Survival tactics

recessionThe impending economic and social dilemma, not yet identified by our economists as a recession or depression, will have a severe impact for owners and operators in  the tourism industry, as there is already a glaring decline in inbound tourist arrivals, corporate retreats , meetings and incentives. The rhetoric  Everything will be fine, God is a Trini, or any other airy fairy retort, are not solutions for the sector.

Hotel owners and operators are accustomed to cycles of lows and highs, it is a pattern that the industry is familiar with, based on several factors affecting the destination. I sometimes use the expression that the industry can be compared to a  “ride on a roller coaster”, so many turns and twists , highs and lows; before you know it, another year is ahead and you have to get back on the ride to plan for future opportunities.

With the recent comatose state of the country, after the dreaded April 2016 budget review by The Honorable Minister Colm Imbert, for which my interpretation is that there is no guaranteed recovery period for the country, despite the minister’s reassurance of investment initiatives in a new hotel project at Invaders Bay, an all-inclusive project in Tobago, and the extension of the room upgrade program.

I  would not delve into each initiative or it’s expected viability, but i would stress that the industry will be challenged in this present climate with  various negative variables, the silo operation of the destination authorities and the fact that the Government is becoming the largest stakeholder in the tourism sector of foreign brands.

Would competition be fierce? – the answer is yes. Would the competition be fair? – the answer is no. Would independent owners (stakeholders/taxpayers), be offered the same marketing leverage as the branded properties from government? – who knows, the proof would be in the clarion call of  “supporting local”.

The industry is aware of the effects of a recession which is obviously discouraging, however,owners and operators in the sector must consider intelligent survival tactics. I would present a few of my suggestions which the industry should consider if they expect to sell inventory at the right price.

Firstly, it is expected that the initial reaction by owners and operators in the sector would be to slash prices across the board. We have experienced this before, after the state of emergency in 2011, however, this time the discussion on recession is predicated by panic and fear of low profitability and possible foreclosure. Instead of price gouging, operators and owners should consider rate-obscuring tactics for specific periods or through well designed packages; another would be to introduce other income streams into the operation. In this way, the operator maintains brand integrity and price fairness thereby being able to recover from short falls in revenue.

Cost cutting of operational hours or for renovation is another tactic based on the business cash flows. Some hotels already practice this strategy when there is low inbound arrivals to the islands; whilst others including myself reduce operational times.This approach becomes a practical move if operational expenses exceed profitability, however, this must be carefully monitored, and communicated without sacrificing quality of service. From my own experience,  i can affirm that your team compliment, must be aligned to the integrity of the business and they would go the extra mile to ensure they meet service demands.

A rule of thumb is “Cash is King”, and therefore, operators must ensure that monies are collected up-front from the customer, whether it is Public or Private enterprises. Another revenue stream that has been taken for granted is the rental of facilities , that is , conference or meeting spaces. This is real estate, every square foot including dressed tables, chairs and air conditioning has a cost. Once this is understood by all in the industry then this is another way to ensure that the property makes additional income. Obviously, if the cash flow is healthy then operators would be able to reinvest in small upgrades and maintain credit ratings.

It is also worthwhile or sometimes idealistic thinking for operators to start consolidating efforts to better negotiate with suppliers, for better pricing and to assist in cash flow shortfalls. This is a hopeful thought especially for mid/micro sized properties.

Managing your online travel agents (OTA’s) and your social media reviews is important for your business. OTA’s make a killing on commission, however, it is up to the operator to know how to plan rates and promotions, bearing in mind that the US dollar exchange is fluctuating.

Besides trip advisor, almost all  OTA’s have introduced a review button, where customers can lodge comments. This feature can have great responses and sometimes very distasteful ones. Studies have shown that  psychological behaviors of people using this communication rather than speaking directly to the manager is not yet understood. The bottom line is that these features on media channels are on the world wide web, therefore, responding to comments whether good or bad is critical.

Finally, from a macro perspective, industry operators are heavily reliant on the marketing efforts and incentives from authorities that govern the tourism sector. Therefore, I can only  hope that these players operate strategically  charting the course toward a sanguine expectation. After all, aren’t we all in this together!

 

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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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What does VAT have to do with tourism?

The reduction of Value Added Tax (VAT) from 15% to 12.5% which took effect February 1st 2016 in Trinidad and Tobago, was a political election promise to lower cost of living. However, it seems this fiscal measure came with unanticipated adjustments with revised zero rated items.

Very briefly, Value Added Tax (VAT) is a country’s fiscal policy which registered businesses charge on goods or services; and reclaim what they paid on business-related goods or services. In Trinidad and Tobago , we have a standard vat rate on goods and services; and a list of  zero rated commodities which meant that they were still VAT-taxable, but the rate of VAT charged to customers would be 0%.

This recent fiscal plan is a costly and time consuming exercise for any vat registered business operators.Operators in the tourism industry would have to re-adjust entries for purchasing ; revisit modules for food and beverage costing; update pricing on retail /accounting system; and reprint menus with the adjusted prices. This is just one aspect of how registered businesses deal with the change on vat . So what about the impact on the sector? Would the reduction on vat change the behavior of the consumer spend?

The impact of lowering tax for the tourism sector , which is already price sensitive, has its merits, as taxation changes could contribute to competitiveness and fairness. Ideally, the impact of cost savings by the reduction of vat and zero rated items , should allow operators to reinvest in plant and operation, generate employment and improve staff wages. Of course, this impact is achievable if the tax savings is sizable enough to realize change in the industry within 3 to 5 years.

Let me highlight a simple example, a Pizzeria , would purchase raw materials to prepare it’s  pizza; and offer bottled water (zero rated) for resale.  Assuming resale price of the pizza and bottled water are both sold at $10.00 each, then the customer pays $21.50, if vat of 15% was applied.  With the new change on fiscal policy at 12.5% , and the  revision the zero rated item, the customer is now paying $1.00 more, with the assumption that the selling price of the goods remains the same. Is this change working for the sector?

Interestingly,  within the past two weeks of February 2016, there has been a spike in the U.S currency by almost 11 cents on the dollar. What this suggests,is that the cost of imported goods would be sold at higher prices. From my very own experience,  Heinz mustard which was sold at  $38.00 up January 31st ,2016 is now sold at $48.00 by the same supplier. This alludes to the fact that the selling price , using the the initial example would be even higher, which the consumer will have no savings.

It is my perspective that the industry operators would be challenged to be competitive and maintain standards at the same time. Inevitably, cutting quantity and quality for the sake of selling at best price would not be a promising solution for operators. With the  U.S currency increase, and other factors combined, prices is expected to inflate suggesting that consumer spend may change, perhaps becoming budget conscious. On the flip side, business operators would be unable to absorb rising costs and therefore these increases would be passed on to the customer, that is, if the operator wish to maintain quality offering. From an economic perspective of supply and demand, if the customer cutback on spend then the establishments, for instance restaurants, may experience low or no turnovers. This will lead to negative growth in the economy as no monies would trickle downstream. So where does that leave the tourism industry?

Where the reduction of the vat was welcomed , the U.S currency increase will erode competitive advantage for many in the sector. I believe that the sector need to lobby government to stimulate the domestic economy and the destinations competitiveness by: 1.Reverting vat on technology to zero rated, as it is critical business tool for operators in the industry;2. Consider zero rating basic food items produced by local manufacturers; 3. Consider zero rating beverages manufactured by local producers; 4. Consider providing vat refunds for international tourists; and 5. Promote MICE, Cultural Exchange , Sport programs both large and small that can stimulate demand to both island destinations.

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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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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A budget balance -Budget 2015/2016

The budget presentation for 2016 themed “ Restoring confidence and rebuilding trust- Let’s do it together” seems like a balancing act of the new administration manifesto promises and the stabilization of the economy. The 2016 budget presentation considered measures of appropriation of funds to various sectors, despite the challenges of low production of oil and gas, foreign exchange constraints, and increased public sector constraints.

The primary focus of this article is to review the measures taken for tourism sector of Trinidad and Tobago. Quite evidently, the PNM administration fulfilled Tobago election promises with a 4.4 % increase for fiscal year 2016. An injection of T.T $ 2.772 billion dollars of which a percentage is provided for capital expenditure.  However, a large percentage of funding has been injected to boost tourism in Tobago through infrastructural development, such as: increase and improvement of room stock, air bridge and sea port capacity, new and equipped police and fire stations, and a much needed waste and water management facility.

As we know a budget is a forecast which the Government will try to keep to its mandate throughout the fiscal period which they have hinged on the oil and gas dollar. Interestingly, if i quickly review the tourism measures of the 2014/2015 budget by the previous regime they too spoke of diversification of the economy which was also in their mandate. It is of course quite evident that there was no shift in their plans to boost tourism ,as their plans were based on replicated initiatives of a medium term policy framework that has been in existence since 2009. What is pertinent for discussion is that tourism sector despite these annual injections of fiscal incentives, was and is faced with, a slump in tourism, leaving many in the industry fighting for survival.

This slump, in my humble opinion may have arisen from poor air/cruise carrier negotiations, low affinity to tourism, increased costs of living, limited tacit knowledge of the sector by those in authority, lack of strategic direction, to name a few. In other words, no direction of policy, measurements and action plans as applied to the sector will have the tourism of T&T ,using our local parlance, in a  “voops! vaps! ” dilemma,

How then would this shift be made if the systems and structures remain the same with the plethora of challenges in the tourism sector? Furthermore, how can we treat with a sustainable plan for tourism if the government is leveraging on a new record low oil and gas price?

The new administration spoke to the diversification of the economy underpinned by stakeholder forums to steer the direction of the various sectors to develop a tourism growth strategy, which,in my perspective is a great start for all players to understand the value to industry to the economy. Of course this will take time and therefore, it becomes prudent that the voice of the stakeholders through associations (THTRA, THRA, TTITOA, etc.,) can collectively work together to suggest solutions to steer the way forward for the growth of the sector.

The Honorable Minister of Finance, Colm Imbert, also alluded to the environment and socio-cultural improvements, one of the major indicators in tourism competitiveness. Funds injected for renewable resources such as Solar Energy; Water and Waste Water Management measures which was started by the former regime was re introduced in this year’s budget; the introduction on restoring green policies; protecting/enhancing natural resources through partnership with environmental groups; emphasis on improving creative industries (art, film and fashion); the development of sport and the rejuvenation for the agriculture sector, can be amalgamated towards the development of the tourism product of our destination. Out of these various sector reform growth plans one can therefore presume that the tourism strategy would be aligned to the tourism trends in areas such as: sport, eco/adventure, business and leisure/culture. Furthermore, with the allocation of funding directed to National Security with the intent to improve the security and safety of nationals and tourists, is also a fundamental competitive indicator for the sector.

The Hon Minister of Finance also spoke to intermediary support, that is, the role of Ambassadors and a tourism steering committee, as having more robust performance measures with the mandate of improving tourism and hopefully not enlisted for personal agendas.

Despite my delighted view on conscious awakening by the Finance Minister of what Trinbagonians own and have not recognized, I felt a bit disenchanted however that money or partnership agreements for rebuilding heritage sites, museums, hall of fame, carnival artistry, duty free port , risk recovery fund, labor reform, policy reform were not included. Unless, it is to be further discussed within the steering committee mandate.

Another discerning issue, is the increased cost of fuel , the increase in the green fund, the unknown property tax cost, and the other factors of degeneration of income, which would inevitably increase the costs on labour and supply chain.This would have a domino effect as transportation fares increase despite the talk on CNG fuels,  then so too the cost of goods sold, wages, and operational costs. For property owners, who have been complaining of low ADR (Average Daily Rates) in the industry will inevitably feel the pinch on escalating cost. With these creeping costs, despite the lowering of VAT to 12.5% at the start of 2016, the industry will be challenged to maintain quality, improve product and keeping a price of “value for money” to the customer. Herein lies the challenge for the government to effectively market T&T destination with these major shortfalls that will be faced by the stakeholders. Hoteliers/ Operators, more so, the independent properties, will definitely have to regroup to consider going green to cut costs, using technology to reduce labour charges, be creative with training methods ,review customer incentives and ensure that any incentive program offered by government for hotels, is without bureaucracy.

Inevitably, the buck stops with the direction of sound macro and micro policy plans by the government and through the stewardship of the leaders in the industry, to truly take tourism out of the doldrums where it has been sitting for years.

Sport, Business and Government

sports+tourism

There is a saying that “sport and politics do not mix”, the reason being, sport represent an untangled, free spirited emotion of patriotism; and politics has an agenda of control and divisiveness. Within recent years, sport-related travel has increased, suggesting synergistic relationships amongst sport, government and business activities for sport tourism to become a popular trend.

The marriage of sport and tourism is evident, as sport promote tourism through various sport events, seminars, sport conferences; and tourism promote sport by increased participation, touristic attractions and infrastructure. Therefore, Sport Tourism can be defined as “travel away from ones primary residence to participate in a sport activity for recreation or competition, travel to observe sport at the grassroots or elite level, and travel to visit a sport attraction”.

As such, sport tourism comprise a broad range of niche tourism markets which tourism destination marketers can effectively use push and pull factors that can promote destination T&T. Push factors explore experiential marketing such as, the culture and lifestyle of the islands; and pull factors would explore the islands tangibility of its natural attractions, historical sites, special events, entertainment opportunities. In essence the market drive is designed to encourage either the participant or spectator of the sport to revisit the islands. Therefore the key, if T&T is to develop sport tourism is to comprehend the impact of economic benefits, destination image and the social impacts.

Infrastructure is critical to start the business of sport tourism, whereby the reputation earned by the brand created by the facility is able to attract spectator participation and improve destination marketing. For instance NY Yankee Stadium, Rigley Field, American Airlines Stadia, Wimbledon, Wembley, Augusta National Golf course Georgia, Soldier Field, Lords, Kengsinton Oval and Queen’s Park Cricket Club (QPCC) to name a few. Likewise, many destinations encourage investors to build resorts offering sport facilities in watersport, ski, and golf where the attraction of the sport facility becomes the primary motive to be negotiated into the trip. Ski Resorts and Golf resorts of international standards are the top travel trend for the higher income traveler.

According to research there are several categories that integrate sport tourism, business and government such as, Sport Tourism Events (such as olympic games, world cup, marathons, etc.), Sport Tourism Attractions (such as sport hall of fame, sport clinics, sport shows, conference), Sport Tourism Tours (Trekking, Cycling, Dragon Boat, zip lining, Adventure), Sport Tourism Resorts (Golf, Camp Sites, Fishing resorts, Fitness/Spa), and Sport Tour Cruises (Deep Sea Fishing, Snorkel cruise, Kayaking). The fact is, every category mentioned can be facilitated in T&T thereby having the islands poised to move on sport tourism as a unique destination, as both islands can boast of public infrastructure built to international standard: stadia, cycling velodrome, hockey centre, in door sporting complex, racing circuit and soon to be opened aquatic centre. Seemingly, these facilities and lit playing fields should be an impetus for our young sport enthusiasts to grab opportunities to become elite athletes similar to our national achievers as evidenced by our medallist and representatives in individual, team and paraplegic. T&T is the only islands in the Caribbean with divergent sport talent as compared to the other destinations. The T&T flag has been represented in areas such as track and field, cycling, sailing, aquatics, badminton, athletics,gymnastics,tennis, racing, cricket, football, triathalon, netball, hockey, chess, rugby, boxing, just to name a few.

Therefore, it is expected that congruence, if not policy, must exist irrespective of mandates between the two major public institutions Ministry of Sport and Ministry of Tourism with special purpose companies, Sport Company (SPORTT) and Tourism Development Company (TDC). What can be questioned is whether there is a collaborative framework for sport tourism trend to be a forecasted measurement to our GDP?  Where does the responsibility lie to pursue sport tourism to attain brand uniqueness for T&T?

Studies have shown that tensions will arise out of differing ideologies by governing parties, organisations and individuals, private investors, where the responsibility lies in a merged relationship, subsides, and the issue of which public sector authority should then make the final decision.  Since little research is in this area of sport tourism in T&T, it may be interesting that confluence exist in the quasi-autonomous government policy framework.

Historically public administrations in T&T are known to have been poor service providers and most times incapable of generating economic benefits despite grand assertions made by government officials.  With the many facilities built and owned by government, it is only logical that the treasury drain will be more so to maintain facilities and infrastructure. The government will also be financially burdened for hefty sponsorship requests for sport events, advertising, promotions,an apparent norm only in T&T. This substantial financial drain is at the taxpayer expense, therefore this should raise an automatic red flag to establish success indicators to highlight the wealth of return of every dollar that is spent.

It is my perspective, more so as a new administration has been installed, to review its strategic plan with action plans that can have an impact on its goals so as be uniquely established as a sport tourism destination in the Caribbean. One can put forward many recommendations but for the purpose of this article I will venture to offer a few:

  1. There should be a focus towards bidding for major international special events; engage with international teams to host friendly matches; ‘charm‘ meets with private investors to consider leasing stadia; and encourage facility rental;
  2. Entice international brand merchandisers (Lucozade, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Red Bull, Adidas, TATA, etc.) who are seeking new markets to become primary sponsors for events or conferences;
  3. Build on coaching and training camps in various disciplines;
  4. Review the tax break sponsorship incentive for private companies making it less bureaucratic and also include tax break for small businesses;
  5. Promote specialist online pages to advertise sport and adventure travel;

Economic benefits are attainable as long as the destination brand encourage the tourist dollar to be spent on the visit of attractions and accommodation, shopping and dining; the government will benefit from tax collections and income through sponsorship / leasing /ticket sale distribution; and our people would benefit with a sense of pride, patriotism and support from having a pool of international athletes on the world stage. Therefore, I fervently believe that the mix of sport, government and business can soon become a fine blend for destination Trinidad and Tobago.

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.

What tourism policy?

      What is Haiti’s strategy to re-invent the island’s tourism sector to attain private-equity firms to invest in hotels, resorts and transportation projects after years of political struggles, financial impropriety and natural disasters?

Barbados, on the other hand, under the successive stewardship of Ministers Miller and Lynch, developed aggressive policies that positively impacted the island’s tourism sector ranking the island as one of the top Caribbean destinations.

Theoretically, a tourism policy is a component from a national model and should be regulated by the public sector. It is a working document that identifies future projections of tourism receipts beyond government conjunctures.

What the tourism policy attempts to do is to provide a clear plan of action from short, medium to long term goals; to identify destination targets of travel for cultural, trade and other pertinent business which translates to economic benefit for the country; to build well informed customers that will promote the product of the islands; to interest investors, to improve on the heritage and culture of the people; to develop infrastructure; to secure financial funding to support projects, and to build a more sustainable tourism. However, the tourism policy cannot be static as the tourism sector is dynamic in nature therefore recommending that reviews are done to tweak the actions plan to accommodate change.

Research has shown that partially funded tourism organisations work on tourism receipts and sales quotas to fund the organisation. These organisations cannot be lapsed in their strategic marketing efforts otherwise they will fold. Almost all smaller destinations in the world and the Caribbean manage their tourism operations from the state support. Evidently successful public tourism organisations must have the political will to access resources to improve competitiveness to achieve the national tourism goal.

A tourism policy cannot be copied and adapted to a destination, especially if a destination is to offer a unique and identifiable product offering in a global market place. Recently, a comment was posed to the Minister of Finance at a post-budget debate 2014, suggesting that Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) should adopt the Dubai model for development of our island tourism product based on the premise that both nations are owners of non-renewable energy. Agreeably Dubai, in a space of thirteen years managed to quadruple its inbound tourist arrivals being the most luxurious and sort after destination in the world. However, it should be noted that the tourism component was not in isolation for Dubai’s aggressive action for their country.

The fact is , Trinidad and Tobago have been following models over the years , the pre-colonial system of governance and the fatally adopted western world ideologies, a toxic combination,  without critical reflection of what, why, how or where our island’s should be in the long term.

For any model to be effective it requires strong private/public sector relationship that is beneficial for investors, communities, culture and heritage, economy, environment and the human resources. Additionally, researched data have shown that government and the tourism public sector advisers or leaders must be of a futuristic ilk with a clear vision for the country and its populace for tourism development.

For instance, Prime Minister of T&T, Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, at the start of her tenure engaged several international audiences in Asia, London, New York, Panama and Brazil promoting T&T. Who should have channeled these efforts? Is this a failure of her government or the failure of the management of the state enterprise mandated to market the destination?

Perhaps one should question whether Trinidad and Tobago have a national framework of which one of the components is the national tourism policy? One can argue that Trinidad and Tobago has a national tourism policy (http://www.ema.co.tt/new/images/policies/tourism_policy.pdf) which was drafted in 2008 and published in 2010; and there is also a tourism act, 2000 (minor updates in 2006).

Researchers within the Caribbean highlighted in several published articles, a series of on-going challenges which has positioned T&T at a standstill in destination performance.

The first issue is the weak congruent relationships among the three public tourism institutions which has had conflicts in driving tourism as a unified voice that is glaringly evident in the marketing strategies for the islands. The second challenge is that decisions are ad hoc without alignment to a policy which has had projects at a stalemate thereby increasing financial costs. This was evident with the incentive plans, the green globe project, the blue flag project and the recent “tOURism is about us” marketing campaign to name a few. And finally, the politics, which seem to be a major contributor to the weaknesses of tourism not only in T&T. Issues , such as, nepotism of the Government in power, the internal politics within public tourism organisations and the profiteering pseudo consultants are some common occurrences faced by the sector.  According to research many wielding the power in state owned tourism enterprises, are not necessarily the politicians, but those with agendas who are retained as advisers irrespective of government in power, whose intent is to keep the system at a stalemate for their own prosperity.

Therefore, Is T&T national tourism policy well designed and effective to fuel our national tourism goals?  Perhaps, more research is needed to identify which simulated model is practiced by the state owned tourism organisation in T&T : 1. “Cart before the horse” model  whereby  plans or incentives are introduced for the sector by ignoring the  bureaucratic formalities; 2. “The Knee Jerk”  model ,whereby the industry becomes reactive rather than proactive in a crisis; 3. “The Clueless” model whereby the workforce in the tourism organisations do not have the passion or skill sets to be involved in tourism;  4. “The oil syndrome” model whereby tourism funds are  hemorrhaged without understanding whether it will impact on increased tourism receipts; and  5. “The blame game” model whereby everyone point fingers at the sitting government and opposition without either side validating measures to diversify the sector.

In reflection, transformation of the tourism sector can be driven in T&T once the leadership embraces the complexity of the industry to deliver innovative ideas through a well-designed framework of a national tourism policy with performance measures regulated by an established team of knowledgeable public/ private sector partners. Just saying!

Is T&T ready to roll on medical tourism?

Intelligent market research is a very important tool used to shape destination strategy that will attract visitor-ship, one such dimension is travel trends. Recent studies have shown that the most popular trends in the global travel industry are Medical Tourism, Adventure Tourism, Sport Tourism and Eco Tourism just to name a few. From the recent conference on Medical Tourism in T&T, it seems that this trend is one of the strategies on the agenda of the tourism authorities marketing plan. So what’s the buzz about Medical Tourism? Is T&T ready to roll out its plan as it pertains to the impressive report, “Strengthening the competitiveness of services in T&T” – 2012 Draft National Strategy for Medical Tourism?

The fact is, medical tourism can be a major competitive advantage for the differentiation of our product offering in T&T, as statistics has shown for other destinations such as Cuba, Barbados, Venezuela, Switzerland, USA South Korea and India. These destinations attract visitors because they can provide high quality medical treatment at a lower attractive price; there is confidence of the health services pre and post care;  there is a life enhancing or life changing experience; they are aware of superior medical technology and for some; and the ability to attain medical insurance. Besides the medical aspects the “para” attractions would be the hospitality services, such as hotels and guesthouses, transportation, tour operators, sites and attractions, restaurants and many other receptive components within the tourism offer. Furthermore, there are spin off industries such as Spa tourism (USA, Switzerland); Holistic and Wellness tourism (USA, Maldives, Indonesia, China); and Specialized Medical (USA, India, Venezuela, etc) that are also attractive for visitors and investors.

This burgeoning medical tourism industry became popular for services in areas such as Cosmetic Surgery, Bariatric Surgery, Dentistry, Cardiology/ Cardiac Surgery, Orthopedic Surgery, Cancer Treatment, Fertility/Reproductive System Surgery, Organ/tissue transplant, Eye Surgery and Diagnostics/ Check- ups.

Interestingly some of these services are competently practised in private care institutions in Trinidad, and marketed privately by said institutions to a small percentage of clients both domestically and regionally. For instance, medical clients travel from several regional destinations for specialised eye surgeries, orthopaedic and reproductive surgeries right here in Trinidad. In terms of our domestic population in Trinidad, medical care for clients from very far South or East travel to Port-of-Spain for diagnostics or dialysis testing. Because of these situations the accommodation sector is poised for providing room stay-overs because some patients after being discharged from the hospital may not want to run the risk of travelling which may exacerbate their health situation.

The 2012 draft report proposed developing a campaign/branding exercise for Trinidad and Tobago medical tourism for niche markets, namely the Diaspora. However, we must recognise that the perception of our nationals about T&T medical health care, is a necessary factor to be able to attract the intended niche market. What is obvious and without market intelligence, is that Trinidad and Tobago, like many of the developing nations has a public health care that is inundated with many challenges, and our private health care system that is too costly for the average waged national.

On the other hand, many of our nationals travel abroad for specialized treatment for several reasons: they can afford treatment abroad; there are no specialists or lab that can treat with the particular health situation; or because of trust issues of our domestic health care. Popular clinics in the USA where most nationals travel for medical purposes are Mayo Clinic, Florida Memorial Hospital, Mount Sinai, Baptist Health and John Hopkins.

It is unfortunate that the challenges within our health institution is not an overnight fix, as there are many issues that are like a dormant virus, which requires a special vaccine to rid the disease that is destroying the systems progress. On the upside, is that, significant investment have been by the Government into infrastructural development of several health care institutions, specialised training and equipment. The other spend by government has been to increase the talent pool with specialists/ consultants from China, Cuba, Nigeria, St Lucia and the U.S., to meet the demands of the patient care on the islands. It is a commendable step in the right direction of improving health care services and changing its present state of deterioration to change public image perception.

This investment is for T&T nationals to be able to access professional health care at any of these centres being built. It would also mean that care will be provided to every citizen without discrimination against the low income working class. This may be perfect scenario that can be painted for T&T about our health care reform and surely mechanisms ought to be put into place to ensure the public sector never falls into “brain drain” shortages or malpractices which can escalate into various strains of the health care system virus.

It is my perspective having read the 2012 draft report, for which the market research is now irrelevant today, should consider treading on this trend very wearily, as risks involved in medical tourism can have long term consequences that can affect the entire marketing campaign for the destination.  And if the intention is to move forward with the proposed trend, then the tourism authorities should start lobbying with stakeholders for international accreditation and legislative regulations of patient care schemes before any plan of misleading advertisements.

The legislative framework should also look at ensuring that taxpayers are not paying for foreign visitors to attain free services within the public institutions; that the public sector is also certified so as not to be ousted from the medical campaign because of inferior care; that practitioners are bona fide in both public and private care; and that insurance frameworks are set up for institutions and practitioners.  What is also significantly important for authorities to consider, especially in this age of terrorism, is that all best practises should be considered for the public and private health institutions to safeguard against exposure to unidentifiable bacteria or even bioterrorism.

Globally, destinations involved in medical tourism have implemented several solutions to ensure that the trend is sustained. For instance, South Korea has an institution dedicated 24 hour contact line with tourists about complaints, questions or any information that is for public care facilities. India, another popular destination for medical tourism have partnered with foreign insurance providers to allow visitors to access care at a lower price and with benefits. There are also investment incentive for foreign consultants to set up international firms in countries to compete with the public/private sector whilst providing specialised services to nationals and international visitors.

For T&T to differentiate its tourism product in the medical trend require a clear strategy by a partnered relationship of inter-ministerial Public/Private Health Care stakeholders and that of the Tourism authority to strategize on balancing the quality, efficiency, risk ,sustainability and innovation to effectively promote the islands. A spend on a campaign without a clear plan of action would equate to a loss of the taxpayer dollar and another tourism campaign that is botched! Having said that, what is your view: Is T&T ready to be the trend setter in medical tourism in the Caribbean?