French Hotel Association Rethinks Its U.S. Marketing Strategy

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Reed Travel Features

MARIGOT -- Hassan Ahdab, the newly elected president of the Association des Hotels de St. Martin (AHSM), said the group of 21 hotels is taking another look at its marketing efforts.

Ahdab, general manager of Le Meridien L'Habitation le Domaine, succeeds Alain Jalat, the former manager of Le Flamboyant, who left in May 1996.

Ahdab said the hotel association had been inactive for some time and that 1995's Hurricane Luis gave the group a push to renew its marketing efforts.

After he was elected at the end of December, the AHSM began work on a joint marketing effort with the St. Martin Tourism Office, devising a sales and marketing strategy for 1997 and 1998.

"We are looking at pricing, market segmentation, repositioning, image, an action plan by market, trade shows and fairs," he said.

The French side of the island draws 40% of its travelers from the U.S., he said, and 38% from Europe.

In the coming years, he said, the French side will focus more effort on developing the U.S. market as well as South America.

To boost U.S. business, the association will take part in a meeting this month with North American tour operators.

Part of that meeting will be devoted to developing a summertime promotion.

Ahdab said it was unclear if the promotion would mimic last year's "pay-for-five, stay-for-seven" program, offered by Dutch properties.

Ahdab said that because the French side has fewer hotels than the Dutch side, it attracts less business from wholesalers and major tour operators.

The hotel association is conducting its own research to demonstrate to wholesalers that a greater number of U.S. visitors vacation on the French side than airport arrival numbers indicate.

Tour operators, he said, cannot account for the number of tourists who vacation in time-shares, which are independently sold and lie mainly on the Dutch side.

Determining how much business is lost by wholesalers and tour operators through time-share sales will allow the hotel association to demonstrate the greater financial benefit to be derived from selling their hotels.

Another issue confronting the hotel association is the question of image, Ahdab said.

"We had an excellent image in the U.S. before the hurricane, [relying mainly] on word of mouth and [agents'] trust of tour operators," he said.

Because the reopening of several major hotels was delayed, other properties suffered financial losses, although they opened soon after the storm.

In the meantime, U.S. tour operators were telling agents and sales people not to sell the island, and "shouting this loud definitely effected the public's perception" long after many hotels were up and running, Ahdab said.

Currently, La Belle Creole and the former Golden Tulip Saint Martin Beach Resort are the only French properties still closed since the storm. (See story below.)

In an effort to turn their image around, through a cooperative effort with hotels on the Dutch side, the island hosted top-selling travel agents last summer.

In addition, the St. Martin American Marketing Association (SAMA) conducted many road shows and presentations for U.S. travel agents in 1996.

As a result of these efforts, Ahdab said, "We believe that tour operators and travel agents are confident that St. Martin is back to normal."

Nonetheless, U.S. promotions will continue this year.

"We have asked SAMA to work out their budget, and they are looking for $124,000.

"With the help of the tourism office, we will support them with fund raising or in some other way."

Despite the absence of the St. Maarten Tourism Office, which withdrew from SAMA membership late last year, Ahdab said he expects that SAMA will continue its U.S. promotional efforts in 1997 and beyond.

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