Lessons for Reviving Caribbean Tourism One Year After Hurricanes’ Devastation

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A report by Dan Peltier for Skift.

The Caribbean’s tourism industry has faced one of the most challenging years in its history. But the silver lining with 2017’s hurricanes is that more destinations are now seriously talking about the threat of climate change and have rebuilt themselves stronger as a result.

The staff at Wimco Villas on St. Barths moved fast after Hurricane Irma’s 150 mile-per-hour winds left the island last September. The company’s office was one of the first to get power restored since it’s on the same grid as the airport. Within hours, two GoFundMe accounts were set up and raised more than $200,000 for recovery efforts.

Similar scenarios played out across other Caribbean islands hard hit by Irma – the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record – and by other storms last year. While some of the region’s tourist locales are nearly as good as new in the year since the storms wreaked havoc, others are still waiting for investment and other funds to rebuild.

Puerto Rico is also marking the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria this week and the progress that’s been made in the past year. As a home cruise port and major Caribbean gateway to smaller islands, Puerto Rico’s recovery has also been key for other destinations. Tourism officials on the island say new technology is helping, along with and partnerships getting signed, to improve the visitor experience.

Like Puerto Rico, other islands are in various stages of recovery. The British Virgin Islands had more than $2.1 billion in damage to its hotels and other tourism infrastructure. Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys reopened last month after a $50 million renovation financed by New York-based Carey Watermark Investors.

The U.S. Virgin Islands recently signed a $1.4 billion deal with Boston-based ArcLight Capital Partners to repair an oil refinery in the territory. As part of the deal, a $10 million investment has been proposed for a 110-room hotel in St. Thomas and would be the territory’s first new hotel in decades.

Antigua and Barbuda, the latter island devasted by Irma, said that its Coco Point and (possibly) Lighthouse Bay resorts are looking for buyers while the Barbuda Belle resort will reopen November 1. Tourism officials said 100 percent of Antigua properties have reopened but some of the members-only resorts in Barbuda are more difficult to track.

Dominica, which took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, currently has about 540 hotel rooms open.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization said earlier this year that it plans to launch its first regional marketing campaign in more than a decade to communicate which islands, hotels, resorts, and attractions are operational or have reopened, and spread general awareness of the Caribbean. The campaign was expected to roll out by July, but the organization said it still hasn’t launched.

The organization also plans to capitalize on the increase in online bookings for Caribbean vacations. While travel agents were once the most popular way to book a Caribbean cruise or vacation, the organization said about 70 percent of travelers book their Caribbean vacations online and it views that as an opportunity to convey real-time updates on different islands as travelers are searching for vacation options.

The organization is also currently running another social media campaign that compares distances between Caribbean countries and between major cities in North America and Europe to emphasize that a hurricane could hit a few islands in the eastern Caribbean but other parts of the region would be totally unaffected.

PUERTO RICO MAKES PROGRESS

Despite recent headlines that Maria’s death toll was nearly 3,000, Puerto Rico’s tourism arrivals are coming back and tourism officials have taken steps to improve the destination’s image and management.

About 3,900 of Puerto Rico’s 15,000 rooms were still closed as of the second quarter of 2018.  Nearly 2,000 rooms are expected to reopen in the third and fourth quarters, which will put the total number of rooms open at 87 percent. Cruise arrivals are also up 1 percent for June year-to-date at more than 793,000 passengers.

Discover Puerto Rico, a new destination marketing organization that came online in July, is the island’s first tourism marketing body that’s separate from the government.

The Puerto Rico Tourism Company, a government organization that promotes economic development on the island, recently signed a partnership with hospitality tech company Alice to bring the mobile app concierge service to Puerto Rico.

Travelers will be encouraged to download the app, called “My Puerto Rico,” when they book a hotel in Puerto Rico, said Alejandra Orozco, Alice’s director of sales for Latin America. “I can text the hotel to say I’m surprising my husband for his birthday and can you please get a cake for this date?” she said. “I do see a future where we start to bring travelers all information of attractions within the app where we have information about the destination.”

The partnership is Alice’s first destination-wide partnership and eight properties have already signed on. Some 45 properties were initially invited to adopt the app, and the tourism company is in negotiations with about a dozen other properties.

“We’re really also focused on small and medium-sized lodging businesses,” said Carla Campos, executive director of Puerto Rico Tourism Company. “A lot of branded hotels already have a branded app solution like this. A lot of them also use Alice as well. We realize we’re in a unique spot to become a trendy destination.”

Campos said of the 145 hotels endorsed by the tourism company, about 40 percent are Marriott and Hilton properties that would already have their own apps.

Hospitality and tourism staff often suffer the most in the wake of hurricanes when resorts close to renovate or their own homes are damaged or destroyed. Anguilla’s Malliouhana, Auberge Resorts Collection said it expects many staff to return for its December 15 reopening but said some have left the island or left for positions at other properties. Malliouhana said its total staff will larger than before Irma as its expanded its facilities during the renovations and is holding a series of recruitment fairs in Anguilla during the next couple of months.

Hospitality talent is ramping up in the Florida Keys post-Irma and wages are expected to grow in the long-term, said Marcos Borras, vice president of asset management of Diamond Rock Hospitality, a Maryland-based real estate investment trust company. “Housing was impacted for some workers but one could say it’s back to normal from that aspect as well,” he said. “With wages expected to grow, we think that Key West will be a very attractive work-life balance destination.”

The Hilton West Palm Beach was spared the wrath of Irma last year, but it still accommodated guests who had evacuated from other parts of the state where the storm passed through.

John Parkinson, the hotel’s general manager and the area general manager for Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, has worked at various properties across Florida and has experience with multiple hurricanes. The property is located inland and didn’t close during any of last year’s storms. He said the first step with any storm preparation is to make sure staff have prepared themselves and their families so they can be ready to serve guests.

“Staff from other regions will come to assist,” said Parkinson. “We call it the task force, and often we’ll bring people in from an area of the country where maybe it’s their slower season.”

The hotel typically sets up a lot of activities, TVs, and gaming areas during hurricanes. During Irma, guests could listen to a DJ and band, want NFL football, or play bingo, for example.

The silver lining to any hurricane is that it’s generally a great team bonding experience for staff, said Parkinson. “We’re working really hard and at the end of the day our customers are still paying to stay here and we can’t forget hospitality,” he said. “Often guests check-in two to three days before the hurricane hits. People call to book at the first sign of a hurricane.”

Parkinson said he and his teams have learned through trial and error that guests aren’t as nervous about the weather as you’d expect. “We watch that for them and some guests don’t even hear the winds outside because the hotel is built to the most current hurricane standards,” he said. “We spend far more time walking around the hotel as a leadership team and looking at it differently after a hurricane. You always find that maybe some windows aren’t sealed properly.”

DEMAND PICKING UP

The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, which began on June 1 and goes through November 30, has been relatively quiet so far compared to last year. The Pacific hurricane season has seen a handful of strong storms this year including Lane and Olivia impacting Hawaii, a destination which rarely sees hurricanes.

Hurricane Florence, the strongest Atlantic storm so far this season, made landfall last week on the U.S. East Coast in the Carolinas as a category one hurricane with 90 mile-per-hour winds. The storm has caused an estimated $17 to $22 billion in damage and more than 30 people were killed in the storm and during its aftermath. Allianz Travel Insurancehas received about 3,600 Florence-related claims and 450 calls at its call center, as one measure of the storm’s impact on travelers.

North and South Carolina tourism officials have launched a website that gives information on how to help with recovery efforts and how travelers can get involved.

Visit Florida and Expedia partnered during Florence to help evacuees find accommodations in Florida on Expedia, Travelocity, Cheaptickets, Orbitz, Hotels.com, and Hotwire. “Our lodging team works with hotel partners on an ongoing basis to ensure that availability is current,” said Hari Nair, global senior vice president of Expedia Group Media Solutions. “And even when the storms have passed, we continue to work with Visit Florida to keep the page updated with information and accommodations for those who are attempting to travel in impacted areas of the state, whether trying to return home or assisting with recovery efforts.”

Visit Florida has worked with Expedia on similar partnerships for past hurricanes but this is the first time it’s done a partnership for out-of-state hurricane evacuees.

Meanwhile, demand at Wimco Villas on St. Barths, Anguilla, St. Martin, and the U.S. Virgin Islands has been strong so far this year, said Stiles Bennet, president and chief marketing officer at Wimco Villas, a private villa rental company in the Caribbean. “I’d say it’s strong but not historically strong and I think it’s really important to acknowledge the role of the airlines they restored lift into San Juan and that was a tough business decision but they did it,” he said. “No one gets down here without those airlines.”

By March, Bennet said business was already up eight percent compared to the same month a year ago. “We try to be really transparent about the island,” he said. Maybe this is a year where you don’t eat out as much. In some islands, it will be just as you remember it but in other islands maybe you modify itineraries slightly.”

Bennet said most villa owners haven’t adjusted their rates because of the hurricanes. “We support villa owners in holding their rates and we don’t think they should have to discount their properties,” he said.

But properties elsewhere are offering markdowns. The Florida Keys is one example of a destination that is offering discounts at various properties. “In general terms, Key West was in the process of absorbing new Stock Island hotels,” said Diamond Rock Hospitality’s Borras. “Demand was slowly growing and eating into the new supply. I think when two Key West hotels come back online we think they’ll be able to adsorb demand coming from Stock Island.” Diamond Rock also owns the Habana Cabana Resort resort which reopened in May after renovations from Irma.

The Caribbean is also paying more attention to travelers in its own backyard, said Joy Jibrilu, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. “There’s been an increase in Caribbean arrivals within the region and it’s not something we always think of automatically in terms of where to promote as a vacation destination,” she said during a press conference on September 7. “The Caribbean is our third largest market after the U.S. and Canada.”

Preparing for future storms and readying for more climate change looms large throughout the region. Grenada announced this week that it’s banning styrofoam products that pollute the ocean and resorts like the Bahama’s Grand Isle Resort & Spa are concerned about road infrastructure and telecommunications with future storms. Much of the region is more aware of the need to be ready for extreme weather than before last year’s storms, but much of the Caribbean’s infrastructure still needs reinforcements to be truly ready.

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