NASSAU, Bahamas -- Marketing issues dominated the 38th annual Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference here.

The meeting, held at the Atlantis resort from June 13 to 16, attracted more than 1,000 hoteliers, vendors, government and tourism officials.

Keynote speaker Roger Ballou, chairman and chief executive officer of Global Vacation Group, outlined seven elements -- what he called the Magnificent Seven -- that will most heavily impact the Caribbean in the next 10 years.

The elements are new destination channels, consumer preference changes, demographic changes, consolidation, branding, globalization and "hanging."

Branding is emerging as the premier marketing tool, according to Ballou. "Agents will increasingly rely on well-known, branded vacation products that deliver a consistent experience and bring customers back again and again," said Ballou.

Mature couples without children under the age of 18 "will be the market's fastest growing segment through the year 2005," said Ballou. "There are 78 million aging baby boomers heading our way, and we have to be ready for them."

Ballou forecast an accelerated rate of consolidation in the package vacation industry. "The industry of the future will be led by a few companies with strong, well-marketed brands; a handful of off-price competitors, and a select number of niche players," he said.

Tourism competition is worldwide, due to globalization of the economy, Ballou said. "This makes local competition tougher, but it gives all of us a much wider market in which to compete."

"Hanging," according to Ballou, drives home a concept that the Caribbean has been working toward -- becoming more of a marketing force. If we don't hang together as a cohesive unit, we will miss the opportunity to maximize opportunities," said Ballou.

Ballou urged the Caribbean as a whole to join forces to create a data warehouse and products that will meet customers' needs. Both Caribbean Hotel Association and Caribbean Tourism Organization officials hope to launch a regional marketing program by 2000.

The CTO board of directors recently voted to support a $12 million program, with each government appropriating 3% of its national tourism budget to the Caribbean Coalition for Tourism. A similar CHA meeting is set for July 15.

"The Caribbean as a destination is not advertised or promoted," said John Bell, CHA general director and chief executive officer. "We have to bury our differences from island to island and put the Caribbean front and center in the face of the public."

Airport, hotels are discussed

NASSAU, Bahamas -- Airport enhancements and hotel developments here also topped the news at the 38th Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference. Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, reported that foreign investment in the Bahamas totaled $1.8 billion in the past five years; the Atlantis project accounted for half of the investment sum.

He also said that hotel rates in Nassau-Paradise Island increased 65% in the last three years. Hotel room inventory in the Bahamas is up 23% in the past year, and airlift has jumped accordingly, up 26% in the past year, Vanderpool-Wallace said.

Starting July 1, the Bahamas Airport Authority takes effect as a 15-member board, funded by the government, which will be responsible for management of the airport.

"The airport needs attention in the arrivals and baggage areas, customs, immigration, departure gates and taxi stands," said Vanderpool-Wallace. "This board will be in charge of making the airport a more user-friendly facility for our guests." -- G.N.M.

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