The New Caribbean

Travel Agent and Bon Appetit magazines recently hosted a Caribbean editorial roundtable in Bon Appetit's dining room in New York. On hand for the event were Ruthanne Terrero, editorial director of the Travel Agent Media Group, who moderated the event; Kerry Cannon, group publisher of the Travel Agent Media Group; Mark Cooper, travel director, Bon Appetit; Susan Black of; Jack Bloch of JB's World Travel Consultants; Marcia Bullock, representing the Jamaica Tourist Board; Elizabeth Crabill of Travel Impressions; Jaap Ellis of the Aruba Tourism Authority; David Lyon, with Anguilla's Cuisinart Hotel and Spa; Elaine Pesky of Protravel; Rabia Shahenshah of Tzell Travel; and Kimberly Wilson Wetty, with Valerie Wilson Travel.

A broad range of topics was covered—such issues as how travel agents can encourage clients who may have once sampled the Caribbean on spring break to return as more upscale travelers, and whether or not an island's culture has an impact on one's decision to travel to a specific Caribbean destination. We also discussed how agents can work through the "keeping up" syndrome.

 Ruthanne Terrero (center) with Jack Bloch and Rabia Shahenshah

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent Media: A survey we conducted recently showed that 83 percent of the agents responding felt that a Caribbean island's cultural attractions are important to their recommendations. Do you agree, or is it all about sun and fun?

Kimberly Wilson Wetty, Valerie Wilson Travel: Culture is not the primary factor for someone going to the Caribbean, so if that is your sales pitch, you're setting yourself up to fail. It can be a supplement once you close the sale to get them excited about the things they can do while they are there, but it is not one of the first things you bring up.

Rabia Shahenshah, Tzell Travel: A client from a major market like Boston or New York would go to the Caribbean in the dead of winter because it's accessible. Airfares during that time are relatively high. If they are really interested in culture and the price points are the same, they could go to Paris.

Jack Bloch, JB's World Travel Consultants: In the Carib-bean, you go to a resort to veg out. When clients ask if there is something else to do, they don't mean culture. They want to know if there is a disco or nightlife.

Kerry Cannon and Marcia Bullock

Mark Cooper, Bon Appetit: But isn't that more of a function of marketing of the Caribbean? Some islands do invest dollars into the cultural side of it.

Bloch: People visualize the Caribbean as an island, even though Jamaica is the only one that is considered a country over an island. So it's a little different.

Marcia Bullock, Jamaica Tourist Board: Many of us from the Caribbean struggle with that fact. We know our main attraction is sun, sand and sea...but we are a people with a strong culture. Our heritage, our food, our music is what we think of ourselves in terms of having a culture. Most [visitors] are surprised when see all that there is. And we hear, "Oh, my travel agent didn't tell me that there is all of this—that you can go to the south coast for a swamp safari and you can go to the Blue Mountains to pick coffee."

Elizabeth Crabill, Travel Impressions: I believe there is an opportunity for destinations within the Caribbean, because each island has a different culture. If you have a repeat customer who would like to try something else, you can take an island's culture or cuisine and use it to move that customer.

Jaap Ellis, Aruba Tourism Authority: In Aruba, more and more we see that people are more adventurous; they want to see more traditional island things like indigenous food offered on the menus in restaurants, they want to go sightseeing in the museums and experience activities on the island.

Kimberly Wilson Wetty and Elaine Pesky

Susan Black, This year we've seen different islands introduce indigenous or other types of cultural activities in the shoulder or soft seasons, such as music festivals. When it's hurricane season, they are trying to think of ways to distinguish themselves.

David Lyon, Cuisinart Hotel and Spa: Islands such as Anguilla cater primarily to the luxury client. We do host the Anguilla Jazz Festival and the Yacht Regatta, but we don't bring as many people in for those activities.

Elaine Pesky, Protravel: People have different needs, and the main thing is you have to listen to what your client wants.

Terrero: What happens when a client calls and says, "I want to go somewhere, where do I go?" How do you handle that?

Shahenshah: You listen, but you also have a sixth sense. I would say within the first 30 seconds you get a sense of them, especially when they start to say where they have been in the past. A lot of these clients are very busy and they really go to unwind, so to them, cultural activities are less important.

Cooper: From an agent's standpoint, how often does someone come in with a very specific idea of where they want to go?

Elizabeth Crabill (left) and Japp Ellis

Wetty: Many times a client will say, "I've just spoken to a friend and this is where I have to go," or they've seen an ad or read an article, but then you start to talk to them and you're like, "This is so not the right place for you." But that is why they are going through a travel consultant for advice.

Terrero: Do you find that people are coming to you confused because they have so much information?

Pesky: They want us to sort it out. They have too much information.

Bloch: I see that in the future our services will become more valuable than they had in the past. In the old days, we were valuable because there was no information. Now we are valuable because there is too much information.

Cooper: People have often done their research and they are coming in with a lot of knowledge from the Internet.

Wetty: That's true, especially on the high end in the luxury market. But we have to decide if we are talking about the ultra-luxury market, the luxury market or more of the premium market, because a lot of the Caribbean is premium.

From left, Mark Cooper and Susan Black

Bloch: Fifteen years ago there wasn't anywhere near the high-end product in the Caribbean that there is today. Today there's a whole group of people [for whom] money is not an issue—it's that "my friend went there, so I have to get there."

Shahenshah: I have a client who is a Four Seasons junkie, so when the Four Seasons, Costa Rica opened, I suggested he might want to go there. Instead, he said, "Why would I want to go there, there are just lots of trees and snakes and jungle?" A year later he called me up after everyone in his town had been there and said, "You have to get me into the Four Seasons, Costa Rica." It's the "keeping-up game."

Black: We have found that the luxury market wants to get things for less. We did a survey a year ago of 3,000 of our customers and found that their greatest fear of traveling to the Caribbean wasn't hurricanes or safety issues, it was of overpaying, of sitting at a luxury resort and knowing that the guy next to them paid less.

Shahenshah: What they want to know more is if I have a relationship with the hotel itself, with the GM, and if I can get them connecting rooms that face the ocean. Are my special requests being met? What is the relationship between me and the vendor that they can't get on their own?

Terrero: Let's throw it back to the demographics. Is there a chance to take the spring breaker and bring them back to the Caribbean at a higher price point for a grown-up vacation?

Bloch: They want to do short trips, they won't do long trips. That market is strictly a quick getaway to the beaches, but definitely high end.

David Lyon of Cusinart Hotel and Spa

Crabill: If you are talking about getting the spring breaker to jump to another level, there is a 10- to 20-year gap until they are able to go to a five-star property. But that creates a huge opportunity, especially with the changes that are taking place in all-inclusives, which are responding to the needs of repeat customers.

Pesky: That group also wants to know what they are paying for, so the all inclusives are ideal for them.

Terrero: Is the middle-tier traveler coming to you?

Pesky: I have a lot of generational groups, grandparents, parents and children. They are going to Paradisus.

Shahenshah: Some of my clients as a couple will do a Four Seasons, but they feel it's wasted on their children. So maybe they'll go to the Fairmont Mayakoba, which is the perfect four star; it's a chain, but it's right in the middle.

Terrero: What about Generation X, is there a change in how they are traveling?

Wetty: Absolutely. A lot of them grew up traveling and they went to four- and five-star properties, so they have really high expectations of what the service should be. Their kids are going to be the same way.

Black: In the premium market, especially the Spanish hoteliers, are really coming up with products for families. They have done their homework...traditional suppliers have to pay attention.

Lyon: I don't think we are the exception, but [at Cuisinart] we have a bit of a different twist on family travel...we want to limit the number [of kids], so that the children and parents enjoy it. We don't have a kids' camp, but we want to make sure our beach staff knows how to deal with the children. We have two restaurants on the property, and the fine dining restaurant will restrict children under a certain age. It's a fine balance.

Terrero: In Aruba and Jamaica, are resorts being built to accommodate families?

Bullock: Yes, for us the new properties are primarily the Spanish hoteliers and the latest one, the Rio in Ocho Rios has what they call the "quiet side" of the resort, and the main side is more for families.

Ellis: On Aruba, the smaller resorts say that children are welcome but we have resorts on the other end, one has a lazy river that is huge and that is so good for families.

Bullock: It goes back to knowing who your client is. On Jamaica, we have some resorts that take only kids above age 16 and then others that seemingly take only kids, so it is all about knowing your client.

Terrero: How do you capture the cruise passenger that visits a number of destinations? How do you get them to take a land-based vacation?

Bullock: The idea is to tell them that there is no way to you can experience a destination by arriving there at 8 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m. If you've been on a cruise and gone to 15 different islands, you haven't been to the Caribbean; you've been on a cruise. We try to educate them...we try to sell them a land-based experience, which is much different from a cruise.

Wetty: When I have a client going on a Caribbean cruise, I try to make a recommendation of what they should do for a shore event, rather than doing something that the ship is offering. I'll try to work with a certain property to see if they can they go there for lunch or use their beach. It's a wonderful way for them to sample the different islands and that makes it easier to say would you like to go back.

Bullock: In Jamaica, we...recommend an activity to a client; a specific tour.

Terrero: We did some research that showed agents are overwhelmingly aware that their clients will need a passport for Caribbean travel as of January 2007. Agree or disagree?

Shahenshah: It's a good thing. Who wants to stand behind the person who whips out the birth certificate? It takes forever. [Also, if a client] who has not been anywhere for X number of years because they didn't have a passport gets one now they feel they can go to Paris. The obstacle is now taken away.

Bloch: It's a situation that is a long time coming in this country. Only five percent of the population has a passport. In Europe, everyone has a passport.

Bullock: We have launched some initiatives on our own; we have direct linkage from our web site to the U.S. passport office where you can download the forms.

Black: This is a situation in which adversity binds the Caribbean together. We are getting questions from different islands, asking, "What is your company doing to offset the cost of the issue?"

Crabill: It is absolutely a concern. Eventually [people will get passports], but for now they won't need one for Mexico, so why not try Cancun or why not go to Disney World or somewhere domestic? The thing is that passports now are more expensive than if they had gotten one five years ago.

Terrero: Our research shows that agents were evenly split on whether clients were interested in Cuba. Are you being asked about Cuba?

All: Yes!

Bullock: There are some very fine hotels there. It's going to be a huge destination.