|Tourism businesses cautiously hopeful as season approaches||| Print ||
|Thursday, 07 October 2010 14:29|
For Turks and Caicos hoteliers and tourism businesses on the ropes for a challenging two years, there finally might be some light at the end of the tunnel heading into the 2010-11 winter season.
Locally-based reservations service Turks & Caicos Reservations, which works with most of the major resorts in the islands, sees signs for optimism with several factors lining up to help fuel a recovery.
Most importantly, the firm has seen a significant uptick in reservations for the upcoming months as recession-weary sun seekers from North America start to return and increased airlift opens new opportunities and markets.
“We’re not breaking out the champagne yet, but it certainly looks like this season will be a big improvement over the last two winter/spring periods,” said the firm’s general manger, Val Kalliecharan. “Turks and Caicos remains a desirable destination but we’ve been fighting against a strong head wind for the past two years, between the macroeconomic issues, the political instability, marketing budget cutbacks, high air fares, storms, crime … We’re slowly overcoming those things and hopefully re-asserting the destination into its proper position on the travel and tourism landscape.”
Kalliecharan says bookings through his service are up about 10 percent compared to the similar period last year, which was a marked improvement over the disastrous 2008-09 season. As encouraging is that both booking lead times and average daily rates (ADRs) are increasing, good indicators that tourists are planning further ahead and loosening their purse strings a bit more.
The traditionally-strong holiday season period is already pacing well with bookings across the board at most resorts, and bookings for early 2011 are picking up as travelers in the northeastern U.S. and Canada prepare for another cold, snowy winter.
Kalliecharan and his team are on the front line of the TCI tourism campaign. They field hundreds of inquiries per week from would-be visitors through a number of channels — toll free numbers, e-mail, their website and live online chat — and according to Kalliecharan, universally people are positive about the destination. The trend is consistent with what Kalliecharan hears from resort general managers with whom he speaks regularly and travel agents as well.
The Grace Bay based Turks & Caicos Reservations team also monitors other “leading indicators” such as travel forums on sites like TripAdvisor, booking reports from the large online travel agencies (OTAs, e.g. Expedia, Travelocity), arrival statistics and website trends and traffic from key sites to keep a finger on the pulse of what people are saying about the destination.
While issues such as crime, political unrest, even the weather are all important to travelers, Kalliecharan says the cost to get to the island is the number one challenge.
Increased airlift key
More — and more competitively-priced — airlift is a key to the increased travel, with the new direct service from big-draw markets New York and Boston via Jet Blue being just what the destination needed, according to Kalliecharan. With even more flights from Canada on Air Canada and WestJet this season as well, travelers now have more options to get here, which should result in not just more arrivals, but in lower airfares as well.
Kalliecharan noted that the recent merger of U.S. low-cost carriers SouthWest and AirTran could also hold potential for TCI, as AirTran has extensive service to other Caribbean destinations and now, with the backing of SouthWest, could expand to TCI.
“No one wants to pay a lot for airfare — they’d much rather splurge on their hotel or activities,” he said. “Airfare is a commodity, and TCI has been at a disadvantage in the past. People can get all-inclusive deals — hotel and airfare — at some of our competing destinations like Jamaica and the Bahamas for less than the cost of airfare to TCI.”
“But with Jet Blue coming and increased commitment from other carriers, we’re hoping to see that issue diminish. Hopefully, that awakens the sleeping giant too, and they’ll get more competitive in pricing and aggressive with their marketing.
“Plus, with the airport expanding, we’ll be able to accommodate even more flights in the future, and more flights typically mean lower fares. That gives the resorts bit more breathing room rate-wise too.”
“Never stop marketing”
Despite a significant reduction in high-visibility marketing activities to promote the destination, Kalliecharan pointed to some major PR wins for the TCI as helping generate more interest in the destination, including being named World Best Beach by TripAdvisor, national TV exposure in the U.S. and Canada on shows like The Today Show and House Hunter’s International, and upcoming events like the Conch Festival and Maskanoo.
He praised the work of the Tourist Board, which is operating under tight budget constraints, for its creativity in keeping the TCI in the public’s eye.
He added that major promotional campaigns by big properties like Beaches and Club Med also have a positive effect on the whole destination.
Kalliecharan also noted that some resorts are slowly moving away from the “dangerous” pattern of heavy discounting to fill rooms that they’ve employed during the past two years, and are using more value-added techniques such as food and beverage credits and activity subsidies to entice travelers. This, he says, helps preserve the TCI brand, improve operational performance, and keeps condo-hotel owners happier.
For its part Turks & Caicos Reservations also helps out with destination marketing, running ad campaigns, implementing PR programs, and investing in Internet marketing to drive traffic here. It’s currently running a sweepstakes tied to the Conch Festival in November that will award a free trip for to the islands as a grand prize, and Kalliecharan said entries have been in the thousands so far.
A website redesign is in the works as well, and the firm is branching out into more sophisticated online marketing programs to reach an increasingly tech savvy consumer base.
“You can never stop marketing,” he said. “Our competition is aggressive and has more money to spend. I give the Tourist Board credit for the job they are doing under difficult circumstances. We have a great product, a unique product.
“These days we all have to be creative and smart about how we market — the Internet can be a great equalizer for a smaller destination like ours, and our success shows that it can be very effective,” he said.
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