Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: September/October 2010
A Conversation With Vincent Venderpool-Wallace
By: Solomon J. Herbert

Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace is the Minister of Tourism and Aviation for The Islands of the Bahamas. Before assuming his current post he served as the Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Q: Recent report from a marketing company indicates North America is now the main source of visitors to several islands including Antigua & Barbuda. Do most visitors from the Bahamas come from North America?

A: By far it is almost on the order of 80% from all of visitors come from US If you include Canada as part north America its probably the up the order of 85 -86% of all our visitors

Q: How is that different from say 5-10 yrs ago?

A: It was a small proportion but I think is has really been the result of the growth from the U.S. because we aggressively decided that it made a good deal of sense for us to focus on what the largest economy in the world and you have a lot of countries that talk about diversifying their sources of business, which we agree with. And we are doing it but we also don’t want to diversify at the expense of drawing from the biggest economy, which by far is the U.S. of America.

Q: Do you see this increase as result of more airlift coming in, or the lack of business coming from Europe? Exactly what is causing it?

A: No it’s actually increase in the number of U.S. visitors as opposed to a kind of a decrease in the visitors from elsewhere, because we the deliberately started targeting to get a lot more business from North America. And you hit it on the head. Certainly in my time as minister our #1 strategy is to focus on airlift, which is I have the proximity of the Bahamas to the U.S. reflected in the cost and ease of travel to the Bahamas. Because that has really been a big piece that was missing for the longest time. For many places in the U.S. of America, it was the same cost to go travel beyond the Bahamas to other competing destinations instead of coming to the Bahamas.

So we decided to attack that in terms of making ourselves more competitive and that has worked. We remind people for example that slightly more than half of the visitors going to Las Vegas drive there. Something on the order of three quarters if the visitors going to Orlando drive there. But nobody drives to the Bahamas so you don’t focus on airlift, you really are not focusing on your business. And that’s why the combination of tourism and aviation. And in the Caribbean I have been studying for many, many years. I can never understand anybody being responsible for tourism and not also aviation. The two of them have to go hand in hand and I have to credit our prime minister for making that happen.

Q: Has this increased visitation from North America changed your marketing strategy?

A: Yes because as you know what has been a very important part of what we focus on is that proximity matters. Proximity also in the case of example of Florida, as compared to Washington state, Seattle, or even for that matter Los Angeles. Clearly one of the things with tourism is that it distant dependant. You get more people in places closest to you, all other things being equal, than people who are farther away. So you find example the demographics of the people who can come and afford the Bahamas from Florida is different from the demographics of the people who can afford the Bahamas from of the west coast. Why? The further away people come from the longer they stay the more they have to spend.

So you get somebody – and I use this only for exaggeration – you get somebody that is a service station attendant in Florida, because it is so cheap and inexpensive to come there for two days, and you can’t tell the difference in his behavior and somebody who’s visiting here, coming from the other side of the world. We’ve been trying to get that idea across to people because a lot of marketing people talk about “Tell me who your target audience is?” The first thing we ask them is where is my target audience? Because the one major component of vacation is the cost to get there. But many pretend that that is not important. A tin of tuna cost the same in a Los Angeles supermarket as it does in a Florida supermarket. Not for travel. Your travel becomes much more expensive the farther away you are coming because people stay longer and the cost of the flight is much higher.

So your target audience is different depending on what you are talking about, and that’s why, for example you will see South Florida plastered with billboards. We’re the third largest billboard advertiser in the state of Florida, and the reason is that it’s very close.

Now there is a corollary to that, which is that we don’t get very many people coming for example from Florida on honeymoons because honeymooners want a much more exotic trip. And so it is almost an inverse relationship, that the closer you are the less attracted you are for honeymooners. So we have become much more sophisticated, I think, in how we market ourselves and how we attract business. And we think that we have to that. Why? Because we are one of the most expensive destinations around in terms of cost on the ground. And we deliberately have done that because it is very important to our economy that we get people who spending a fairly high level on a daily basis.

Q: What are some of the steps you have taken during these tough economic times to make the Bahamas more attractive?  A: We are running the most successful tourism promotion right now that we have ever run in our history. It is called “Companion Fly Free.” And go back to strategy number one. Have your proximity reflected it in the cost and ease of travel to your destination. So we came together with the private sector and said “What is the most critical thing we can do in order to make ourselves more attractive?” And what came to be unanimous once the results were there is how to make access to the Bahamas much less expensive. So with “Companion Fly Free,” how do I reduce the cost of access to the Bahamas and make myself look much more attractive. This is a promotion started in January this year and we were supposed to run it until March 3rd. Now it is being continued because of the level of success that we’ve seen from it as way beyond our expectation.

We have already sold more than 25,000 bookings on this promotion plus more than a 115,000 room nights sold. But we are not discounting the rooms. What we are doing is giving people a lower cost. And we hope this doesn’t become adopted by many of the people who compete with us. But the fact is very simple. What we have discovered it is a very important psychological value that if you make yourself less expensive to get to and easier to get to, people focus on you. Because people see the travel part, and the airlines do not like to hear us say this, but people see the airline part of your vacation cost as a necessary evil, as a commodity. That I want to get the lowest possible cost to get there, but I want to enjoy myself when I get there. That is perfectly aligned with our interest. We don’t want you to spend most of your time getting to me. I want you to spend most of your time and money when you get there with me. So there’s no question that that strategy has been our principal strategy in terms of making sure that we move forward.

We are now beginning to launch a new one which is surprising to large numbers of people. We just launched it recently, which says if you get to Nassau you can fly free to any of 10 islands in the Bahamas. Ten islands in the Bahamas, that is what we want people to say. Because too few people know that the Bahamas is a multiplicity of islands most of which, the ones we are talking about, are larger than Nassau and Paradise Island. Nassau & Paradise Island is only 1. 5 percent of the total landmass of The Bahamas. People are stunned know that, and that’s why Nassau and Paradise Island is one of the most successful destinations on earth at that size. You’ve got one million air visitors and two million cruise passengers a year to Nassau and Paradise Island. It’s extraordinarily successful, but we haven’t even begun to do this yet. And so we are now beginning to let people know that these islands are there. And what’s the best way to get them there? Airfare is free once you get to Nassau and stay in a participating hotel for four nights or longer.
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