Barbados’ Petra Roach Is A Game-Changer

Petra Roach has dedicated 14 years to working for Barbados tourism – and she’s just getting started.
When you see the infectious smile and sense the always-churning business mind behind that smile, you’ll soon realize why Petra Roach commands the attention of a room the second she strolls in.

The fiery director of the U.S. for the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. (BTMI), who previously served as a banker for the Barclays Bank before turning Barbados tourism upside down in 2002 when she first joined the now defunct Barbados Tourism Authority, instead gets straight to the point.

Bathsheba on Barbados’ rugged east coast is popular with surfers, a target group that, Roach says, gives the island an edge over its competitors.

“It’s about not taking yourself too seriously,” she told Travel Agent from her offices in Midtown Manhattan. “I think that there is respect that comes from the fact that you also say what you think. One of the things that cause most of confusion in the world is that people always hedge; they haven’t got an opinion. They just want to be everything to everybody.”

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For Roach, it’s quite simple: don’t write a check that your mouth can’t cash. After all, in the travel industry, those who make the best impressions are the ones who can promise something they’re able to deliver.

“I think people are actually quite intrigued with people who get on with stuff, who can get things done and also have a degree of sophistication and flair, and are different,” says Roach.

  “Petra is a charismatic leader whose dynamism, determination and passion for the destination brought transformative change to the U.S. market.” —Eusi Skeete, senior business development manager for the BTMI

“You know, in this industry, we like doing business with people that we like. It’s so much easier,” says Roach. “I think that the whole concept of trusting in somebody and knowing that somebody’s got your back and that they’ll bend over backwards for you, it’s so important.”

And “complacency” is not a word you will hear coming from her mouth.

“I think the buzz word is creativity, getting new initiatives on board and it’s not about standing still,” says Roach. “The one thing that I cannot bear is mundanity and acceptance of the status quo. This is what we’ve been doing for the last 15 years and we don’t need to change it up. I think that life is so fascinating, we’ve got so many resources accessible to us. I think that when you actually bring several partners on board and you take a little nugget of an idea, it then blossoms into this amazing initiative where people are invested, where they become passionate, where you then ultimately end up with something that is a game-changer. That, again, is our buzz word – how can we be game-changers with whatever we do.”

The Morgan Lewis Windmill is one of only two intact, restored sugar mills in the Caribbean.

But perhaps Barbados’ biggest “game-changer” in recent years has been Roach herself.

A Successful Start

Roach, who was named to the post of director of the U.S. for the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. (BTMI) back in January of 2015, has been at the helm of what could arguably be the island’s most successful two years ever in tourism.

And it didn’t take long for Roach to bring her U.K. success to the states. In early 2015, in her first few months on the job, Barbados saw a whopping 47.9 percent increase in visitors from the U.S. for the first half of April, compared to the first half of April the year before. The island also saw an impressive 37.9 percent spike in U.S. travelers in March of 2015, compared to March of 2014.

For many visitors, Bridgetown – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – provides the first glimpse of the island’s British ties.

“Petra is a charismatic leader whose dynamism, determination and passion for the destination brought transformative change to the U.S. market,” says Eusi Skeete, senior business development manager for the BTMI. “She has set clear objectives and has empowered the team to work towards those objectives. The U.S. market continues to thrive under her leadership and we have accomplished many positive results.”

Mount Gay Rum Distillery has been producing Barbados’ most famous export for more than three centuries.

In 2015, long-stay arrivals grew by 13.7 percent to reach 591,892, the highest on record. The United Kingdom remained Barbados’ number one source market, contributing 37 percent of business with a year on year increase of 14.1 percent. 

The U.S. market, which represented 25 percent of international visitor arrivals, grew by 25 percent and by year’s end, Richard Sealy, Barbados’ minister of tourism and international transport, announced that 2015 was a record year for the island nation’s tourism.

Snorkelers can spot giant sea turtles along with a variety of colorful fish and coral.

“I believe we are well positioned to ensure that agents and consumers alike understand the USP’s (Unique Selling Propositions) of Barbados and the key things that differentiate us as a destination. The results are already showing with record growth in 2015 and our current trajectory for 2016 continues on a positive growth trend,” says Skeete.

Barbados’ growth strategy in the last few years focused heavily on the diversification of their source markets, including establishing new gateways out of Boston via JetBlue Airways; Bogota, Colombia, through Avianca; and a new Thomas Cook service out of Glasgow. 

The island’s tourism industry also benefitted in 2015 from the introduction of a twice-weekly Delta Air Lines service out of Atlanta and New York, and the switch by Air Canada to a B777 aircraft.

Mullins Beach is one of the most popular stretches of sand and surf for wind surfing, kite surfing, paddleboarding, kayaking and other water sports.

New flights made a huge impact to Barbados tourism in 2015, including Delta’s direct flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK), which launched in June of 2014, and JetBlue Airway’s overall increased capacity to Barbados of 24 percent. Included in the new JetBlue flights was the airline’s new Mint service between JFK and Barbados as well as flights from Boston’s Logan International Airport.

“I think the challenge out of the U.S. for most of the Caribbean islands is that you always have an airline dipping in and out,” says Roach. “There is therefore no sustainability … you have to keep working harder and harder to cover the same amount of ground. What we’re looking for is to see partnerships where they’re going to be long lasting. We create legacy relationships with carriers into Barbados. We’re not going to sit back and say, ‘Oh, JetBlue you’ve put on the capacity, go and stimulate the demand.’ We actually get behind that.”

Barbados provides the settings and facilities for honeymooners and other couples to enjoy an activity-filled getaway.

The new Mint service, which was announced by Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. in mid-March of 2015, offers dedicated check-in, speed-through security, early boarding, free Fly-Fi, non-stop entertainment on 15-inch interactive video screens, lie-flat seats (four of which are suites), full-bottle wine service, a signature “refreshmint,” complimentary alcoholic beverages and in-flight dining options on new A321 aircraft. Travelers leave the plane with a complimentary amenity kit filled with beauty, grooming and lifestyle products from Birchbox (for both men and women), as well as an artisanal sweet treat as a parting gift.

Although Aruba, St. Lucia, and St. Maarten also have the Mint service, Barbados is the only island to have the service year-round and out of two U.S. cities: New York and Boston.

Historic St. Nicholas Abbey, which dates back more than 350 years, hosts guided tours of its antique-filled rooms, lush gardens, orchards and a working rum distillery.

“JetBlue was the biggest partnership,” says Roach. “[Mint] is not just first-class service – it’s amazing first-class service. What happens when we make a partnership like that is the people who travel on the Mint service might automatically come to Barbados. It’s that well-heeled individual. It underpins that aspirational positioning that we have because I keep saying we can’t be everything to everybody and nor do we want to be.”

JetBlue Airways also planned, as of press time, to launch direct flight to Barbados from Newark Liberty International Airport on November 19.

“I’ve been with Barbados tourism from 2004 and the innovative programs that we’ve embarked upon, the strategic partnerships and, of course, the engagement with our travel partners, continues to contribute positively to the growth out of this market,” says Skeete.

And just as Roach is excited to beef up the number of American consumers heading to Barbados, she is equally focused on maintaining strong relationships with the U.S. travel agents.

The opening of Sandals Barbados is the biggest hotel development on the island since Petra Roach became U.S. director of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. 

“Travel agents, in terms of the distribution here, are absolutely critical,” says Roach. “I think where you’ve got a differentiator, for example, is that the U.K. is a very tour-operator driven community and it’s a very vertically integrated industry as well. Whereas, here, because the biggest tour operators that we use are the online agents like the Expedias of this world, each of the travel agents that we get in contact with becomes a channel for us.

“I think that they’re also a lot more creative here in terms of packaging, to get packaging for their customers and also putting together special itineraries for various events that happen throughout the year,” she says.

A Bit of Background

Before landing her current position, Roach served as vice president in the U.K. for 12 years. She also led the organization as interim CEO during its transition period in the restructuring of the Barbados Tourism Authority to the BTMI from May to October of 2014. Under her stewardship, the U.K. office engineered such consumer initiatives as the Top Gear Festival Barbados, as well as some innovative incentive programs for the travel trade, such as “Gimme 5 and Fly” and “Connect Barbados.”

During her U.K. days, she also worked closely with the Chelsea Football Club and Liverpool Football Club, which helped established Barbados as one of the best sports destinations in the region.

“We also had a destination partnership with (the Chelsea Football Club),” says Roach. “We did cultural days with them. We ran a lot of incentives with our travel agency community where they could then win tickets to meet the players and then go up to the training ground in Cobham [Training Center] and get a behind-the-scenes look.”

She also says increasing Virgin Atlantic’s flights from the U.K. to Barbados was amongst her greatest accomplishments.

“Another big partnership was growing Virgin from twice weekly to then nine flights a week,” says Roach. “We then had daily service out of Gatwick and then twice weekly out of Manchester.”

Roach also says one of her “biggest wins” was designing a program called the Football Legends and the British Airways Football Legends Invitational Tournament, which was a tournament in which eight of the top Premiere League clubs flew down to Barbados and not only competed, but also took part in motivational talks in the local schools there.

“Certainly what we did was cement Barbados’ position as a sporting destination,” she says. “We also raised significant awareness amongst the football community and invested in the youth of Barbados by having these motivational talks as well as youth clinics where they did skills lessons, etc. The other thing we did was summer camps where, again, we brought [in] these legends.”

And for Roach, how she can give back to her native island plays a vital role in deciding what initiatives she feels the BTMI should undertake.

“I think it’s very important for people to understand,” says Roach, “that when we engage in whatever activity or initiative as a tourism office, it’s not just looking at it from the perspective that we’re going to drive traffic or raise the awareness for Barbados, but it’s also what is the philanthropic element of it? How can we give back to the community, so that it benefits? That’s a very important part of what we do. You’re opening up new markets, not just from a destination standpoint, but also from a niche standpoint.”

And she took the same strategy of partnering with hot sports teams to the U.S., where she immediately partnered with the Brooklyn Nets, who played in the newly constructed Barclays Center, perhaps the hottest venue in all of New York City.

“The relationship with the Barclays Center was purely because I looked and tried to think which teams had the most passionate fans, because ultimately the reason that we do strategic partnerships like that is [an understanding that] the fan base is very loyal to any brands that are partners of their beloved team,” she says. “That was what the whole relationship was about. Also, I think that Barbados, in terms of its personality, is quite like Brooklyn.”

And she got to witness the fruits of labor first hand. During several games in 2015, the Nets’ dance teams performed a Bajan-themed number that included Barbadian music, putting the small Caribbean island on the center stage in Brooklyn.

“It’s such a feeling of pride,” she says. “You get goose pimples because you’re talking about bringing the personality of Barbados alive. You’re hearing the Barbadian music. You’re seeing the Brooklyn Net dancers actually take on the calypso beat. I think that, again, Barbados is not just about the sun, sand and sea, but it’s all about the colors and the music and the culture.”

So what else does Barbados have that the other islands don’t?

“First of all, you’ve got to look at the fact that Barbados has a very well mapped out infrastructure, so it’s very easy to get around,” says Roach. “You can get in a car and drive yourself. You can get on a bus and get anywhere. Accessibility is key to everything. Then the Barbadian population is a very well educated one. Everybody has an opinion, do you know? It’s not that you’re going to have this barrier that exists between the visitors and the locals because they feel afraid to speak. Barbadians are very self-confident. They’re very proud of who they are. They want to adopt people immediately. There’s nobody that I know who has been to Barbados and not come back with a friend that has lasted for years and years and years.”

Perhaps the biggest hotel development with Roach at the helm came when Sandals Resorts International opened its first all-inclusive hotel on the island. Sandals Barbados opened in early 2015 following a $65 million renovation on the site of the former Couples resort. The property is in Christ Church on the south coast of the island.

There are roughly 280 rooms across three Villages: Ocean, Crystal Lagoon and Caribbean. We recommend staying in any Club Level room or any room that comes with butler service. We stayed in room no. 4411, a Crystal Lagoon One Bedroom Butler Suite with Balcony Tranquility Soaking Tub. The best features here were the balcony overlooking the swimming pool, the large soaking tub in the bathroom and the 46-inch smart TVs in both the living room and bedroom.

Because of the instant success of the resort, an announcement came just six months after the opening that Sandals would be expanding the resort in November of 2017. It will be adding 186 more rooms, a newly expanded Red Lane Lane Spa and new entertainment facilities.

Once the expansion project is complete, Roach says Sandals Resorts International will also build a new Beaches Resort in Barbados.

“Again, one of the things that we think is very important is that when we are looking at additional lift, a hotel or [other] opportunities, it’s about looking at it from a strategic perspective,” says Roach, “looking at all the historical data and doing the proper research into what initiatives we need to put into place and which partnerships we need to take into place in order for that to seed and actually be successful. That’s why I said to you that it’s important for you to map the growth of each of the initiatives and see what has happened six months in, 12 months in because they have all been sustainable and have grown.”

The Challenge With Cuba

And don’t think increasing demand to Cuba is making Roach shake in her boots.

“The challenge with Cuba is it’s not an organic, authentic cultural experience,” says Roach, who last visited the once forbidden island about six years ago. “Everything is very organized because of their political regime. Again, they’re doing the best in the situation they are in whereas in Barbados you can walk around anywhere. You can go anywhere that you want to. When you go into a rum shop, those are real people talking. It’s not something that’s constructed so that you can feel as though it’s real people talking.”

Roach, like other Caribbean experts we have spoken to about Cuba, contends that an island’s unique offerings are the only way to compete against the growing demand for Cuba. Roach simply chooses to focus on what Barbados has that Cuba, and other islands in the Caribbean for that matter, do not.

“We have looked at certain pillars where we have a competitive advantage,” says Roach, “so you’re talking about a lot of those aquatic adventures that people go on like kite surfing and wind surfing and paddle boarding and stuff like that. People who may have been traditionally going to Costa Rica for this can see that we now give them a much more sophisticated option, where the conditions are fantastic, where you’ve got influencers like Kelly Slater, who is one of the top three surfers of all time out of the U.S., saying that Barbados is one of the top surf spots. You can surf the entire day with swells that are absolutely fantastic and challenging and then come out and go to amazing restaurants and meet amazing, sophisticated people.”

So what is an agent’s role in all of this?

“At the end of the day it’s not just about having the online sale process completed, but people want to know that they can call someone if there’s a challenge,” says Roach. “They want to know that they can call someone if they need clarification on anything. They want to know they can communicate with someone.”

And Roach sure knows the power of communication.

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