Earlier this month I participated in a webinar hosted by the two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda on April 15, and the session provided a window into a tourism industry grappling with problems and circumstances it's never before faced.
Currently Antigua and Barbuda's borders are closed to air and sea traffic as are the beaches and hotels; a curfew/stay-at-home order is in effect; and major conferences and events have been canceled, including Antigua's annual Carnival festival, which was slated for the end of July.
Dean Fenton, the islands' director of tourism, led off the webinar with the question: "What should we be saying at this time? What are you telling your clients and readers?"
Heather Di Pietro, owner of TravelSalesGroup in Charlotte, N.C., said, "Education is the cure for fear. I spend an hour a day at least looking at resort postings and closures, trying to keep up to date. I give my clients as much information as I can."
One debate was whether small boutique hotels might be more preferable to travelers in the near term than large properties. I said that I thought the large, luxury properties might instill confidence in travelers because of their access to and funding for sanitation and disinfecting procedures. Di Pietro added out that adults-only sections in large resorts would "probably reopen before the family sections in the same resort because they would be kept cleaner during an adult stay. Different sanitation methods will be needed for the family sections."
Sarah Kline, president of Time for Travel in Davidsonville, Md., predicted the end of buffets in most hotel restaurants.
"I would want, and my clients will want, to know hotels' cleaning procedures and protocols," she added.
A marketing message from the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda
Both travel advisors said it was critical that Caribbean destinations and properties continue to communicate with travelers.
"It's critically important for a tourist board to have a solid message and information on its website that is updated and factual regarding current travel advisories, airlift and reopening dates when they take effect and its protocols regarding sanitation," Di Pietro said. Kline agreed. "This information is critical for hoteliers as well. If they do not provide that information, we just won't be promoting them."
To keep hotels top of mind for clients, Kline said, "they need to share content to show travelers that these resorts are not just sitting empty but are providing some staff with refurbishing work and opportunities to produce videos for guests at home: yoga exercises, food and drink menus and recipes from their restaurants, kids' activities and playlists of local island music."
Webcams showing a resort's beach, guestrooms, pools and public areas are a powerful tool, as well, to keep the resort visible and in the traveler's plans going forward, according to the advisors.
Predicting the return timeframe
When will travelers again feel comfortable traveling, Joseph asked?
"Completely depends on where they are going and want to feel safe about going, but I think by fall and winter we'll see some visitors in Antigua and Barbuda," said Susan Coulton, the destination's representative for the mid-Atlantic region.
"This is a fluid situation, but anyone who travels anywhere must be sure to have travel insurance that covers medical situations," she said.
Di Pietro reported that she's taking bookings for Christmas in the Caribbean and has a group of 60 booked for September as well as a destination wedding booked for June 15 in the Caribbean that still has not canceled. "The couple is holding out and they're hopeful it can happen."
"I think we'll see travel beginning again by mid-June or July. Certainly not big numbers, but the Caribbean will come back," she said.
Both she and Kline plan to travel soon after air travel resumes. "I'll have my Clorox wipes but, I'll be on a plane," Di Pietro said.
American Airlines has said that it will reopen a daily flight between Miami and Antigua on May 7, pending the end of quarantines and the reopening of borders.
Afar editor Annie Fitzsimmons said she felt that the Caribbean was in "a great position for travelers from the U.S."
"It's too far for European travelers who will initially stick closer to home for awhile," added Fitzsimmons, who is based in London. "I think Europe is on hold until 2021, but the love of travel is not disappearing."
Norrell Joseph, Antigua and Barbuda's sales and marketing manager for the U.S., asked the group if it would be appropriate for resorts to offer special rates for first responders and relief workers.
The answer was a unanimous yes.
"These people have worked day and night full time for months," said Fran Gellar, business development manager covering the Midwest for Antigua and Barbuda. "These frontline workers need a break. Caribbean destinations should be able to offer them a respite when the time is right."