In hopes that it's better late than never, plans are afoot to promote the current tourist season, according to Beverly Nicholson, executive director of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association.
"I'm very encouraged," she said after a meeting this week of local hospitality executives with an official from the largest tour operator serving the Caribbean.
Also attending the meeting, held to come up with a viable plan to salvage the season, were St. Thomas-St. John Hotel Association president Richard Doumeng, his St. Croix counterpart, Peter Ross, Tourism acting Commissioner Monique Sibilly-Hodge and Bob Lawrence, vice president of GoGo Worldwide Tours.
They mapped out a plan for a newspaper campaign blitz. GoGo is strong in the U.S. Northeast, the Virgin Islands' core tourism market. And throughout the Caribbean, Doumeng said, the company is "the largest tour operator on the planet Earth."
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in his State of the Territory message Monday addressed the coming summer season but made no mention of the "high" season already here, prompting widespread concern within the tourism industry. He also announced $1.5 million for summer tourism promotion, challenging the private sector to come up with a matching amount.
Nicholson said the hospitality industry wouldn't balk a bit at that, having spent $20 million to $30 million in marketing in the last fiscal year.
Doumeng said time is of the essence, much of it having elapsed since a meeting in Miami last year with GoGo that set a campaign exposure date of Jan. 2. The new target is a Feb. 27 launch date with ads in The New York Times. Doumeng said he hopes to reach smaller newspapers such as Connecticut's Hartford Courant and others in the Northeast before then.
"GoGo, fortunately, is one of the vendors who got paid," he noted. "Because of that, we are able to do business now. Our current plans are for the first quarter of this year, but we are hoping for longer." He said he was confident the parties involved would sign off on a major portion of the proposal at a second meeting set for Friday.
Doumeng questioned the status of the government's Tourism Revolving Fund, into which hotels pay a 7.5 percent room occupancy tax and which by law is to be used only for tourism advertising.
"I even called WSTA to talk about it," he said. "If you ask anyone in government, I think you will find there is no such thing as the revolving fund other government uses have slurped it out."
He added, "There is a lot of misinformation out there. It begs clarification. Where is the money?"
Sibilly-Hodge said the funding for the campaign will not come from the $1.5 million the governor earmarked for summer tourism promotion but from American Airlines, the hoteliers and a different source within the government. She said the government's contribution would be a subject of the Friday meeting to finalize the proposal.
She described the Wednesday meeting as "great" and said she was pleased at the outcome. Lawrence "has a very positive proposal and solid ideas for marketing the Virgin Islands," she said, including "new ideas for training staff, as well as marketing."