Top executives from the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) including their president and top executives from Disney, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and other lines together with our top tourism representatives including Nathan Dundas, Colin James, Asot Michael and Rohan Hector held a town hall type meeting last night at the Multi Purpose Center where they talked about the ambitious US $225 million dollar (EC$607 million) investment in our port, our cruise facilities and the down town area, and more specifically they were there to explain why spending this money will not help unless we, the stakeholders, change too.
Michelle Paige, president of the FCCA explained bluntly in a quote from Albert Einstein, that “Insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Despite this rather blunt description of our cruise tourism efforts, I was very worried that they were being a bit too wishy washy. They had given some very depressing statistics on our performance in terms of average guest spending on the island as compared to the average and highest. Don’t quote me, but I think they said that cruise guests spend about US $65 per person here in Antigua with the average among the 35 or so Caribbean ports being somewhere about $85 & the highest being something like $195. Again, I didn’t take notes and the figures may be off slightly but that was the general idea. They are not spending here! They also gave us the latest guest satisfaction survey data for Antigua as compared to the other destinations. We typically scored about 17th out of the 35 or so ports.
Many of the local cruise related business owners and managers who were there were not surprised as we’ve heard this many times before over the past twenty years. However, we wanted them to be more specific. I especially felt they were being vague enough that the majority of listeners would miss what they were saying. For example, there was a beautiful tourism video playing silently over and over throughout the meeting off to the side of the stage. One of the executives pointed to it trying to explain saying that Antigua still has a very high ranking in demand because of videos like the one playing. He said that people see the photos and videos and want to come to Antigua. He said their expectations are extremely high but unfortunately are more often than not disappointed to find their expectations not being met. He said people expected a “beautiful symphony” but get off the ship and get a noisy chaos! The picture he painted was not something to be proud of.
This was getting closer but still not specific enough. I have made the decision not to always be the one asking the controversial questions and was sure someone else would ask for more specifics. I encouraged people next to me to ask.
Someone else posed a question by saying that Antigua was already doing all the things they were suggesting and wanted to know when we’d see more ships. Finally one of the executives did what many of us were hoping for. He said that 85% off their guests who were asked to take part in surveys took part, and many took their time to write detailed reviews. He apologised and said that he’d just read a few on these reviews to give us an idea of what he described earlier as being the “800 pound gorilla in the room”.
He read the candid guest reviews one by one. Each one bitterly complained about how they were harassed by taxi operators as they stepped off the ship. Some of it sounded like abuse! It was embarrassing but something we’ve all seen and heard a million times and why the president of the FCCA quoted Albert Einstein earlier on.
No amount of money being spent in st John’s was going to encourage more ships to come to Antigua, and while new competitors like Tortola St Kitts and many others came on board and quickly overtook us in arrival numbers we couldn’t expect this trend to change while conducting business as usual.
Also on taxi drivers, the executives complained about costs associated with selling excursions. The profotability of local excursions sold on the ships is one of that most important determining factors in destination planning, and they said excursions in Antigua are the most expensive in the Caribbean. They said the main reason was that excursion operators had to use taxi companies charging taxi rates to transport guests to excursions. He gave examples from Puerto Rico and said the model here in Antigua was holding us back. He said that there was a difference between transportation and taxi tours. Again not news at all to us but good to hear about coming from the most important people in the cruise ship industry.
I think the ball isn’t in the non governmental stakeholders court when it comes to fixing these problems but rather in the government’s court. It’s time for them to make some real changes. Anything else will be insanity.
EDIT Nov 19th: I am adding some screen shots of reviews i found on a popular cruise site. Antigua scored high overall with 4 stars out of 5 but whenever people spoke about staying near the ships in St. Johns, the reviews were not good at all. Here are some (not all) that i found:
A side note here about this meeting. Some of the readers will remember that I attended the big yearly FCCA meeting in Colombia two years ago. I ended up getting major flack and abuse for suggesting in a destination planning conference chaired by some of these same cruise executives, that cruise directors come to Antigua to tell the general public what is wrong with our industry because we’ve been saying the same thing over and over here without getting results. Isn’t it ironic.
Here’s a quote from a blog I wrote about it back then:
“The next morning, Tuesday, I had several meetings with top level cruise executives about Barbuda and about my company Adventure Antigua. In the afternoon a special seminar on “Itinerary Planning For the Future. What You Need to Know” was scheduled and as this seemed very important to our plans, I was there early with the other Barbuda continent. The room had seating for about 65-70 but well over 100 turned up early. More and more seats were brought in to accommodate as many as would fit in the room. No other people from Antigua were at this very important seminar.
Four top cruise ship executives gave presentations on how their particular company decided upon a particular itinerary and upon particular ports. This photo shows one of the sides which was shown and refereed to throughout the presentations.
It was very interesting hearing about what made a destination so valuable, and one thing echoed by each presenter really caught my attention. The first to talk about it was, Joanne Salzedo, an executive from Norwegian Cruise Lines and specifically it had to do with lines making painful decisions to stop visiting a destination if and when particular problems went unaddressed for too long. She described ports which had everything going for them with wonderful and profitable excursions, beautiful beaches or other natural landscapes and fantastic ports, and described that sometimes she would make recommendations to her CEO that they stop visiting a port like this because of a problem which hadn’t been corrected.
Imagine that! A cruise line happy with a destination but dropping it because of one issue that remained unresolved year after year. Sounds like Antigua could be in danger right? Could this explain some of the cruise ship arrival decline?
After they had all given their presentations there was a question and answer session and many people asked questions of the panel. The Minister of Tourism from Grenada and also The Minster of Tourism from Dominica asked questions. The Tourism Minister of Grenada asked questions, Excursion operators asked questions, port managers asked questions, agents did as well. Each time someone asked a question they introduced themselves and mentioned where they were from and what company they were involved with. I was intrigued and worried with what they had said about dropping ports and decided to ask a question. I introduced myself and said I was from Antigua. I said that I came to this convention to see if I could negotiate excursion contacts after working as an independent excursion operator for 13 years. I said that after graduating from university, I worked in the duty free shopping center at the cruise port and heard about certain problems the ships and their guests faced. When I started my company years later, those problems still persisted and today those same issues were still there. Joanne nodded her head in agreement. I said that considering what they had mentioned a short while earlier about dropping ports that didn’t fix problems I wanted to know if they ever considered another tactic that could help ports like ours solve their long standing issues. I said that despite obviously telling our island’s cruise representatives about these issues they remained fixed. I asked them if they thought that it would help if they were interviewed by our local media so that people back home could actually hear from the horses mouth what the ships loved and what problems they experienced. I said that possibly coming from them a greater impact could be made back home. The CEO of one of the lines answered by saying something very simple. He said, “Mr. Fuller, our job is the ship and your job is the island”. That was good enough for me and I didn’t need any further explanation. It was that clear. There are more and more ports coming online each year and more and more money being spent on existing ports. The cruise lines have more choice and making a decision to stop visiting a port isn’t as difficult as some would want to believe.”