Michael Bornn, who had been announced as the guest speaker for Wednesday's meeting of the Advertising Club of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas, was replaced at the last minute — due to Bornn's surprise sacking last week — by St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association executives Richard Doumeng and Beverly Nicholson.
What they had to say to the Ad Club members Bornn could scarcely have said with any greater impact: The territory's tourism industry is in deep doo-doo, the government is in large part to blame, and said government has shown precious little desire, let alone determination, to do anything much about it.
The following quotes from their addresses to the Wednesday meeting, held on board the cruise ship Grandeur of the Seas, is courtesy of a tape made available by Radio One.
"We as an industry have just experienced the worst fall season since Hurricane Marilyn," Doumeng, the association president and a career hotelier, said. "Many will tell you they had a worse October than September, traditionally the worst month of the year."
The signs of things to come are no better, he continued, with the yearend holiday period looking unseasonably bleak.
"Three major [tour] operators have already canceled their Christmas charters to the territory," he said. "Many major properties project occupancy of 20 to 30 percent. . . which could turn out to be the worst Christmas week in our history."
Part of the problem, he and Nicholson, the association executive director, said, is that tour operators, the companies that put together air and hotel packages that travel agents then sell to the public, are reluctant to do business with the Virgin Islands these days. And the reason for this is that they've been stiffed for more than a year by the government on payments it committed itself to make toward marketing the tours.
Annually, a marketing budget is worked out with tour operators whereby the operator, the hotel association, the airlines and the government commit to equal contributions, each "about $150,000 a year," Nicholson said. The tour operators place the advertising and "bill us after the fact," she said.
The government's contribution should come from the Tourism Revolving Fund, which is funded fully by the 8 percent hotel room tax and is supposed to be used exclusively for advertising.
"This is just one of many marketing expenses that should come from the fund," Nicholson said. However, the government has made no payments to the tour operators in more than a year, she said.
Now, Doumeng added, tour operators are "turning down Tourism Association money because they don't believe they are going to get paid by the government" — which means the territory is being cut from critical tour packaging.
According to Nicholson, with the recent entry of United Air Lines, airlift into the territory stands at 18,000 seats a week — its highest level since the heyday of the late 1980s. Continental is due back Dec. 15 and American will add a flight from Boston in February. Still, seats without customers won't cut it, she said, and 80 percent of the association's travel partner businesses "do not want to work us" because they "do not have confidence in us as a destination."
Further, Doumeng said, "We are constantly missing at major events" on the mainland that are marketing gold mines. And there has been "only one V.I. Calling trip in the 12 months. We have not done a good enough job in Tourism 101, the nuts and bolts of the tourism business."
(On V.I. Calling trips, groups of Tourism and hospitality industry representatives make brief stops at targeted cities to pitch their product personally to local travel agents in breakfast, lunch or happy hour settings.)
The association has a "major concern with the Department of Tourism's marketing efforts," Nicholson said, especially in light of the fact that the private sector itself is laying out "more than $15 million to market tourism."
The absence of Tourism Department national advertising was a sore spot rubbed repeatedly by the two speakers. According to Doumeng, the British Virgin Islands, with a fraction of the population and a fraction of the tourist traffic, now is outspending the U.S. Virgins on television ads.
"I did not think we would ever live to see that!" he said
He said he wasn't so concerned by the traditionally higher marketing expenditures by islands with populations in the millions — Jamaica, Cancun, even the opening of Cuba. But when the territory is getting a run for the money in advertising by "the BVI, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, St. Lucia, Antigua — that's when we should be concerned."
Doumeng criticized the current set-up of the Tourism Department, which mandates that the Tourism commissioner chair the Port Authority board and the Industrial Development Commission.
"These responsibilities should be removed from the portfolio of the Tourism commissioner," he said. "Commissioner of Tourism should be a full-time job. That's enough."
The Caribbean as a whole "has lost market share because the whole world has opened up," Doumeng noted. Referring to the territory's "former place of prominence as a worldwide destination," he added, "The Virgin Islands will be left out if we don't change the way we do business."
Beyond the immediate crises lies the real problem, and therein must lie the real solution, Doumeng said.
"The territory has no [tourism] comprehensive marketing plan," he said. "It must implement a three- to five-year marketing plan with clearly defined goals and objectives that can be measured."
All told, aside from the current occupancy statistics, there was little that Doumeng and Nicholson had to say that the Ad Club members hadn't heard before. And the general public as well. From, among others, Michael Bornn.