23 Jan Balancing the scales to reach progress
Glenn Jones, CEO, Bermuda Tourism Authority, notes that creating and seizing opportunities for the country is just a matter of tying the right pieces together
I would like to begin our interview with a bit of an introduction to Bermuda, especially for those readers who are not so familiar with your country. How would you sum up the essence of Bermuda and what makes the island, its culture and people, so unique?
Bermuda is a very distinct place. Culturally speaking, it is a meld of African, Caribbean, British and even Portuguese culture. In a small population of about 64,000 and a relatively small landmass, you have all these cultures together. This creates a feeling for visitors that does not exist anywhere else. Bermuda has a temperate climate and its landscape is unique and breath-taking. We have crystal-clear azure waters and pink-sand beaches on the South Shore. All the above create a colourful and memorable image for people. I think visitors agree that in Bermuda, people are exceedingly friendly and welcoming. Oftentimes, someone who visits Bermuda for a short period will meet lifelong friends who will incentivize them to come again, repeatedly. Through our food, arts and traditions, there is a real distinct element that attracts people.
Last October, you braved the waters and celebrated the 2020 Tourism Summit under the theme ‘Reset, Reimagine and Renew.’ How would you describe the experience this year’s unique format of the event? How has the general sentiment in Bermuda’s tourism industry evolved since then, considering the event took place a few weeks before the big announcement regarding vaccines?
We held our Summit in a way that we have not before, and that was due to the pandemic. We tried to be innovative, splitting the form into two venues so stakeholders from across our industry could still be together, which is an important part of brainstorming and developing ideas. We connected those two areas by video, so we did not overcrowd them. We allowed an equal amount of people to attend both, and it worked very well. In terms of content, we thought of ways to pivot our tourism industry and get people back to work in the sector, in a way that kept them, and visitors, safe. The country’s recognised health and safety record throughout the majority of the pandemic put us in a good position to re-open tourism again, in a safe, responsible way with protocols in place to protect our small community.
Even though we have a long way to go, I think we have made some progress in getting the tourism recovery underway. There have been a few programmes introduced for the first time this year that seem to be the right answer for the challenges we face. One of those is the Work from Bermuda Certificate, which allows people to take advantage of Bermuda’s safe environment and move here for up to a year to live and work as an island resident. We have seen hundreds of people respond to that opportunity and they are making positive contributions to our community. This is a really exciting silver lining, helping to offset somewhat all the things that have been decimating about the pandemic. One of the things we have been working on with our colleagues at the Bermuda Business Development Agency is the creation of a genuine community for this incoming audience. We are in the process of inviting them in, so they can network with us, with each other, and with industry associations connected to business they’re involved in. There are local, like-minded businesspeople with whom they can form partnerships. People are moving temporarily into Bermuda, but permanent benefits could result for them and the island. Our community is now figuring out what those longer-term, legacy benefits might look like.
The Premier highlighted the need for a tourism revival to face the challenges of today’s global travel market. With vaccines on the horizon, confidence is returning and tourism is slowly starting to bounce back. Can you share with us Bermuda’s story since reopening its borders to international visitors? How are the figures showing undeniable progress in relaunching and reactivating the islands tourism industry? What strategic initiatives are you spearheading to prepare for the comeback in 2021?
At the first instance, we had to figure out where to pivot and realize opportunities. The data showed there were two audience segments ready to travel from the moment we reopened in July. The first could be characterized as adventure-seekers. We are talking about young, career-minded people who do not have kids and love to travel. The second audience we called ‘jetsetters’. These are high-net-worth individuals who are literally scouring the globe for the safest place to go. We have seen those two audiences showing up significantly in our data since July and as a result, we are thinking about making both a more significant part of our recovery strategy. Taking jetsetters as an example, it is clear that for people who have the option to travel anywhere in the world, Bermuda is on their list, one of just a handful of destinations. More and more jetsetters showed up here and realized how much they liked it and how close it is to where they live—just a 90-minute flight from New York, for example. I think there have been some wins that have come our way, and, as a result of the pandemic, we need to figure out ways to make those wins a permanent part of our recovery. This is a key part of what we are doing going forward. We know a marked percentage of travellers arriving in Bermuda has a household income much greater than before the pandemic. We talked with our partners in real estate and they see a lot more activity around higher priced homes than they saw before. We, in turn, need to put all of this together in a national strategy to appeal to this particular audience even more going forward.
There are two infrastructure elements I feel can assist us. One is that, in the spring of next year, March 2021, Bermuda’s British Airways service from London switches from Gatwick to Heathrow. This will be really helpful for us to reach more of the UK, as well as Europe and key gateways further afield. On another note, our government has created some new legislation and policies around superyacht tourism, allowing these vessels to now charter in our waters. That is a game-changer, which also syncs with our target HNW audience, so we believe it will bring many more of these boats to Bermuda next year. If we can continue to keep an elevated average spend per visitor, while maintaining a safe volume of travellers, we could see a speedier recovery.
You launched your six-year tourism plan last year, under the name ‘Agility,’ a detailed plan addressing the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. You designed goals revolving around seven pillars. You were appointed in March at a time of uncertainty. Since then, in what ways have you adapted and updated the tourism plan to reflect today’s global pandemic context?
We look at our plan every year in connection with the Tourism Summit, updating it and figuring out which things to prioritize. Being a six-year plan, it is not that practical to tackle everything at one time. You have to be pretty strategic about which things to tackle when. In this last summit, in the pillar for Teams & Groups, for example, it is clear there will be lots of challenges for business travel, conferences, and Board meetings for a while.
However, we also discovered the Teams side of that pillar, especially sports, had a real opportunity. Sports event organizers, tournaments and training camps were really challenged to take place in many parts of the world. Some found a safe haven in Bermuda, like the PGA Tour Bermuda Championship, taking place at the Port Royal Golf Course this past October. For the first time since the pandemic, spectators were allowed to attend a PGA Tour event. The Bermuda Gold Cup is a storied sailing showdown that has been happening here for 70 years. In the spring, it did not take place because our borders were closed to commercial air service. So, organisers moved it to the fall, which allowed the World Match Racing Championships—which had missed its own event due to COVID-19—to join up and make a double event this year. Lastly, in the rugby space, a new league called World Tens Series had intended to launch in 2020, with pro teams from seven nations around the world. Unable to travel, they came to Bermuda and held the league’s inaugural tournament here.
In each of those cases, we were able to pivot to sports for group volume, while industry conferences and other types of group activities were not happening. We have been very deliberate about going through that plan and figuring out where those pivots are possible. This past October, we had more people come to Bermuda who chose sports as the reason for visiting, than in October 2018 or 2019. We grew one vertical of our business, even during a pandemic. To be clear, we are still behind where we need to be, and many other parts are challenged—but we focused on a winning area and got some victories.
A growing trend in the pre-COVID-19 world, and one most destinations were shifting towards, is experience-driven tourism, catering to a more responsible traveller. Previously, in your role as Chief Experience Development Officer, you undoubtedly had your finger on the pulse of this trend and played a key role in diversifying and enriching Bermuda tourism product. What are some of the experiences you have helped develop and how do you see this trend evolving in the future?
Our ethos around experience development has always been focused on things we can provide in Bermuda that many other destinations cannot. Bermuda can sometimes be seen as a high-price destination. As a result, when we contact our stakeholders, we ask them to find ways to raise the experiential value of what they are offering. If our visitor is getting a good value, a unique, authentic experience, then the cost is less of a factor to them. This ‘quality over quantity’ idea is very important for us. We have developed all sorts of experiential tourism offerings around food, history, culture. We aim to put the visitor right at the heart of things that locals cherish. We try to recruit Bermudian entrepreneurs to provide that experience. We have had so many wins in that area that I am very proud of, and we believe it is something we can maintain going forward. If we are going to double-down on the luxury traveller profile, this audience needs to be convinced they will get an experience in Bermuda they could not get anywhere else, given that particular type of visitor can literally go anywhere else. We need to raise our game and Bermuda is up for the challenge.
Many destinations around the world have used this period to inject new ideas and revamp their tourism product, placing a much bigger focus on sustainability and responsibility. Can we say this is the case as well for Bermuda—and what strides have you made towards more sustainable tourism?
The ‘G’ in Agility is for ‘greener.’ We agree we need to be a greener destination. We are trying to reflect this in many ways. We are working with our government and the Waitt Institute on a strategy around the protection of our oceans and sustainable ways to leverage and develop our ‘blue economy’. It is something Bermuda has done very well, and we need to redouble our efforts in that area, not only because the ocean is a critical asset in terms of the environment. It can also be an economic driver for the country and we understand and appreciate that; the sea is one of the reasons we have pink-sand beaches, as an example, and we certainly don’t want to lose a differentiator like that. We have also introduced some greener goals around transportation. Almost all of the mini-car offerings we have in Bermuda are electric vehicles. The government has aspirations about public transportation becoming greener, as well.
Each spring, we take special efforts to elevate the island’s green experiences, highlighting conservation courses offered by the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, or the Living Reef Foundation that restores damaged corals by planting new underwater gardens. We showcase experiences that allow people to go beekeeping, to understand our colony of bees and the great quality of honey they produce. Those are the kind of experiences we are putting together to make the island greener. When visitors take part in them, they raise the sustainability of our island, so that is really important for us.
In what ways is tourism catering to the digital nomad profile? What is your point of view?
Interestingly, this group of people technically gains temporary residency that allows them to work from Bermuda. That is not our core business, as we focus on visitors. However, we have realised, for this particular audience, although they are residents, their behaviours are like visitors. That is because, while they are here, they want to explore the place. Part of our strategy is to engage this audience as if they were a visitor, even though they live here. It has been really exciting to watch them respond to that opportunity.
What would be your final message to engender trust among our readers of Newsweek?
Our track record to date has shown in the management of this pandemic that Bermuda can be a safe haven during difficult times. We are isolated, for sure, but not too far away from where people need to be quickly. We represent the exact solution most people are looking for before, during and after COVID-19. My hope is that people who have taken notice of Bermuda will come and visit us to learn more about our island. I think that from a lifestyle and a business point of view, Bermuda offers a ton of benefits that many other places cannot. Once people try us for the first time, they’re surprised to discover Bermuda can solve for so much of what they need.