Patrick Hoyos Published August 12, 2013
“The fastest thing you can do here to change this country is to get tourism right. It’s the quickest thing,” says a man who should know.
Ralph Taylor is sitting in the the spacious dining room of his new SoCo Hotel, a boutique resort on Hastings Main Road at the end of the Richard Haynes Boardwalk.
Dressed in a blue-and-white pin-striped shirt with a white collar and a light blue pair of pants, Mr. Taylor looks like he has just stepped out of a more formal meeting to chat with a reporter.
We have just finished talking about his beautiful new addition to Barbados’ increasingly popular small hotels, and I ask him to share his views on how to get our tourism sector back on track.
The experienced hotelier, who has served as both the chairman of the Barbados Tourism Authority (BTA) and president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), acknowledges that Barbados is a “a crossroads” in its tourism industry, “not because we don’t know what we are doing but because tourism is not doing well in many countries.”
He maintains that Barbados is a “big and good brand” in the industry but there are two things that come to mind. First, he says, the sector needs more “hard core advertising,” and second, there were “product issues to be addressed.”
Hotels took a lot of beating and Barbados had a lot of them in need of serous upgrading. But, he says, their owners were “holding on.”
To fix the problem properly, he says, would require a public-private sector partnership. And he like the idea of the Chinese possibly investing in or financing part of the sector, as mooted by Tourism Minister Richard Sealy with respect to Almond Beach Village.
A flight to sophistication can take the sector forward exponentially, he suggested. Using his own hotel as an example, he says, “Before, as the Sierra Hotel, we employed eight to ten people.” But after investing in a completely refurbished facility which has become the new SoCo Hotel, Mr. Taylor says, the employment roll has risen to nearly three dozen.
Meantime, SoCo is attracting visitors who can and do pay from US$300 to $650 per night, whereas the old Sierra could only charge US$45 to $50.
“So if you do it right you can dramatically change your (revenue) numbers,” he told me.
If we as a country can deal with the product refurbishment issue and the need to spend significantly on advertising, he concluded, “the brand Barados can rebound quickly. It’s a powerful brand.”
There are also bunches of low-hanging fruit which we could grab quickly, he says. For exaple, we could do a lot more to develop tourism products based on our rich heritage, and do more in terms of farmers’ and vendors’s markets.
For example, he says, Ipanema in Brazil has a large Sunday market, and Ralph would like to see more markets being held around the island. “Tourists should not have to dig them out,” he notes. These markets create employment for people, he says.
He is also supportive of the government’s plans to improve and add to its calendar of festivals.
One of the main ingredients in any plan is airlift, he adds. “The issue is money. The days of going cap in hand and asking airlines to put on a plane are over. If you want airlift to your country you have to enter into a marketing deal (with the airlines involved).”
Ralph says it doesn’t matter what you call it – at the end of the day you are paying a subsidy to the airlines, which cannot afford to carry unsold seats to and from a destination.
“The Caribbean has been affected largely by a reduction in airlift by Virgin Atlantic and British Airways,” he notes. Virgin is using smaller planes while BA has fewer flights.
While the airlines willl argue that they cannot aford to operate with “excess capacity,” he says “it means you cannot peak” when you need to. So the trick is to try to limit the “valleys” through incentive programmes when things are slow in order to have that airlift capacity ready when they come.
“But people have to want to come. You can’t market a dump.”
It remains a matter of wonder to me why, at a time when Barbados sorely needs the best brains on board, especially in tourism, that Ralph Taylor, who served as BTA chairman under late prime minister David Thompson, is allowed to remain out of national service in the realm of tourism when his contribution is sorely needed.
That one, as they say, is above my pay grade.