Tourism Officials Hear from Experts on the Ground

Ideas were flying on Day One of the government’s Tourism stakeholders meeting, with input coming from industry players, part-timers and potential participants. Suggestions for the territory’s long-range plan covered everything from expanding into under-tapped markets like China to polishing up the basics such as customer service and the variety and quality of retail products.

Monday’s meeting focused on four topics, each one handled in its own session: education and training; the revitalization and development of towns; medical tourism; and the niche markets of weddings and honeymoons, groups, and incentives. Small groups meeting on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John were linked by video conference.

Tourism is reaching out to the general public as well as to those actually working in the sector, and intends to use the discussions in crafting a long range plan that will be part of the Governor’s Conference on Tourism later this year.

“It is impossible to develop an effective strategic plan without community involvement,” said Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson Doty, who was on hand not to speak, but to listen.

Several months ago, the government contracted with the New Jersey-based public relations and marketing consulting firm, Marketplace Excellence, to coordinate the effort, Nicholson Doty said. Since then, the company has interviewed numerous people involved in V.I. tourism. The firm is facilitating this week’s conference and later will draft the plan. Nicholson Doty put the contract cost at about $100,000.

Marketplace President Bevan Springer and his father, Basil Springer, described as a “change-engine consultant,” kept the sessions moving on Monday. Experts in each area spoke briefly about their work and then the audience broke into roundtable discussions, reporting back to the group after about half an hour.

Speaking on niche markets, Jacqueline Johnson of Global Bridal Group, said weddings are a high-value segment of tourism, bringing an average of $4,000 per couple to a destination, compared with $860 as the overall average.

Randal Doty of Tropic Tours noted a couple of significant trends in group business. The average stay has dropped from between five to seven nights, down to just three to four nights, he said, perhaps because of the downturn in the U.S. economy. Also, more clients are seeking destinations with “green” activities, prompting Doty to suggest the government encourage ecological entrepreneurship.

Judi Nagelberg, president of Island Meetings and Incentives, said “incentives are a huge market” but one that is highly competitive. “You can’t afford to make a mistake.” She said more training is needed: “We really have an issue with service.”

That theme was echoed many times throughout the day, with various participants suggesting that tourism education start early and continue through high school and college, and that young people be alerted to the full range of opportunities within the industry.

Not surprising, discussions on the three islands emphasized local issues and trends. While some St. Thomas representatives said the island needs more hotel rooms, St. John residents said they don’t need more properties but could use improvements at existing sites. They were focused on the villa and on group markets.

St. John residents also cited concerns over ground transportation, telling horror stories of tourists who missed the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John because their taxi from the airport detoured to accommodate other passengers. They suggested there be a designated taxi service between Cyril King Airport and the Red Hook ferry dock.

St. Croix participants focused on individual and small group business, since most of the island’s hotels are relatively small. They suggested more emphasis on home tourism which could utilize the island’s historic houses. In the area of small group business, they recommended tapping into continuing education for professionals.

St. Thomas discussions about revitalization included the need for more parking and more restrooms available to the public, the control of taxi drop-off and pick-up areas, signage that includes historical content, interactive maps, enforcement of litter control and regular trash pick-up and greeters. There was emphasis on the need to make downtown safe, especially at night, and a suggestion was made that a video surveillance system be installed.

Parking was another concern for St. John participants, as was traffic flow. While St. Thomas and St. Croix recently received funds for their waterfronts, St. John is also in need of waterfront improvements, they said.

Lighting and surveillance are essential, according to St. Croix participants, as is making owners accountable for maintaining their properties.

Several doctors spoke about the potential for medical tourism in the territory, focusing primarily on the cancer treatment center and cosmetic surgery. While the real estate maxim is “location, location, location,” Dr. Bert Petersen observed that for medial tourism, the three most important things are “product, product, product.” He and other speakers said the quality of the product is good, so the time is ripe for developing the market.

Tuesday’s sessions will be on the film industry; retail and craft development; cruise and airlift development; and transportation.

Meetings on St. Thomas will be at the University of the Virgin Islands’ video conference center; on St. Croix at the UVI Melvin Evans Center Room 401; and on St. John at the UVI facility at The Marketplace shopping center.

Springer said the session will live stream at and later video of the meetings will be available on the same site.

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