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Saturday, July 20, 2024


Fourth in a series
Rafael Jackson, newly confirmed by the Legislature as commissioner of the Tourism Department, reaffirmed his support for maintaining the territory's six mainland offices last week before leaving St. Thomas for New York, where he planned to look into relocating the office there – possibly to the Empire State Building.
He said his objective was to locate suitable space at "considerably lower rent" than the $101,412 the territory is paying per year for 2,634 square feet in a building next to Radio City Music Hall.
Jackson also told the Source that the Tourism Department is "now in phase one" of getting its Internet web site up and running and that his "in-house web site expert," Jean Hodge, based in the St. Thomas office, was in Atlanta earlier this month "working with IBM, who is developing the information for the web site."
Coordination on the development of the web page is being done out of the Tourism office in Atlanta, Assistant Commissioner Monique Sibilly-Hodge said Friday. That is also where the government's new national advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather/Atlanta, is based. Ogilvy & Mather is a major agency with worldwide reach, and IBM is one of its largest clients.
Jackson dismissed the figure of $1.5 million ascribed to him earlier in this series as the cost of getting the territory's web site designed and in operation. "At no time did I ever state that the web page would cost $1.5 million," he said. "I have always estimated the cost of the site at around $350,000."
And he reaffirmed his commitment, for now, to maintain all six of the mainland offices – in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles – and to hire additional personnel to staff some of them. He said what he told senators at a May 22 meeting of the Agriculture, Economic Development and Consumer Protection Committee on St. Thomas was "that after the web site was up, I would consider phasing out two of them based on their performance. But first I have to be able to give them the tools to do the job. Those tools are bodies, so that someone is in the office and others can be out at shows and contacting travel agents. Give those offices a chance, under my leadership, to turn around."
At the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association's seventh annual Destination Symposium in April, Jackson announced that Ludwig Harrigan, longtime manager of the L.A. office, would be moving to New York to oversee all of the mainland office operations. However, he told the Source, he has had to change those plans.
"Harrigan has too many roots in California to move to New York City," he said, and he is still looking for someone to take the leadership position on the East Coast.
Office space versus advertising space
The New York Tourism office, which Jackson managed for 19 years, now is located in a 2,634-square-foot space. The expenditure of $101,412 a year for rent has been criticized as unjustifiably high by hoteliers and lawmakers in recent months. Jackson said he expected to work out arrangements to lease space at a "considerably lower rent" and was going to check out space in the Empire State Building and another location across the street from that structure.
The lease on the current space runs through May 31, 2004. However, at the May 22 Senate committee meeting, Jackson noted that there "are ways to get out of leases."
Richard Doumeng, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, suggested at that committee meeting that a New York area office could just as well be located in New Jersey, at "one-tenth the rent." The idea doesn't appeal to Jackson. "Only one office ever moved to New Jersey," he said. "That was Aruba, and I don't know what happened to them."
What happened to Aruba, an island of arid, flat terrain and relentless tradewinds blowing sand, is that it emerged in the 1990s as the sleeper of the region, increasing its overnight visitor base to one of the highest among the smaller islands, for two apparent reasons. First, the government and private sector undertook successfully to educate the population about the advantages of ensuring that visitors have a positive experience. Second, the government committed multimillions of dollars to marketing the place.
Last year, Aruba spent more than $21 million to promote the destination, a figure exceeded only by the dominant players in the Caribbean – Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Jamaica. That compared to half a million for U.S.V.I. advertising, in what was the economically strapped territory's smallest expenditure in many years.
According to Derryle Brown Berger, who has worked for decades with her family's business on St. Thomas, Caribbean Travel, Aruba "is very popular because it's very well done. I think the Virgin Islands has lost a lot of people who had been coming to the islands who switched to Aruba because they got treated better as tourists." Also, she said, "Their prices are a lot more competitive."
The Five-Year Operating and Strategic Financial Plan developed by the Economic Recovery Task Force named by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull last year shows that in 1997, apparently the most recent year for which figures were available, Aruba had 947,000 visitors, while the U.S. Virgin Islands had 2,128,000. The majority of V.I. visitors today are cruise ship day-trippers, however, while most Aruba visitors are overnight guests who pour much more money into the local economy.
Also, tapping into a growing trend and marketing it to advantage, "Aruba has turned into the time-share destination in the Caribbean," Berger said.
The Aruba Tourism Ministry just announced that Delta Air Lines is adding a direct daily flight to the island from Atlanta on July 1 and another from New York in December; US Airways will add one from Philadelphia in November; Continental will fly four times weekly from Newark starting in December; and Air Aruba is starting daily service from Orlando on July 1. Since April, the U.S. Customs Service has been operating a pre-clearance service at the recently renovated Queen Beatrix International Airport.
Jackson noted that most of the territory's competitors for tourist traffic in the Caribbean also have offices on the U.S. mainland – certainly in New York, if nowhere else – as well as in Europe and elsewhere.
Eugene Smith, manager of Villa Blanca on St. Thomas, pointed out that Caribbean islands outside the United States "do not have access to 800 numbers and domestic mail services from their home islands" to reach U.S. markets, and thus "it is necessary for them to maintain these stateside offices." However, in his opinion, "it makes absolutely no sense for the U.S. Virgin Islands to maintain them."
Beyond that, Smith said, his own property has seen no benefits lately from their being in place. "In the last six months of careful record keeping, we have not received one booking from a travel agent," he said. "And in the last year, not one guest has mentioned the offshore offices as a source of their information."
What's selling the small hotel, he said, is its web site, which "went up almost two years ago and now garners 85 per cent of our bookings, tripling our previous occupancy rate."
He noted that he makes it a priority to keep the web links up to date on his site, www.st-thomas.com/villablanca.
Foresight essential for a web site
There are millions of web pages up there in cyberspace, and there are tens of thousands of electronic graphic arts gurus making a living designing and building new ones every day. The neophyte client in search of expertise will be well advised to know precisely what he or she wishes to market and to whom he or she wishes to market it
long before, in the case of a client such as the V.I. government, putting out a Request for Proposals.
(Although the talks are under way with IBM, Jackson told the Source, a contract for the company to carry out the design project "has not been finalized.")
Jackson says his vision is to have "a very interactive site." He said, "It will have a lot of data and lists of all the hotels and businesses in the Virgin Islands and have links to travel agents in the area where the call is coming from for them to make their reservations." He added, "It will not be an e-commerce site." Once it's operational, he said he expects to have "two regular employees here in the St. Thomas office to respond to the inquiries and to keep the site updated."
From what he has seen of other Caribbean destinations' marketing outreach via the Internet, Jackson said, "The web site that I'd like to see us emulate is Puerto Rico. They made mistakes, but we're going to correct them." He did not elaborate on the "mistakes."
The official Puerto Rico tourism site is www.prtourism.com. The site includes lists of hotels with telephone numbers. It has no links to the web pages of the hotels or the island's other tourism-related businesses and organizations. It refers inquiries to the offshore offices of the Puerto Rican Tourism Co. The three on-line sites it does link to, including that of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association, offer more lists, with telephone numbers and in some cases e-mail addresses.
In contrast, the official tourism sites of the Jamaica Tourism Board at www.jamaicajtravel.com and the British Virgin Islands at www.bviwelcome.com. feature direct links to connect to commercially maintained web sites of hotels and other hospitality businesses. The pages appear to be well-maintained.
Less sophisticated but comprehensive, apparently up to date, and functioning when accessed by the Source are the web sites of Aruba at www.interknowledge.com/aruba, St. Lucia at www.stlucia.org, Trinidad and Tobago at www.visittnt.com, Barbados at www.barbados.org, and the Bahamas at www.bahamas.com.
Web links the way to boost bookings
While resorts in the territory that are a part of chains are marketed mainly through their parent operations, the independently owned and operated hotels, most of them "small" (defined in the industry as having fewer than 50 rooms), can be greatly affected by V.I. government advertising and could benefit tremendously from links to their own web sites.
Sam Boynes, owner of of the small, historic L'Hotel Boynes property on St. Thomas, says he gets 40 percent of his business from his web site. Without such sites, "the small hoteliers would all be bankrupt now, since we are receiving no support from the government tourism office," he said.
Boynes was a hotel manager in Chicago before he moved to St. Thomas and worked at Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort for many years before acquiring the hotel on Blackbeard's Hill that now bears his family name. He said he has known and respected Jackson for many years but feels that the commissioner needs to recognize that times have changed for Virgin Islands tourism, and not only in terms of technology.
"Years ago people came to us," Boynes said. "Now, we have to go looking for them – and meet them on their terms, which for most travelers today is the Internet."
Smith backed that up, saying, "The tech world is evolving so fast that Jackson has to be able to hand over the reins to people who really know their stuff and not base the future on his previous experience."
Todd Hunter, catering manager at St. John's Westin Resort, gave a concrete example of the influence of the Internet as a marketing tool: Known among the Westin staff as "the director of romance," he came aboard three years ago with responsibility, among other things, for marketing the property as a wedding and honeymoon destination. The year before he arrived, there were six weddings at the hotel; in the last year, he said, there have been more than 100. He attributed a lot of that growth to the Westin's web presence.
"Most of the people who are getting married today grew up with computers," he observed. "The Internet comes natural to them. That's where they turn for information."
He noted that the St. John Westin property's web page, accessed through www.westin.com, focuses not only on the property itself but on the island of St. John through its visual appeals. "You look at our pictures of the beach and sunset, and that says it all. What else do you want?"
Boynes's web site, www.hotelboynes.vi, focuses mainly on the unique appeal of the hotel itself. There are interior shots of the individually furnished hotel rooms, the story of Boynes' search for his roots in the Caribbean and France, a brochure to download, music and a video. "All the technology was done right here on St. Thomas," he said. "We don't need to go off island for a good web site design."
In an editorial June 17 commenting on topics addressed in the first three parts of this series, the Virgin Islands Independent and its sister newspaper, the St. Croix Avis, stated that "the real cost of building a world-class web site is well under $100,000 and could be as little as $30,000." A local web site developer consulted on the matter put the figure at what he called a "generous $50,000."
Even to access a web designer of major international stature, however, the Tourism Department need not have expended an inordinate amount of money – or any at all.
According to the Westin's Hunter, the St. John property's web page was designed two years ago by the professional who does "all the Starwood sites." Starwood Hotels and Resorts, one of the largest hotel operating companies in the world, is the parent company of the Westin, Sheraton, W, Four Points and Luxury Collection chains.
"The person who designed the Westin St. John site was willing to do one free for the Tourism Department," Hunter said. He contacted the department, then under the direction of Commissioner Wylie Whisonant, but "they never called him back."
Wednesday: How hoteliers view their partnership with Tourism

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