At summit, airlift, economy weigh on smaller hotels

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Although the economic forecast was not as sunny as the weather forecast, delegates attending the recent 2008 Small Hotels Retreat in St. Kitts remained upbeat about the upcoming tourism season.

"We could easily become pessimistic about the future of travel and tourism. However, negative thinking is not an option for our industry at this time," said Ricky Skerritt, minister of tourism, sports and culture for St. Kitts and Nevis.

Referring to the financial crisis in the U.S., Skerritt said that "we must be optimistic, knowing that we have faced difficult times before and our industry is resilient."

Denzil Douglas, prime minister of St. Kitts, made no bones about the difficulties facing the region. "The sharp increase in the cost of energy has been the biggest enemy of our regional economies," he said.

"Tourism in the Caribbean has been one of the victims, with wide-ranging negative impacts, including reduced airlift and rising airfares, but this is a golden opportunity to redefine the values of our tourism for a successful tomorrow," Douglas said.

He called upon the governments of the Caribbean to do more to support the region's small hotels through an incentive system that would be tied into "qualitative conditions," a policy his government expects to have in place shortly.

Douglas said that in an era "of ad hoc tourism development, the region needs to project itself onto the world stage as a serious player."

Feeling the pinch of soaring costs, small properties face challenges that their larger counterparts do not.

"Tour operators have three-star hotels in a bind because the hotels cannot charge more for their rooms once packages are sold," said Royston Hopkin, owner of the 32-room Spice Island Beach Resort in Grenada. "As small hoteliers, we have to tighten our belts and work twice as hard to deliver value."

Romney Penn knows a lot about working harder to fill rooms. As the owner of the 65-room Treasure Isle hotel in the British Virgin Islands, he has seen the effects of an uncertain economy.

"We have gone from 10 daily flights to five. Without airlift, our hotels are going empty," Penn said.

A unified Caribbean region is the loudest voice for lobbying the airlines for additional airlift, according to Penn. "We stand a better chance for more lift as a region than we do by appealing to the airlines as single destinations."

Ruth Wiggins, manager of the 10-room Tropical Breeze Guest House in St. Lucia, also is concerned about the season ahead.

"These are tough times without the security of our winter reservations," Wiggins said. "They still trickle in, but the numbers are lower than last year."

Although air arrivals to the Caribbean increased 4.5% from January to June, room reservations for the upcoming high season thus far indicate a 5% decline, according to Alec Sanguinetti, CEO and director general of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.

"The state of the industry is not good," Sanguinetti said. "Airlift is a priority, and the region must come together to market the Caribbean brand as one."

Marketing the region as a whole was echoed by Peter Odle, owner of Mango Bay Resort in Barbados and a former CHTA president.

"Individual countries do not have the marketing power on their own," Odle said. "We have to keep improving our individual product."

Odle strongly recommended close monitoring of sites such as Trip Advisor, adding that many of his guests said they use the website as their basis for selecting the resort.

Steve Mayers, manager of the 30-room Sirena Resort in Anguilla, called for a proactive approach to assist small hotels.

"The CHTA should push for more tax incentives from the individual island governments to offset our costs," he said.

Delray Lake, general manager of the 27-room KU hotel in Anguilla, said he believed that incentives would help reduce the costs of fuel, food and renovations.

"I'm looking at 25% occupancy factors for January 2009 as compared to 50% last year," Lake said. "Tax breaks would help ease the strain of these high costs of operating the hotel."

Rosecita Jeffers, the new CEO of the St. Kitts Tourism Authority, pointed out that her government is providing relief for the island's smaller properties.

"We have allocated a fund to be split among the small hotels, contingent upon the agreement of the hotels to adhere to certain accommodations standards," Jeffers said.

High energy prices prompted John Yearwood, manager of the 32-room Oualie Beach Resort in Nevis, to investigate alternative sources.

"We soon will use steam harnessed from the Nevis volcano as our major energy source," he said, adding that he planned to maximize this effort as a marketing advantage in a sluggish tourism market.

Taking matters into her own hands, Hyacintha Simon, owner of the 14-room Alize Inn in St. Lucia, is looking at Caribbean markets to fill her rooms.

"I can no longer count on the U.S. or European markets and, so far, this has been the right decision because my bookings are high," Simon said.

Daily year-round rates of $65 with breakfast might also account for the high peak-season occupancy factors at the Alize Inn, as well.

Odle is confident that the region will see an upturn in visitor arrivals. "Tourism rebounded after 9/11, and it will rebound again," Odle said. "It is a question of weathering the storm over the next 12 months. I am confident that we will do just that and do it well."

Designed to meet the needs of small, independent hoteliers, the retreat was organized by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association in conjunction with the St. Kitts and Nevis Hotel and Tourism Association and held at the St. Kitts Marriott Resort & the Royal Beach Casino. 

The Caribbean Hotels Retreat was first held in the mid-1980s and ran annually until 2000.

After a seven-year hiatus, the conference resumed in 2007, hosted by the Barbados Hotel Association in conjunction with the CHTA.

This year's event attracted 187 delegates, up from 120 in 2007. The location for the October 2009 retreat will be announced shortly.

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