Agents, airlift among officials' top priorities

NASSAU, Bahamas -- Improving the visitor experience, boosting Out Islands visitor numbers and increasing airlift are among the top priorities for Bahamas tourism executives for 2003.

But perhaps the biggest priority, according to Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, is the region's relationship with travel agents.

The agents

The destination intends to more accurately foster agency partnerships, with an emphasis on providing training for retailers, Vanderpool-Wallace said.

"Our business still is heavily dependent on the advice and recommendations of agents, and we will try to be the best partners we can be," he said. "As time goes on, we'll find more effective means to distribute through agents; if a customer wants to buy the product directly, we will encourage them to talk to agents because we are convinced that customers are suspicious of much of the information available on the Internet."

Kerry Fountain, the ministry's general manager for North America, said the destination is closely evaluating its ability to provide the most useful information to retailers.

"I always tell the sales team that when they go into an agency, to dig a little deeper -- find out exactly what people are selling and find out how they can more effectively communicate with them," Fountain said.

To that end, he said, e-mail communications must be packaged properly for easy use, customization and re-use by agents.

Fountain said the ministry will continue to forge and maintain relationships with major operators like Gogo Worldwide Vacations and Travel Impressions as well as retail partners like American Express.

"We will work with them, reach their consumers and educate their agents to make them aware of the things we do."

In addition, the destination intends to increase its effort to directly address the consumer, including the addition of an online booking component on the ministry's Web site, at www.bahamas.com.

Direct booking is not a new concept for the Bahamas. Earlier this year, the destination launched a one-stop shopping service for customers to book inclusive trips directly through partner Paradise Island Vacations.

"If [customers] want an agent, we want to provide them with a Bahamas Specialist. If they want to go with a [retail] partner, we want that agent trained," Fountain said. "If they want to book on our site, we'll have that by the end of the year, and agents can use our site to book as well."

Vanderpool-Wallace emphasized that improving on-island service also is an ongoing effort of the ministry, especially in the coming year.

"Our focus is to be sure the vacation experience in the Bahamas is the best it can be. That's the best thing we can do for agents and customers, and that also provides the best return on investment."

Vernice Walkine, the ministry's deputy director general, has been tapped "as our destination experience czar," whose job is making certain the visitor experience is very good, he said.

The ministry's goal is to have visitors communicate about problems, Vanderpool-Wallace said, "while they are here, so we can fix things before they leave.

"This will be the hardest thing for our competitors to copy, and we know it will take a very long time for them to catch up."

Greeting cards

In an effort to more accurately capture the profile of visitors to the Bahamas, the destination is in the process of revamping its visitor immigration card at a cost of about $1.5 million.

The card will be ready for use Jan. 1, Vanderpool-Wallace said, and will include questions asking visitors to evaluate their travel experiences.

Visitors will be asked what agencies or tour operators booked their trip -- a critical piece of information that thus far has not been available on a national basis, he said.

The data will be used to "build business partnerships with agencies in the future -- as [sales levels for] our Bahamas Specialist program will become measurable -- and are not based strictly on anecdotal information," Vanderpool-Wallace said.

The ministry intends to share only performance-related information with retailers and consortia, and the data will serve as a springboard for the launch of cooperative marketing programs based on sales performance, Vanderpool-Wallace said.

The cost of the new immigration card, which will be amortized over a period of two years, is "insignificant compared with the insight and value of the information we will capture," he said.

Getting to the market

On the consumer front, the ministry is spearheading an ongoing effort to "connect the dots" by collating information gathered at the point of booking, from information requests and visitor feedback, to get a closer picture of what clients are seeking in a vacation, Fountain said.

The concept of customer relationship management (CRM) has taken hold in the tourism ministry, Fountain and Vanderpool-Wallace said, and efforts to collate visitor data in order to provide potential and repeat visitors with customized sales materials will be ongoing in the coming months.

"We are creating a single visitor database that will capture information from the time a client calls to inquire about the Bahamas through the time he or she leaves the islands," Vanderpool-Wallace said.

The creation of the database will enable the destination to make more informed decisions on worldwide marketing efforts, he added.

The ministry also is seeking other means of targeting Bahamas customers, looking beyond demographics, Vanderpool-Wallace said.

"We are looking for lifestyle tendencies that are in sync with people who travel to the Bahamas," he said.

To that end, the tourism ministry is exploring partnerships with varied interests such as restaurant chains, malls, specific retail stores and even automobile manufacturers, he said, to build cooperative marketing programs with businesses outside of the industry.

By working with major corporations, such as car manufacturers, the Bahamas can gain access to large, untapped markets, Fountain said.

The Out Islands

Driving business to the Out Islands is a primary goal for the coming year, Vanderpool-Wallace said, and "a function of this is making sure proper air service is in place."

The ministry is working with American Eagle, Gulfstream and Bahamasair to boost service to these smaller islands, he said.

Night flights, which are now permitted in Eleuthera, Abaco and Exuma, will be heavily promoted by the ministry by year's end, Vanderpool-Wallace said, adding that night flights will increase accessibility for short-stay vacationers.

"This will be a major difference for agents selling the Out Islands," he said.

On the hotel front, the development of Exuma is the biggest story in the Out Islands, Vanderpool-Wallace said, with the construction of the Four Seasons Emerald Bay and 16 smaller hotel development projects also under way.

For more on the Exuma property, see related article: Four Seasons set for Emerald Bay.

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