Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

The Caribbean tourism industry has a proven track record of bouncing back from crises, often better and stronger and, in some cases, even faster than forecast.

"We demonstrated this post 9-11, through SARS, Zika, tsunamis, hurricanes and other natural disasters over the past 20 years, all the while experiencing unprecedented growth," said Patricia Affonso-Bass, president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA).

That message is shaping the focus of the CHTA's new series of online training programs aimed at equipping the industry to cope with Covid-19 challenges and to prepare for the eventual return of travel.

Online training programs on a myriad of subjects are attracting large audiences of tourism and hospitality folks hunkered in front of screens in home offices these days, and this series is no exception.

"As the region grapples with Covid-19, we need to ensure that we leverage opportunities to sharpen our skills while we allow our public health experts to help us contain the spread of coronavirus and prepare the business community to restart the economic engine of the region," Affonso-Bass said.

The first phase of the program, dubbed "CHTA Live: The Resilience Series," aired in early April and provided tourism stakeholders with historical facts, data and measured forecasts to assist tourism stakeholders in developing endurance strategies in response to the coronavirus.

The session attracted close to 500 attendees who heard from representatives from the World Travel and Tourism Council, STR and Tourism Analytics.

Affonso-Bass, who, in addition to serving as the CHTA head, also is the group general manager of the three Ocean Hotels properties in Barbados, spoke from the hotelier's point of view.

"Panic and misinformation during this time can be lethal," she said. "Accurate information is critical as we navigate the way forward to seeing the green shoots of recovery. We must use this down time productively to guide our messaging and marketing."

Session two in the training program, entitled "HR Strategies and Solutions to Support Business Continuity," covered a number of labor-related matters.

Sanovnik Destang, executive director of the family-owned Bay Gardens resort group in St. Lucia, was blunt in his analysis of the challenges facing hoteliers now.

"This is far different from other slowdowns," Destang said. "We've never experienced travel bans like we're seeing now, and it's made even more difficult because we have a limited population in the Caribbean and cannot rely on local traffic or staycations to boost traffic."

He predicted low occupancy "for many months and a reduction in demand" even when the travel bans are lifted.

His immediate concerns focused on cushioning the impact on his employees, covering operating costs and forging an agreement with the bank for a six-month moratorium on payments due.

He encouraged hoteliers to do a 2020-2021 income/cash flow analysis, taking into account factors such as higher cleaning costs, lower room rates and the loss of meeting and convention business.

More than 70% of the hotels in the Caribbean carry some form of heavy debt, according to webinar moderator Frank Comito, CEO and director general of CHTA.

"Money is the biggest challenge facing hoteliers today," he said.

The third session will focus on strategies and solutions to support business continuity, and later sessions will highlight best practices, Caribbean culinary tips and money-saving tools and resources.

These training sessions  are helping fill the void created by the postponement of the Caribbean Hospitality Industry Exchange Forum, which had been slated for June 26 to 28 in Miami but has been canceled.

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