The Cayman Islands tourism industry is setting its sights toward the incentive travel market and leading the charge is Jane van der Bol, president-elect of the Society of Incentive Travel Executives, Florida chapter.
It also helps that van der Bol is the new executive director of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, the private sector body that represents some 200 businesses related to the sector. This dual role can therefore benefit the destination as well as the executive travel market.
“Incentive travel in the United States is a huge market, which in the States alone creates 2.4 million jobs. It is a $240 billion industry, which brings in $39 billion in tax revenue. “It is a reward, a recognition of loyalty for customers or staff and has a return on its investment in terms of customer loyalty. For example, if, say, IGA wanted to shift beets they might say to their customers [supermarkets] that if they sell a certain amount they will get a certain amount of points toward incentive travel. In this way it drives product and rewards the customer with a unique trip.”
van der Bol said that it was important that these trips should not be something that was easily repeatable as an experience.
“It should be unique enough that it gives you experiences you would never be able to do on a family vacation; it could dovetail with the luxury market – for example, luxury shopping.
“Imagine four people in a limousine with a personal shopper, for example. I think Cayman is very good at these unique experiences and something like Island Companies’ ladies luncheon events with their red carpets, someone giving you a glass of champagne as you enter and someone showing you what is on offer is a good example.”
Incentive experiences are high end and demand a high level of service, added the executive director, but this is something the Cayman Islands does as a rule.
“We have it in our DNA,” she noted.
Her role as president-elect of the Society of Incentive Travel Executives (Florida) involves sponsorship in the run up to her presidency, which commences in 2013.
The goal of her own branch Society of Incentive Travel Executives is to increase tourism into Florida but at present there is not a designated Caribbean chapter.
“We want to develop a Caribbean chapter; there are many islands, hotels, venues and services, which fall under the incentives umbrella. At present there are two members of the Florida chapter here in Cayman; myself and JoAnne Brown of Celebrations. There are two more members ready to join and we are growing it here. They and we will be members of the Florida chapter until the Caribbean branches out on its own.” One huge benefit of membership, noted van der Bol, was that the society’s Florida chapter was a sister partner with the Canadian chapter.
“Now that’s a nice alignment; sharing principles of business, models for creating events and stimulating the incentive market. Florida is very supplier-heavy and Canada is very buyer-heavy so you can see how that works well.
“As Cayman Islands becomes more involved in the Florida chapter, we will have more access to Canada. And with the increase in travel numbers to Cayman from Canada, it all starts to align nicely.”
One objective of the Florida chapter is to create a programme – Incentives 101, which will stimulate the industry.
“This educates about what incentive travel is, what groups expect and so on. Cayman certainly has the infrastructure – hotels, restaurants, limos, buses and so on, plus unique venues. For example, a barbecue on the beach is wonderful.
“There is such a potential for a wide variety of networking and team-building events.”
Cayman does have a certain amount of incentive travel but van der Bol intends to determine the incentive buyers by speaking with properties.
“If we can get a few key [buying] houses on board we can tell the airlines that we can deliver that business if they work with us and it could snowball very quickly. Of course, these trips are usually planned a year or 18 months out so we won’t see results immediately in one sense.
“Another good thing to note is that incentive travel does not usually take place when other guests are here. They are not usually near or over Christmas because people want to be with their families, which is the same during the summer. For this reason, the incentive ‘seasons’ are January to April and September to November.” Because rates are lower in the soft months, for example September, it is not uncommon for incentive buyers to take advantage of this and book out an entire property. Generally, these parties stay for between three and five days.
The United States, as mentioned, has begun to identify the sector as a real factor in tourism and, van der Bol reveals, they are even talking about the possibility of visa waivers.
“It is high end spend; if we can get it here and deliver good product they will spend here; there’s all manner of excursions and of course they always have a big blowout farewell dinner so they will spend dollars.”
One factor in the situation that does need to be addressed according to the tourism professional is that of airfare.
“We simply do not have low enough prices to play ball at the moment. This is a path I am going down at this stage. Of course, we would love to work with Cayman Airways.
“If you look at it we have direct flights to Chicago, New York City and Washington – three major incentives markets. With non-stop flights then perhaps we can get those down to Cayman. Once the market opens up then other airlines will come on board and compete, hopefully with lower prices.
“I intend to talk with Cayman Airways – I believe they are interested. Then, we will establish a marketing plan by the summer or at the latest the fall, so we can tell incentive planners what we are doing and start to convince them to come to Cayman in 2013.” Prior to that, there are incentives to push product fast which would see smaller groups come to Cayman, possibly as early as April or May, 2012. And whilst the initial effects are centred around the properties that can handle the higher-end market, there are also second order effects on other suppliers and industries which are related to tourism or delivering unique experiences.
“One of the most challenging things is that it is certainly the higher-end properties as it has to be the best of the best, and perhaps it would not appeal to all properties or restaurants because of the experiential factor.
“There has to be high expectancy and a sense that this is high-end, high-value, but that’s not to say that a small property cannot deliver. Somewhere like Pedro Castle could have great functions and so on; perhaps there is a niche product on offer which of course makes the experience factor all the more attractive. Some groups may have, within them, some VIPs who can have an even greater incentive, like being served a meal on the tables over the water in the Wharf, just as an example. Or a smaller restaurant could also offer these niche, sought-after experiences. That’s what it’s all about.”
During the recession, she added, the concept of incentive travel stayed relatively high due to the need to stimulate business and reward customer loyalty. And although the packages may not have been exactly the same as prior to 2008, the incentives were still there. When and if confidence begins to return, Cayman can only benefit from placing itself in the sector at this stage.
In contrast, the meetings sector retreated from ostentatious trips abroad in favour of conducting home-based or teleconference-style meetings in order to avoid looking profligate during this period. However, the incentive travel sector remained based around unique experiences to foster loyalty and offer rewards where appropriate.
Ultimately, that is what Cayman can offer and that is why the tourism association is drawn toward further exploration of the potential of the market, she concluded.
As well as the incentive travel market, van der Bol’s tenure as president-elect is already bringing inspiration for her work with the Cayman Islands Tourism Association.
“Globally, there’s a sponsorship model, which could be quite exciting and might work for the Cayman Islands Tourism Association also. For example, whilst we ask the private sector to support our events and promotions we could come up with a sponsorship programme, which allows the private sector to put us in their yearly budget – so we will not come to them again and again for each event.
“There could be a sliding scale of sponsors from Platinum, Gold and Silver down to Friends of CITA. It’s a new concept, not something we’ve implemented but this could secure event sponsors ahead of time and we can then know how much support there is. We’re exploring this idea more,” said van der Bol.