Increasing U.S. Visitor Count Is BTA Official's Top Priority

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By Gay Nagle Myers

NEW YORK -- Hugh Riley is a man with a mission.

Riley, the director of marketing and sales, North America for the Barbados Tourism Authority, wants to diversify market segments, increase market share and improve market strength.

In short, he wants lots more visitors from the U.S. and Canada to visit Barbados, to discover Barbados and to return to Barbados.

Riley, a 15-year BTA veteran, served as sales manager, Canada, and was based in Toronto prior to his current post.

His newly created position in New York is part of BTA's master plan.

"North America is one of our most important visitor sources," Riley said.

"The U.S. contributes approximately 25% of our total visitors, and Canada accounts for 13%, but the U.K. sends a higher volume of visitors.

"The U.S. ought to produce the bulk of our business."

U.S. visitors average approximately 112,000 a year. Riley is aiming at 125,000 in the fiscal year ending March 31, 1998.

He acknowledged that Barbados lost a chunk of the U.S. market when Pan Am and Eastern went out of business.

"It has taken time to recover from that loss of service, but we have now developed strong ties with American Airlines, which stepped in to fill that breach," he said.

"We also have good relationships with BWIA as well as with Air Jamaica, the newest carrier here."

The hotel situation in Barbados has improved considerably, according to Riley.

"We are now highly competitive with other Caribbean destinations," he said.

"We offer inclusive properties, and we have made substantial improvements to existing sites.

"The Gems of Barbados program is a marketing initiative specifically targeted at our smaller properties."

Destination marketing is one of Riley's chief mandates.

"We need to strengthen our marketing so that it fuses into a cohesive, synergistic unit where all elements of the destination come together," he said.

"We want to forge relationships with the travel industry in North America," he said. "We now have excellent air lift, a hotel plant we can be proud of and the right marketing professionals in place."

BTA is adding staff in the U.S. and is restructuring its management setup in the U.S. into regions headed by regional managers in Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

Its operation beyond the regional offices will include district sales managers and area sales representatives covering the U.S. by June 1.

Canada will be operated as a separate region with offices in Montreal and Toronto.

Showcasing the value and diversity of a Barbados vacation is a key element in BTA's marketing plans.

"We intend to show agents the inherent value of selling Barbados as a vacation destination," Riley said.

"If we cannot do that, we will find that we are continually losing clients to other destinations."

Barbados' current ad campaign revolves around the theme of "Barbados: Just Beyond Your Imagination."

Although Riley hinted that this theme "will come to life in several ways," he declined to give away any details for now.

However, he did cite current examples of how Barbados can and does offer clients more than the competition.

For example, according to Riley, the Luciano Pavarotti Easter weekend concert went beyond most visitors' expectations of the typical island music festival; the Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course at Royal Westmoreland is superior to the usual 18-hole island course, and the sight of two Concordes parked on the tarmac at Grantley Adams Airport is proof positive of Barbados' allure in drawing visitors from Europe.

"These are just a few examples of the attractions, events and services that raise Barbados above most Caribbean destinations," Riley said.

"They speak volumes beyond sun, sand and sea.

"Another example is the selection of Barbados as the site of President Clinton's talks [with the nations of the Caribbean] in early May."

Riley reports to Billie Miller, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, tourism and international transport.

"She is a hands-on minister, highly supportive and centrally involved in all aspects of tourism," he said.

The family market is another marketing priority for Barbados, especially this summer.

"We have increased air service now and with Air Jamaica's new Montego Bay hub, Barbados will be available from 10 U.S. feeder cities, which will help speed up travel time and ease the transfer procedures," Riley said.

With the increase in air and the addition of new events and packages to the annual Cropover Festival from June 29 to Aug. 4, Riley is confident that the upcoming summer season will be a good one.

"We want our visitors to know before they ever arrive that Barbados offers great fun in the areas of art, culture, food and festivals," he said.

One of the new "fun" events Riley has in mind for Cropover is the formation of what he calls the New York Posse, a costumed band of New Yorkers who will join in the parades that are part of the festival.

Riley admitted that the island "has not done a good job in helping the U.S. market understand the great opportunities that Barbados does offer for spectator enjoyment, but we intend to remedy that."

New island attractions include the reopened Sunbury Plantation, which burned down last year.

Riley noted that the Bajan people "donated antiques from their own homes to redecorate the plantation's rooms authentically."

Another attraction is Four Square in the parish of St. Philip, described by Riley as a remade sugar factory with a heritage village, a museum of sugar cane artifacts and organized on-site tours.

"This type of attraction helps our visitors to better understand our culture and heritage," Riley said.

Barbados opened its own Web site in December, offering a new means of visibility for prospective visitors.

"The site already has a half-a-million hits, and we are experimenting with putting specific travel agent information on the site that can only be accessed by the trade," he said.

"We also stress to the public that the site is an information center, not a booking center."

Agents are key to Barbados' marketing strategy these days.

"Agents need a sense of belonging," Riley said. "We plan to launch a special incentive program next fall geared to a core group of our high-volume agents and prospective new agents."

For information, contact the Barbados Tourism Authority at (800) 221-9831.

The Web site address is: http://www.barbados.org.

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