The impacts of Zika’s spread, Cuba’s opening and Airbnb’s disruption of the hotel industry were leading topics at the U.S. Virgin Islands Hotel and Tourism Association’s annual general membership meeting on Friday morning.
About 75 members from various sections of the tourism industry, including business owners and hoteliers, met at the Ritz-Carlton on St. Thomas to review last year’s performance, discuss current impacts on the industry and learn about the department’s 2016 marketing plan.
Commissioner of Tourism Beverly Nicholson-Doty began the meeting by addressing concerns that the territory loses 26 percent of its visitors to the British Virgin Islands after they arrive at the St. Thomas airport.
“I don’t believe we would have the seats into St. Thomas that we have if we could not incorporate the fact that the BVI does have an impact on the Virgin Islands,” Nicholson-Doty said.
She said that the BVI is just another destination that helps draw airlines to the territory, since many people fly through St. Thomas.
“At the end of the day, the airline capacity is driven by the yield,” Nicholson-Doty said.
Attendees were pleased to hear that United Airlines will soon begin a direct flight between Houston and St. Thomas. From May 28 through June 10, the flight will be weekly and then four times a week until August 13.
The current direct flight between Dulles airport outside of Washington, D.C., and St. Thomas, will be a weekly flight starting June 9 until August 13.
The association’s summer TV marketing campaign begins airing on national television starting May 23 and will be accompanied by a online marketing campaign. DineVI, a restaurant week that began in St. Croix last year, will be expanded to St. Thomas and St. John and is scheduled Oct. 27 through Nov. 12.
“It’ll be a cultural, culinary and historical experience,” Nicholson-Doty said.
Instead of a formal presentation, Richard Doumeng, one of the association’s past chairmen and managing director of Bolongo Pay Beach Resort, asked Nicholson-Doty a number of questions in an open discussion format.
When asked about Zika’s impact on tourism in the territory, Nicholson-Doty said that airline data shows that visitor arrivals in January and February were down 2 percent, but that March saw a 2 percent uptick.
Trip cancellations cost the tourism industry about half a million dollars so far this year. Doumeng and Nicholson-Doty both mentioned that tourism usually drops a little during a general election year.
On the topic of Cuba, Nicholson-Doty said there is a threat when any new market opens and that the territory has faced competitors before like the Dominican Republic. She said people will likely visit Cuba once if interested, but that the foreign language, different currency and passport requirement will make the Virgin Islands a more appealing regular destination.
“The V.I. experience is our biggest threat – do we have the best product to offer tourists?” Nicholson-Doty asked. She said the territory needs to play up the fact that it’s “exotic but familiar.”
Doumeng and Nicholson-Doty stressed the need to improve St. Thomas’s airport terminal, which they said doesn’t have an adequate number of seats during high season and isn’t capitalizing enough on duty-free shopping revenues. There’s also been concern over the lack of TSA PreCheck lines.
“We need to look at the airport as a revenue generator,” Nicholson-Doty said.
Nicholson-Doty noted that the tourism industry has outgrown the current terminal and there is a need to build up and remove government offices above the current terminal instead of expanding outward.
With the number of different types of rental options increasing, Doumeng expressed his concern about the rapid growth of the shared economy. Four leading rental sites, including Airbnb and VRBO, offer 2,200 rentals in the territory. Many of these rentals undercut the private hotel sector, since the people and businesses offering them aren’t always paying the required room taxes.
The association also elected nine new members to its board of directors. Scott Derrickson of the Marriott Frenchman’s Cove will replace Trudie Prior as chair. The following people will join the hotel-timeshare directors: Alex Tamas, Margaritaville Vacation Club by Wyndham, Nikolay Hotze, Caneel Bay Resort, Joel Kling, Emerald Beach Resort, Mike Ryan, Westin St. John Resort and Villas, Richard Doumeng, Bolongo Bay Beach Resort. Three people will join the allied directors: Suzy Warren, Leeward Islands Management Company, Bill Newbold, Island Business Graphics, Sam Rey, Host U Training Services.
Lisa Hamilton, the association’s president, Nicholson-Doty and Doumeng thanked Prior for her dedicated service as chairwoman of the board.