Golden Seal of Approval

Recently I took a road trip around the islands of T&T where I noticed several properties prominently displaying “Hotels” and “Guesthouses”; but not a single property is registered with Tourism Development Company (TDC). Some properties flouting basic building codes and regulations; encroaching sidewalks,  adjacent to other buildings with waste water running freely into rivers and streams. We also visited  some of our popular beaches and rivers – a less than desirous state of affairs. Even at the lookout at Lady Young  there are food stalls without basic facilities begging the question of standards.

Which prompted me to ask – Which government agency is/was  responsible for our present state of compliance? Is it our culture at government agencies to disregard regulations? This brings me to the topic of regulations and standards that would make T&T compliant internationally and regionally.

The fact is , TTTIC (Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Industry Certification Programme)  was developed in 2001, derived out of the Tourism Master Plan,1995. This certification program was an MOU agreement valued over $3 Million as the basic project contribution, renewable annually thereafter,  between the Bureau of Standard (BOS) and TDC. The agreement was developed exclusively for operators in Trinidad which meant that Tobago and all International Branded Properties were excluded. The aim of the BOS was to implement a Tourism Certification System in Trinidad; and to certify Tourism Products in accordance with the Standards Act 1997.

One of the undertakings by the BOS was to develop, implement and administer TTTIC by which TDC provided impartial advice to the tourism operators and should be able to support any resolution of audit non-conformities. TDC also conducted joint public awareness campaigns, workshops and seminars in a partnership type relationship with the BOS. The nexus of this relationship  was to ensure that BOS was commissioned tostandardize the tourism product and to provide certification that will indicate quality products and services”

In effect quasi regulatory body as per national policy guidelines for operators registered in Trinidad under Tourism Development Company. Like most accreditation bodies, it is proprietary in nature and without fiscal injection it would in effect void itself – $3 Million plus annual costs flushed out the system that benefitted no one.

Nevertheless, TTTIC became de facto body of standards that placed significant pressure on operators (Hoteliers) in Trinidad to comply, noncompliance meant that they would be removed from incentive programs, marketing ,and business opportunities from governmental agencies. Fast forward to 2017, the Government now claims that TTTIC was “voluntary” blindly opening a doorway to a slew of legal action that can be taken against them by the association members for subverting the course of opportunities and incentives.

Some may argue that TDC’s powers were over quality assurance standards by facilitating inspections and licensing of tourism facilities . Indeed, this “power” fell under the Regulatory Framework aligned to the National Policy for Trinidad and Tobago. However, as the facts has shown, the proposition was skewed at the onset, which leads me to ineffective leadership and governance under TDC.

Now let’s address the recent decision to move from a Regulatory Framework that has cost taxpayers yet again,  to a new organisation,Trinidad & Tobago Regulatory and Licensing Authority (TTR&LA). I can only assume that the issues that arose with the regulatory framework were reviewed and this was the most feasible and cost effective approach to improve the amalgam of tourism products and services for both Trinidad and Tobago. Obviously some of the issues before overlapped with governmental agencies, such as Town and Country Approvals, Statutory Approvals, Environmental Authority, Local Government corporation , Finance and other related bodies.

According to Wikipedia,  a Public Regulatory Authority “is an executive branch of government , responsible for exercising autonomous authority over some area of human activity in a regulatory or supervisory capacity“. A licensing authority “has the right to grant, suspend or revoke licensure or certification privileges“.

The message invoked here is that accreditation will become de rigueur with enforcement as prescribed by the laws of T&T, somehow managed by an organisation that is owned by the government. So besides improved properties (inland and coastal), the public should expect world class sites and attractions with facilities, aesthetic surroundings, improved transportation and service companies, higher concentration on environmental management which will in turn ignite possible investor relationships,not to mention a higher yield of tourism receipts.

What should stakeholders expect from the golden seal of approval – Perhaps higher ratings to attract tourist; More programs in Marketing and Promotion campaigns; Better Leveraging for business opportunities, Reduction of complaints; Higher Revenue; Lower costs for liability coverage; Lower loan rates; and other incentives.

Presently there is a Request for Proposal (RFP) online which reads, “The Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is undertaking an exercise to regulate and modernize the tourism sector towards developing same as one of the main catalysts in diversification of the national economy“. Already a misdirected communique which makes me wonder whether anyone in authority truly apply critical thinking to determine what is best for the the sector in T&T?[http://tourism.gov.tt/Portals/0/Documents/RFP%20Documents/RFP_RegAuthority_2017.pdf].

The RFP leaves much to be desired and clearly sends warning signs yet again to the very small and already pained tourist affiliated hive. At this point I cannot fathom how a regulatory and licensing authority is expected to modernize the tourism sector and inter alia. Furthermore by analysing this RFP, I have a plethora of questions as it relates to the public purse and the expected guarantee of value to us , the people of our beloved land.

As I applaud the Honourable Minister Shamfa Cudjoe on taking this bold step of implementing Regulations and Licence , I would suggest that the approach should be holistic rather than pigeon-holed. It may have been better to have R&L as a division under a product development authority. In other words a division for licence and regulations for Attractions, Craft Traders,Transportation Operators, Tour Operators, Rental Companies (Water Sport Rentals, Bikes, etc); and for various categories of Accommodation Operators. Other sub divisions to monitor services in quality enhancements, training and community tourism development , environmental improvements, etcetera.   It’s a tighter approach which would be under one umbrella with the sole purpose of managing the product development of the islands.

https://revolutiondestination.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/golden-seal-of-approval

Author: Lisa Shandilya, MBA.(Specialized), CEM., B.Sc., A Tourism Consultant with 20 years as a practitioner in the Hospitality and Service Sector, Member of THRTA, International Hospitality and Service Industry .
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Why dissolve TDC?

Tourism is at the front burner again when Honorable Minister Shamfa Cudjoe announced the dissolution of TDC (Tourism Development Company) at a recent post cabinet meeting. The minister indicated that two authorities would be developed;  “one will focus on Trinidad while the other will focus on Tobago” and if no one else was paying attention, a third authority is to be developed . This third entity as the Minister stated would be  “a regulatory authority which will set basic standards for all tourism operators” , a topic to be discussed in another article.

Sadly, what appears to be disreputable is the appointment of an Interim CEO , TDC on 8th March,2017 and then a notice of dissolution of TDC on the 9th March 2017. According to a news report, The Honorable Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley has affirmed his decision together with his cabinet on the ideologue of the two authorities, in a bid to improve tourism. A decision made without consultation with the Communications Union Workers , contracted employees and sector stakeholders. Within the past few weeks the public and stakeholders have ventilated concerns without being informed of the timeline, the vision or measures that the Government will take.

Let me digress a little on the facts of our existing established tourism organisation :

  1. Tourism and Industrial Development Company (TIDCO) was split into two entities; one with a focus on Tourism and another on Investor Development (see articles on  TIDCO ). The reasons for this separation seemed similar to Hon. Minister Cudjoe’s response on TDC. In May 2005, a special purpose company was formed as the implementation plan to the national policies. The Tourism Development Company (TDC) sole purpose is to develop and market the tourism product of Trinidad and Tobago;
  2. Tourism Development Act 2000 was developed which governs the policies for the industry in other words, The  Tourism Act is the foundation of legislation to facilitate Tourism Development for Trinidad and Tobago
  3. Draft plan of National Tourism Policy of Trinidad and Tobago commenced in 2003 and completed in 2007; Cabinet approved 2010. This present national working policy framework was derived from various developmental and economic plans that existed between 1995 to 2008.
  4. The THA Act No. 40 of 1996 incorporated a Division of Tourism as the main arm responsible for the destination marketing of Tobago;

These four(4) official documents were drafted for TDC, THA and The Ministry of Tourism to function and operate in congruence with one another. The crux of the matter is that the national policy was approved 5 years after TDC was formed with “old guards” transferred into the new system. Naturally, the system of governance forged within the organisation became the status quo as no one monitored performance of the organisation. Then there is the inherent power struggle with marketing campaigns and budgetary appropriations between TDC and the THA , a telltale sign of disunity.  This breakdown is further compounded with poor leadership, bureaucracy , nepotism , complexities of superiority, and the list can go on and on.

It is inconceivable that after 12 years with established legislation that TDC have failed one of the most fundamental exercises of branding the destination of Trinidad and Tobago. Not to mention that the branding exercise , drafted in policy and strategic plan/s of destination of T&T was irrationally transferred to InvesTT. At this point my guess is as good as yours when it comes the purpose of the existing legislation- an apparent written document to be comforted by. 

Based on facts above, I am of the perspective that there is need for reform of TDC and the Ministry of Tourism considering the dysfunctional structures of the non-existent TIDCO and the present functionality of TDC.

What is fundamentally critical to note is that tourism is always evolving with new concepts for investor development; new trends; environmental, social and economic changes; new accommodation concepts (ie. Pop ups) to name a few.

Now that the Government has also engaged in Tourism Authorities shouldn’t they also review the Act? What would be the changes made to the Ministry of Tourism? Would the policy be amended ? What is the master plan for the authorities? Does the Government have a plan to secure talent without “friends or family” involvement?  What would be the spend and would the budget be apportioned for the authorities? Which entity would be responsible for branding the image of the islands ? Would each entity use marketing and tactical campaigns of each island tourism products? What is the intention for branding the destination? What is the Government spend to dissolve TDC? What is the budget for creating three entities?

As I close I believe that the public and stakeholders need to understand the intention of the Government with these three new entities so that there are no misconceptions to the present and/ or future state of tourism.

Why dissolve TDC? Please note that the logo is a copy of that used for TDC site . Used (unofficially) for this article based on topic.

Author: Lisa Shandilya, MBA.(Specialized), CEM., B.Sc., 20 years Practitioner in the Hospitality and Service Sector, Member of THRTA, International Hospitality and Service Industry .
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Unlocking the service sector workforce.

When anyone raises a topic about the service sector in Trinidad and Tobago be prepared for a grimacing conversation that sounds hopelessly abysmal about our workforce. I am almost certain some behavioural traits , such as: the watery “chupps”; the rolling of the eyes; the side to side head banter; the abrasive “yea” when you ask for assistance; the side look  with the undertone of sarcasm; or the frog pout; have been experienced from both the public and private sector.  Interestingly these antics many of which I have experienced are in my opinion homogenous across age groups, income brackets, gender, education and race.

For the tourism industry, service talent can be leveraged as a competitive advantage for a destination, however T&T is ranked low with respect to affinity to tourism by the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness  Index (TTCI). The reason as some tourism experts theorised has been based on the virtues of “Service vs Servitude”. Perhaps, this premise should have been followed up with intelligence gathering in terms of: salary satisfaction, productivity and skillsets which may have built the foundation in education and organisational transformational programs for an improved workforce pipeline.

Having said that, a research study 2016 conducted in the UK analysed service sector challenges in relation to generation gaps.  The study noted that Generation X workforce in the service sector considers health / medical benefits, pension plans, good office relationships and permanent positions ; whilst Generation Y are aligned to financial incentive, salary , title/position, brand name as important for their security. The research also identified areas of weaknesses of Generation Y as demanding, pampered, lack motivation and poor work-place attitude.

It was not surprising that this research analysis seemed similar to complaints shared by the Trinidad business community at the Chamber of Commerce event on “The impact of Industrial court judgements on your business” [2016, December 16].

The hospitality and service sector is a highly labour intensive industry which business owners rely on effective communication between employees and guests. A great example of how staff sometimes communicate your product can be viewed in an online video, “Sephora employees vs Mac employees”. For the purpose of this article I would focus on small to medium (SME’s) independent properties, tour operators , restaurateurs, transportation companies , etcetera

Within the T&T network of SME’s, complaints range from: high staff turnover, low productivity, attitude issues, lack of loyalty, theft, wastage to name a few. Likewise, as an SME myself, I have had to endure issues of late coming, high absenteeism, sabotage, disrespect, delusional entitlement and the list can go on and on. Even the best talent can become emotionally distressed by the laissez faire attitude of their colleagues.

In recent times, SME’s are becoming desperate to improve productivity choosing to hire under the radar migrant workers from Jamaica, Venezuela, Guyana, Philippines, Cuba, India, Ghana, China to name a few.  This grey area in the service sector business is quickly infiltrating into our system which will eventually have an impact on our tax systems, cultural integration issues, authenticity of “localness” to the destination product , etcetera. Moreover, a new concern is – What will happen to the talent pool if the migrant worker’s adopt poor work place mentality? 

So the real challenge for SME’s is to take responsibility in unlocking the local talent in the workplace to improve workplace imbalances. Here are a few of my tips for 2017:

# 1. Know your Brand

Give yourself a 5 second spiel about your product then ask your employees to share their view of your product. By engaging employees with ideas and thoughts for improving the brand would also ensure that they understand your personal beliefs for a better tourism product identity. Keep at it by strengthening their intelligence in the business as it is also your employees’ story to share with the customer.

# 2. Share within your network.

Always keep track of the performance of your employees during tenure. At the end of tenure establish an Exit Interview – perhaps too late for the employee to reconsider! Exit interviews would give employers an appreciation of how the employee viewed your establishment and for them to acknowledge their contribution to the organisation. Your responsibility as an SME is to share employee’s profile within your network if there is a referral request on skill sets and abilities. Perhaps exchanging ideas on management tips, strategies, collaborative solutions in building talent pool should be addressed by your organisation.

#3. Consider a few HR best practices

SME’s are known to have poor HR management practices and this could be a reason why so many SME’s are struggling to find employees to suit their organisation. Many SME’s offer psychological contracts with employees opting to have close working relationships rather than formalities.  Review your selection policy, training practices and how you would measure performance to ensure your new recruit will fit into your culture. An employee with hidden agendas would soon stick out as a sore thumb and their actions would be evident. According to Poole, ” Hiring inappropriate employee in hotel can alter the services at very rapid pace, since in hotels direct customer interaction is being conducted, hence affecting the image of the entire organisation.

#4. Work with your local tertiary institutions

Many in the industry assume the worse with SME’s in terms of working conditions, wages, working hours, promotional opportunities and job security. By building a relationship with training institutions; such as TTHTI , Servol, UWI would help in strengthening the tourism talent. Engage the institution to understand your product and your training program so that students have clear expectations. One of the greatest opportunities for students through internship is to get a practical sense in the real world of work and whether they too can fit into the work life of the industry.

#5. Initiate training

At my last debrief with my core staff team I shared with them “communication” misnomers, suggesting that they must take responsibility with all recruits. Training is a huge investment cost for SME’s as it consumes resources in finance, time and administrative efforts. It should be noted that training does not buy loyalty to your company, rather, it supports your product. A great opportunity for most employees in small establishments is the ability to work directly with the owners themselves or with their core management team. This tremendous knowledge that is imparted is invaluable to an employee learning curve, often not recognised as it is an intangible value which has no financial costs attached.  SME’s can also take advantage of free government training programs, enrol staff in small courses as a staff bonus incentive and re-tool staff internally by creating your own training sessions.

In my perspective,  enjoy what you do, be happy in your space and ensure that everyday it is a livable and lively workplace environment.

Unlocking the service sector workforce.

 

 

 

 

 

Tourism: 365 Days Later

After the September 2015 election, Trinidad and Tobago newly elected Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley appointed one of his most vociferous candidates Ms.Shamfa Cudjoe to head the Ministry of Tourism. Minister Cudjoe after her appointment indicated her willingness to understand the industry with the support from her team of consultants in order to develop creative strategies for the industry.

Within the early part of 2016 the Minister installed a standing committee to develop a Strategic and Sustainable Development Plan for Tourism chaired by Dr Acolla Lewis Cameron; and the other was to conduct a baseline survey by the research arm of the Ministry of Tourism.  This initial mandate spearheaded by the Minister was the first step to developing a holistic plan. Having said that, it was apparent that reports produced in 2011 delivered by the previous standing committees, at the cost to the state, were shelved.

As time progressed so did the commencement of regular duties, such as, the promotion for Carnival, representation at ITB and other smaller tourism engagements that falls within the minister’s portfolio. However a few months later, the Minister was engaged in defending the removal of the appointment of the chair of TDC, quickly followed by an unsupported marketing spend for “Soca on the Seas”.

By mid-year, the Minister contradicted her initial statement by suggesting that the National Tourism Policy 2010, and the 1995 Tourism Master Plan would be used to guide the industry.  TDC then re-launched the 2005 domestic “Stay to Get Away” campaign however this was without the inclusion of many bona-fide stakeholders.Certainly,  this move sent many stakeholders in an uproar and her apology made thereafter did not garner support.

The removal of the CEO of the TDC and the cancellation of international representation were other spurious moves that occurred without tactic resource replacement to execute effective management and marketing plans for the destination.

Sometime later in the year, in a bid to connect to the populace, the Minister’s mantra became, “Tourism is everyone’s business!”.  Was the Minister aware that her mantra was a tweak of “Our Tourism is about all of us!” from the previous administration, which incidentally, was adopted from another destination’s strategic plan?

To her credit alliances with airlines and cruise liners were made for both islands with the hope that it would increase visitor ship. Realistically it sounds great, however, based on T&T destination marketing, the imagery of the popular Maracas Bay, a tourist attraction is populated throughout the various mediums. This hideous and butchered bay without any sign of improvements to the beach and facility would definitely communicate false messaging of our natural attraction to the visitors that they seek!

By September the Strategic Committee offered it’s “road map” to stakeholders which became fervently apparent that there is nothing new or innovative that would drive the marketing potential to a peak anytime soon. Their plan, was further debased by the release of $86 M fiscal allocation from Central Government.

As 365 days comes to a close, the Minister shared on a talk show that her visits to the hotels early in the year made her realize there is a need for quality and standards for many operators, which is one of her priorities for product development. The other focus areas would be to re-tool the TDC and destination marketing. Again, wasn’t the Minister informed that the industry always maintained standards, which was once within the remit of  TDC? This responsibility is now in the hands of the the Bureau of Standards, however, all International chains, and  operators in  Tobago are not involved in the quality standards program. Coincidentally, if there is no formidable plan for destination marketing or secondary product development that will attract higher tourism receipts or visitor-ship, then  natural course of action for many operators would be to stall investment upgrades.

Perhaps, the contradictions made by the Ministry over the year was the impetus that forced the recent press release by the collective tourism bodies for the intervention of the Prime Minister. The situation at present for many stakeholders left fighting for survival in our present state are converting  inventory to real estate opportunities, such as office spaces and apartments. Many are also considering lease options, or placing properties on the market. This may leave the Government as the only stakeholder in tourism.

Moreover, according to Professor Watson, “Many of the social and economic institutional structures in Trinidad and Tobago are failing one after the other” and it is critical for foreign exchange for our country to survive. Tourism, is one such industry that can improve our FOREX situation, therefore, this tension that the country is in should raise alarm bells, as the tourism industry is struggling to positively impact the economy. Notwithstanding the fact that the call for intervention is at time where there are socio-cultural, economic and environmental impacts in Trinidad and Tobago. Our beautiful destination has been under attack from nefarious criminal activities; major health risks such as Ebola, Swine Flu, Zika; migrant influx, brain drain on skilled labour, land and sea bridge issues, poor product development to name a few.

It is my perspective , the dynamism for reshaping this volatile industry is an overwhelming challenge for anyone at the helm. It is clear that competitive positioning for Trinidad and Tobago, which is not an established tourism destination, would require a truly innovative road map that would bridge relationships among various sectors and with the THA marketing authority. It is no longer acceptable for the tourism industry to be misguided into a hamster’s wheel. Stakeholders expect insightful advise, leadership to move the industry and accountability to the public of achievements made –Public Relations is bit over-rated these days!

 

Author: Lisa Shandilya, MBA.(Specialized), CEM., B.Sc., 20 years Practitioner in the Hospitality and Service Sector, Member of THRTA, International Hospitality and Service Industry .
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Sandals – A vacation option for Tobago

Finally, the word is out and in the public domain that the government of T&T is in negotiations for a proposed 750-room Sandals Resort in Tobago. This development project is presently before cabinet after months of silence by government and officials within THA despite the skepticism raised by the local populace .

The Sandals project is expected to change the landscape of the tourism industry for the islands by increasing room stock inventory in Tobago, improve the quality product being offered, stimulate training, and increase airlift to the island. Granted the benefits are obvious but there are also questions that resonate: What is  the expected percentage of skilled workforce from the islands that is required to service the sector?   Can our local agriculture suppliers supply quality goods to the industry? Would community craftsmen and tradesmen provide timely, reliable and quality service ? Is the island prepared to manage carrying capacity concerns of our sensitive resources?  Would there be a labour law review for the sector to comply? What policy is in place for local investors wanting to do mega project developments on the island- would the same incentives apply? These questions allude to the fact that government must have a master plan for hotel and coastal development on the island with measurable research and development to evaluate the tourism receipts necessary to drive the economy.

Essentially, Tobago is no stranger to All Inclusive’s (AI) as this destination has been predominantly sold by travel agents selling  pre paid packages to European and British source markets.Studies have shown that the AI concept was novel in the late nineties offering travelers a pricing model which encouraged mass tourism to the destination. This concept has grown into trending resorts, that is : Golf , Spa and Health , Family or for Couples. The irony is AI resorts offer major incentives for guests to stay within the safe and protected confines of the property which disconnects the guest to the destination.

Properties established as AI in Tobago are Grafton Beach, Coco Reef, The Grand Courlan, Blue Haven , Rex Turtle, Magdalena Grand, to name a few . The difference with these properties is that they are much smaller in comparison to the larger AI’s, such as Sandals in this case,  thereby giving the visitor the ability to enjoy the destination as well.

Basically, Sandals Resort present to Tobago, a hotel-brand product differentiation, which capitalizes on the core natural resources of the destination to maintain an attractive and promising position for its marketability.Of course, Sandals can be promising for Tobago as it belongs to the top 5 major All Inclusive (AI) chains worldwide  and  known as the most romantic property in the Caribbean region. The exquisite layout design, high quality and price , top customer service offering at least five international restaurants, entertainment and activities would supersede what is presently available on both islands.

Naturally, it would be expected that existing service and hotel operators become more competitive to maintain marketshare; and that government spend to improve sites and attractions, airport services , incentive plans and environmental policies- a  conversation for many years!

This is where I  concur with the article by Kathleen Pinder ,“What’s best for Tobago tourism?” and beseech the Government to consider neighboring islands Antigua ,Barbuda, Grenada, St Lucia, Bahamas to understand negotiations with AI investors in accordance to the alignment to  the tourism master plan , notwithstanding the policy framework for the island of Tobago. Furthermore, there is also a concern about the  benefits from AI resorts to these destinations, as most times monies are leaked through ownership rights , goods, and services.

So it would be necessary to present a framework plan first as all-inclusive’s is simply a small segment of destination competitiveness, which cannot be misconstrued for a destination marketing plan to emerge on the world stage.

Another concern was expressed from an online petition made against the Government is a rumor that Sandals AI Resort have been offered  a large environmental footprint of natural reserve, known fondly by locals, as No Man’s land-the soul of the island.

According to world indicators from international tourism forums, the top destinations that travelers are seeking offer authentic travel ,voluntarism and community integrity and cultural connectively. In other words, the uniqueness of destination Tobago is what the 21st century traveler is looking for- that little piece of paradise.

Tobago is in a position to differentiate from the rest of the Caribbean and therefore tourism advisors should encourage the push theory in responsible sustainable tourism planning in the tourism vision framework – focus on the mangrove rehabilitation programs at low lands and at No man’s land ; consider recycling programs , sewerage and water treatment; develop the authenticity of cultural heritage programs and local cuisine; add more foot paths and cycle paths ; improve craftsmen ;improve farming; improve services and sites;  reduce crime , noise and refuse.

Consider Maldives, a little island considered one of the top luxurious destinations in the world having maintained her environmental foot print and destination differentiation in the world. Maldives have taken into consideration the sensitivity of the environment in their framework: Integrating tourism sensitivity by engaging public /private meetings; Encouraged developers to compete to increase standards of accommodation and services; Provided legislation to control development of resorts through Environmental Impact Assessment; Negotiated with resort owners to Install Plastic Compressors,  Incinerators to manage waste and Sewerage Waste Management; Encouraged AI resorts to manage water supply without interference of water reserves; Ensured that land developers purchase local material and construct by visually blending with the environment; and Provided allocations of  20% for building, height restrictions, beach allocation of at least 20% for public use.

In my perspective, Sandals is great as a vacation option for Tobago as there exist a synergistic fit for Sandals romantic getaway resort with the sultry beauty of Tobago. But I will reemphasize  here that resorts are more successful when planned within the  tourism framework of the destination. So let’s be clear, another vacation option in Tobago is long overdue and it is expected that negotiators have a feasible projection for the islands financial, social and  environmental growth.

Author: Lisa Shandilya, MBA.(Specialized), CEM., B.Sc., 20 years Practitioner in the Hospitality and Service Sector, Member of THRTA, International Hospitality and Service Industry .
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Deadly trees on our shores.

Part of the tourism thrust of Trinidad and Tobago is to promote our beaches , bird watching and tours to Bocas Islands. In doing so information about the destination, things to do, and safety tips should be readily available.

Recently I conducted a survey in Tobago with visiting tourists at the Pigeon Point beach; locals ( fishermen , restaurant owners ) residing in Tobago; and a few vacationers resident to Trinidad. The survey conducted was about the Manchineel tree, whereby data collated has shown that eighty percent of the participants were unaware of the tree. Some of the locals who are familiar with the tree were plying their trade selling fish , craft or just simply relaxing ignoring the “Do Not Touch” sign posted on the trees. As one local said, the sign says “Do Not Touch” which was inferred as exactly that, therefore nothing is wrong being under the tree or hanging bags or apron on the branch of the tree.

The Manchineel,is part of our indigenous fauna along the sea coast of Tobago and the Bocas Islands protecting the island from coastal erosion, and in some cases acts as a wind break against hurricanes. This is nature and relevant to the environment however, this innocuous tree is also known as the “little apple of death”, and should not be taken for granted.

The name of the tree, Manchineel,  was given by the Spaniards, as early as 1521, when conquistador Juan Jose Ponce de Leon was wounded and eventually died from the poisonous sap-tipped arrows during the battle against the native islanders.  In 1943 ,Diego Alvarez Chanca, a spanish doctor wrote in his journal “There were wild fruits of various kinds, some of which our men, not very prudently, tasted; and on only touching them with their tongues, their mouths and cheeks became swollen, and they suffered such a great heat and pain”.

It was indeed interesting to read the British Medical Journal published on August 12,2000 about a tourist who shared her experience biting the manchineel apple during her vacation in Tobago in 1999. And yet another reported case by Maria Boodoo, published in Trinidad Express, July 13,2012 while she was on vacation with her family in Tobago. What was even more surprising whilst doing my research, is that ,the Manchineel is also in the Guinness Record as the world’s most dangerous tree.

The Manchineel contains a complex ester of potent toxins which relates to every aspect of the tree , that is : the trunk, the fruit, the leaves, the branches , the spores and the sap. It is so dangerous that the run off from the leaves if it is raining or burning of the leaves of the tree can cause severe health risks.

Mild exposure from  various parts of the tree can cause dermatitis, ophthalmitis, ulceration ,gastrointestinal issues,  blistering of the skin , severe pain and swelling. I suspect that symptoms of this toxidrome  has never been researched since there seems to be no reported cases or no recorded data from our islands.

So let me share my story of what happened during my visit to Tobago in 2016. My partner, unknowing to him, held a branch of the manchineel to get over a sand bank on the beach. After 15 minutes of exposure to the tree, his eyes started to burn,  automatically he rubbed his eyes to clear his vision. My partner soon became overwhelmed with pain, his eyes were bloodshot and face was swollen.We quickly rushed him to Scarborough Hospital for immediate attention, which suffice to say the nurse washed his eyes with saline solution, then used a pain relief for his eyes and injected him with an allergy cocktail. The pain returned in 15 minutes and the nurse together with the doctor on duty tried to once again repeat the process to relieve the burning sensation he was experiencing. After about three hours, they provided us with free medication to reduce the pain and indicated to him that it would soon pass. But the pain was intensifying ,nothing seemed to be working and of course fear of losing eye sight was slowly becoming a reality. One of our friends, on hearing the issue , quickly got us on a flight to Trinidad to seek immediate attention from our eye specialist, Dr. George Hanomansingh. Within a few hours we were at the Doctor’s office ,where he immediately commenced his examination and procedure to remove the chemical toxins. The chemical had almost sixty percent coverage , which started to progressively burn the layer of both corneas. He was treated and carefully monitored for five days.

After this experience my concerns have been more so on  whether there is statistical data on health risks to the local traders under the tree; health risks to persons who purchase and consume fish from under these trees; if persons who have sheltered under the trees have had skin lesions; or if anyone has actually died from the toxins ? What about the effects this toxic chemical can have on children , an elderly person or persons with serious health issues?

During my interviews, the immediate reaction by most partcipants after finding out the dangers suggested that the trees be removed. However, in my perspective the tree is a natural balance for the environment and with more research perhaps medical healing benefits can be explored.

In terms of our destination marketing , I would strongly recommend pictures of the tree and its dangers be posted at the ports of entry to the island of Tobago and also in Chaguaramas, Trinidad ; safety tips in travel guides; advisories by the authorities to keep local operators informed; the relocation of vendors under these trees along the swallows at Pigeon Point; provision of on-call medical specialists to treat with severe cases at our public health institutions; a solution for seats to be made available on Caribbean Airlines for medical emergencies , only if specialized care cannot be provided at the Scarborough Hospital; and lastly more visible markers on the trees to distinguish them to any unsuspecting visitor who want to enjoy the coastline.

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Vendors under Manchineel Tree, Pigeon Point, Tobago

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sink or Float ?

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This era can be characterized by a series of economic challenges which started with United States economic crisis in 2007 , quickly followed by the global economic crisis in 2009. Other countries such as Greece, Portugal , Spain , Ireland to name a few, also suffered from the repercussion of ballooning government debts.

By August 2014, amid the fragility of slow economic recovery for the United States and Britain , OPEC began major talks forecasting uncertain times for economies hinged on “black gold”. Venezuela, T&T’s  neighboring oil producing country,having been in political crisis for some time, is now faced with the added pressure of the plunging price of oil , worsening the country’s fragile economic situation.

Russia, on the other hand,  an emerging national economy , a major player of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), when oil was trading at $100 a barrel, had to declare the country’s recession by mid year 2015. Russia had the pressure of western sanctions but the slump in the price of oil quickly changed their financial standing. As a result the central bank of Russia halted FOREX as a means to moderately draw from its reserves and to maintain a facility to finance future federal budgets. Even the economy of Brazil has been downgraded by the ratings agency and  projected 3% contraction by year end 2015.

As a mere observer of the world economic situation during these tumultuous times of volatile stock markets, combined with the crisis of world strife, natural disasters and impending political threats, it should be obvious, that Trinidad and Tobago is not impervious to these circumstances.

Research has shown that there are three elements which constitute a crisis: a trigger to cause a change; the inability to cope with the change; and the threat to the existence of organisations.

The trigger of the slump in the price of oil is controlled externally by world market forces which has impacted on the financial stability for the islands.  Therefore, it is somewhat difficult to comprehend why our leaders wish to debate the terminology of whether T&T is in a Downturn or Recession. The issue that is before us, is that the Government needs to be proactive to maintain positive financial indicators, attractive for foreign investments. Ultimately , public outbursts against financial governance of our country  would only compromise our nations international reputation.

My focus with this article is to look at whether the tourism sector can weather the storm. The fact is, threats from external forces would be the cause for a recession and it would impact on the US currency and taxation; whilst internal forces would impact inflationary costs, resources, and profitability . With both internal and external forces being negative then the outcome of how our leaders and our association cope with these threats would determine the perception of our tourism sector. It is expected that with the shrinking of capital markets and decreased government and corporate spend, that the tourism sector would be the first to feel the pinch.

Greece, for instance, has shown that the impact of the recession has affected lodging, food service, events, activities and hospitality products. Many resorts were faced with foreclosure, whilst others provided limited services. Government spend on health and sanitary services also shrunk, leading to limited medical services and poor standards for the industry. Crime , unemployment and other social issues also impacted negatively in the industry forging a low tourist perception of the destination. Thus, the issue of convincing a consumer to travel to a destination to consume products and services in this climate would be a difficult. Therefore innovative strategies, such as using comparative advantages and other business measures are needed to adjust to these adverse business times.  Interestingly, one of my colleagues, the Vice President of Russia’s largest leading restaurant company concurred, by being resolute in taking action to steady his business.

With respect to the sector of  T&T , after the state of emergency in 2011, many operators knee jerk response were to lower prices for market positioning.  With the continued shock to the sector and the flat line approach to effective destination management, combined with unsustainable plans,  many operators have been unable to rebound to regain levels of occupancy and prices.

I suspect that with the contraction to the economy, stakeholders would have to revisit people management, revenue strategies, innovative business model restructuring; whilst government should consider niche product lines, incentivized programs, re visit  green policies and conservation priorities, review taxation to name a few.

These solutions , in my perspective, with the collaboration of stakeholders and government, can positively transform a declining industry to become resilient in the impending perfect storm.

Identifying Brand T&T

What imagery is conjured in your mind if I were to ask for three words which describes the Caribbean?   Unknown to many, the Caribbean have been left with a legacy of Sun,Sea and Sand,( 3 S) which has been impregnated in our minds .  An automatic target market source for Caribbean destinations, enticing visitors to soak in the sun, the lily white sand, sipping cocktails by the beach , the wafting sounds of the sea and the steel pan.  Therefore the 3 S strategy which the Caribbean inherited should not be pushed aside as some may have suggested that  “we no longer should be identified as Sun, Sea and Sand”. Many top destinations in the Caribbean have continued to use the 3 S strategy and have smartly introduced distinguishable trends to continue to drive visitors to their destination.

Tobago, historically attracted  visitors to the island using the 3 S strategy as it has the beauty and natural attractions. A few trends have been pitched over time in Tobago but their promotion showed no sustained growth. Trinidad, on the other hand, is not known for coastal beauty as the other islands, but marketers have failed to promote her unique natural attractions. Trinidad’s primary campaign promoted two trends: Business and Carnival. Unfortunately, other tourism trends, such as sport or cultural events have been compartmentalized, thereby limiting any progress for a sustained projection for new markets to the island. Statistics will show that T&T collectively have not shown any major tourism growth over the years.

Industry leaders are aware that the tourism sector in T&T is heavily influenced by the political power, and whatever language that is spoken in politics, should be our reality. Furthermore , the politics within each tier of the industry is also integral to what direction has been taken, and therefore all stakeholders, standing committees, boards , industry gurus are accountable for the position held today. It is interesting to see the current intention to move tourism from the trunk to the driver’s seat with strategies that are seemingly irrelevant today.

Evidently , T&T being a unitary state has one political party formed as central government which can change every five years whilst Tobago, the smaller sister isle has a general assembly with political ties, funded by central government to manage the Tobago affairs. Indeed, at this level of a vertical relationship, rivalries will exist : trust, political bias , funding inequities and inferiority issues resulting from perceptions of the different status. According to research by Cameron & Lewis “Marketing small twin-island states: Prospects and Constraints”  some tourism experts interviewed in the paper identified three brands for T&T : Destination Trinidad , Destination Tobago and Destination T&T. What does this mean to the average national? What does this mean to the consultants , politicians, directors, boards?  The only resolve to this question – Perhaps Nothing!

What this suggests is that mixed messages has been communicated to the international market who would have a blurred perception of T&T  as a destination. Therefore, if the strategy of three brands for T&T is a layoutcacophony of messages, with consultants promoting a myriad of smart logos, acronyms for T&T (for instance the resurgence of Terrific & Tranquil ),  then by all means let us continue in the vein of a disconnected T&T Brand!
Granted, it is no easy task to create an image for a twin island state but fortunately many other destinations such as Hawaii,Canaries, Maldives, Malta, Azores, Seychelles, Bahamas and Abu Dhabi have a chain of populated islands with their share of challenges and successes.   According to studies, Bahamas brand strategy 2010, promoted pictorially its chain of islands , and then each island promoted independently offering grand resort accommodation, with the intent to entice the visitor to island hop. The success of Bahamas was short lived as marketers did not consider inter-island cannibalism competing for the same market , a disconnection of the destination Bahamas and a further disconnection of the culture of the people.  On the other hand, destination Abu Dhabi took a totally different approach, where they consolidated the chain of islands under one simple Abu Dhabi brand. They offered a mix of products, events, activities , infrastructure, on each island targeted various markets and successfully implemented an efficient Hub and Spoke model to encourage island hopping. The success of Abu Dhabi is sustainable and can only improve with the steady growth path upon the foundation laid. No doubt they have  challenges but the purpose here is to understand the image of the Abu Dhabi brand to the world.

I would also introduce very briefly, where it was also suggested that our image be represented as Trinidad , POS Brand; &  Tobago,Scarborough Brand. This concept of city branding is used by Jamaica and Mexico but suffice to say it cannot be a consideration for T&T unless our infrastructure and inbound traffic can accommodate mass consumption of products , services, inventory , etcetera  in the mix.

Indeed, it may be wishful thinking that the tourism policy under the provisions of central government can consider equitable and harmonious development of a consolidated identity for T&T.  It is my perspective that a clear identity must be forged by establishing a strong foundation of sustainable plans of a unique mix of products , cultural connectivity, infrastructural development, and trend development. T&T is already poised with many positive attributes in its favour!

In light of this, a consolidated image that is not complex is powerful, the perception and experience received that will match the image will be the strength of the brand, and a great way for T&T to start grabbing the attention on the world stage.

Author: Lisa Shandilya, MBA.(Specialized), CEM., B.Sc., 20 years Practitioner in the Hospitality and Service Sector, Member of THRTA, Speaker on International Hospitality and Service Industry Seminars.
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The best kept secret

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There has been according to a statistical survey a decline of stop over visitor arrival to Trinidad and Tobago (TnT) by approximately 5 % in 2014 with almost the same growth path for 2015. Basically, the stats for total visitor arrival for TnT is 414,447 for an average of 6000 room stock with an average rate of spend less than US$100.00 per day with the highest captive market from United States and Europe. Now, if one wants to estimate using basic calculations, it would mean both islands may have had 69 visitor arrivals per night for a 365 calendar year. In reality, visitor arrivals are normally based on activities on the islands, such as carnival, tradeshows, conferences or for a sporting event, this therefore suggests that there are months in which hotels and guesthouses are faced with empty rooms.  This sporadic inventory cannot sustain the tourism and travel industry as shown by the discerning records from World Travel and Tourism Council Report 2015 with 3.2% GDP for travel and tourism supporting approximately 72,500 jobs directly and indirect related operations

The picture of the statistics in the industry has not changed in any way over the years and therefore this non impressive account require more thought into becoming a real contributor for our economy. Yet every year thousands of dollars is spent on marketing to increase the tourism on the islands. Only this year 2015, a proactive action was taken to improve on statistical data that would be relevant to the industry and I applaud the Minister of Tertiary Education for signing the memorandum of understanding with Arthur Lok Jack to conduct research on the tourism and entertainment sector.

The premise of this article is not to blame any institution or body but to give insight into whether the failure of our international marketing campaigns can be a combination of the performance of the marketing by international representatives, the institutional congruence that lacks the synergy in a focused marketing effort, the human talent mandated to work cohesively with stakeholders to effectively promote the tourism product and, or the bureaucracy of government

Every year, the tourism authority sets aside a budget for international marketing representation for the proverbial “P” in the marketing mix that includes:  public relations, personal selling, sales promotion, advertising and social media communication. The TDC is mandated to fund international representatives to promote the destinations Trinidad & Tobago, as a unitary state. Within recent years the THA also included separate funding for which they have awarded contracts for international representation to market Tobago. Whereas the logic is plausible by both parties in their own reasoning to have this approach in marketing Tobago as a destination, and Trinidad and Tobago as another, there somehow seems to be a gap to achieve the common objective, which is, to increase visitor arrival and visitor spend on both islands.

Maybe an idealistic perspective but I can only presume that stakeholders via their associations THRTA and THRA together with governmental agencies TDC and THA would have worked together to review the amalgam of tourism products to fuel ideas for a marketing strategy. From this outcome,  an integrated marketing approach with TDC and the international representatives would then be forged to get their input in what “P” strategies would best work to achieve market favorability ,aided by the government influencers bridging relationships with transport of airlift and cruise travel to attain the desired outcome. Thus, the use of international representatives, tourism ambassadors and state ambassadors would become two key ways of reaching international markets to promote the destinations with the Ministry of Tourism being the umbrella institution governing the success of the plan.

Recently, TDC hosted an event for international overseas representatives to give stakeholders of Trinidad and Tobago, an insight into their marketing strategies for 2015-2017 with a thrust in six source markets, Germany, United Kingdom, Scandinavia, India, Canada and the USA.

The international representatives whose contracts were renewed are familiar with the workings of the TDC and the THA and therefore it was interesting that their plans had no underpinning of performance factors and sustainable models that could increase market share based on the sluggish market growth.

All the foreign representatives at the event had well presented interactive promotional strategies using social media, brand ambassadors, advertising material, mascots to name a few,  that would be used to influence the traveller to our shores. But, in my humble opinion the foreign representatives seemed somewhat confused as to which destination they were promoting.

For instance, the representatives for the European market stated that they were having difficulty to package the islands because of the issue of “Jack Warner corruption charges”, the increased crime rate, and airlift issues. Without evidence of the crime issue or an assessment in less than one week after Warner was officially charged cannot be the reason for forecasted non performance otherwise I share my concern with the reason they were rehired. The representative from Scandinavia, however, showed an increased interest for Tobago market however disclosed that there was some difficulty with information to promote destination Trinidad. From discussions with her, it seemed that there are intrinsic marketing approaches that one can explore but somehow no one is keenly responding to her enthusiasm. India representative was new to exploring the saleability of the islands but it requires constant massaging to get the right mix of strategies to increase market potential.

The Canadian representative informed stakeholders of successful trade shows and familiarisation tours and further advised that only two tour companies from Canada, Ali-tours and Total Vacations are both operators that have shown peaked interest in promoting the destination. According to a TDC marketing specialist the Canadian tour operators would select particular hotels and operators in T&T that fit their criteria of target market which is either 5 or 4 star properties. It was unfortunate that neither the Canadian rep nor the TDC market specialist were able to qualify their success in representation of the twin island products yet there are intentions to do another resoundingly successful campaign sometime in August 2015.  They also spoke to the resounding success that West Jet Airlines is having. This was indeed surprising since West Jet has discontinued a daily service to one every other day, a detail that the representative was either unaware of or simply ignored.

The US representative keenly promoted bird watching and MICE marketing initiatives; they are also in charge of Regatta online and social media linkages. Once again, there were no data and statistics on the present or forecasted MICE markets, Bird Watching markets with the alignment of accommodation or the success of sales with Regatta online. According to data, the US market is one of the most important for Trinidad and by extension Tobago and therefore I would expect that TnT should realise increased market share for 2015-2017 at least two fold since most of the funding is pegged to this source market and because of the availability of airlift.

Marketing is indeed a very expensive project and therefore there must be some performance measures that would give clarity on whether the communication message is effectively transmitted to the wider audience, otherwise I suspect that taxpayer dollar is being spent on keeping TnT as the best kept secret in the Caribbean.