I can’t say that it has. Based on the numbers that I’ve seen, we’re probably about the same in comparison to last year.”
Last minute bookings haven’t helped either, he said, pointing to an increase experienced this year.
“It creates a challenge in terms of scheduling,” the director of operations said of late bookings. “In past years, we would know exactly how many bookings we’ve had, so that we can do things in advance to prepare for that.”
But while business is slow, the situation hasn’t forced the company to lay off employees, as it did last year. Furthermore, cutbacks have been nil, Mr. Malone said.
“In terms of the service and everything that we offer to the customers, that all stays the same,” he said.
In stark contrast to the overnight market, which BVITB officials point to as the biggest money-maker of the industry, the number of cruise ship visitors has remained relatively unaffected in recent months, said Joanna Newling-Ward, manager of Romney and Associates.
“The numbers have remained the same as scheduled, which are slightly down from last year,” Ms. Newling-Ward said. “But we’re not as drastically reduced as some people had imagined due to the recession.”
Cruise ships generally produce their schedules at least two years in advance, in preparation for the seasons to come, she added.
And so far, cruise ships, which often offer budget-friendly rates for their clients, haven’t been largely affected, she said.
Walking back to the massive Carnival vessel docked at the cruise ship pier last week, Christine and Eddie Marin stopped to chat about their first, half-day-long visit to the territory.
“This place seems to have more money than the others we’ve visited,” Mr. Marin said, adding that the cruise previously had called in St. Thomas and St. Maarten and was continuing on to Haiti.
The couple decided to rent scooters for their brief trip, and headed to the north shore beaches, some of which were featured in literature handed out on the boat, they said.
Overall, the Michigan couple said their experience was enjoyable, and took them hundreds of miles away from their home, where many are experiencing the job-loss and money crunch that has made it impossible to vacation to places like the VI.
But down here, and among their fellow vacationers on the cruise ship, the Marins said they didn’t feel the woes of the recession.
“People are still spending. It’s like they’re saying, ‘recession, what recession?’” Mr. Marin said. “When I go back home, I go to my steady job as a correction officer, and [my wife] is a hair dresser, so we’re not feeling [the recession]. We’ll be back [on a cruise] next year — we do this every year, and that’s not going to change.”
|Last Updated on Monday, 07 March 2011 20:01|