Cool ideas for boosting service...and tourism numbers...in the Caribbean
Had breakfast earlier this week with Hugh Riley, secretary general/CEO of the Caribbean Tourist Organization.A good guy. More importantly for you the traveler, he's got some terrific ideas on how to make the Caribbean even more attractive for Canadians and other visitors. (It would be hard to make anything more attractive than the beach pictured at right, Sugar Beach in St. Lucia, but there you go.)
Riley has stayed at many hotels over the years, and used rental cars and other travel services. He often fills out suggestion forms where customers can critique the cleanliness of a hotel room or comment on other issues.
His idea? Do that for the entire Caribbean, so that visitors would fill out a "total customer satisfaction" report.
"We have things like blue flags to rate our beaches, and hotels get ratings. But what about other issues such as road signage for visitors, or customs and immigration service, or simply day-to-day travel experiences? We should be rating those and giving overall ratings to countries. Nobody on the planet has done this to my knowledge."
I think it's an incredible idea. Of course, some folks might not like the ratings. But a poor report card would help people identify their problems and improve their service. Or, as Riley puts it, "a rising tide lifts all boats."
Riley said the issue is due to be taken up at a conference of tourism officials in the Caribbean in October. October 25-29 is Caribbean week in Toronto, with lots of fun events in store.
"It's always been something a hotel or a restaurant can do," Riley said of a rating system. "But what if you're staying in a villa or a private residence?"
Riley said he doesn't want the Caribbean to lose its laid-back charm.
"We don't want to be regimented. But an important part of a visitors' experience is fine service."
Riley said there would have to be some major training and education elements. Some improvements would be costly but many would be simple and cheap.
"For example," he said. "I had to take a business trip to Toronto a while back and I was really stressed about it. I was tired and busy and didn't really feel like it. I got to Pearson and got a cab downtown. The bellman grabbed my bags and when I got to the sidewalk he looked at me and said, "Good evening, Mr. Riley. I hope you had a nice trip. Welcome to the Intercontinental Hotel."
Riley said he couldn't believe it.
"All that tension just disappeared and I felt incredible," he said. "I don't know, but he probably just looked at my name on the baggage tag."
It's a small thing and it didn't cost the bellman or the hotel a nickle. But it made Riley feel like a million bucks, and that's something special for anyone in the tourism biz.
Canadian visits to the Caribbean were up 1.1 per cent over the first six months compared to the first half of 2009, Riley said, with almost 1.7 million visits between January and June of this year. Overall visits were up 3 per cent, which is quite good in a tough time.
"Canadians feel almost a family connection with the Caribbean," he said. "They tend to stay longer and not just do the "fly and flop" thing. They want to be involved in cultural events and activities.
"I go to Oistin's (a famous beach area in Barbados) and the Canadians are there every time," he said with a laugh. "I see them on the stage. They like to let their hair down."
Romance is a big part of the Caribbean's lure, and Riley said he's seeing a very steady bridal market and more destination weddings.