Breaking the slow season cycle

At the end of August, the Caymanian Compass reported that
July saw the biggest influx of visitors to Cayman in six years. The numbers
traditionally always trail off in August and September, with restaurants in
particular this year reporting extremely slow business from mid August to date.
Do we need to accept this season as just traditionally slow?

Compass journalist Joe Shooman that 144,674 people came
to Cayman by cruise and air during July, a number that compared favourably to
the same month every year since 2004. Cruise ship arrivals were at the highest
since 2006 and air arrivals the fifth best in 10 years. Compare these promising
figures to those in August and September and the story takes a different turn.

Raffaele dell’Oglio is the co-owner and manager of
Edoardo’s restaurant and says he noticed a marked decline in business from
mid-August after a buoyant early summer.

“The number of diners dropped off considerably from
mid-August. We have had an extremely quiet period recently, even worse than
last year’s traditionally slow period,” he confirms. “I wonder why we have to
accept September and October as slow and what we could do collectively to
encourage more visitors to Cayman at these times.”

Keith Griffin, owner of restaurant and wine bar Bacchus
agrees: “We generally have a decent lunchtime service because we are based in
town so we are not reliant on tourists and we don’t close up during the slow
season because we usually enjoy a slightly larger slice of the pie because
other restaurants do shut and we can attract more business. However, we have
not seen anything near the volume of business that we saw during September last
year. From mid-August onwards we’ve seen a marked decline in business.”

Griffin agrees that it has simply always been accepted
that September and October are traditionally slow and there has never been a
concerted effort to address the situation.

“I would love to introduce a similar scheme to Restaurant
Week that we held at the end of August…whereby 21 local restaurants got
together and offered a set four course meal for a fixed price. I was really
surprised at how successful this idea was. Our bookings were up considerably
during that week with locals as well as some tourists taking up this
well-priced offer. It just goes to show that people are still willing to eat
out if the price is right. I’d love to see this initiative extended to an
entire month or perhaps repeated in September and October.”

Dell’Oglio agrees: “I think Restaurant Week was a great
idea. I’d love to see it run from the beginning of the slow season, May through
to October. If restaurants could get together and offer a summer special menu,
I think it would definitely generate great business for us.”  

Some tourism-related businesses shut their doors during
the traditionally slow season, but for larger organisations closing up shop is
simply not an option.

Tailor-made service
“We’d love to shut
down operations during September,” says Melissa Ladley, Public Relations
director with The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, “However it’s just not feasible
because we have our Residences for which we still have to cater and
operationally it would be impossible, for example we would still need to air
condition our buildings.”

The Ritz-Carlton has been operational through five slow
seasons in Cayman and has managed to build up a pattern of behaviour among
guests, which allows them to tailor their service specifically to their needs.

“You need to be extra clever with your marketing during
the slow season. People still travel during September and October and we have
begun to understand the demographics of these individuals,” she explains. “They
obviously don’t travel with children who are now all back to school for the new
term. They tend to be singles, couples and older people looking for a quiet
beach getaway, away from the crowds. They tend to be unafraid of hurricane
season, residing mainly in South Florida. It’s hot here during the later part
of the summer but even hotter in South Florida so it is to this demographic
that we market.”

The Ritz-Carlton morphs into a boutique during the slow
months, with just beachfront rooms available. Blue by Eric Ripert and
Periwinkle restaurants are both closed during the slow season. They also push
their residents’ package, which is open all year round for local residents but
is especially attractive during September and October, priced at $239, which
includes a beachfront room for two for one night as well as breakfast and the
use of the beach cabana.

“We have sparkling wine with our Saturday breakfast,
which is included in the price so local residents can really enjoy a wonderful
stay here coupled with a fantastic breakfast and then a luxurious lounge on the
beach with all the amenities that the beach cabana brings as well,” she says.
“We also run our Silver Rain spa at full service during the slow season as our
guests tend to make good use of these facilities at these times as they tend
not to be travelling with children. We offer specials for residents at this
time as well.”

Ladley says they also are piloting a brand new project in
conjunction with Cayman Airways to encourage guests to use Cayman Airways and
in return receive favourable rates.

“Because of various legal and logistical reasons we
cannot create an actual package deal for holiday-makers that includes cheap
airfare; however for the first time this year we are marketing our property
alongside Cayman Airways so that we can offer guests a special customer rate
code when booking their flights, which means favourable rates for their
airfares,” she explains.

“At The Ritz-Carlton we are all big fans of Cayman
Airways. We ensure that our reservation agents who are not based in Cayman are
flown down to become familiar with the island and we always fly Cayman Airways.
We feel that partner marketing such as this will be effective in bringing down
more visitors to the island,” she adds.

Steve Broadbelt, managing director and co-owner of Ocean
Frontiers and Compass Point Dive Resort says cutting prices and catering to a
different demographic is the key to his resort’s October bookings running at 83
per cent. 

“This is mostly due to our ‘Green Short’ special that we
have been running, which is offering some deeply discounted pricing,” he

Broadbelt says they find the demographics for the October
traveller slightly different – mostly without children, ‘empty nesters’ and a
few slightly younger couples in their late 30s.

“But we’d estimate similar average household income
range. It’s just that the deal for them was too good to pass up. We are also
seeing a lot of repeat visitors/customers for October,” he says.

However, Broadbelt warns that Ocean Frontiers caters to a
niche market and has built a loyal following of divers over the last 15 years,
thus their numbers do not represent what you will find elsewhere in Cayman
during the fall season. 

The promise of change
Broadbelt reckons more could be done to attract off
season visitors; however, he cautions: “We have to be careful to not throw good
money after bad. No matter how much you invest in ‘off-season’ marketing
efforts, only so many will come and those funds could yield a better return if
directed towards other promotions at other times of year,” he comments. 

“An area that I believe is largely ignored is the potential
partnerships with US airlines, which account for 70 per cent of the tourism
airlift,” he adds. “Despite the best efforts of Cayman Airways, they do not
have the connectivity to be able to perform and bring arrivals to Cayman as the
larger US carriers can. I see promising signs of change at Cayman Airways and
look forward to seeing their greater contribution to tourism in 2011.” 

Broadbelt says readers ought to consider how many empty
seats can be seen on south bound Cayman Airways flights and to think beyond
only the lost ticket revenue, but also the lost revenue to government in taxes
(hotel, airport, duty on consumption, etc), which is estimated to be in the
region of $250-300 per visitor, which, he says, is coincidentally the sale
price of a Miami-Grand Cayman ticket.

“Air arrivals have never seen any significant boosts over
the last 15 years and continue to fluctuate in the 250,000 -350,000 range,
equating to approximately 1.5 per cent market share in the region, ranking
Cayman in the 15-20th place, or the lower half of destination performance in
the region. Cayman does not want to be in the top five or mass tourism
destinations, but there are destinations in the 6-15th spots that we gain
market share from and push our air arrivals beyond the 400,000 threshold.
Continuing the same actions will bring the same results and with the rising
cost of doing business and expanding government, it doesn’t take an economist
to see the writing on the wall.”

Cost effective marketing
Trina Christian, executive director at the Cayman Islands
Tourism Association, says initiatives have been put in place to encourage
locals to participate more in tourism activities during the slow season but
that CITA and the Department of Tourism have to be selective in their marketing
of Cayman due to budget constraints.

She says that their Staycation promotion, held in
conjunction with the Department of Tourism during the summer months, could have
attracted more restaurants.

“The Staycation idea was to encourage local people to
enjoy the great tourism services that we have here on island. Via our site we
gave restaurants the opportunity to advertise special promotions, menus etc
that would be of interest to locals. We received good representation by
accommodations and hotels but the restaurant segment could have been stronger,”
she acknowledges.

Christian says that the Executive Marketing Committee
(comprised of individuals from both the CITA and the DOT) has a limited amount
of funds to spend on advertising Cayman internationally, so it has to target
when people want to travel the most to Cayman in order to get the highest
return on their investment.

“We would love to be able to run TV and print ads all
year round encouraging people to visit the Cayman Islands but this is not
feasible with our limited resources. Having had extensive dialogue with
stakeholders we feel it is better to encourage visitors to the island when they
want to come, i.e. at high season and when they are willing to pay regular
prices for goods and services, rather than try and encourage them to come when
they don’t necessarily want to and when goods and services are at a reduced
price,” she explains.

To beat the off-season doldrums there are, however, plans
afoot to encourage visitors during the next few months, to get the island
through to its peak season, a collaborative effort between Cayman Airways, the
DoT and the CITA.