Nevis Hotel Bookings Are Down, But Not Spirits
November 25, 2008
By Anna Gaskell
Observer Staff Writer
No one’s expecting a good year. Least of all the hotels.
Election year in the United States has kept many American tourists at home. The global economic recession has many people cutting back on their spending, including travel spending. To some people on Nevis, the closure of Four Seasons after Hurricane Omar feels like our very own economic recession.
And yet, despite admitting that this will be a slower season than average, many hotel owners are optimistic. The manager of Nevis’s Golden Rock Inn, Pam Barry, thinks that soon “people will get tired of hearing about the recession.”
Hoteliers also say that this slower time gives St. Kitts and Nevis a chance to sit back and re-evaluate. Tourism in the federation could come out stronger.
There are different predictions as to how many seasons will be affected; one, two, or even three. And how bad will it be? They just don’t know yet. Marty Lowell, one of the owners of Ottley’s in St. Kitts, said that when it came to predictions, he was “more likely to be right about predicting the next power cut in St. Kitts.”
Even the already confirmed bookings are not a decisive marker of how the season will go; every year bookings become more and more last minute. If the flights are there, people will keep coming, says Mrs. Barry of Golden Rock Hotel.
American Airlines stopped coming to Nevis this year, and XL Airways terminated their London-St. Kitts charter. But flights to the federation have actually increased, according to John Yearwood of Nevis’s Oualie Beach Hotel. British Airways decided it would be a good business move to take up where XL Airways left off, beginning the first ever scheduled flights from London to St. Kitts in January.
For the hotels on Nevis, the closure of Four Seasons has been a bigger blow than the termination of the AA flights. The resort has announced it will not reopen until April 30, 2009. One of the owners of Montpelier Plantation Inn, Meredith Hoffmann, says that the closure has “affected us all drastically.” Although a few Four Seasons’ guests have now booked in at Montpelier instead, the real difficulty for the smaller hotels lies in the loss of the big lunch and dinner parties of Four Seasons guests.
Mr. Yearwood of Oualie points out that the closure of Four Seasons also makes the outside world think “the whole of Nevis has shut down.” The Director of Operations at Old Manor Hotel, Lynn Williams, says that since the last time the Four Seasons was devastated by a hurricane, almost 10 years ago, Nevis has become no less dependent upon the big resort for business and employment.
Without the promise of business from Four Seasons’ dinner guests, the hoteliers on Nevis are relying on their regular guests to keep business stable.
“Montpelier has fantastic repeat clientele,” says Mrs. Hoffman at Montpelier. After Hurricane Omar, Mr. Yearwood was quick to contact Oualie’s regular guests and reassure them about the damage. Now is the time to be “reaching out to past guests,” says Richie Lupinacci of Hermitage Plantation Inn on Nevis. In St. Kitts, both the Marriott and Ottley’s are glad that guest return rates have always been high.
The Federation does appear to be singularly fortunate in its ability keep the same people coming back. Even the death of the palm trees on Nevis hasn’t put off those who’ve been coming to the island for many years.
Why do people keep coming back to the federation? According to Mr. Williams at Old Manor Hotel, the Caribbean came last in a recent survey on service quality. And yet, most of the hoteliers said that their staff were often the main reason guests kept coming back. With so many beautiful places to go on holiday in the world, the Federation must make sure that it keeps giving tourists reasons to come back, such as the warm welcome of a bright, friendly staff.
Despite a slower season and the recent raise in the minimum wage, most of the hotels appear to be committed to keeping on all of their staff. Naturally there may not be as many shifts for them as before, because there are fewer guests to look after.
Mr. Williams of Old Manor is less hopeful. He says that empty rooms this Christmas might well mean a couple of people have to be laid off.
Mr. Williams also says that by catering for “high-end tourism,” the federation actually cuts out many potential tourists. But this “high-end tourism” has been stated as an advantage by other hoteliers, especially in this time of economic recession. Mr. Yearwood of The Oualie Beach Resort Hotel says that “our target market is hopefully less affected by recession.” Mrs. Hoffmann says Montpelier is lucky that many of their guests are already retired, or on very stable incomes, and therefore not dramatically affected by ups and downs in the economy.
Mr. Williams points to the “low-end tourism” which “built St. Martin and St. Thomas,” and says that the federation is making a mistake in marketing itself as an up market destination. High earners are simply a far smaller group than average-to-low earners, he says. He thinks hotels should have affordable packages to attract Caribbean tourists, because at the moment “˜we are not selling the Caribbean to the Caribbean people.’ Mr. Williams wants Old Manor to start doing weekend packages for local people.
With a slow season ahead, Jamie Holmes, the manager of Nisbet Plantation Inn on Nevis, says that one of the things Nisbet will be doing to attract business is to offer rooms to local residents for a reduced rate. It is also planning to upgrade the quality of the Inn, to attract more tourists from abroad.
Hoteliers are being forced to think of new ways to generate business. Oualie’s Mr. Yearwood says these hoteliers will be helped by a potentially very strong marketing strategy for the Federation. The marketing slogan for the Federation, “Two Islands, One Paradise,” encourages visitors with the idea that they can see two different places all on the same plane ticket, he says. Also, if the plans for generating energy from geothermal resources come off, he says, we could market ourselves as a “green”destination.
Golden Rock Inn on Nevis is concentrating on getting the word out that although the place has been under construction, they are open and ready for business. Other hotels join them in deciding to put on new events, in order to showcase good food and good service, which tourists will want to come back for and tell their friends about.
For those who cannot rely solely on in-house guests, like Old Manor, they hope to attract business by using their location for functions such as weddings and cocktail parties.
In an attempt to gain more business, the Marriott in St. Kitts is offering a discounted package, four nights for the price of seven, including breakfast for two daily.
Oualie Beach Resort in Nevis will be focusing on what Mr. Yearwood terms “recession-proof niches.” These are honeymooners – because they are willing to spend the money to make their honeymoon perfect ““ and scuba divers. Divers who come to the Caribbean are often well off and therefore not affected too adversely by the economic recession.
Mr. Lupinacci of The Hermitage says that guests who really want to come to The Hermitage will find it, either through word of mouth, from previous visits to the island, or from internet searches. He says they are restricted by resources from doing any large-scale marketing initiatives. Facing a low season now, which will most likely continue beyond this year, “we will come out leaner and more efficient,” Mr. Lupinacci says.
Mr. Lowell of Ottley’s thinks that this is “a chance for us all to regroup and think about the industry.” The trends in tourism will always be evolving and changing, hoteliers “need to always be on their toes,” he says.
When talking of the economic recession and the closure of Four Seasons, Mr. Lupinacci says “the greatest thing about it is that it will force the island to come to terms with its dependence on tourism.” Recently there have been large-scale development projects shooting up all over the two islands. Mr. Lupinacci thinks that many of these projects were going ahead regardless of the negative impact they would have on local resources, such as water. With so few tourists to share between the hotels and the rented houses already, many of these projects have been put on hold.
Now is perhaps the time to ask the questions Old Manor’s Mr. William’s raised: “Where do we go from here? Are we serious about tourism being the main bloodline of the country?”
If the federation is serious about it, this uncertain year ahead could strengthen the industry in the long run. If not, the federation will need to find other industries to invest in and depend on for the next time there is a bad hurricane or an economic recession, or both at once.