A Focus on the Future: The Challenge of Branding the Caribbean
Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, Secretary General, Caribbean Tourism Organization
Wednesday June 22nd 2005, Las Vegas, Nevada
Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.
Three weeks ago, I was from The Bahamas. Last week, I had a rebirth. This week, I am from the Caribbean.
I remember a friend of mine who might be in this audience telling me some years ago that if the world ever came to its end, he would want to be in the Caribbean. Needless to say, as a Caribbean man, I was most flattered to hear this and thanked him profusely for this obvious admiration of our physical beauty and stimulating culture. He replied: “No, No, No . . .you don’t understand. If the world ever came to an end, I would want to be in the Caribbean because everything always happens 10 years later in the Caribbean”. That’s the first impression of our brand that we have to fix.
This is quite a surreal experience for me to be here at Wynn, Las Vegas. In 1998, I gave a presentation to the Bahamas Chapter of Hospitality Sales & Marketing International in which I told them, in a full PowerPoint presentation that I had just learnt that Steve Wynn’s next resort in Las Vegas was going to be named The Bahamas. I then proceeded to tell my audience all of the good things that Wynn would have in his resort reflecting The Bahamas and that he would not have any of the entrenched problems with which we were faced everyday and that knowing the quality of Steve Wynn’s work I was convinced that much of our Bahamas business would be shifted to Las Vegas.
I knew of course that I was using this allegory simply to make a point and I thought that was clear to everyone by the end of my presentation. Well, late that night a local reporter who attended the presentation called me to check a quote and asked me if I knew when Wynn Bahamas was set to open in Las Vegas and, if I did not know, if I knew the easiest way to get in touch with Mr. Wynn.
Steve Wynn’s reputation was such that the story was believed not only by the reporter but I later found out that it was also believed by many of the other people who attended the presentation and I had to send a note out to the effect that it was all a fable. That was the Bahamas equivalent of Orson Welles story in the 1930’s of Martians invading New Jersey though with much less panic.
My story was believed because Steve Wynn is a brand and he has a reputation for the successful completion of projects of that size and scope.
Now I know that there will be much discussion at this conference about branding but as with this example, I have come to believe that a brand is mostly a reputation. . . a reputation for the consistent delivery of a positive product or service experience at or above one’s expectation. And I have also come to believe that for a destination, that reputation comes from one place. It comes from the visitor experience. Some time ago with all due deference to former President Bill Clinton, when it comes to branding any destination, we came to the clear conclusion: “It’s the experience, stupid”.
But what contributes mostly to the visitor experience? That comes from two primary places. It comes from the investors at the destination, both government and private, and it also comes from the people at the destination.
Last week an Alabama radio station announcer recommended that Americans boycott the Caribbean because of the events in Aruba with the lost teenager Natalee Holloway. But who speaks for the Caribbean? There is no Federal Government of the Caribbean. Then it hit us. The Caribbean is the world’s best known unowned brand. Everybody knows it but nobody owns it.
A Caribbean reporter lambasted the Caribbean Tourism Organization, CTO, for not responding to that Alabama radio station. Why? Because CTO, with more than 30 Dutch, English, French and Spanish-speaking government members, has the broadest representation of all organizations in our region.
What do people in the region expect of us? They have silently given us a mandate. It is CTO’s job to protect, advance and enhance the global reputation of the Caribbean for the sustainable economic and social benefit of all our constituents. CTO by acclamation is the owner of the Caribbean brand.
But anyone involved in tourism destination brand management knows that it comes with some peculiarities. It has always been clear to me that tourism may be the only business in the world in which every citizen is involved, whether we like it or not. In the case of our islands and destinations, if a visitor has a poor experience in our destination, it does not matter whether it was in a resort or in a resort zone, the entire destination takes a hit for it. We only need to look at what is happening in Aruba today.
How the hell can we ever hope to establish a reputation if everyone is involved in shaping that reputation?
In The Bahamas, we started doing something very strange. We started publishing visitor satisfaction results in the local newspapers. Eight years ago, whenever we asked the people of The Bahamas what we needed to do to grow tourism, their answer: “Spend more money advertising”. Their answer today: “We need to get our act together and treat our visitors better”. We now find that the people of The Bahamas are far more comfortable with the tourism industry than ever before and we have seen visitor satisfaction levels rise even while visitor quality was alson rising rapidly.
If the people are important and if it is important for them to feel good about themselves what can we do to make us feel better about the Caribbean collectively? Let me stretch your mind a bit.
Suppose there was a United States of The Caribbean, what would it look like? Well, here is what you would note:
a) The United States of The Caribbean would have a population size of approximately 40 million persons. That is larger than Canada and larger than the state of California.
b) The United States of the Caribbean would win the Summer Olympic Games on a per capita basis every four years hands down! In fact you will discover that even the medals that you win came from someone we gave to you a generation ago.
c) The United States of the Caribbean would win the Miss Universe competition every other year or so.
d) The United States of the Caribbean would win a Nobel Prize every few years.
e) We would receive a perennial place on the Forbes list of the richest people in the world.
f) We would show you our Academy Awards, our Grammys and our Tonys
g) You would thank us for giving you Alexander Hamilton.
h) You would thank us for helping to get Harvard started.
i) You would thank the United States of the Caribbean for so many of the people that have made significant contributions to the growth and development of the United States of America.
Soon there will be only two kinds of people in the world. There will be those people from the Caribbean then there will be those who wished they were from the Caribbean. I feel better about myself already.
So branding is largely reputation. Reputation comes primarily from the visitor experience. But reputation is affected mostly by the people and investors. We get the people motivated by tell them how we are performing. And we get the people of the Caribbean feeling good about ourselves by constantly touting Caribbean accomplishments.
So now that we think we know how to manage it, the Caribbean brand used to be unowned. We now publicly declare that CTO will own it.
Now that we know some more about reputation and branding, we are on a mission to destroy a myth that is pervasive in the Caribbean. This myth uses the words “marketing” and “advertising” as synonyms. We are recommending that member countries and territories deport any advertising agency that declares that they will build a destination brand without reference to improving the visitor experience.
You see those who said that Marketing was the four “P’s”, Product, Pricing, Placing and Promotion, they were right all along. What they did not tell you was that in our case, they are in order of importance.
If my competitor starts an advertising campaign that appears to be effective. I will copy it overnight. If they start using a new and particularly effective distribution channel, I will copy it the next day. If they change their pricing, I will match it immediately. The one thing that my competitor cannot match instantly is the visitor experience. That is priceless.
Please do not misunderstand me. Advertising is very, very important. But advertising works best when it reminds someone about something positive that they either experienced or heard about a destination. Advertising works best when it reminds people about a positive reputation.
Now this is all very nice but how do we build sustained demand for our Caribbean brand?
Time magazine conducted a study back in the 1970’s in which they discovered that people who take warm weather vacations in our part of the world are really island collectors. No matter how much they enjoyed their vacation at a particular location, they may not return in the next several years as they sample other destinations. So one cannot measure visitor satisfaction according to the number of visitors who return to the destination.
So eight years ago in The Bahamas we started asking visitors something that was thought to be very strange at the time. We asked them whether they intended to recommend the Bahamas to their friends and relatives.
In the December 2004 edition of Harvard Business Review Frederick Reichheld published an article entitled “The One Number You Need To Grow”. What is that number? Do you intend to recommend my product or service to your friends or relatives? That number correlated more strongly with future performance that any other measure. We not only feel vindicated but also feel that we were much ahead of the curve.
Then there is the bonus. We want island collectors, we want people to collect our destinations in the Caribbean.
So assume that we know what our visitors think about us. Assume that our people collectively feel good about themselves and about the Caribbean. Assume visitor intent to recommend is growing. How do we in the Caribbean separate ourselves from other destinations?
Let me tell you about two of our destinations and what they are doing.
Arriving visitors complete an Immigration Card that was designed by the Department of Tourism in collaboration with the Department of Immigration. That Immigration card and all of its questions is completed entirely because arriving visitors see it as their admission ticket. Visitors are also asked to provide their email contact if they wish to receive regular updates from the destinations. More than 60% provide the email information. There is a bar code on the front of the card that matches the code on the back of card which is the piece that must be handed in on departure from the country. Departing visitors are clearly told that many of the questions on the departure card are voluntary and are simply required by the Department of Tourism to try to make the visitor experience better. When prodded, some 65% of the departing visitors complete the departure card in full.
Now these destinations have whence the visitors came, when they came, where they stayed, what they did, what they thought about what they did and most importantly, whether they would recommend the destination to a friend or relative, that one number that we need to grow.
I read somewhere two weeks ago that the mark of an educated man or woman is someone who can truly be moved by statistics. I must be educated because I have seen statistics that truly move me.
Through the use of both easy and sophisticated statistical analysis, it is now possible to find out precisely those issues at a destination that would move each visitor from the will not recommend to the definitely will recommend column. So instead of running around guessing and pontificating, product and service improvement initiatives can be pinpointed and resources used more efficiently and more effectively to improve visitor experiences and therefore their recommendations.
We are finding that in many cases, the visitor does not care about those things that we believe constitutes quality service. In many cases they couldn’t care less whether you served them from the left, right or the middle. They care more about some other things.
We revere Satchel Paige. It is him who is credited with providing us with our daily mantra: It ain’t so much the things you don’t know that hurts you; it’s the things you know that just ain’t so!
So how will we further differentiate ourselves in the Caribbean? By using information technology to deliver service that makes a difference. I have come to believe that technology should be used to make personal service even more personal, not to replace it. Let me give you two examples that I have used ad nauseum to make my point:
The manager at the Hertz #1 Gold Club in Miami after starting the car to cool it down when he knows that I am on the way, after opening the trunk for my luggage, after putting my name up in lights to let me know in which bay my car is located after doing all of the standard things that make their service special, decided on his own to punch in the same radio stations that I set in the last car that I rented.
An unusual request that I made at the Ritz Carlton in Palm Beach was provided, without my asking, at their Atlanta hotel three months later with a note to let me know that they had more of my request available should I need it.
Now, that’s service.
So now when we talk about quality service we define what we are speaking about. We defy someone to come up with a better definition. If you do, we will use it.
Here is our definition of quality service: Quality service is anticipating the needs of our customers and providing for those needs before they ask for them or before they even know that that want them.
Now suppose we could get our visitors’ permission and our destinations’ permission to share information across the Caribbean and suppose we could get those of our destinations that do not require an immigration card to create a similar tourist card and that could be completed and shared. That would be wonderful.
Now suppose we could get all Caribbean advertisers to place a device like the “Intel Inside” device in all of our destination and resort advertising. The Caribbean would be the world’s most advertised destination all without spending one extra dime on advertising. That would be Nirvana.
So ladies and gentlemen, let us now focus on the future when we have pulled off all of these things. Let me describe for you your visit to the Caribbean in the year 2010:
1. Click on to Caribbean.com
2. Listen to some light Caribbean music, you’re already in the mood
3. Book hotel and airfare using their Caribbean branded American Express Card
4. Buy subscription to Caribbean Life magazine: Good the first copy will arrive before departure
5. Look at some tours. Have a question.
6. Connects by phone to a travel agent in the destination of interest. Understands that some of the most knowledgeable travel agents are those at the destination, not those at my place of origin.
7. Book the midnight cruise after hearing the description with the lilting Caribbean accent of the agent on the phone
8. Reserve restaurant seats for every night of their stay at restaurants both inside and outside their resort
9. Have the option to chat with other visitors who will be visiting the resort during the time that they are there. We found that friendships made on vacation last for a period of time and sometime results in other vacations being taken together. It’s good to stimulate this even before we get there.
10. First copy of Caribbean Life magazine arrives.
11. Complete the Immigration and Customs forms on line. Most of the information was already partially completed. This certainly saves the destination money and saves the visitor time.
12. Prints out airline boarding passes at the same time
13. Same music playing at the airport on arrival as heard online. Must get some of that music.
14. Clears through the special line for frequent Caribbean travelers, they call us Caribbean Collectors
15. The taxi driver assigned to them for their itinerary is waiting outside
16. They double check the itinerary on the way while the driver gives then a quick history and tour on the way.
17. Arrive at the hotel, greeted by name (apparently the resort knows who is coming in which taxi) and are taken directly to their room where the minibar is stocked with all of their special requests.
18. Goes to the historic site for their appointment for their web cam so that all of their friends and relatives back home can tune in and see them live. That was fun.
19. At the airport departure lounge, we purchase some Caribbean branded items. That icon has become so well known that one gets the feeling of the Caribbean even without seeing the word. That’s clever.
20. Gets back home, there is a video email of the Minister of Tourism thanking them for their visit and delivering a value coupon for use by either them or a friend or relative on their next stay.
21. The second copy of Caribbean Life arrives.
22. We buy some more Caribbean branded items on line as gifts for some of our friends and relatives.
None of this is new technology but no one is doing it. In fact, by reason of our way of collecting information on all our visitors, very few destinations in our part of the world can do it. This is technology that makes personal service even more personal, instead of removing personal service it enhances that most needed human touch.
You see, I am convinced that if we do all of these things. If we do them in the way described, the Caribbean can get away from the impression that things happen 10 years later there. I am convinced that the Caribbean can become the world’s benchmark for phenomenal national tourism management.
And when we get to that point, when the demand for our experiences are so great, I will recommend to the governments of the Caribbean that we all stop charging departure tax, we would be so good, we could start charging admission.