CITE 2009: Breaking even

Increasingly fiercer competition amidst the worst global economic conditions for decades means the marketing of Cayman’s tourism product needs to ramp up to warp speed if it is to come out of this current recession on top. The Cayman Islands Tourism Exchange, organised by the private sector group Cayman Islands Tourism Association, is an important event that serves as an excellent platform for Cayman to really show off the uniqueness of the three Cayman Islands to overseas wholesalers and visiting journalists alike. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull reports. First in a two-part series.

Over the last 10 years or so Cayman has weathered its fair share of outside pressures bearing down on its tourism product. We’ve had 9/11, which caused a massive slow down on overseas travel by Americans (Cayman’s biggest geographical source of visitors), Hurricane Ivan that knocked us sideways for the 2004/2005 high season and now a worldwide economic recession putting the squeeze on everyone’s budgets coupled with [at the time of writing] a possible pandemic of Swine flu poised to sweep the world, with the possibility of restricting travel by large sectors of society.

During these difficult times those in Cayman’s tourism industry (both private sector and government) have managed to take stock and find their way through the difficulties. Pressures are thus now being carefully assessed by the industry to ascertain how Cayman can best navigate its way through and, in the president of the CITA, Steve Broadbelt’s own words, “at least come out of all of this even.”

Upping the ante

In his opening address to the assembled visiting journalist and overseas wholesalers, former Tourism Minister Charles Clifford said the single goal of the government was to increase visitor arrivals year on year. This was not an easy task, according to the former Minister, who said that “consumer confidence is at an unprecedented low with fear and uncertainty among consumers making it impossible to predict future travel plans by such individuals.”

Broadbelt reiterated this point, saying, “It is the CITA’s goal to increase visitors by air from the current 300,000 per year to 400,000 per year over a five year period. After extensive reviews of our members it is felt that this increase is the minimum required for them to remain sustainable and in business.”

The downturn in arrivals was not indicative of any lessening of Cayman’s tourism product, said Clifford, as the jurisdiction showed record arrival figures up to the last quarter of 2008, moreover it was a reflection of the global slowdown.

Former Minister Clifford cited the annual survey of affluence and wealth in America undertaken by American Express and the Harrison Group, which found that vacation spending would be one of the first sectors to rebound come the end of the recession. He said that it was the job of the government and the private sector to ensure that Cayman was ready for the rebound.

Tourism set for summer

Clifford then outlined a variety of ways in which the Islands were poised to embrace the traditionally slow summer season, including the Summer Splash geared at families with discounts for children (free meals, flights and attractions passes). Other specials include offering children between the ages of 12 and 17 the chance to dive free, and ‘Skate Cayman’, a new initiative aimed at attracting young people between the ages of four and 17 to a summer-long series of skate camps at Cayman’s Black Pearl Skate Park, the second largest of its kind in the world. Organisers have invited internationally renowned skateboard professionals to give workshops and demonstrations, hopefully therefore creating a potential massive draw for youths and their families from the US.

“Skateboarding has overtaken baseball as the number one sport for young people in America today,” Clifford explained. “There are an estimated 20 million skateboarders worldwide so we want to reinforce our superior product within the region by teaming world class athletes with our world
class asset.”

Harry Lalli, director of the Black Pearl Skate Park says, “Skate Cayman is a great fit for Cayman’s tourism product offering. Research shows just how popular skateboarding is in the US right now so the summer camp that we are offering will be a great way to encourage visitors to the island.”

Douglas Cameron, from the Black Pearl Skate Park explains how the offer will work, “Under the Department of Tourism’s Summer Splash campaign, young people will receive a special VIP card which will allow them free periods of time to skate at the park. In addition, the new Skate Cayman initiative is a summer long camp (beginning of June through to the end of August) which young people can attend for CI$50 a day or CI$225 a week, locals and visitors, and get some expert tuition as well as watch demonstrations by some of the biggest names in the business.”

Douglas continues, “In addition, we also house one of the world’s best wave machines (there are only two others like ours in the world) which is another exciting aspect of our offering.”

Lalli anticipates that skate camps will become a regular feature at the Black Pearl Skate Park during holiday periods, in addition to the Park’s current after school and regular tuition classes.

Visit for the schedule of visiting professional skaters, which includes Shaun White, Bucky Lasek and Rune Glifberg.

But more is needed

Broadbelt said it would have been remiss of him to not mention at the CITE the necessity to lengthen the runway of the Owen Roberts Airport to facilitate long haul and therefore larger planes from places such as Europe.

Broadbelt said, “This is a very important part of expanding our airlift capabilities.”

He also briefly outlined the need for Cayman to provide immigration clearance services actually on island, so visitors could then enter the US after a visit to Cayman as they would a domestic flight. “This would dramatically increase our ability to connect with other flights in the US,” he said.

He also encouraged the visiting delegates to walk through a first for the CITE event – a condo and villa pavilion, at which seven Cayman properties were taking part.

“It is perhaps not a well known fact but there is just as much room stock available in the villas/condos market as there is in the hotel market in Cayman,” he said. “We need your help in promoting this sector of
the industry.”

The lure of the villa

Seven condo and villa properties joined forces at the CITE to showcase en masse the highlights of condo/villa rental for vacationers verses hotel-style vacations. Representatives from The Islands Club, Casa Caribe, The Cayman Club, Caribbean Club, the Christopher Columbus, Cayman Villas and The Grandview were all keen to talk to delegates about their unique properties.

Robert Bodden is the Manager at The Islands Club and says that condo vacations have historically been largely overlooked by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, when it comes to the general marketing of this aspect of Cayman’s tourism product, though happily that has changed this year.

“With around 50 per cent of the total roomstock available in the Cayman Islands in condos and villas this is an area that just cannot be ignored any longer. Condo vacations are perfect for family holidays and once people try it they are hooked. Indeed, around 80 per cent of our customers are repeat visitors who have been coming here for ten to fifteen years. It’s a real home away home feeling that you cannot recreate in a hotel,” he says.

Bodden’s property boasts the most idyllic location on Seven Mile Beach, with a wide aspect that gently slopes down to the ocean. The beach is dotted discreetly with sun loungers and vast casuarinas provide shade from the sun.

Bodden says the villa and condo owners cannot compete with hotels when it comes to price wars as owners in his complex do not want to “give their product away”. “Our guests enjoy a quality product; we might stretch to as much as a 10 per cent discount but that is as much as we would offer. We have costs to bear so we just cannot give our service away.”

Effie Mitchell-Johonson is the Manager at Casa Caribe and she says this collective movement by a selection of condo properties is a smart move in today’s economic climate.

“Separately it is difficult for us to compete; together there is strength in numbers – we can pool our resources and market our product a lot better together.”

Mitchell says it’s the personal touch in condo rental that makes all the difference to her guests. “With condos you aren’t simply a number as you are in some hotels,” she explains. “We bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of our guests. And it’s the little touches that make all the difference, such as fresh, hand-picked flowers in the room every day. We would find it hard to drop our prices because our service does cost a certain amount; however we are exploring ways in which we can add even more value.”

Elizabeth Oliver, Manager at The Cayman Club, also extends a detailed and personalised service to her guests, from having the gardeners cut down coconuts so guests can enjoy fresh cool coconut water perhaps for the first time, to having guests email their grocery requirements ahead of time so their cupboards are fully stocked when they arrive.

“We are basically on call at all times to service our guests’ needs, and guests really appreciate that personal touch. In fact, we have guests who haven’t even checked out yet booking for next year!”

Next month we take a tour around the Islands Club to get a first hand account of condo vacations and hear what Deputy Tourism Director Sharon Bovell had to say at the CITE.