Setting a clear course for tourism
A person walking down Front Street this week may be surprised to hear that Bermuda's tourism sector is in turmoil.
Entries from the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race line the docks, visitors throng the streets and the shops and restaurants are busy.
Next week, Bermuda welcomes more than 100 yachts from the Newport Bermuda Race. Just a few weeks ago, the Bermuda Sail Grand Prix beamed images of Bermuda around the world.
And yet, with the departure of Charles Jeffers II after little more than a year in post, the Bermuda Tourism Authority has now seen three chief executives leave in just 28 months.
It is tempting to carry on the nautical theme further; to suggest that the BTA now looks like a rudderless boat being driven towards the rocks while instant experts debate what to do. In the meantime, the sails are flapping and the crew is climbing into the lifeboats.
A nautical theme is indeed apt because promoting Bermuda as a base for yachting and sailing has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal period for Bermuda tourism. And yet the Progressive Labour Party campaigned against Bermuda as the site of the 2017 America’s Cup and has been ambivalent about sailing events ever since.
In many ways, this sums up the problem with politicians getting involved in tourism, and helps to explain why the BTA was set up as an autonomous marketing authority in the first place.
Politicians inevitably have an eye on the political temperature and often this means they have a short-term view, usually aligning with the date of the next General Election.
By contrast, an organisation such as the BTA should have a longer timeline. Especially when dealing with an established but struggling industry like Bermuda tourism, it needs to take a long view and it needs to be fiercely analytical, relying on the available data and ignoring as much as possible the political mood of the moment.
Yachting and sailing are natural areas for Bermuda to promote. All of the data shows it. But it is not a sport that suits the PLP’s political narrative — the image of wealthy people sailing their yachts is not a natural fit.
So it is an inconvenient truth that it works for Bermuda.
Of course, Bermuda will continue to welcome yachts and yacht races to the island, but in the meantime, all the evidence suggests that the BTA will increasingly find itself spending money on various vanity projects — ideas that someone in power thinks Bermuda should be doing without the evidence to support the idea.
Nothing here should suggest that Bermuda can rely solely on sailing and yacht races for the success of the tourism industry. Clearly, Bermuda is much more than that. But the purpose of an organisation such as the BTA is to critically analyse all of the possibilities and then to decide which present the best opportunities for the industry to be successful.
Nor does it mean that the Government or the BTA board should be entirely hands-off. They should be setting reasonable targets and establishing clear and understandable performance management measures by which the team leading the BTA can be judged. If they exceed the targets, they should be recognised and rewarded. If they fall short and are not up to the job, they should be replaced.
But what should not be happening is for experienced professionals to be replaced on a whim or because of a personality clash.
It was a good idea to set up the BTA as a non-political, autonomous and professionally run agency. Coming into being at the start of the worst recession in living memory was never going to be easy. It can be argued that after about five years and with the staging of the America’s Cup, it had evolved into an effective organisation with a clear sense of direction.
Since the change of government in 2017, the organisation has lost its way. It is no longer clear what the performance measures for the BTA are.
First, Kevin Dallas, the BTA’s second CEO and a Bermudian, left abruptly in the wake of a an increasingly noisy whispering campaign on the part of the Government. If the Government felt the BTA’s performance was slipping, it should have said so.
Certainly, arrivals figures were not ascending in the way they had before 2017, but the loss of airlift and the mere fact that in the summer months the island was at its maximum occupancy played a part. Nor was the St Regis — the first genuinely new Bermuda hotel in decades — online yet.
Since then, tourism in Bermuda and around the world has been turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, making it extremely difficult for any tourism organisation to succeed.
First, Glenn Jones, who was a key member of Mr Dallas’s team, acted as CEO through the most trying time in the history of Bermuda tourism and, having steered the organisation through it, was apparently not offered the role and therefore decided to leave. Bermuda’s loss was the Boston news media’s gain.
Then Mr Jeffers came on. It is exceptionally difficult after a year in a post to measure a senior executive’s performance, especially with Covid-19 still around and with all of the challenges of getting airlift back to the island — in particular when part of that function has been apparently taken back by the transport ministry. Further, tourism was hobbled by the closure of the Fairmont Southampton resort, again largely out of the BTA’s hands.
So Mr Jeffers, who also saw many of the previous BTA team depart as well in the early part of his tenure, had a hard row to hoe. That was compounded by the never-ending PR disaster that has been the Travel Authorisation Form.
It may be that it was too much to ask of one person and there were some short-lived and unsuccessful appointments along the way. But the public at large do not know what performance targets Mr Jeffers was expected to meet or whether it was fair to expect anyone to do so in little more than a year while still encumbered with so many challenges. The key point is no one knows if Mr Jeffers was meeting expectations or not, since no one knows what the expectations were.
As importantly, what are the expectations for the next CEO?
If that question is not answered, the question will not be who the next CEO of the BTA will be, but whether anyone capable would actually want a job that increasingly looks like a bad career choice.
This is no way to lead a tourism industry, let alone a country.