|Special Report: Tourism season gets mixed reviews|
|Written by By JASON SMITH|
|Wednesday, 22 June 2011 16:35|
On a recent Monday afternoon, throngs of mostly middle-aged tourists ambled slowly down the sidewalk next to Admin Drive returning to their cruise ship.A string of half-empty safari buses came and went as a few of the tourists browsed in the drizzling rain at vendors’ white tents along the road. As the 1:30 p.m. departure of the Norwegian Jewel approached, the street became more crowded with pedestrians, some of whom carried brown paper shopping bags with the Sunny Caribbee Spice Co. label or the maroon-and-white design of Little Switzerland. Many, though, were empty-handed.
As the high tourism season, which officially ended April 15, winds down, hoteliers, restaurateurs, charter operators and others across the territory are evaluating how it went. For some, the season marked the continuation of a successful yet gradual recovery from the lows of the economic downturn; for others it was hit or miss.
Overall, statistics and insiders’ reports suggest that it was a modestly successful season compared to last year.
Several observers, especially those in the hotel, resort and restaurant business, reported that the post-recession tourism industry has been most notable for its unpredictability.
“I’m sort of confused by it,” Tessa Callwood, co-owner of Foxy’s on Jost Van Dyke, said of the season. “It seemed busier, but it’s not reflected in the numbers.”
Ms. Callwood said that retail and restaurant sales at the globally known establishment have increased, and her customers, many of whom are yachters from the United States, seem “freer” to spend. But business varies markedly from month to month, a “perplexing” trend that Ms. Callwood said is very different from the boom years of the mid-nineties. Then, the business could count on having 200 to 300 diners for lunch on an average day — growth that slowed and then resumed 10 years later, only to be set back again by the downturn. What does she anticipate for the future?
“I’m trying to notice what’s going on where, but it’s very hard to say,” she said.
Though Foxy’s had a good season, she said, some of the smaller tourism businesses on JVD didn’t fare as well — particularly those located away from Great Harbour.
On Tortola, a diversified revenue stream from marina, restaurant, deli, bar and hotel traffic has aided Village Cay Marina, according to Trefor Grant, the business’s general manager. The marina’s 55 employees have been busy during a “reasonably good season,” Mr. Grant said.
“For the most part, I think that we realised a spike in certain months when compared to last year, but overall it wasn’t too dramatic,” he added.
Mr. Grant, too, hasn’t seen a specific pattern in customer traffic, but he said that as the economy stabilises and travelers feel more financially secure, the VI tourism industry will benefit. For now, though, he doesn’t predict strong growth for the immediate future.
“I think it’s going to be pretty flat,” he said.
At the Sugar Mill Hotel in Apple Bay, owner Jeff Morgan has noticed a pattern of last-minute bookings made with only a few weeks or days notice. Mr. Morgan said the trend began about six years ago and became more pronounced during the recent high season. More than 30 years ago, when he first started in the business, reservations came in mostly by post, months in advance, the hotelier said. And while advance reservations from long-time guests are holding up well, he added, many new bookings are coming in with little notice.
“People decide they want to go away for a few days – three or four – and they make that decision very late,” he said.
Mr. Morgan said he doesn’t expect that trend to change anytime soon.
“It’s just a change in the way people travel. It raises hell with our planning, but that’s just the way it is,” he said.
Despite that, Mr. Morgan said that the 23-room hotel had a successful season, with the months of January, February and March “up quite a bit” from last year.
Some hoteliers said that getting to the Virgin Islands remains an issue for some guests. Mr. Grant, of VCM, said that he would like to see more affordable accessibility to the territory by air, an issue he believes could reach a “pinnacle” in the coming years if airlines cut back service across the Caribbean.
“You’re getting countries that are basically subsidising flights, because without the subsidy they know there won’t be any air traffic,” he said.
Air accesibility is a concern felt on tourism-dependent islands across the region, according to Nicole Stevens, sales manager at Rosewood Little Dix Bay.
Still, Ms. Stevens said that the resort had an improved season over last year.
“We seem to be coming out of it slowly,” Ms. Stevens said, referring to the economic downturn.
To compete in a tough market, the 47-year-old resort relies on old-fashioned personal service, Ms. Stevens said.
“When we first meet you, we learn your name. Then every time we see you, we address you by name,” Ms. Stevens said. “It makes you feel more at home, like you’re part of the family.”
And some of the employees have been around long enough to feel like a family.
“There are people who’ve worked with us for 30 or 40 years,” said Caroline Whitlock, executive assistant to the resort’s managing director. Ms. Whitlock added that many resort guests return year after year, and coming back to the same staff adds to the “at home” feeling.
“Some of our guests started coming as teens,” she said, adding that for the staff who started in their 20s, “They’ve essentially grown up together.”
Concentrating on customer service and loyalty to guests has also been a winning strategy at the 150-acre Nail Bay Resort on Virgin Gorda, according to acting General Manager George Chapdelaine. He said the community of villas has used social networking sites like Facebook as well as e-mail to follow up with past guests. That has brought the resort’s occupancy rate higher for the 16 villas the company manages, he said.
“I think last year was our real low point,” he said. “We’re finally making progress.”
Mr. Chapdelaine said that the average occupancy rate in the Caribbean is 55 percent. “Most of the resorts in the BVI were well below that,” he said.
Those that managed to hit above the mark, he said, relied on discount rates to sell rooms.
“That’s just something you have to do to bring in the business,” he said.
Still, with the improving United States economy, the hotelier is hopeful for the future. “I’m personally encouraged. By what we see, it’s coming up and is encouraging. Up is better than down, so I’m very encouraged that next year will see it up again,” he said.
Increased marine traffic is also driving business to some VG resorts.
Nick Willis, co-manager of Leverick Bay Resort, said that this season he had to add two new employees to handle additional boats at the resort’s docks.
“The boat traffic has doubled, and it’s so much better than last year,” he said.
Mr. Willis hopes that with the Leverick Bay Poker Run starting tomorrow, the increase in traffic and business will continue. More than 200 boats are expected this year for the event’s tenth anniversary, he said.
While resorts have had varying degrees of success, several yacht charter companies are upbeat about the season that just ended.
Dick Schoonover, of the company CharterPort, said the crewed yacht charter business typically operates on the US calendar, with Thanksgiving to Easter as the busy season. This season started out as “okay” for the industry, he said. Then it got better.
“It got to January and then became a successful year, I think,” Mr. Schoonover said, attributing that success to winter weather in the territory’s traditional markets. “The more it snows, the better we look, and in North America, England, France, Germany, it was snowing to beat the band in January to the point where we were booking summer season charters in January for people who just got fed up with it all.”
As a clearinghouse, Charterport works with yacht agents who book the charters, yacht owners and the crews that staff the boats. He said that the smaller capacity monohulls didn’t do as well as the larger catamarans, which can better cater to families, a growing sailing demographic.
“Those people who used to come Presidents Day weekend are now coming during spring break because they’ve got the kids,” he said.
Mr. Schoonover added that he sees American consumer spending rebounding with more being able to pay the estimated $16,000 to $19,000 for a seven-night charter for six to eight people. Still, some customers remain cautious.
“Everyone in the States thinks they ought to get a deal, and prices haven’t gone down here, have they? On anything it takes to get a boat off the dock,” he said.
Unlike cruise ships, which can benefit from economies of scale, using mass-buying power to bargain with suppliers, charter captains with six or eight guests aboard don’t have that luxury.
“You go over and buy a couple heads of broccoli, it’s not like you’re buying for 3,000 guests; you get a deal if you’re buying for 3,000 guests,” Mr. Schoonover said.
On May 13 and 14, about a dozen VI brokers milled around the boats at VCM for Charterport’s annual spring show for yacht brokers.
He said that next season is looking “not bad right now.”
“I can’t complain about our advanced bookings. One of the strange things in January was that people who had just gotten off their New Year’s charter were calling to rebook,” he said.
The bare-boating segment of the charter market, for boaters who crew their own yachts, has seen similar success, according to some in the sector.
“The recession has not affected the charter industry,” said Barney Crook, owner of TMM Yacht Charters. “The volume is as good as it’s ever been.”
Mr. Crook described the season as “great” and said he had no complaints. The 30-year veteran of the industry said that because the cost to charter a boat for a week is “still very reasonable” compared to the cost of staying in a hotel, business has held up.
“Most of the people I know are quite happy with the way the season went,” he said.
Mr. Crook added, though, that he has noticed a reduction in recent years in the number of boats available for charter — a trend he attributed to the downturn as some owners sold their vessels.
Pete Twist, a partner in Conch Charters, which currently operates charter boats for private owners, echoed Mr. Crook’s positive appraisal of the season and the observation about the number of boats available for charter. He said that Conch at one time had as many as 50 boats available, though he expects the number to eventually rise from the current 42.
While people are still chartering, Mr. Crook said that sailors are being frugal with their money and spending less time at bars and restaurants, preferring to stay and eat on the boat.
Samantha Baker, co-manager of Cooper Island Beach Club, saw that trend as well this season.
“I think people are still being careful. The mooring field will be full every single night, but maybe only three or four boats will come in for the lunch. It really depends on the day,” Ms. Baker said.
Still, she attributed a lot of the beach club’s business to yachts chartered from smaller companies — especially the lunch and dinner business at the facility’s 120-seat restaurant.
“We were fully booked at dinner every night for the whole high season,” she said.
Unlike the mostly positive developments in traffic for overnight and charter yacht guests, a look at cruise ship passenger statistics shows a declining trend.
The October 2010 to April 2011 season saw 373 calls from cruise ships, 25 fewer than last year, according to an analysis by Peter Haycraft, chairman of Island Shipping. In all, the territory saw 463,435 passengers this season, 49,304 fewer than last season.
The largest ships, which carry 2,000 to 3,100 passengers, are also making fewer stops in the territory, according to Mr. Haycraft. He attributes this trend to the decrease in calls from the Celebrity Cruises line, which halved the number of calls to VI waters this season from 18 to nine.
Joanna Newling-Ward, manager of Romney and Associates, a cruise ship agent, said that she’s seeing a trend of fewer cruise ships stopping in VI waters. The difference, though, is that the ships are fuller than they used to be.
Ms. Newling-Ward said that though the ships are still coming, passengers are spending less on shore excursions, like trips to The Baths in Virgin Gorda or tours of Tortola.
Chris Haycraft, Peter’s son, sees that trend, too. He said that the cruise ships are full primarily because of the deep discounts the lines have offered tourists. Then the ships do their best to have their guests use their disposable income aboard the ship.
“Once they get you on board, they get to sea as quick as possible, because once they get you at sea they can get you to spend. They’re very clever about it,” he said.
Mr. Haycraft said that most cruise itineraries in this part of the Caribbean include stops at St. Thomas or St. Maarten, ports that are better known in Europe and the US and are more geared towards mass-market tourism. In between, the cruise lines visit smaller ports. As an example, prior to the Norwegian Jewel’s recent visit to the VI, it docked in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. It then departed Road Town for a three-day sail to New York City. Mr. Haycraft said that the VI will “never be a leader” in attracting cruise ship passengers, but it remains a popular stop.
“We are a very good port. The cruise lines love coming here. The guests all say they like the BVI. We’re a second-rate port, but we’re top of the list for the second rate,” he said.
He added that ships’ agents are already making preparations to bring in cruise ships for next year and beyond.
“Next season’s looking good. We’re pretty good after that. We’re definitely booking,” he said.
|Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 June 2011 16:42|